“Per Square Meter” – An Exhibition about “Event”
Between 2007 and 2011, Wang Youshen was forced to move his studio twice in Beijing, once in Xiedao and the other in Gequ district. Afterwards, he recreated the event (artist moving studio was definitely no new story in Beijing) through a group of multimedia work, imbuing the event with a color of pictorial archives. He named the work after a basic unit of areal measurement: “Per Square Meter”. According to Wang Youshen himself, it had three layers of meaning:
1. Per square meter is a countable unit of measurement;
2. Per square meter is an uncontrollable daily behavior;
3. Per square meter is a sustainable artistic production.
In this case, “Per Square Meter” cast light on how a unit of areal measurement developed into social and art events through documentary photos, archival documents and sound installation. The multi-layer visual relations among them offered viewers some interesting perspectives to understand the exhibition.
Per Square Meter • My Portrait was a narrative subject related with event and environment. Per Square Meter • My Landscape, on the other hand, depicted the secondary subject of the event: a narrative unit with spatial implication, which was also an inner motivation for the development and conversion of event. The still shot of natural landscape and ruins after the demolition of the studio generated a dual imagery: it was both poetic and violent, revealing the dual nature and inherent tension of the event progress. Here the function of pictures was not realized through the recording of “event”. Instead, they transformed temporal event into a metaphor with spatial implication; and narration of the truth into a gaze at “landscape”. Such overlapping of dual imagery totally freed pictures from the temptation of narration and led our reaction toward the event and consequences brought about by it to truly touch upon the psychological level. “My Landscape” played the role as both a spatial background for the event to develop and a psychological background for it to go in-depth. Visually speaking, the mixture of poetry and violence laid a foundation for the basic tone of this exhibition.
In this exhibition, the task to state and make a record of the events was taken by archival documents: two rental agreements with specific time range but no legal validation, and two mandatory official demolition orders with indisputable power. The sharp inequality between them highlighted the obvious absurdity of the events. Within the exhibition environment, the silent presence of these documents looked like both conclusive evidence for the events and quiet defense of someone who was not present. Together they formed a Rashomon-like story, making a record of an“uncontrollable” daily behavior.
The next section of the exhibition once again shifted to a pictorial narrative of the two subjects, which Wang Youshen called Per Square Meter. The artist made 1sqm abstract collage pieces from the wall materials left on the demolition site and then made them into a “new wall” in his studio. Together with My Landscape, it seemed a somewhat un-real reconstruction was completed in this way. During the process of reconstruction, “uncontrollable” daily behavior and social event were transformed into a kind of “controllable” artistic production and aesthetic event. It seemed as if nothing had really happened. The real and physical world seemed to bump into an illusionary and psychological world, with only a video documenting the creation of the collage reminding us of the origin of the event.
A plot should have a climax. For this exhibition, the climax was Per Square Meter • My Space, a sitespecific work consisting of pictures, ready-mades and sound installation and placed at the center of the gallery. Broken walls, ruins and the three sound installations redefined a theatre of ambiguity: sound of the demolition site mingled with pictures of the ruins, constructing some kind of ambiguous dialogue. Montage skills were used to trace back the event. The mixed use of different media allowed viewers to form their own interpretation and experience of the event.
Wang Youshen resorted to one of his habitual picture dealing tactics, “washing”, to complete the finale of the exhibition: Per Square Meter • Washing • My Landscape, making the exhibition come to an end in a kind of poetic and yet disturbing ambience. Since as early as the 1980s, Wang Youshen had been committed to revealing the absurd and paradoxical relation between the recording/erasure functions of pictures, memory and oblivion. As far as he’s concerned, the so-called “recording” function of photography and the memory mechanism accompanying it were merely psychological illusion. What he wanted to probe into was the intricate archival relation behind it; in other words, the fundamental significance of pictures emerged in the complicated relation network of linguistic environment, physical environment and other historical texts. In many cases, the generation process of such significance corresponded to the decay process of the surface information contained in pictures. Recording and erasure, memory and oblivion represented the dual nature of picture. In order to highlight such duality, in the 1990s he started to adopt a unique tactic to deal with pictures: washing. Through water washing, surface information contained by a picture decreased. The final result was often some vague and ambiguous image. Per Square Meter • Washing • My Landscape was again submitted the natural subject of the event – landscape – to washing. The two narrative subjects, the artist and natural landscape, seemed to have been melted in the overwhelming ambience of ambiguity and vagueness. In his last move, Wang Youshen made a collage of wall relics, coreopsis and orchid seeds on the surface of the picture. As a result, such a symbolic approach managed to freeze-frame the exhibition in an allegoric context.
The presentation of such a highly metaphorical exhibition didn’t intend to re-create an event in a specific context. Neither was it a manifesto of ethical stance. What Wang Youshen endeavored to reveal was the inner contradiction and paradox rooted in the psychological discontinuity behind the absurd reality we took for granted and the mechanism of artistic production. In a scene brimming with mixed types of ideologies, the artist’s sense of insecurity came not only from the constant decrease of the physical space but also from the tension caused by ever-expanding desires. In an era where focus is completely lost, Wang Youshen considers his work as “a revelation of the interplay between temptation/manipulation, collaboration/ confrontation, and construction/destruction” and believes that “such interplay would inevitably bring us paradoxical experience”.