Traces

Wu Chi-Tsung: Dust
Site Gallery, Sheffield, England
4 April - 31 May 2014

Taken out of cultural context, one might be tempted to read Dust, Wu Chi-Tsung’s most recent exhibition at the Site Gallery in Sheffield, solely from an international art world perspective. Both of the works included in the exhibition, Dust and Crystal City present viewers with a now all too familiar international art world ‘black box’ experience. In the case of Dust (which was produced by Wu during an earlier residency at the Site Gallery), a field of intensely bright light is projected onto a wall within an almost completely darkened space, capturing, through careful use of lenses, the colourful play of fine speckles of dust within the immediate atmosphere—an image reminiscent of mappings by the Hadron Collider. Art metaphorically meets science with infinitesimally small particles moving about in what first appears to be an entirely random way, but which, on further viewing, reveals an almost graphically linear chaotic order. Trace patterns emerge and disappear, picked out in a range of muted jewel-like colours. In spite of its evidently minimal technical means, Dust is a sublimely mesmeric, indeed magical work that opens up a transcendentally indeterminate vision of our otherwise unseen surroundings.

Crystal City gives rise to somewhat different feelings. This time the work is set in a dimly lit room containing an accumulation of transparent plastic packaging boxes of different shapes and sizes set out like a city planner’s architectural model. To the viewer’s right there is carefully placed order and to the left an increasingly ruinous disorganisation. Dividing the space between the viewer and the boxes is a light projector which moves continually back and forth along a dolly track, projecting shifting images of the crystalline outlines of the boxes onto the back wall of the gallery space. The resulting panorama propels the viewer into an immersive virtual space as though she or he were moving by car through an imagined (J.G.) Ballardian modernist-brutalist city. The aesthetic effect of this shifting projection is initially less magical than that of Dust. The moving architectonic shapes and superimposed patterns played out on the wall of the gallery space suggest a dystopian allegory that incites strong feelings of alienation and disorientation, and, as the projector moves from right to left, an inexorable shift from order to disorder. With prolonged viewing, not only is order restored, feelings of alienation and disorientation are also overwritten by a faintly suffusive state of pleasure.

It would, however, be short-sighted to read Wu’s work simply from this relatively detached internationalist point of view. It is also possible to detect in Wu’s work traces of specifically Taiwanese-Chinese cultural perspectives. In the case of Crystal City, there are discernible formal similarities between the work’s shifting graphic projection of architectural order and ruination, and Chinese Song Dynasty shan shui (literally ‘mountains and water’) ink and brush paintings on hand-held scrolls; which in some cases take the viewer, vista by seamlessly unfolding vista, from natural landscapes through to the ordered centre of an urban space and then back to natural landscapes.

Dust and Crystal City are also open to interpretation with reference to a range of concepts developed as part of the extended Chinese intellectual tradition. Dust and Crystal City present minimally graphic images that nevertheless reveal initially obscure visual patterns and/or evoke relays of changing sensation. With regard to both works, one is reminded not only of the traditional Chinese concept of ‘jingshen’ (spirit) but also the related term ‘jing qi’: the former referring to the notion of purest or quintessential (jing) inner force (shen) and the latter—which is to the fore in Daoist meditation texts—that which might be considered as an ‘essence’. The combination of the terms jing and shen is first found in the classic text, the Zhuangzi, where they are brought together to signify the workings of the human mind as an ‘essential spirit’—a usage still important to contemporary Chinese philosophy.1 As such the shifting patterns revealed by Dust and Crystal City may be interpreted as partial products and analogues of an essential human consciousness projected as part of a much larger cosmic spiritual order.

As Wu himself acknowledges, Dust and Crystal City also evoke meditative, trance-like states. Here, one is reminded of the Buddhist concept of Nirvana as a fundamental negation of human desiring that reveals true consciousness—the dissolution of human consciousness into that of a larger cosmic order. In this regard, the projection of ambient dust patterns as part of Dust might be seen as redolent of similar visual phenomena found within Buddhist Temples in China, where the atmosphere is often heavily laden with ash from the burning of countless incense sticks—and by extension Buddhism’s conception of existence as one of shifting myriad dimensions and perspectives.

Of additional significance here is the concept of ziran (spontaneous). While Dust and Crystal City are carefully (pre)meditated works that reveal their technical means as part of the viewer’s experience, both, and in particular Dust, also give rise, through that careful (pre)meditation, to stochastic interaction between projection and image and between the viewer and the viewed (human desiring surrendered to an absence of control). In the context of Daoist thought, human spontaneity, as exercised through wu wei (non-action), is crucial to an accordance with the Dao, or essential way of nature. As stated in the Chinese classic, the Daodejing (or Laozi), ‘[t]he way does not go against spontaneity … [h]eaven and earth trust what is so of itself; they neither act nor make’ … [t]he myriad things manage themselves by themselves; thus they are not benevolent. The benevolent person must make, establish, promote and change things’ [spontaneity is] ‘what is so of itself … not making and not positively acting’.2 The technology used by Wu may therefore be viewed as an interstitial instrument in the spontaneous re-creation of an essential non-desiring spirit. This is, however, only a partial reading.

Wu Chi-Tsung, Dust, 2014. Installation view, Site Gallery, Sheffield.

Wu Chi-Tsung, Dust, 2014. Installation view, Site Gallery, Sheffield.

Wu Chi-Tsung, Crystal City, 2014. Installation view, Site Gallery, Sheffield. Images courtesy the artist.

notes: 

1. Zhang Dainan (ed.), Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002, pp.170-178.
2. Ibid. p.166.