A Throwaway Muse Reveals the Artist's Craft

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A Throwaway Muse Reveals the Artist's Craft

As a viewer, the experience of appreciating art that questions political or social givens is often a fascinating, and yet ambivalent, experience. It is ambivalent because a lot of the time visual artists leave their own positions ambiguous in the work, so that the work raises questions rather than offering the artist's own didactic judgments of the issue. Perhaps "invisible" is a better word than "ambiguous," since most artists do have clear ideas about what they want to get across through their work by the time they present it to the public, but choose not to expose them in an obvious way to allow viewers to engage with the work more freely.

In "Disposable Reality," an exhibition by the Chinese-French artist Wang Du currently on display at the Rodin Gallery, viewers confront a similar ambivalence - at least, in the beginning. Mr. Wang produces sculptures based on his collection of printed matter from newspapers, leaflets and magazines that ranges from photos of state-sponsored massacres to advertisements for disposable consumer products such as candy bars and jars of olives. After choosing certain images, the artist uses clay molds and plaster to replicate them in three-dimensional sculptures, and paints them. At his exhibitions, the artist usually spreads thousands of photocopies of the original images on the floor for the visitors to step on. One message is clear - the artist wants to suggest how much information invades our daily lives - but how we should respond is left unclear.

In the current exhibition, which is on loan from Le Consortium, a Paris museum of contemporary art, the artist has hung the the sculptures hung on the ceiling in such a way that one can get a full view of the entire installation just by standing at the entrance to the main gallery. Sculptures are arrayed so that it appears the figures are marching aggressively toward the viewer. Figures taken out of context float around like ghosts.

At first glance, the works of Mr. Wang may remind the viewer of the plastic sculptures produced in the 1980s in America, which explicitly dealt with questions about American popular culture, often in a satirical manner. Artists like Jeff Koons, who rose to pop star-like fame in the art world by producing sensational images usually based on consumable, mass-marketed objects of everyday life, typically represents this style. Mostly known for his sculptural series "Made in Heaven," which graphically depicted the artist and his wife Ilona Staller, a former Italian porn star, having sex on their honeymoon, Koons has received generally favorable reviews from the art world, though some criticized the artist's superficial treatment of the issues of art and pornography.

Unlike Koons' works that present a plastic, "mannequin-like" finish, however, Mr. Wang deliberately chooses to present his work as rough and unfinished by using cheap watercolor paints. This was probably the artist's attempt to separate himself from pop artists of the 1960s who simply reproduced everyday objects into art without appropriating the image. Mr. Wang's works also challenge artists like Koons who had 35 assistants to make his work whenever he was commissioned by a gallery. Mr. Wang emphasizes the artist's labor as a necessary part of art-making. In his installation at Rodin, for example, he exposes the interior of each sculpture and allows his labor to be seen in his work. Through the mix of rusted wires and roughly spread plaster inside the sculptures, the viewer can clearly visualize the process of making the work.

Even conceptually, Mr. Wang's works are much more subtle than much art that deals with the constructed images of mass media. In this exhibition, the artist uses the idea of "disposable" as a metaphor to represent our consumer culture, where, as the curator notes, everything "from objects to concepts" and "from ideas to trends" has become disposable, immediate and short-lived. He juxtaposes the ubiquitous plastic goods we use and throw away to contemporary ways of thinking in general, and he shows how information media come to shape these ideals.

There is a strong sense of crowded chaos in the artist's work, similar to that which many other avant-garde Chinese artists express in their works. Whether it's through the disturbing image of a woman who exposes her chest after a mastectomy due to breast cancer or an American father instructing his son how to use a gun, Mr. Wang's images are always alarming and suggest a sense of urgency. Knowing that the artist moved to Paris a year after he was incarcerated for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989 in Canton, China, this sense of chaos in the artist's work may not be a coincidence.

The artist does not assume a clear, fixed position against the evils he alludes to or provide alternatives to the reality he describes. But what makes Mr. Wang's works stand apart from other pop artists is the manual quality of his work and subtlety of it combined with its strong sense of craftsmanship, compared to other surface-orientated "post-modernist" works.

The exhibition runs through Sept. 2. For more information, call 02-2259-7781~2.

by Park Soo-mee

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