Today Art Museum’s Landmark Tenth Anniversary Exhibition: Wang Guangyi Retrospective



As China’s first folk-based, non-profit international contemporary art museum, the Today Art Museum has now reached its tenth year in operation. In order to look back on ten years of achievements as well as open the door to a new era, the Today Art Museum will present the large scale research exhibition Thing-in-Itself: Utopia, Pop and Personal Theology – Wang Guangyi Retrospective, curated by Today Art Museum director Zhang Zikang and famous curator Huang Zhuan, from October 14 to November 27. This is not only a landmark academic exhibition for the museum, it will also make an indelible mark on the future of Chinese contemporary art history.


Exhibition scale – The Largest Solo Exhibition in Today Art Museum’s History

“Whether in terms of the art museum’s input or the academic research engaged, this exhibition is the most important academic solo exhibition in Today Art Museum’s history.” Today Art Museum director Zhang Zikang notes five reasons why this ten year landmark academic exhibition focuses on Wang Guangyi: first, Wang Guangyi has never engaged in a sweeping retrospective of his thirty years of artistic creation, and has rarely even held solo exhibitions during his career. For a great artist such as Wang Guangyi, a comprehensive sifting of his artistic career requires time and gradual progress, in a process that will provide the museum with important experience and insight in the staging of future solo exhibitions. Second, Wang Guangyi’s artistic language is heavy, powerful, international and strongly academic, which is in keeping with Today Art Museum’s aims as an international contemporary art museum. Third, the exhibition has invited roughly a dozen domestic and international scholars to contribute to a monograph for this exhibition, and has invited important art museum directors, curators and researchers to engage in an academic exchange in Beijing, a powerful manifestation of the strength this museum has accumulated over the past decade. Fourth, the allure of Wang Guangyi’s art has attracted the engagement and support of academia, curators, galleries and the media. Fifth, Today Art Museum’s contributions to Chinese contemporary art and accomplishments in the field over the years have consistently attracted the support and admiration of many brands. This particular exhibition has enjoyed strong support from two of Today Art Museum’s strategic partners – Mercedes-Benz and Martell.


Today Art Museum director Zhang Zikang has revealed that this Wang Guangyi retrospective exhibition is the largest solo exhibition in the museum’s history, whether in terms of human labor, material effort or financial input. The entire process, from planning and initiation to the opening ceremony, has spanned a year and a half. As Wang Guangyi is already a world-renowned artist, many of his important, representative early works have naturally been scattered among private and institutional collections around the globe, and Today Art Museum has expended considerable effort and resources to borrow these artworks for the exhibition, ensuring a complete view of Wang Guangyi’s on-canvas art from all of his major artistic periods.


Academic goals – Providing a Chinese-language Critical Case Study for the Global Contemporary Art Interpretation System

Wang Guangyi has been one of the most important representatives of Chinese modernist art since the 1980s. His artistic career embodies the complex paradoxical logic involved in Chinese contemporary art’s progression from its enlightenment era to modern avant-gardism, post-modernism and consumerism, but the complexity of his artworks and the constant shifts in his style amount to a series of “traps” in the criticism and research of his art, and this has led to constant misreading. The label and definition of “political pop” is like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Wang has won broad acclaim in the Chinese contemporary art world, but on the other, this label has led to the constant misreading of his artistic creations in various periods, and even long-term distortion and limitation by Cold War critical discourse authority and commercial capital interpretations. Perhaps the words of Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke can best describe the interpretations of Wang Guangyi: “Fame is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a new name.”


Such misreading has followed him from the very beginnings of his artistic career. In 1984, Wang Guangyi and his peers organized the earliest modern art group, the “Northern Artists Group,” with their stated goal being the “creation” of an entirely new, revelatory, mythological “world.” The hypothesized enemies of this academic goal were the various “rococo-tipped arts” and “pure formalist pathological arts.” The difference here with the “enlightenment of the masses” advocated by the “85 New Wave Art Movement” was plain to see, but interestingly, the Northern Artist’s Group and the “rational painting” it advocated were always viewed as the mainstream of this very movement.


