'A Thing Like You And Me' is a solo exhibition featuring self-portraiture installations

US-based Chinese artist Zi Yi Wang discusses material culture, globalisation and loss of heritage, referencing her exhibition at the Olympia gallery in New York.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Jun 12, 2021

In an exhibition at the Olympia gallery, New York, a familiar narrative was presented to the viewers. For every person who grew up in a Third World country after the Industrial Revolution in the West, the pressure to leave one’s own country in search for a ‘better life’ elsewhere is a well-known one. The romanticisation of western consumerist culture is abundant in this upbringing, a demon we are conditioned to trust. In this solo exhibition, A Thing Like You And Me, which featured the artworks of Chinese artist Zi Yi Wang, this narrative was explored deeper in the context of the artist’s own childhood and early life experiences.

A view of the installation at the exhibition A Thing Like You And Me | A Thing Like You And Me | Zi Yi Wang | STIRworld
A view of the installation at the exhibition A Thing Like You And Me Image: Courtesy of Olympia Art and Zi Yi Wang

In an interview with STIR, Wang tells us more about her own views on material consumption patterns, the globalised industry and its consequent loss of heritage. She says, “From a personal point of view, as someone from a small town in China, then getting the opportunity to pursue an education in the US, in its typical way, is the epitome of material consumption. US as the capital of ‘dreams', advertised the ‘land of possibilities’, whether it is through its communication output and influences or political representations and forces. To receive an education from a first world country’s developed and pioneered education system, is perhaps the ‘ticket’ to whatever door you wanted to open, or why it became a wave of international students rushing to the States with their family states, hopes, and money. If by definition, material consumption doesn’t only limit to consuming tangible products, but ‘ideals’ (icons, beliefs), both embedded in each other. Then as consumers, we believe, in exchange of our money, time, and attention, to this thing we are consuming. It adds a value upon us, an identity we hope to represent ourselves as. Funnily, a contemporary Chinese metaphor uses gold plating for studying abroad endeavors. So inevitably, in the flux of globalisation, and relating to current events of global crisis we witness politically ‘correctness’ paves winds of consciousness ‘shopping’ - ‘consuming’. Whether across brands, personas, communities and countries, we ask for a deeper search of identity and values in which they embed and believe. Now perhaps we’ve arrived at a point of globalisation where our roots cannot grasp the soil very well, perhaps weaken by our carelessness and lack of respect to history and knowledge. So, we search for a deeper connection to our heritage, which become this vague and consistent search for identification for approval. But sometimes we fail to realise the multi-dimensional aspects our time offered, where it also gives us a unique prospect to re-define our identity. In a way, it is to relate to our heritage in a fresh way that we can use our existing knowledge to revamp what our ancestors and history have left us, and learn to balance and recreate and hopefully re-educate ourselves on ways of seeing, living and feeling”.

A close-up view of Wang’s installation | A Thing Like You And Me | Zi Yi Wang | STIRworld
A close-up view of Zi Yi Wang’s installation Image: Courtesy of Olympia Art and Zi Yi Wang

The exhibition comprised a series of installations, each of which was a reflection of Wang’s own introspection and observations having moved from China to America. She discusses the materials used to construct the installation, which were largely sourced from waste around her. To my writer ears, this is a refreshing approach in an otherwise highly material industry largely lackadaisical about environmental responsibility. She says, “There are found objects and objects discarded from personal use. I am interested in composing the accidental, time specific ‘natural’ objects, with the mass produced ‘artificial’ but ‘personal’ objects. I think both of these elements fall upon us that mimics our ‘consuming' process. Also, as if it's a breathing process, inhaling and exhaling”. 

Wang addresses multiple global issues through personal story | A Thing Like You And Me | Zi Yi Wang | STIRworld
Wang addresses multiple global issues through a personal story Image: Courtesy of Olympia Art and Zi Yi Wang

Wang continues, “Specifically, during this exhibition making process, while my studio was next to an industrial recycling facility, I was picking up lots of loose parts walking around exploring. Some of the material I have accumulated from past projects, especially some from school. I have lost majority of my work from school due to a pipe breakage in the studio. Leftovers from the flood, mostly only garbages, I have re-interpreted and composed elements into the current install. Most of these objects are ‘wild’, raw, and ready designed. Cigarette box cutouts, vinyl tablecloth, a red-notebook connotation, Chinese-restaurant menu excerpts, candy packaging threads, the projection box… In the blanket, I embedded concrete to weigh down the bottom of the blanket organ body. Then using red latex, transparent and grey tape to bind layers through the body to contain and form shapes, while weaving it with wax thread and wires to shrink and hold the body. The foundation of the blanket was a piece of mind map writing I illustrated with textile markers on vinyl.”

The perception of plastic in my practice is this containment, and I hope its transparent form of chaos, provides some clarity if not an answer. And maybe there isn’t an answer, but a question should suffice. – Zi Yi Wang
A detail of the installation | A Thing Like You And Me | Zi Wang | STIRworld
A detail of the installation Image: Courtesy of Olympia Art and the artist

The installation at Olympia allowed for the body of work to be read as a whole landscape or a single organism rather than a collection of artworks. This also stems from Wang’s relationship to the works - one of self-portraiture. This reflective approach allows for the viewer to stand in the midst of the art itself, immersing oneself in the artist’s internal universe. Wang says, each of these pieces in the installation environment can be regarded as an individual object or subject, or as organs, body parts…or exterior elements. They can also be viewed collectively as a process, acting in their own functional ways. Projection box as the eyes…the brain. Blanket as the body…the environment. In the composition of the installation, there was a diagonal line where a corner reflection tension is offered to engage, meanwhile, the pictorial plane on the floor presented with textile, also tried to engage the audience in exchanging their planes of point of views and sensual dimension”. 

Wang’s use of repurposed materials shows the artist’s sensitivity to her natural environment | A Thing Like You And Me | Zi Yi Wang | STIRworld
Wang’s use of repurposed materials shows the artist’s sensitivity to her natural environment Image: Courtesy of Olympia Art and Zi Yi Wang

She concludes saying, “In this plastic landscape, there is a process of digestion, and an attempt to preserve and rejection to contamination. The perception of plastic in my practice is this containment, and I hope its transparent form of chaos, provides some clarity if not an answer. And maybe there isn’t an answer, but a question should suffice”.

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