Untitled with Alice Wang
David Bell: Your latest show at ltd Los Angeles is a presentation of …Alice Wang, with all works Untitled. Is the show a self portrait?
Alice Wang: The short answer is ltd presents… is “a dedicated space within the gallery to realize practice-based projects independent of the commercial gallery schedule and context.” That’s taken directly from the gallery website. So, I didn’t actually name the show “ltd presents… Alice Wang” if that’s what you were wondering. I never thought too much into it, but the way it’s phrased does make it seem like I’m being presented.
But to answer your question, Untitled and Alice Wang are default null pointers I’ve been using since 2014 to satisfy the naming conventions of art exhibitions; one needs this type of language in order to refer to the show and the works in the show. It was a decision I happened upon after a trip to Denali National Park in Alaska back in the late summer of 2013. I was told by our tour guide that there was a moratorium issued to stop naming mountains after mountaineers. They were usually the last names of white male figures that led expedition teams through the wilderness of Alaska. There’s a kind of humor in that—naming mountains, which are just natural features in the landscape doing their own thing, also the hubris of it… I wanted to relinquish some control over my work, and allow the pieces to take on a consciousness of their own agency.
D: I was walking the other day and came across a tree, with a tag on it that read “38b.” It was a beautiful mature oak tree, with so many unique features including one growth about 9 ft up that looked like the head of an alligator. When passing the tree on my return, I tried to call it by another name, “AL,” but in the back of my head, I still thought of “38b.” Or that “AL” was just as offensive, and still acted simply as a tag. Perhaps characteristics, though long winded are more fitting: i.e. “the tree that gives shade.” The word “untitled,” to me always becomes synonymous with “thing” or “object,” like the most basic of names, or the most popular of baby names.
Do your pieces become utilitarian when not being shown in a gallery setting? There is always something in each of your exhibitions that is experiential, whether it’s a light shining in my eyes, wind blowing in my face, or a plant I could actually touch and watch it bashfully (or angerly) recoil. Yet the room always contains other “Untitled” works that I can only look at, which leaves me staring at them saying, what else have you done? Or, where else have you been?
A: I’m glad to know that the pieces leave you with these lingering thoughts of their past or future lives. They are not utilitarian but have a function that has to do with the imagination. For me the spectator is not a passive viewer, but someone who is open and engaged in the aesthetic experience—the risky act of sensing and feeling.
D: Risky how?
A: There’s always an element of doubt involved when one is feeling their way around in the dark. And, to be open means to be vulnerable, permeable, and in danger of being infected by foreign ideas. A lot of different kinds of uneasy negotiations are happening when one is confronted with an artwork. No one wants to be wrong. Where do the objects take you? Where or what do you think they’ve been to or have done?
D: I think there is so much power in vulnerability though, I see the dangers in being exposed (naked) but baring it all is also revealing the body’s most effective body guard, skin. I feel your work is about full exposure, but not full disclosure. For instance, showing alien genitalia but not letting me know that that is what I am looking at, so I am not implicated in voyeurism. There is a play between found and made objects that I find fascinating. Like you said, I am feeling my way around in the dark, but since it is a controlled environment, so it’s not about lack of trust. I haven’t been dropped off in the middle of the Denali National Park during Winter Solstice.
In your current show at ltd you have two ceramic objects with holes cut out placed atop two humidifiers. The electrical cords come from the bottom of the objects and plug into the wall, so you are not really hiding what you are doing, yet you are. It’s a moment where I say, well I know what you are doing, but then I can’t help but double back and say, wait that’s too easy, do I? It’s like the telephone poles they make look like trees, I know that’s not a tree, it’s a telephone pole… a lot of choices have to be made when trying to hide something.
A: Those telephone poles are like outdoor sculptures carrying electrified sound waves across vast distances. I believe in the fiction of art — and, whether or not it’s a conscious thing, part of what artists are engaged in is the process of illusion-making. Some people think it is dry ice that is generating the water vapor seeping through the ceramic pieces. It’s possible… In the end, like a bricolage, what you see is the serpentine electrical cord, a geometric ceramic object, and the faint shape-shifting movement of white vapor.
D : Right, it’s just an assumption, the cord may not even be a real cord, the socket could have been fake too, I didn’t even bother to make sure. The steam could be billowing out from the center of the earth, you drilled and tapped into some underground lava flow, to warn us of some massive seismic event that is about to take place, and the plants; if they die, is the ultimate sign, that yes, we are all ourselves are about to die, why didn’t you look at the map I built? Why didn’t you look closer at the images on the wall, the landscape we’d all be left with! The tectonic plates were all right there at your feet, showing the eventual shattering of the ground on which you stand!