In the end, such misreading led Wang Guangyi to maintain a long period of silence and to avoid holding frequent solo exhibitions. Thus, there is much significance in an endeavor to view Wang Guangyi as an “art history topic” rather than an artistic individual, and to engage in in-depth research of this topic in connection to the history of Chinese ideas and visual culture. In 2008, Huang Zhuan curated Wang Guangyi’s first domestic solo exhibition, entitled “Visual Politics – Another Wang Guangyi,” which mainly presented the installation artworks that had made him famous in an effort to use this cross-sectional view to clear the artist of the many political markers that had been affixed to him, and to probe the real logical relationships between the political views and art of this so called “political artist.”

Politics, Art and Theology: the Wang Guangyi Art Research Project will engage in academic research of Wang Guangyi’s art through the theme of “thing-in-Itself,” striving to present the historical dialectic nature of his artworks between rationality and belief, the vulgar and transcendental worlds, between politics and theology, while using the presentation of this typical case in Chinese contemporary art history to clear up the internal logic, image methods and situational influences of this period in history through integrated methods of art history and the history of ideas. The academic goal of this effort is to provide a Chinese-language critical case to the theoretical interpretation system of global contemporary art.


Thing-in-Itself is a thread that permeates all of Wang Guangyi’s Works

The theme of this exhibition, “thing-in-itself,” is a central category in Kant’s philosophy and a core topic in the modern history of human thought. The thing-in-itself is the source and foundation of phenomenal and sensory matter, but it is also something unknowable, outside the boundaries of cognition. As Kant sees it, a world beyond the subjective world determines our cognition, but it is on the boundaries of human cognition. The world that we can see and touch is merely a surface appearance, and the characteristics of this world behind it happen to form the best methods for the artistic depiction of the world. How to handle the challenge of conquering both the world of visual appearance and the world of revelatory thought has become the first question that all artistic questions must solve. This concept of the “thing-in-itself,” both philosophical and theological in nature, is a main thread in the entirety of Western philosophy, with various periods and schools interpreting it in different ways. It was still the center of much controversy in 19th and 20th century Western philosophy, but in the Chinese art world, it is still a much discussed and explored topic.


Huang Zhuan, who has known Wang Guangyi for nearly thirty years, has through many years of tracing and researching his art, discovered that the “contradiction between the transcendental and secular worlds” is a trait that is found in all of Wang Guangyi’s art. Wang Guangyi himself believes that there is a mysterious transcendental world that lies behind the secular world, a “thing-in-itself,” and he has a lasting obsession and respect for it. Wang says, “When I was in college, my interests were in religious philosophy and the philosophy of existence. I loved reading Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, Sartre and Kant, but later I grew more enamored of medieval theology. I love classical, mysterious things. The perplexity caused by the ‘thing-in-itself’ has always permeated my creative process.” Other scholars, notably Italian critic Paparoni Demetrio, affirm the supporting role of the “thing-in-itself” in Wang Guangyi’s artworks.


This exhibition’s exploration of this individual case can raise the understanding of Chinese contemporary art to a new level. Before this, Chinese contemporary art was often viewed as a “vulgar art,” mainly connected to society, politics and the economy, while people ignored the most important perspective, which is to recognize art as itself.


Exhibition Content – Nearly Forty Artworks Spanning Wang Guangyi’s Three Decade Career

The exhibition comprises four segments, entitled Imagining Cultural Utopia: the Logic of Creation”, “From Analysis to Pop: Correction and Requisition”, “Materialist Theology: Material and Form”, and “Thing-in-Itself.” The first three segments present roughly forty of the most representative artworks from Wang Guangyi’s oeuvre from the 1980s to the present, including such oil paintings as Frozen North Pole (1985), Post-Classical: Death of Marat (1986), Black Rationality – Purgatory Analysis (1987), Great Criticism – Marlboro (1992) and large scale installation works such as VISA (1994), Fundamental Education (1996) and Cold War Aesthetic (2008). These segments will also present many previously unreleased plans, sketches, videos and images. The videos include the documentary film The Art of Wang Guangyi by Wang Junyi, and another documentary Chimeras on the artist by Mika Mattila who is the independent documentary producer from Finland. The fourth segment will present the large scale installation works Sacred Object and Things-in-Themselves, which the artist has created specifically for this exhibition.


