Omnigenous Intimacies between Body and Space: Re-interpreting “Think” and “Not-to-think” in Wang Te-Yu’s Artworks from “No. 75”

By Wang Sheng-Hung for Wang Te-Yu (王德瑜)

Wang Te-Yu’s new work “No. 75” (Kalos Gallery, 2014) exhibits a consistent ideology inherent in her creations, namely the emphasis on visitors’ participation as well as a reductionist and minimalist form of presentation. Wang created some visually gratifying works in recent years, but those works did not hinder the inference about the theme of her creations, that is, the synthetic fabric of the inflatable installations contributes to the dialectics and conversion between internal and external spaces, attracts the visitors’ attention to the shift of their bodies’ positions and postures in these spaces, and tackles the body-politics embedded in the museum-gallery institution by creating heterogeneous (and entertaining) spaces. The primary part of “No. 75” consists of two stacked, pillow-shaped inflatable installations that are not completely separated from each other. Wang deliberately opens up an enshrouded passage which allows the visitors to climb between the two installations with slow, stumbled, and unbalanced paces. In the climbing process, the changing shapes of the installations will occasionally block the visitors’ sights. Besides, the sounds created by the visitors’ patting and rubbing against the synthetic fabric, along with the humming blowing machine, offer the visitors an experience of disorientation. The visitors may even forget that they are actually in a huge and bright white cube. It is an entirely different world inside the inflatable installations. The internal space temporarily liberates the visitors from the rigid behavioral disciplines imposed by the museum-gallery institution. It is a space brims with delight, particularly for children. The visitors may easily notice that Wang’s creased inflatable installations often convey a poetic image of “back to the origin of life,” namely the womb/maternal body to which we can never return. 

Previous criticisms that encircle this special image tended to express a specific interpretation that the core of Wang’s creations lies in offering sensuous and private experiences rather than an overly dispassionate and rational speculation. Such an interpretation emphasized the artist’s intentional rejection of statements about her works and deliberate manipulation of naming her works with serial numbers, and thereby illustrated her creative ideology that attaches greater weight to “perception” and “participation” than “thinking” and “viewing.” Accordingly, Wang’s inflatable installations directly challenge the conventional museum visitors who advocate gazing and contemplation, because the meanings of her works are neither defined by their formative aesthetics, nor conveyed through creating visual signifiers and symbols, but assigned by the visitors through their participation in and interaction with the works. Only when the visitors overcome their inertia of visual and conceptual thinking and re-perceive the works with their own tactile, hearing, and even olfactory senses can they dispel their unnecessary anxiety over “unable to see the works” or “unable to discern the meanings,” and actually comprehend the context of Wang’s works. In a sense, this interpretation undoubtedly connects Wang’s works with the broader context in the early 1990s in which the dominant idea of visuality in the artistic practice and the aesthetic ideology was subject to radical critiques and reflection (just as Martin Jay’s theoretical reconstruction and historical investigation in his book Downcast Eyes by treating Plato, Descartes, Bergson and Bataille as the point of departure). From this perspective, the multiple senses and aesthetic experiences that Wang attempts to explore with her experimental spatial installations therefore become explicit critiques of traditional visual hegemony and antiquated stereotype of admiring artworks. 

What is worth noticing is that several implicit issues surround the foregoing analysis which lays special emphasis on invisibility and sensibility. It is true that the analysis offers a probable explanation for the aesthetic consideration in Wang’s context of creation. Nevertheless, it may mire our discussion in various kinds of rigid dualism such as “rationality vs. sensibility,” “visibility vs. invisibility,” “masculine vs. feminine,” “publicness vs. privacy,” and so forth. The analysis seems to define the feature of Wang’s works with one of the antithetical values in each dualism. In addition, such a narrow interpretation tends to ignore the fact that the topological and phenomenological explorations of space embedded in these inflatable installations have opened up a possibility of inclusiveness. Wang’s works may arouse various subtle and indescribable physical feelings. However, these feelings do not impede the visitors from ruminating on their own (chaotic) experiences and thereby acquire orderly knowledge and meanings. In other words, although Wang’s appeal that “come into the context of my works; do not gaze at them and contemplate them, but just walk on them and touch them” seems to invite the visitors to understand her works in a way similar to minimalism—that is, to shift the visitors’ attention towards the relationship between themselves and the works, the modalities of their physical presence, and the spirit of the works reflected from the site—we should not arbitrarily regard the appeal as a simplistic antithesis of “think” and “not-to-think.” After dismantling all the vision-dominant antiquated artistic knowledge systems, her works still refer to a vacuum of cognition and understanding. This vacuum prompts us to using more integrated perception (including vision) in addressing the problematique unfolded by the artist. 

