How far do we pursue the artists’ conceptions in their work, following the lead they provide, making an assumption that the work wishes to communicate with its audience? If the work proves too difficult to relate to, or reticent in its engagement with the audience, where do we draw the line past which we are unwilling to go in our investigation of the work?
At OCAT in Shenzhen, Wu Shanzhuan and Inga Svala Thórsdóttir present two rooms holding large-scale, but simple in form, installations. These are accompanied by a series of nine drawings on A4 sheets of gridded paper showing the progressive development of the forms used in the installations. These works follow on from previous presentations of the artists’ personal theory of forms, in this case focusing on a composite form which they call “Little Fat Flesh,” which is a combination of multiple arcs of circles, forming a unique shape, somewhere between a circle and a square.
The series of drawings begin with a random point, progressing through a line, and a square, the diagonal of which forms the radius for the first circle in their repertoire. As these progressions take place, the meaning of the resulting forms is developed into the fabric of a physical and potentially social reality. The line bisecting the square is described as a vector (implying force and movement of a body), and the circle formed by the radius is “an arc, a boundary, a domain.” By reflecting the arc of the circle, the artists reach their first original form, dubbed the “perfect brackets,” which (after a further series of transformations) becomes the complex form of the “Little Fat Flesh.”
Such concerns with the relations between geometry and space are raised by their “co-reporter,” the critic and theorist Gao Shiming, in his text. Gao quotes from the European philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, placing them in parallel with a statement by Wu Shanzhuan himself regarding the artist’s dissatisfaction that a concentration on the perceptible of art is a “tragedy”: “the truth is murdered by its medium,” he says. Such a statement sees the artist transporting himself back to the beginnings of conceptual art, in its concern with dematerialisation and efforts to prevent the primacy of the object or a perceptible thing.
This set of precursors finds its realisation in the form of Little Fat Flesh, used as an architectural element in the two galleries given over to this exhibition. In one space this form traces the plan of a colonnade around the inside walls of the gallery. In the other gallery this same form is broken into a continuous string of fragments that are placed above head-height around the edge of the gallery walls, while lying on the floor beneath these is a long beam covered in small dark-blue tiles and capped by short perpendicular sections, like an elongated “I” shape.
The division between the conceptual meanings of these pieces and their physical manifestations is particularly marked. The ascetic, minimal nature of the installations provides little in the way of obvious reference points. The former gallery appears as a massive baroque architectural space, the dividing structure being the focus rather than any spaces it might be creating. In the latter gallery, the impression is (probably unintentionally) that of a swimming pool, the blue bar looking like the markings on the floor of a pool, while the fragments of the form suggest the lapping of water above the audiences’ heads.
This ambiguity of the forms in space may reflect Wu’s assertions about the “tragedy” of the perceptible aspects of the work – an inherent weakness of representation, according to the artists. However, the works on display in Shenzhen do not seem to avoid representation; they represent the forms that the artists have developed, and they present these in a visually strong series of installations. So it is not clear how this work addresses this issue, aside from making reference to a superficially complex geometrical schema which in itself seems too opaque in its meaning to provide a helpful clue to the meaning of the whole.
The diagrams suggest an apparently systematic exposition of the mathematical creation of this form and the installation that arises from it, but the genesis and meaning of these transformations (in the mathematical sense) are obscure. The diagrams begin with the positioning of a “random point” on the grid, and each stage of its development (and ultimately of its meaning) seems similarly random or arbitrary, apparently serving simply as a set of personal choices by the artists.
The use of mathematical processes in modern philosophy is not uncommon, notably the calculus and quantum theory employed by Gilles Deleuze, and the set theory of Alain Badiou. Such uses theoretically provide access to the field of ontology, in their potential ability to describe “being” beyond certain assumptions of logic (Euclidean geometry, for example).
A depth of philosophical thinking in an artist's work is not necessarily a problem, of course. But without a certain amount of accessibility the works can be intimidating or opaque to interpretation. In this case the works and the artists appear to be unwilling to engage with their audience, the works providing little empathy for the visitor, and the available textual material verging on the pretentious. Such a problem is reflected in the fact that the artists projected the statement “Let no one untrained in geometry enter” (attributed to Plato), in Greek on the entry to the exhibition during the opening. While this statement is undoubtedly a fair warning for the material inside, its use reflects the general feeling of inaccessibility.
The significance of these transformations and forms seems buried deep within the artists’ theory of geometry and space. To be fair, these installations appear to focus on an early stage in the artists’ exposition of their process and of the meaning of the forms, with the intimation (raised in some of the terminology used by the artists and their co-reporters) that concepts of space and the body's presence in space might be addressed more fully in future works. However the current installations are extremely sterile – holding themselves almost aggressively aloof. Because of this, What a Form – A Reportage holds interesting ideas but is ultimately unengaging for the audience.
(All images: WU Shanzhuan& Inga Svala Thorsdottir, Installation View; Courtesy of OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Photographer: Hu Liming.)