Since 2008, Wang Guangyi has basically maintained a state of silence, not only refraining from any solo exhibitions but seeming to be wholly uninterested in the apparently bustling “scene.” Wang says, “It was perhaps at that time that I began to look back over my 30 year artistic trajectory, and my thoughts and creations had no real connection to the outside world. Whether or not I fell ‘silent’ is simply a matter of others’ opinions.” Wang also believes that while others see his work changing in style over time, for him, there were no so called moments of change. When pressed, the only such moment he can call to mind is when a certain mysterious force “suddenly ignited.” Though there is a certain amount of serendipity in the creative materials he used, and his artworks have taken on different appearances, they all share a similar background.


As for the inescapable shadow of “compelling circumstances” in Wang’s early work, the artist has said that he was “quite sensitive to the circumstances” in his youth, and that certain external contradictions and conflicts would spark in him a desire to compete. But with the passage of time and the artist’s growth, his creations have turned inwards to become the self interpreting the self. He used the classic Chinese story of “shooting the arrow without shooting” to express his mental creative state at this time: “In the Warring States period, there was a youth in the capital of the Kingdom of Zhao by the name of Ji Chang. He dreamed of becoming the best archer in the land, and so he sought out the archer Fei Wei to be his master. He practiced very hard, and showed marked improvement, but one day he realized that he could not surpass his master. Fei Wei told him of a master named Gan Sheng on Emei Mountain who was an amazing archer. Ji Chang sought out Gan Sheng as his master. Gan Sheng told him that the use of the bow and arrow amounted only to ‘shooting by shooting,’ and that he could make a fly drop out of the air without a bow and arrow. Gan Sheng told Ji Chang that this was truly ‘shooting without shooting’.”


Looking back over world art history, “renouncing the outer world and returning to a state of emptiness” is the path that every great artist must take.


Large Installations – Presenting the Materiality of Things with No Flourishes

The fourth segment in this exhibition consists of a large-scale installation work entitled Thing-in-Itself which Wang Guangyi has devised according to the dimensions of the Today Art Museum’s exhibition halls 1 and 2. In this 12.5 meter high space, Wang has stacked nearly 5000 traditional burlap sacks of rice, and installed seven large lights on the ceiling. When walking within this installation, one gets the sense of entering a solemn and tranquil church, while also feeling like they accidentally walked into a grain warehouse. Curator Huang Zhuan believes that Wang’s selection of burlap and rice, these simplest and most common materials in everyday life, is inseparable from his longstanding attitude towards art. In an unpublished essay entitled The Potato is a Sacred Object, consisting of a dialogue between Wang Guangyi and Yan Shanchun, Wang Guangyi notes that his favorite Van Gogh painting is not one of the famous colorful ones such as Sunflowers or Irises but his early oil painting Potato Eaters. It is said that such paintings from his early years reflected real life. In this painting, a poor family, after a long day of arduous labor, has only potatoes to eat. The “potato,” that simplest of human staples, gives powerful expression to man’s life and inner state.


Likewise, in Wang Guangyi’s art, he prefers to present the materials themselves without any unnecessary flourishes. He believes that if the audience’s perception is in accord with his own, then this experience is the artwork’s “thing-in-itself.”


Wang Guangyi tells us that the creative inspiration for this installation work is tied to his perceptions of the site: “Whenever I would visit the Today Art Museum in the past, there were always artworks there, but one time, when I went to see the site, it was completely empty, and felt very different. I think that this space is sufficiently great, and possesses the allure of the thing-in-itself, so I felt that I should engage in creation without affecting its own sense of mystery.”


