IT IS LATE afternoon in early spring in Beijing and the trees still carry the dust of a polluted winter. I have arrived early at Wang Jianwei’s studio on the very outskirts of the city; it is so remote the taxi driver is reluctant to wait. The road is lined with illegal rubbish dumps and the unpaved foot paths have been churned to mud by an endless procession of trucks. The terrain is flat. Fringing the footpaths, high walls slip off to the horizon where it become impossible to see where land ends and sky begins. Beyond the walls are numerous warehouses and through an occasional un-gated entrance I glimpse groups of woman wearing thick anoraks and Mao trousers picking like crows over piles of rubbish. The scene is unheroic, desultory and miserable. There are no cafés, no shops to speak of, and no houses, and no Jianwei … there seems very little reason to linger.
Pushed back from the main drag with a deeply rutted parking lot in front is a restaurant. There are no customers and the staff are watching a Chinese soap on one of the dozen CCTV channels. I wait here for Wang Jianwei, who at 58 years old, is China’s most famous conceptual artist who over three decades has explored the conceptual uncertainties that link that which we know and that which we can never really know and what are for Jianwei the interstices through which he comprehends the world. His often complex installations involving video, theatre and paintings have led him to be known as a difficult to understand artist. Many have called his work obscure and impenetrable, but he has never compromised on tackling complex challenges.
As I ponder these interstices, and Wang’s reputation of being a formidable intellectual, he arrives in a Japanese four-wheel drive with his wife of 32 years beside him – and a huge dog seated in the back. He tumbles out, rushes inside, apologises for the delay and pays the bill. We head off up the road to his studio compound tucked behind large green iron gates. This is the domain protected by the fearsomely large dog, which proves surprisingly friendly. The dog has an intimidating reputation – as a local taxi driver attests later in the day – when he refuses to leave his cab while the dog prowls outside. The road, Jianwei explains, is no place to linger after dark. ‘Even the copper telephone cables are often stolen,’ he admits.
There is a main studio – currently Wang Jianwei has three in operation during preparations for the October opening of his monumental Guggenheim show, Time Temple. The whole area is an interlinked mélange of compounds and warehouses that double as storage space through which the dog freely roams. Reviewing this scene from the top of an adjacent high wall is one of Jianwei’s seated sculptural figures from his Viewing the Exhibition series, companion pieces sit on the roof of the Today Art Museum on the other side of town.
Jianwei is the inaugural Robert H N Ho Family Foundation Chinese Art Initiative’s artist, who will unveil his most ambitious work to date when Time Temple opens at New York’s Guggenheim Museum on 31 October. The conceptually challenging work, which incorporates video, theatre, installation, new-media (a term which Jianwei prefers to avoid – everything that is new to him by definition is new-media) and several geometric large-scale objects will spill through the building’s famous circular rotunda, as well as its two theatre spaces. The whole work is predicated on a plethora of philosophical ideas and conceits which challenge the viewer to plumb the depths between reality and imagination.
‘The installation will be about time. I want to understand how to recognise real time, so the different material in Time Temple is to show the different meanings of time.’ The theoretical underpinning of the work remains challenging and conversation with Jianwei is like a philosophical and literary joust through the history of semantics, philosophy and literature: names of the philosophers and writers that interest him and whose ideas have helped hone his thinking about reality and time pour from him; Roland Barthes, Alain Badiou, the almost messianic Marxist Slavoj Zizek. Philosophy is, however, the most important subject for Jianwei. ‘It is the most important thing for me, tells me never to stop in one area but to always move forward and to constantly seek change.’Grappling with the monumental concept of filling the Guggenheim’s spiralling ziggurat space led Jianwei to several revelations; the upturned rotunda of the space itself and the way that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the building so that visitors could view several bays of work simultaneously resonated with Jianwei’s possibilities.
The museum’s extensive collection of work by Kandinsky, long considered the father of abstraction, also articulated a linkage between the abstraction pioneered by Kandinsky and that of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, both of which date from the beginning of the 20th century. Kandinsky seminal text Du Spirituel dans l’art (Concerning the Spiritual in art), published in 1912, lays down the ground rules for abstraction which is based on external reality and images that come from the unconscious. An artist Kandinsky concluded is driven by an ‘inner necessity’. Kafka’s novella, Metamorphosis, was published in 1915 and currently the book is never far from Jianwei’s hands. ‘These two works were written at a similar time just when artists and writers were beginning to imagine abstraction. This gave me my idea. The film component of Time Temple will show at unpredictable times of the day. Time Temple will coalesce or collapse into differing conceptual time spans,’ he explains.
Jianwei will often spend whole days reading and another work that has infiltrated his thinking is Borges’ short story, The Tower of Babel, with its sparse bleak existential text that dwells on the futile search for meaning. Of the three abstract works it was Borges’ book that supplied the conceptual underpinning for Time Temple because its depiction of a library of nonsensical books where people would journey forever only to end up back where they started. The similarities with Lloyd Wright’s rotunda were for Jianwei a moment of apotheosis.
As Time Temple began to take shape in his mind, Jianwei found a three-storey building close to Tiananmen Square that echoed the dimensions of the Guggenheim with multi-levels and obstacles which helped him work out his special challenges of the Guggenheim. This new work is an attempt by Jianwei to really understand the ambiguities of time and what ultimately constitutes, real time. ‘I like this idea and I want to understand … how to recognise time. The different parts of the work are to try and show the different meanings of time’. The spaces off the rotunda will be filled with geometric forms made from a variety of re-cycled materials, which he shows me via a computer cad programme. ‘This time I will use new material; wood and iron, yes but I want to develop a new cheap material, a recycled material. It will be an expensive joke; cheap material to make expensive art,’ he says.
As we talk, we meander through the interlinked studio spaces which are full of furniture from the Cultural Revolution period. It is a museum-like collection; the well-preserved pieces he keeps, the poor pieces he deconstructs and reworks for his installations. ‘I collect this furniture from the special time in China, 1949-1978. It somehow communicates everything. I think furniture records things,’ he explains. ‘These pieces are about the impossible. I want a display what seems impossible and encourages questions such as, how did you make this? Where did it come from? All related to time. What does it really represent? I think when a lot of people can express, understand the art they actually hurt the art, it is better not to express or explain the art but just to understand it intuitively.’
As dense as Time Temple will be, Jianwei urges visitors not to try too hard to understand the work. ‘Time Temple is of time and yet is beyond time, it is of the world and yet not of the world and will blur the boundary between the real world and the imagination.’ ‘There is too much thinking about art and not enough feeling about art? We should feel more and think less,’ he said.
With that profound statement we return to our tea only to discover the light has completely faded from the sky and we are sitting in the dark, guarded by a large dog.
Wang Jianwei: Time Temple is at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum from 31 October to 16 February 2015, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, www.guggenheim.org