Wang Du thinks big, and his new piece, a model of a split and rusting aircraft carrier hulk, purportedly presents his proposal for a suitably grandiose Chinese Museum of Contemporary Art. Wang’s installation could be taken for a monument to a megalomaniac architect’s visionary plans, or—as he suggests—a country’s obsessive statecraft through the building of overpowering structures.
But I see this installation not as a model that looks beyond itself to a completed form. For me the stress remains on this mass of iron as a sculpture in its own right. It does not represent a proposed thing anymore; this is not about projections into the future, but about the nature of the desire as represented through the object as it stands. The artist makes this clear by referencing the use of museums as powerful tools of diplomacy, physical embodiments of ideology, and manifestations of propaganda. The model is as much representative of this as any completed structure.
Sitting in the main space of Tang Contemporary, the large, rusting, already ruined structure has been formed by cutting the aircraft carrier into four sections and forming an elaborate set of spaces, walkways and transport system in amongst the offset sections.
The piece has all the features of an architectural model, with small silver figures dotted about the metal structure to give some sense of a scale, banks of serried cars suggesting the parking areas, and clear acrylic signs indicating where the various departments of the museum would be found.
In a side room, a projection shows a CGI wire-frame fly-through of the same model. Such animations might be seen in architectural proposals to add the excitement of a computer game to the building, and have been seen before in Wang Du’s recent work. Last year, at Hadrien de Montferrand gallery just around the corner, Wang presented a set of pencil drawings from a similar animation of a proposal for a “flying carpet” – a massive metal structure supporting the Forbidden City and held aloft by countless helicopters and planes. In that case the drawings again presented a proposal, which at full size would be even more grandiose than the Museum, but enormously less practical. In the current show, these wire-frames have been taken to the intermediate stage of the iron hulk.
Where the artist imagines the actual end point in all these is unclear. I wouldn’t put it past Wang Du to wish to make these objects into their final forms, but I think this is irrelevant. Each presentation and each form is as much an end point, or realisation of the object, the projects being so impractical (yet not beyond the bounds of possibility) that one appreciates each stage on its own merits.
And this aircraft carrier works surprisingly well as an installation. Surprisingly, because the idea seems so over the top that I almost want to dismiss it out of hand. But here in the gallery, walking up the steps onto the iron structure, one becomes part of the model; the play of scale is taken to a new level. Wang Du’s work has always played with scale – the human figures in other sculptures by the artist have distorted bodies, playing with perspective and foreshortening, or focusing attention on parts of the body through the distortions.
Unlikely as it might seem, the aircraft carrier provides a more subtle play with scale, using the nature of models as representations to play with our understanding of our place within the real versus the artist’s imagined world. Far better than the wire-frame animations which simply play with media distortions within the frame of the video, this model is no longer a model but the real thing, on which we can stand back from and imagine at any size we like, or stand on top of to take our place as a colossus amongst the contemporary art that will occupy the space.
If I were to go with my gut feelings about Wang Du’s work, then I would be missing (some of) the point. It would be too easy to dismiss Wang Du’s work as overblown, ego-driven, dumb objects, but looking beyond the surface of bluster, Wang’s work plays with relevant issues of how we see and understand these objects as both subtle and overt political tools.
(All Images: Wang Du, Installation shot: Musee d'Art Contemporain de la Chine, 2012; Photo credit: Edward Sanderson / Courtesy of the artist and Tang Contemporary Art)