Introspection and Breakthroug - A Brief Interpretation of Yida Wang’s Art Works
Jiang Mei - Curator of Shanghai Art Museum
All artists are daydreamers, and I have quite a few friends around me who are such daydreamers. They try to capture, through the various media they choose and in their various delicate ways, one fanciful dream after another that flickers through their consciousness. Then they try to give definitive form to those illusions, converting the elusive into the tangible. That is how an object of art comes to be. Of course, art can be created in other ways. So, don’t take my words too literally.
Let’s return to the topic of daydreaming.
I recently met an artist who is known for her love of daydreaming. She is a Chinese who has lived abroad for years. Her name is Yida Wang. In my observation, her dreams are out of the ordinary. Rich in meaning and transcendent across time and space, her dreams reveal a sensibility embedded in a nuanced and sensitive profundity.
I encountered her dreams through a collection of her works.
I have seen her recurrent dreams over time in those works. Let me sort them out into groups:
Dream Series 1: Having traversed time and space, her flight of imagination heads back to her homeland of enchanting scenery and lasting sentimentality. But so dim is the light that it is hard to discern the land in detail.
Dream Series 2: The artist pushes through the barrier between the East and the West and dismantles the wall separating the private from the public. The world merges into one entity, resplendent in colors, buzzing with noises.
Dream Series 3: She has dived into a table game of mahjong, common in the life of the Chinese. Quietly, the domino pieces are appropriated. Here and there, images on the pieces are altered, inlays set, and the pieces end up in juxtaposition with incongruous neighbors.
Dream Series 4: Gourds, cut in half, protrude from a flat surface, like women’s full breasts. Inimical veins in varying shades crawl across the “breasts” like a moldy growth or dangerous virus, sending forth unsettling warnings.
Her images and symbols may appear to be convoluted and diffused, their messages an intertwined tangle. Nonetheless, confronted with them, one cannot but feel fascinated by the power beyond words. It is not a domineering power. It is a subtle one instead that sinks in, fascinating in its lingering attraction. It is a power that affects the viewer’s emotions, provoking thoughts after thoughts, enticing the viewer onto unexpected reflections and anxieties over larger issues like history, culture, life, individuality, time and space.
This is what makes Yida Wang’s art unique, that is, her highly individualized language in contemplation of the larger scheme of things, her exquisite handling of the weighty imponderables with a light touch of the brush between her fingers. Judging by her present oeuvre, she has quite a wit and humor of her own.
II. Life Story
Yida Wang is a female artist who has lived outside China for some years.
A native of Shanghai, she left for the U.S. in the 1980’s to study art at the University of Hawaii, where she has been teaching since she received her Master’s degree in 1994. She is a conscientious professor, sensitive especially to the artistic potential in her students and always encouraging them to make the best of it. In her own right as an artist, she has received favorable critical attention in Hawaii, due to her frequent entries selected for contemporary art shows at the state or national level. Recognized for her performance in teaching and painting, she is the current Painting and Drawing Program Chair and has proved to be a valuable asset to her institution. It is rare indeed that female Chinese artists, with a start on the U.S. art scenes as late as hers, could have attained as many accomplishments as she has in the highly competitive American art circles.
Over and beyond her roles as administrator and educator, what impresses me the most is Yida Wang, an outstanding contemporary artist.
Like most of her Chinese peers overseas, Yida Wang experienced a difficult period of transition after setting foot on the U.S., when she, facing a disconcerting onslaught of contemporary Western art, had to hold her bearings in search of a foundation rock to sustain her creativeness there. In her own notes, she gives an account of her state of mind, “Through my early basic training in traditional Chinese and Western art, I began to sense a yearning for contemporary art when I was in China. My education in the American academic environment took me through bewilderment, imitation, infatuation and disorientation amidst all this contemporary Western art. I was the only Chinese in the studio. My work was not attached to my own bloodline. I had no ready access to or entry into the ever changing contemporary trends. Even though my work received much attention, I knew in my heart it was not my true self.”
Luckily, she managed to settle down through a period of self-exploration as the initial impatience dissipated. The real Yida Wang began to assert herself, and her creative advantage emerged accordingly. Yida Wang eventually re-discovered herself.
Yida Wang is highly sensitive and talented in her paintings. She is of the intellectual type but with an immense power, not an instinctive or impulsive painter. Consistent with her personality, her works are characterized by a gentle firmness as well as an introspective rationality. Solid as she is in basic kills, she is not satisfied with superficial plasticity. She is always eager to experiment with various new media and new techniques, but she will not abandon her modes of expression for the sake of materials or techniques. All in all, Yida Wang focuses on integration. It is through her integration, not moment-to-moment pursuit of novelty, that she seeks expansion. Therefore, one can sense her distinct consistency and commonality, in theme and spirit, despite her seemingly diffusive subject matters and diverse approaches to execution. There is coherence in her works.
III. Art Works
The multi-faceted nature of Yida Wang’s creative repertoire in recent years, including painting, drawing, mixed media, installation and her latest ventures into video, is beyond question. Her work is remarkable in its cohesiveness. What form to adopt follows from what is there to be communicated.
Now, we may attempt an analysis of her messages and styles, starting from how her artistic creations are formed.
In the first pat of my essay, I have outlined some of the recurrent dreams in her works. The dream series outlined essentially represent the main types of her artistic discourse and thematic conceptualization.