Related Events – Documents and Artworks will be Treated with the Same Importance

This “clash” between the Today Art Museum and Wang Guangyi will bring new meaning to both. For the former, this exhibition will provide great inspiration regarding how to elevate the academic level of future exhibitions; for the latter, aside from sifting through his three decade artistic trajectory, this also represents the unveiling of new artworks, which can be seen as the artist’s arrival into a new period. The exhibition has significance in linking the past to the future.


Compared to many past and present art exhibitions in China, this exhibition at the Today Art Museum has so much new significance. First, many past exhibitions placed greater importance on the artworks than on documents, but in this Wang Guangyi retrospective exhibition, documents are treated virtually as equals to the artworks, and the research into the artist and his works that preceded the exhibition are just as important as the exhibition presentation. Second, the exhibition employs the latest international research methods, for instance in determining the original names and creation dates of the artworks, the team ensured that the artist was present and verified all information, and in the research of the materials and creative logic behind the artworks, the team adopted a rigorous academic approach. We have ample reason to believe that the many unprecedented characteristics of this exhibition will provide inspiration not only for future Chinese academic exhibitions, but also for the fields of collection and the art market as well.


The Today Art Museum has also arranged many academic events to coincide with the exhibition, including:


Document Compilation: using the structure of the exhibition as a foundation, the museum has compiled a large bilingual (Chinese and English) research monograph to accompany the exhibition, with essays by Chinese and foreign scholars including Huang Zhuan, Wu Hung, Jonathan Fineberg, Gary G. Xu, Lu Peng, Yan Shanchun, Carol Yinghua Lu, Lu Mingjun, Wang Min’an and Paparoni Demetrio.


Today Art Forum: The Martell Today Art Forum entitled Wang Guangyi Talks About Art, will be held at the Central Academy of Fine Arts on October 26, 2012. It will be hosted by curator Huang Zhuan, with Wang Guangyi providing the main talk.


“Contemporary Art History Composition Methods” international symposium: hosted by renowned art historian and University of Chicago professor Wu Hung, and held at the Today Art Museum at 10:00am on October 14, 2012. Participants will include curator Huang Zhuan, famous Italian curator and critic Paparoni Demetrio, famous art historian, curator and Duchamp researcher Arturo Schwarz, University of Illinois professor Gary G. Xu, famous American art historian Jonathan Fineberg and famous Chinese critics and curators Yan Shanchun, Lu Mingjun, Carol Yinghua Lu, Lu Peng, Yin Jinan, Liu Xiaochun and Karen Smith, Gwangju Biennale director Yongwoo Lee and translator Jeff Crosby. Many artists, curators and media professionals will also take part.


International Academic Exchanges: on October 14, aside from the writers and guests of the symposium, the museum has also invited foreign scholars and experts to visit Beijing and engage in academic exchanges. They are: Dr. Marko Daniel, convener of adult programs at Tate Modern and Tate Britain as well as public program curator at Tate Modern; Clara Kim, gallery director and curator of REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre) and former deputy director at the Walker Art Center; Bai Hua, director and curator at iCulture in San Francisco; Uta Rahman-Steinert, deputy director for Chinese contemporary art and high-level curator at the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin; Hasegawa Yuko, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; and important art collector Uli Sigg.


Exhibition Reception: after the exhibition opening, the Today Art Museum has planned an exhibition reception. This reception adopts the international “cold buffet” style, promoting a relaxed environment for enhanced international engagement between museum and academic professionals.


Sponsorship – Two Strategic Partners Provide Strong Support

Since its inception as a non-profit art museum in 2006, Today Art Museum has relied on support from brands, and has engaged in many innovative cooperative models over the years. Likewise, for this Wang Guangyi retrospective exhibition, the museum has enjoyed strong support from two of its long-term strategic partners.


As a long term partner of the Today Art Museum, Mercedes-Benz hopes, through cooperation with this landmark of Chinese avant-garde art, to provide the public with more great works of contemporary art and to support more artists who have dreams and talents to promote the progression of Chinese contemporary art.

Meanwhile, another strategic partner, Martell, has also provided the Today Art Museum with strong support.


After the exhibition’s completion in Beijing, there are plans to bring it around Europe, America and Asia as a touring exhibition.