He An’s new installation at the store-front space Arrow Factory is the first in a series of shows in Beijing for the Chinese artist; Tang Contemporary and Magician Space are also hosting shows opening this week in the 798 Art District. The installation at Arrow Factory continues the artist’s concern with lighting systems and features a working streetlight poking through the glass of the gallery’s frontage. Below the light a small switch invites you to turn the light on and off. Behind the glass, inside the inaccessible gallery, the streetlight is broken up into short sections to fit into the confined space and snakes across the floor before disappearing into the back wall on which a black schematic painting of rings and linking lines has been applied.
In reality this is only a third of the installation—there are another two parts nearby towards which the painting seems to direct the audience. “Some 500 meters away” a shop’s lights have also been connected to the system, and in another undisclosed location one more light is to be found. All these instances of lights have their respective switches, forming some kind of symbiotic lighting system that extends the reach of each switch flick.
He An’s previous pieces have also worked with light as a means of playing with their potential meanings as symbolic objects. From the stolen shop signs recomposed to spell out the name of the artist’s father and a Japanese actress to the emotive phrases partially outlined in strips of light that somehow leave a literal blank space for meaning to be grasped between the borders which brush against the forms of the characters. For the artist, shaped light seems to embody the potential for communication that is always delayed or reconstituted.
This new piece takes this impulse further, suggesting that in the simple presence or absence of light there is the possibility of meaning to be communicated. Maybe this represents a purer form of communication, divorced from language systems such as the Chinese characters that have been the forms in the artist’s previous work. And unlike other works by He An, the title of this piece is not physically reproduced in the installation, but remains left behind as a puzzling, surplus meaning.
In this case, it is not light so much as the change from light to dark and back that allows for communication. The elaborate set up; the switching on and off; and the deliberate distancing over the three sites prevent direct communication beyond the simplest binary mode, so communication seems to become a utopian dream of connection, and what remains in the blind flashing of the light is the simple fact of being present.
When I encountered the piece’s most visible section, in the Arrow Factory’s space, there was only the promise of these other locations and the switch gives only a vague possibility of communication between them. This left me with something of a dislocated experience, where I could only take the artist’s word that these other locations exist, and if they exist, that I have some kind of control over them. Even if they exist, the dislocation suggests the users might all be working against each other in our flipping of the switches. Our initial inability to coordinate our actions by sight means that any observable effect appears random and unpredictable. It seems less communication than flailing in the dark; all we can do is express our presence by turning the light on and off.
There are always ways to create communication at some level; binary or Morse code would seem fit for this set of lights. But what this lighting system makes clear to me is that all communication requires collaboration and accommodation, one side must let the other “speak” and not interrupt. So a tacit agreement between the sides must be instituted, an accommodation of each switcher as communicating beings and of the space and time they need to communicate. In this case a successful communication begins with what could be characterised as an attitude of kindness and patience.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Arrow Factory and the artist.)