Therefore, we must be vigilant about the foregoing snares of dualist and antithetical thinking if we attempt to trace the evolution of Wang’s works in recent years. For example, Wang created a couple of brightly colored and concretely formative works such as “No. 62” (Comb, 2009) and “No. 72” (Kalos Gallery, 2013). These works deviated from her habitual practice of using white, unadorned and elegant fabric to highlight the illumination, atmosphere, and spatial structure of the exhibition venues. Some people may wonder whether this deviation implies that “body” yields again to “vision” and meanwhile submits the sensuous aesthetics which emphasizes enhancing multiple senses to the admiring experience that treats visual delight as the primary concern. In my opinion, these misgivings still presume that the connotations of Wang’s works “can only be” physically perceived. Such a presumption cannot be applied to address the following question: how does Wang’s re-adoption of visual elements (if it is true) in her recent works undermine the visitors’ perceptive insight about the modalities of their physical presence? Moreover, such an observation still mires us in the antithesis of “body vs. vision” which implies the two dimensions repel each other. As a result, vision has been separated from the other human senses as a superior and more independent way of perception. 

Briefly speaking, the key to free us from these snares lies in recognizing that not the simplistic antitheses but the visitors’ reflection stimulated by the sparkling interaction between their bodies and the spaces as well as the vacuum—whether in terms of visual form or conceptual speculation— produced by the interaction bestows the internal dialectic feature to Wang’s works. Nonetheless, this does not imply that Wang attempts to create frigid, alienated, rational and contemplation-oriented spaces. Rather, most of her installations invoke passionate conversions among body, media, and space. These installations on the one hand restore the superiority of visitors’ direct experiences, and on the other hand develop a soft institutional critique through their own openness and participation-oriented feature. In other words, the first-order reflection embedded in Wang’s works is the critique of the “external institutions” (i.e. physical institutions such as museums and galleries). Her inflatable installations are by no means radical artworks that break off their relations to or even directly alter the spatial structure of the exhibition venues. Nevertheless, she ingeniously redefines the publicness of the exhibition venues by interrupting the visitors’ sights, and thereby changes the relations between the visitors and the venues. This approach was primarily embodied by the installations such as “No. 50” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2003), “No. 60” (Gallery 100, 2009), and “No. 65” (Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, 2010). They were fully inflated and therefore occupied the entire spaces of exhibition venues. These works lack visual attractiveness, yet they successfully reveal the implicit spatial structure of the exhibition venue by laying membrane-like fabric between the visitors and the architecture. The second-order of reflection embedded in Wang’s works is the very core of her soft institutional critique, encouraging the visitors to comprehend and criticize the “internal institutions.” To put it differently, the interaction and friction between the visitors’ limbs and the fabric as well as the changes of posture forced by the structure of the inflatable installations commonly suggest that “institutions” do not simply refer to specific physical institutions or sites, but also those internalized norms and disciplines in our languages, postures, concepts, and perception modes. These invisible institutions that we internalize by ourselves continuously reshape our values, judgments, principles, and production relations, and therefore serve as the primary targets of the reflection embedded in Wang’s works. 

In this regard, our praise of Wang’s works for granting the visitors the right to interpret meanings and establishing a democratic participatory mechanism does not necessarily imply that these inflatable installations merely encourage pure and direct sensory interaction or intuitive and non-reflective physical experiences. This would be a misinterpretation. For each visitor, the personal contact and interaction with the aura radiated from Wang’s works will become an unforgettable experience. It is exactly this kind of experience that turns the institutional critique embedded in Wang’s works into effective and profound reflection rather than superficial and simple comments. In terms of temporal sequence, the visitors’ intervention in the inflatable installations with different physical postures continuously changes the spatial modalities of those works. It in fact manifests the experience of “encounter,” particularly for the work “No. 75” which is reduced in size so that leaves adequate space to the exhibition venue and therefore roughly demonstrates its formative structure to the visitors. In other words, the visible objects such as synthetic fabric and the spaces surrounded by the fabric membrane are at most a kind of catalyst rather than the essential aspect of Wang’s works. The key to understand Wang’s works lies in the keen physical sense fostered by the juxtaposition of new and old spaces as well as the irrepresentable and irreplaceable life experience gained from the encounter. 

Accordingly, it is inadequate to understand Wang’s works from the perspective of simplistic materialism, for what she pursues is never the tangible collage of fabric. The primary concern of Wang’s works is not objects but always human agents, without whom these inflatable installations would cease to take on various appearances such as spreading, converging, expanding, and denting. In other words, Wang’s works will appear in a curvy modality only when human agents actively interact with them. It seems that there are infinite subtle creases embedded in every crease. Wang creates such a labyrinth of perception for us, a labyrinth through which the visitors must become active actors and find their way to generate all kinds of deformation. This is an indispensable prerequisite that we should bear in mind when interpreting Wang’s works.