A: An apocalyptic premonition… it’s plausible, according to prevailing scientific theories, and eventually, we will all be vaporized by the sun when it becomes a red giant. What’s compelling to me about your description is that the sculptures — stripped away the veil of language and laid bare, defenseless — takes on a potent force. Invasive and evasive at once. The art encounter is a consensual exchange and therefore not scopophilic. Plus, in the dark, in anticipation, we use our hands not our eyes to find our bearings.
D: And we often drop to the floor; it gives us something to touch and feel more grounded, reaching out in the distance with the other hand to find something familiar as if it all disappeared, a chair, a wall, a bed frame. Thinking of your current show, in which you have a large arrangement of ceramic pieces on the ground, and also of your shows at 18th Street Art Center and at Human Resources where you arranged 720 ft of glass tile on the floor. For me, the work on the ground takes away all other sight lines. The work becomes heavier and more serious; it’s not bouncing off anything else, the work can shift as we navigate its edges and it is always in relationship to our body and movement.
A: It’s the gestalt, the total experience, which considers the architecture — entryways, ceiling height, the shape of the room, walkways, etc, and everything that’s in the space. The result of which — as you said — is a heightened bodily experience. I grew up in Xi’an, a very ancient city in China, and lived across the street from an Imperial Palace originally built during the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century, which I visited almost weekly. I didn’t realize it then, but the imperial gardens — or, monumental versions of the classic Chinese garden, like the one at the Huntington Library in Pasadena — are meticulously choreographed for experiencing different vistas from multiple vantage points.
The attraction to terra firma perhaps has something to do with our orientation on earth due to gravity. The connections you made in the floor pieces is integral to the video Untitled (2014) in which yogis positioned in various inversion poses are inverted once again in post-production and made to look as if they are hanging by their palms from the ceiling.
D: I like thinking of an Imperial Garden being at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, something so tied to a place, beyond its architecture, shifting the land in such a way, where it actually becomes somewhere else. The plants growing, living, flowering and dying, aromas conjuring up familiarity; and the weather playing the major factor in its materialization.
A: This somewhere else you’re referring to is a place that your mind takes you, yet somehow it becomes a reality.
D: Where on earth are you now?
A: Today? Shuttling between the San Andreas Fault and somewhere around Andromeda in the distant past…
D: What are you looking for?
A: I’m not sure yet.
D: What was the last thing that made you stop in your tracks?
A: The Earth is plummeting towards the Sun while just missing it. Took me a few years to wrap my mind around the immensity of the situation we’re in, our entangled relationship with the Sun. We are in outer space traveling through the Milky Way. Did you know, the first photograph in which Earth is in full view was only taken in 1972. It’s been just 45 years since we experienced this self-reflexive moment. The fact that we live on an alien planet and we’re all aliens hasn’t quite sunk in yet for everyone.
D: The earth’s mirror stage, or humanity’s collective mirror stage perhaps, or the Empire’s moment to say, “hey I want to control all that, and whatever is below its surface.” When talking about the natural environment or the earth’s resources, it’s hard not to be washed over with a steady stream of melancholia. Sometimes my only hope lies in the fact that if humans do wipe themselves out, or completely decimate the earth and all living things, that slowly, I mean slowly, the interworking of this planet will start anew, without us. You had your chance, you blew it. Your work, often brings me to that place, A place where I can enjoy the natural world for its complete lack of dependence on my existence, its power over me, its resistance to take on a name, or be defined by me, its an antisocial relationship.
A: The universe is apathetic. I wouldn’t say the end of humanity is something we need to mourn; it’s not to say we shouldn’t treat our environment with care while we’re here. The cycle of life and death, or the inevitability of entropy, are natural processes. We could approach it in a non-judgmental way — the same way when you’re meditating, you don’t judge how you’re breathing and see it simply as a happening. It’s difficult to not think in binary terms of good and bad, it helps to come back to the breath. The dinosaurs disappeared in a flash, different species are going extinct everyday, why are we so special?
I think the non-anthropocentric mentality set in when I was very young in Xi’an. Like Rome, anywhere you dig you’re bound to find something archaic. Signs of the distant past and what seemed to have been around for an eternity was everywhere. Then, when I studied Earth Science in Middle and High School, and eventually Geology and Astronomy in College, the distance in time expanded exponentially. The intimate connection to deep time stayed with me and grew. Now living in California, experiencing the landscape — especially the vegetation in the southern Californian deserts, it looks like the whole region used to be under the ocean.
D: So what lies next in this sea of potential?
A: We’ll see where the current takes me.
See more from Alice Wang (here)
All images courtesy of the Artist