Wang Sishun and Emotional Utopia
Robin Peckham

Wang Sishun inhabits the image of an eminently material artist, having emerged as an alchemist of iron through his welding and other sculptural work in the studio of Cai Guo-Qiang, most recently for the 2008 instance of Rent Collection Courtyard. His best known works, too, are steeped in materiality, veering between classical sculpture and conceptual performance that remains tied solidly to the physical work itself. One of the first projects that brought his work to the attention of the Beijing art world was the magnificently understated “Alloy II,” which appears in the gallery space as a single screw drilled halfway into the white plaster wall. Industrial minimalism aside, it ultimately appears that the screw is composed of coins melted down and re-molded; this simple action purportedly shifts exchange value into the register of tool-based use value, but the beauty of the project is much simpler than this curatorial premise would indicate. This is fundamentally about shift, translation, and slippage. This is the uselessness of the tool.

“Time Required for Social Labor,” which appeared around the same time, utilizes an almost identical premise: here, a length of rebar produced through melted coins is filed down to the dimensions of a steel needle. The filings, or steel dust, are collected and contained in an hourglass displayed next to the remaining needle. On a certain level of political economy, the artist clearly attempts to negotiate the value of labor, materializing temporality into an almost purely sculptural form. But again the more interesting phenomenon here is fundamentally material, lying in the transformation of the rebar–a patterned, often corroded material visible in and around construction sites across Beijing–into a delicate needle with, once again, absolutely no use whatsoever. The hourglass, too, calculates nothing. In some way, perhaps, its flow stands in for the useless labor of filing, but during the conditions of exhibition it remains still and disused.

Later, in 2009, Wang Sishun exhibited his piece “Uncertain Capital,” another minimalist sculpture that seemed to step back from the installation complexity of “Time” while reinforcing th notion of process: coins are melted and reformed into a steel bar to be sold as raw material, while the proceeds are again melted down and formed into a bar intended for sale—a potentially  endless cycle. At a certain point of stasis, 297 one renminbi coins become a cylinder 32 centimeters tall, 60 centimeters in diameter, and 750 grams in mass. All of these figures are carved into the face of the cylinder, which oddly resembles the brushed steel ashtrays so popular in Beijing galleries. The work here is simplicity embodied–and explicitly, at that. Nothing is hidden; unlike the previous two works, there is no conceptual action or narrative behind the object on display. This is, at face value, nothing but three renminbi short of 300. From these sculptures, although admittedly similar, it should be evident that Wang Sishun possesses a certain talent for material work.

He is also something of a theorist. Beyond the perhaps too-neat articulations of labor and politics involved in the more material-based sculptures described here, Wang Sishun also penned a curatorial text for the exhibition Liu Feeling at Art Channel in Caochangdi during the fall of 2009. The short essay begins with a rehashing of the now familiar logic of the virus, using the example of the circulation of H1N1 and its consequences for a largely cosmopolitan China; the piece then describes this virus as a kind of parasitic code before moving on to coin the term “liu feeling.” This later concept is intended to be something between a “psychological state” and a “literary genre,” a methodology based on intuitive functioning through channels of transmission that offer the paths of least resistance. Though this is hardly ground-breaking critical territory, it does offer an interesting reading of the systematic breakdown and reconstruction of form and material in the artist’s sculptural practice.

It is in light of this background that Wang Sishun’s most recent solo project, the latest entry in the “51 sqm” series hosted by Taikang Space in Caochangdi, is so surprising. Entering the gallery space, the viewer finds only a sketchily drafted map or travel itinerary painted directly onto the wall surface. In the small room behind, a short video loops continuously. Through this documentation it emerges that, for the opening of the exhibition, the artist arranged several buses to take visitors to a snowy, barren corner of the Huantie area some distance from his studio; this was purportedly a quest to discover a fairy that appeared to Wang Sishun in a dream against the background of this same geographic space. In the accompanying textual materials, he describes the dream as a “jolt of dopamine,” claiming that the exhibition should offer to the audience a “wonderful dream that compensates for reality.”

The project does not lend itself to close reading, although it does appear to sit more easily with Wang Sishun’s conception of a given action as split between psychological state and literary genre than with his politics of labor. The conceptual move is interesting: the presentation of a psychology not as content but as genre. This exhibition, however, does no such thing. It is unclear how, precisely, this kind of work can be situated within the artist’s larger project, and as a solitary experience it is tremendously lacking. Observers can only hope that further work will clarify the aims of this one; at the moment, it appears largely to embody the conditions of viral transmission outlined by Wang Sishun in his essay on the virus: this is, indeed, “sickness as normality.”