Wang Sishun: The Truth Trip 

Ami Barak


Wang Sishun is an emblematic gure of the new generation of contemporary artists from Mainland China. Born in 1979, he lives and works in Beijing. His approach is fundamentally conceptual while investing in the creation of objects that would easily be classi ed as sculpture and installation. But of course he does not turn up his nose at expressing himself through video and photography. In his objects there is a playful and experimental approach, but each time he strives to establish a protocol so that the creative process, the opus, remains hierarchically on an equal footing with the plastic and visual aspect of the nal work. 

So for Uncertain Capital, 2009, Sishun melted coins to obtain an ingot that he then sold to convert the earnings back into the currency of a value equivalent to the original capital over and over again. The purpose of this loop was to annihilate the monetary value of the silver coins and to change it into a value where thought and emotion take the upper hand while staying in the chain of the market economy. In Fruit, 2014, the artist annually picks the fruit of an apple tree planted in front of his studio and then casts them in bronze. So each year he creates a new series that would escape the idea of multiple or any edition since each apple is by its very nature unique. 

The traditional process of bronze sculpture is updated and becomes the container of a renewed art form, invention no longer being the prerogative of form but rather the process of converting the object into an either natural or readymade artifact. In most of the artist’s works it’s about a gesture, an attitude that makes a reference that gives the work its subjective capital, its original “self,” which the form and vocabulary of modernity tend to dry out, minimize and reduce to a generic essence. 

So in Angle of Sadness, 2012, a blue lacquered rod, a perfect post-minimalist sculpture 9 feet high, is positioned in the gallery space just the way it was in its original context as evidenced by a photograph not far away and shows that the artist replicated an object by operating a transfer and by being careful to prove that the original environment, the jumble of a hut in the Hekiao slum in Beijing, is for the artist more than a starting point and more than a source of inspiration - it is a major ingredient in the work. The different materials used in his works also occupy a prominent place. To these favorite materials on which he sets his sights he adds an appreciable margin of chance to obtain the form but also to the transformations he makes and to the conversions he carries out. In Rising While Falling, 2014, molten gold is submerged in water and the resulting forms are abstract and left to chance but still wanted and intentional. Unity With The Divine, Sharing in His Purity And Immortality, 2013, is a small minimalist sculpture in pure gold whose dimensions scrupulously respect the golden ratio, but the material and the logic of its form were covered with blue lacquer like a theatrical mask. 

It is time to talk about the Truth project, this year’s agship mission, because so many things will happen before Wang Sishun’s show bearing the same name opens in Paris in September at the New Galerie, 2 rue Borda. Truth is a performance that crosses borders and will see the Chinese artist Wang Sishun make a six week journey from Beijing to Paris to bring with him a surviving ame from a devastating re, a relic of a ravaging and destructive event from which Wang Sishun has created a work of art. There is a will to create a metamorphosis that converts a negative energy into an initiative that transforms and changes the nature of the object itself, even if immaterial, into a conceptual vector loaded with signs, an object of thought whose transhumance will make its potential that is as symbolic as iconic all the more dynamic. This is an almost commando operation that the artist has set up to get his visas and re ne the logistics of a rally worthy of a modern-day Marco Polo to travel 7,500 miles. This has all been to support a ame in a lamp that, once safely arrived, will become the exemplary re, the paradigm of a Promethean action. It is also, and this is no small thing, like carting it by land from east to west along a reverse silk road. 

The initial re elicited an act having ancestral connotations that could amount to domestication but the purpose is not keeping the ame alive as in ancient times but an act of memory supposed to telescope the damage and the virtues of a big re. Uncontrolled re often leaves dramatic traces but in our case the artist chose to sketch his own way and make his beacon or lamp an emissary, an angel without wings but a message bearer of the idea that keeping the re alive is a professional act of faith. Ideas must be followed up, never let the re go out, so continually tend it forever. 

Before heading out, Wang Sishun devised a test stage. He left a few months ago from Beijing with his ame in his lamp and he took it to Shanghai to exhibit it at the MadeIn Gallery, this nursery for young talent that is the art space of Xu Zhen, father gure and protector genius of the contemporary Chinese scene. The landscapes he showed on this occasion were all implicitly shaped by this nomadic ame that was relayed by a caretaker. He bears this standard that now illuminates all the lands he crosses and draws these more or less visible contours and forms, ergo the landscape seen in this new light. The artist thus found the best way to show his vision. By pushing his perspective, he decided to export the re, the original primordial raw material and heir of a cataclysmic upheaval, and to bring it into contact with multiple different landscapes and cultures because re implies as many varied and divergent interpretations as crossings of longitudes and parallels followed. 

