Wang Jianwei's artwork Time Temple is inspired by quantum physics

Artist's pieces reflect theories of "potential of time"

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 6:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 January, 2015, 6:15am

Art and science often make uneasy bedfellows, but that's not the case for Chinese artist Wang Jianwei. His works, which are conceptual and highly theoretical, have their foundations in theoretical physics, specifically the ideas of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of the scientists who established the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Wang seeks to directly express some of the concepts of theoretical physics in his art.

His Time Temple, a composite work comprising paintings, sculptures, a live performance and a film, is showing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where Wang is the first artist to benefit from an ongoing programme by the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation to fully fund new Chinese contemporary art for the museum.

Sichuan-born Wang began his artistic career as a painter, studying at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) in Hangzhou in the mid-1980s. Encountering Western conceptual art and the works of Western philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre at the Academy, he started making video installations and later documentary films.

Emphasising his belief that an artist should not be limited by one artistic practice, Wang's Guggenheim show is conceived as a single work that exists in four media. Two paintings hang on the walls of the gallery. The larger is divided into four panels and depicts a group of people seated around a table, being hit with what may be a representation of beams of light. A second painting, in yellow and black, is a kind of cellular structure housed in a rigid architectural form.

A line of abstract wooden sculptures in jagged or cylindrical shapes guides the visitor through the gallery, and a film, a theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka's 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, about a man who turns into a giant insect, screens in a theatre above. The final element, which takes place in the museum's giant rotunda, is a work of performance art which has chosen speakers riffing on set topics such as ancient Gnostic religions.

The exhibition has a deep theoretical foundation and the title gets straight to the point - like a scientist, Wang is motivated by precision and clarity, and is no fan of obfuscation. The form of the show is meant to represent a temple - although this is intended in a non-religious sense - and the content relates to a theory of time.

"The temple should be approached from a universal point of view rather than a specific one," a bespectacled Wang says in an interview in the Guggenheim on New York's Upper East Side. "In China, when we go to a temple, we do not go there because the Buddha lives there but because the action of worshipping the Buddha has to take place at that site," he explains.

"The temple in the exhibition is a site for us to feel time. It is not a pure spatial concept, it gives you a fixed point to think about time."

"Wang's temple is intended to be a place of gathering," adds Thomas Berghuis, the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation curator of Chinese art. "It is not a temple in the Western sense, which is used to contemplate the afterlife, or a resurrection in the future. It is about present time. It's a place in this gallery space where people gather and link to the film and the performance in the rotunda, and contemplate contemporary form through the exhibition's iteration of time."

Definitions of time in theoretical physics are, of course, very different to our everyday perception of it, as those familiar with Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time will be aware. Wang's notions of time stem from Bohr's ideas that, at the quantum level, items can hold contradictory properties - they have the potential to be both what they are and the opposite of what they are at the same time.

Wang applies this idea of "potential" to time, meaning that any given moment can have an infinite number of pasts, presents, and futures. This is in step with contemporary ideas in theoretical physics which claim that everything that is going to happen, and everything that could possibly happen, has already occurred.

The idea has given rise to theories about the existence of an infinite number of parallel worlds which contain every possible version of existence - theories which are hotly debated, but are still part of mainstream physics.

"I was fascinated by Bohr's theory of wave/particle duality," Wang says, noting how the scientist discovered that, at the quantum level, an electron could be both a wave and a particle, something which is contradictory to the Newtonian physics that governs the world of our everyday existence.

"That's when I became heavily influenced by scientific theory," he adds.

"For Time Temple, I am reaching for something I call potential time. Potential time is about an object which has the potential of being in a certain state, or a different state, or remaining inactive. In any given time window, everything has the potential of being in several different states at once."

The temple is a site for us to feel time. It is not a pure spatial concept
Wang Jianwei

This is important, as the existence of multiple states frees us from the belief - and the resulting existential burden - that everything that we do is working towards a concrete end, Wang says: "We have tended to think that there is a final answer, a definite end, to everything we do. But if you think about time as potential time, different possibilities arise."

The artworks are made to encourage viewers to think about temporal concepts like these, curator Berghuis says. The works express the amount of time spent making them, and they are created so that they take time to view and look different depending on the angle of approach.

"The sculptural forms represent a duration of time and represent the artist working on the forms over time," says Berghuis. "Secondly, as a viewer, you move through this holistic entirety of sculptures, and find a pathway through what I think of as a kind of river. As you do so, you contemplate how these forms shift and change. So the viewing experience becomes one of movement through time."

The larger (258.8cm by 822cm) painting encourages a similar experience, says Berghuis: "There are two ways of looking at it. There's a single perspective view, in which you look at the story unfolding in the box frames. You can also move along the painting, and see it unfold through time, which I think the artist prefers. So the viewing experience becomes a time-based experience."

Wang, 56, didn't become interested in art until his early 20s. Prior to attending the academy in 1985, he spent the last two years of the Cultural Revolution (1975/76) being "re-educated" on a farm in the countryside. He was bored, so he learned to paint. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, he joined the People's Liberation Army to get away from the farm. He is considered to be one of the first Chinese conceptual artists. "Many people think that contemporary Chinese art is only representational," notes Berghuis. "By exhibiting his work in the museum, we are showing that is not so."