Dream Series 1 consists of a travel back in time. Floating and shimmering across a dark and mysterious night sky are quintessentially Chinese images like fragments of ancient architecture, delicate rock statues molded by the waves of the Tai Lake, ripples across water, clouds flying in the sky, a door ajar, domineering guardian gods by the gate, fish in a bird cage, boy with a long umbilical cord, lotus leaves, the fertility fairy riding a mythical creature, qiling, etc. All this appears far away, as in a dream, a dream populated by fragmented motifs of what is the long gone. All this is conveyed in simple drawing, in black and white only, but the mood is a poignantly sad and depressive nostalgia. This is a theme of the native returned, of one’s roots reclaimed in a quest for cultural and spiritual validation. The recurring motifs of the infant and the pelvis-shaped lotus leaf are symbolic of contemplations on the existential experience unique to the female.
Dream Series 2 is a display of albums unfolded and descending straight from the sky, extending down a wall and spreading forth on the floor at the base. Gigantic black strokes cascade side by side down the wall until they metamorphose into mundane images or symbols, such as calendars, shikumeng-styled residential buildings of the old Shanghai, KFC, diagrams of acupuncture points, Marlboro, newsprints, bits and bits of personal information, stock listings, etc. The present and the past, the East and the West, the private and the public converge to constitute a kaleidoscopic universe. Visually, the varicolored world has its source in the enormous black strokes, readily associated with ink painting. Chinese culture, although abstract in nature, has presence here to subsume the entire installation. This is the ultimate spiritual fountain head that disseminates itself far and wide. The group of unfolded albums, entitled “Transcribed Episodes,” serves, according to Yida Wang, as a “visual testimony” to what a Chinese artist like her, separated from his or her heritage, would have observed and contemplated at a cultural confluence of the East and the West.
Dream Series 3 consists mainly of pieces of the Chinese table game, mahjong. Some pieces are left among various objects, some placed inside an old-styled vanity table, some fitted into a piano keyboard, some mixed into sand and cement on the floor. Other than real mahjong pieces, painted images resembling such pieces appear on objects lying around, such as the mirror above the dressing table and transparent plexiglas panes. Those painted images create a surrealist effect, because they are different from what mahjong pieces are supposed to look like. The ampersand @ from the computer keyboard has replaced some of the dots or characters. The familiar table game now looks strange. By the same token, the accepted sign in Internet addresses, once placed on a mahjong piece, is stuck with a dislocated and bewildering designation, as if a computer virus had spread to the mahjong game. Mahjong and Internet, two apparently isolated cultural realms, are thus commingled in the work to elicit a sense of utter absurdity. Well, that is exactly how human neurons are entertained and stimulated in China nowadays, isn’t it?
Dream Series 4 is a display of giant-sized gourds common in Hawaii, cut up and sun dried. Each top half with its stem is covered with layers of synthetic materials, and an abstract pattern of dark colors is drawn over it. The half gourds resemble diseased breasts of women. Cut off from the human body, each exists by itself and tells a wordless life story. The installation entitled “Phenomenon” is one in which the artist’s feminine side assumes a more prominent position than in her other works, reflecting her grave concerns over and inquiries into the feminine body and psyche. This set is emblematic of the pains unique to women, with her simple language lending an honest and natural way of expression to the experience, and the viewer is persuaded into earnest reflections on such sobering issues as gender, life, disease, existence, environment and peace.
IV. Spiritual Home
“After years of living overseas and many artistic explorations, I began to settle down. Gradually, I found myself taking a new interest in traditional Chinese culture. I came to feel a deepening intimacy, in particular, with what I used to scorn or consider as unworthy of my study. I realized that physical absence from my homeland had not pulled me away from Chinese culture, whose roots, as time was passing by, had struck deeper into my being.”
This excerpt from her notes may be taken as an accompanying note to her art. It is an intimate expression of her sentiments about her own artistry.
Yida Wang’s works assume multiple forms because she is not content with the well tried out. She is always more than willing to search for as many new artistic options as possible to convey her endless inspirations and ideas. However, a unifying spirit can be found throughout her works. She is always searching, searching for a spiritual belonging somewhere. In her realm of art, she is a free traveler across time and space. She has been persistently in search across the temporal and spatial dimensions where memory and reality intersect and the East and the West cross their ways. This search has eventually brought her back home to where she was reared.
It may be appropriate to sum up her pursuit in this way: Within the shell borrowed from Western contemporary art along with its conceptualization, Yida Wang has an inherited soul in her ancestral culture. The pursuit is her attempt to link up a fractured national tradition with the present-day consciousness using her own personal artistry. As an artistic creator at the crossroads of the Eastern and Western cultural traditions, she is making a perfectly candid presentation of her own innermost feelings and thoughts throughout the endeavor. We see in her works a tremendous commitment to, and deeply felt sincerity in, the pursuit.
Phantoms flit before my eyes – the artist of Yida Wang passing through many scenes. One moment, she seems to be skipping down a quaint street in her home town, attracted by ancient buildings, embroidered portraits and paintings. Another moment, she is walking lost in a modern metropolis, expressionless amidst skyscrapers, advertisements, neon lights, and cyber networks. Then she appears to be taking a rest in a tunnel that connects different spaces and different time periods. An object that has been stranded there in its defuncttransfer happens to excite her fancy. It looks like a mahjong piece, but it is not a mahjong piece, not with its mysterious symbols. At another time, she may be feeling tired. She would examine the physiological changes in a human body like a rational doctor, and in the meantime guessing what psychological processes may be going on behind the changes in the body. It may be because she is a woman that a gender-specific motif may pop up from one time or place to another, for instance, an umbilical cord attached to a newborn, the fertility fairy, a vanity table, diseased breasts, so on and so forth. If emblems or signs are said to be left by the “branding iron” of a culture, those images mentioned above are undoubtedly left by the “branding iron” of her gender role.
To sum up Yida Wang in one sentence, I think she is many personas rolled into one, a combination of a cultural native returned, an introvert in spirit, a trekker across the universe of art, and a woman with a mission.
Finished evening of May 9, 2006
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