Contrary to other civilizations where re is considered destructive and dangerous, in the Chinese tradition it is perceived as positive. According to a Chinese saying, 红红火 (hóng hóng huǒ huǒ, or literally “red, red, re, re”) a person’s life takes off and goes forward like a red ame. By the same principle, (huǒ le, “caught on re”) means something that has gained great popularity, and the adjective 火爆 (huǒ bào, “ re and explosion”) refers to popular places, a detective novel or a thriller. 

From now on we can add to this the terms of unconventional sculpture and revisited landscape and instead of a still life call it a revived creation. In ancient China re is where the color red took all its meaning we know and identify with today, and we know that today this color is the symbol of prosperity and happiness. It is also the primary color for celebrations, especially the Lunar New Year and weddings. On one hand we have the origin of this ame born as the result of a series of destructive events that potentially spawned tragedies, a wild out-of-control force in time and space. 

We also have the words that accompany the birth of this artistic and aesthetic vector, the work of Wang Sishun: activation energy, burning, re that makes a statement and reveals its ame, re that grows and feeds itself, threat, scourge and after effects, nature that takes back its own ( re is structurally part of this) but a manageable spark, a ame perhaps from a lighter, an invisible and repeated spark from a spark plug in the motor of a vehicle carrying the master ame across so many countries, that of the candle which signals or lights the way.

In Western culture re is the basic element of matter, and doctrines are based on the four elements of re, water, earth and air, while in Chinese philosophy it is one of ve elements along with metal, water, wood and earth. Fire in antiquity is naturally associated with the sun, also a source of heat and light. It is often associated with volcanos, for example the re from Vulcan’s forge. 

Very early a moral dimension was added to re, and it could be seen as the instrument of a transcendent justice (the stake was a common criminal conviction in the Middle Ages, and even 
today the immolation is seen by some as a supreme act of sacri ce compared to man’s justice, even in modern societies). The use of re is strictly regulated and its abuse severely punished ( re was one of the greatest crimes in Athens). In some agricultural practices land is burned to make it more fertile (slash-and-burn), but it is likely that this symbolism has its origins from several sources. Fascination with re sometimes leads to pyromania, an aggravated impulse that pushes the individual to set res as an outlet and grati cation. It is obvious that this attitude is part of behavioral disorders. In Chinese cosmology it is also a good idea to remember that of the two founding principles of the universe, yin and yang, the latter is associated with the sun and re, and the two poles of the same center are perceived as contradictory: re and ice. In our cultures, re remains eminently a source of light and heat that allows men to stay warm, cook their food, light their dwellings and forge metals. A purifying element, re is essential for life and human activity, but it is just as likely to put them at risk. Fire is actually a permanent threat to our environment. What Wang Sishun’s attitude demonstrates through the lens of this initiative is a propensity towards artwork that inserts an appreciable margin of vitality and especially questioning. The ame itself is modest, but its in uence ricochets widely because it induces heat and energy. The artist called his project “Truth” because incidentally it is full of passion and idealism. It gives off  a sense of faith and belief in the truth of life. This ame is at the same time political because its memory carries the DNA of the original danger, and humans subconsciously know that all it takes is a spark for everything to be set ablaze. But all crime also uses “truth” as a pretext. The title does not remove any ambiguity but on the contrary requires continuous re ection and consistent doubt.

Wang Sishun’s attitude somehow reminds one of Diogenes, the Greek Stoic philosopher in antiquity who legend says was walking around in the daytime with a lit lamp in search of truth and his famous quote “I’m looking for a man.” The artist hopes that once in a public or private museum collection, the ame will continue to be lit for generations, its history will be perpetuated as will its vocation. The lamp as an object will have multiple copies with an unlimited edition that can be acquired by all those wishing to, but they will still bene t from a completely unique work because the ame is alive, and by its very nature changes endlessly.

It is perhaps worth remembering here the history of the Olympic ame on the eve of the games that were held in 2008 in Beijing whose route in some Western capitals was peppered with incidents on a political background related to Tibetan claims. As customary the torch was lit in Olympia, Greece and ended its trip on the highest peak of Everest. A route from the west to the east being the reverse of the one taken this time by Wang Sishun. The imagined route was intended to be, like the Silk Road, a link between East and West, and it was necessary to cross as many countries as possible. 

This project has all the elements of an epic. Like Prometheus, Wang Sishun seized the re to bring it safely to its intended destination. Like Ulysses, the artist will travel from one country to another and through this odyssey will be the contemporary hero of a total work of art bearing a universal message for all humanity that must intelligently master Mother Nature and its own nature as an immutable truth.