LAM WONG 王藝林

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+ The World Is As Soft As A Volcano

+ Mind Transition

+ MA No.1 - Space

+ MA No.2 - Stillness

+ MA No.3 - Silence

+ Chaji

+ PAIN & PLEASURE

+ 21 ELEMENTS

+ Luminous Garden

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Visual Artist

Vancouver, BC, Canada
+1.604.417.4893

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Lam Wong: The World Is As Soft As A Volcano - A Moving Composition, Centre A, 2020

Stairs, 2019-20

Painting Sculpture
Oil on canvas mounted on cradled wood panel
Painting: 12 x 9 in each
Dimensions variable

Watch: Exhibition Tour (YouTube 2:43)



Variations on Grief


by Ryhs Edwards, 2020

 


One of the most surprising facets of grief is that it is surprising. There is an initial shock, of the fact of the loss; but then there is the aftershock, the shock of having been shocked. The aftershock arrives after an indeterminate amount of time, unannounced. It approaches us sideways, in a crabwalk, circumnavigating the peripheries of consciousness.

Grief attains potency in its surprise, because it upends routine.

In Lam Wong's the world is as soft as a volcano, art traced the peripheries of loss. Insofar as the arrangement of artworks in the exhibition constantly changed, it enacted the surprise of grief, as well as its solace.

Re-arrangement of objects is a common coping strategy. It offers an immediate sense of control over one's own environment, but it has a more subtle function: to reiterate surprise on one's own terms, a counter-strategy. In a sense, the sustained arrangement of items—in a room, in a composition—pre-empts the potential of grief.

By no means is Wong the first artist to conceive of an exhibition that continually reorganizes itself, or to think of curation as practice. But Wong's work is distinct in that it infuses such rearrangement with an emotive and spiritual element. Here, curation is not strictly an intellectual exercise: it is an intimate, personal endeavour.

The expressive aspect of Wong's practice is visible in many of his works, which stride between art-historical reference and personal anecdote. Wong employs the visual language of modernism to situate himself within a canonical history of painting, but there remains always the element of personal anecdote or self-situation, something unreconciled. His stylistic experimentation is not the disinterested play of a dilettante, as with so many zombie formalists—it is the record of one moment within a span of attention. Wong's subjects are a step removed from art history, not themselves the agents represented within its corpus of Great Images but instead its pedestrian bystanders, flesh and blood beings who may or may not care much for what they are looking at. They span a continuum, from Klimt-esque molecular structures, to visitors at the Louvre, to literal pedestrians, to the artist's mother. It is the demise of the latter, who tragically fell down a set of stairs, which forms the locus of the world is as soft as a volcano.

Wong's work is in part a meditation on the grief that emanates from this loss, but it is more than this. The exhibition launched at the moment the global COVID-19 pandemic began to accelerate; a few months later, the President of China signed into law new security measures that effectively severed Hong Kong's independence from the mainland. In one of those moments of fated irony, Wong's exhibition presaged not only the turmoil of the current moment, but the acute peculiarity with which it resonates with all of us; a moment in which, it seems, most every soul on Earth has become personally acquainted with arbitrary cruelty and loss, and in which we seek to re-arrange our environs to attain some sense of control amidst fugitive freedoms. Wong could not have personally foreseen these events, but the evolution of the exhibition was a direct reflection of the principles of spontaneity and flow that underlie much of his practice, as both a painter and a master of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony.

I want to speak of one work in particular: Stairs, a series of four painted panels arranged perpendicular to the wall. Though modest, it is a microcosm of many of the dynamics centered within Wong's practice: the challenges, variously, of cosmic harmony and of ego disattachment, and of reconciliation with tragedy and chaos.

As a sculpture, the Stairs share a resemblance to Donald Judd's infamous stacks of sequentially arranged boxes. But whereas Judd's work famously eschewed content in favour of a direct, experiential relationship with the viewer, Wong's Stairs are referential; the structure of the form echoes the tragedy of Wong's mother's demise. Yet, the structure of the form also prevents access to what it portrays, insofar as the images on the surface of each 'step' are not visible in a conventional sense. The structure forces the viewer to come close in order to encounter each painting more closely.

Whereas Judd's stacks are completed by the viewer's participation in their perception, the Stairs do not fully disclose themselves. They denote a specific, lived relationship, not a set of generalized terms that may be appreciated by anyone. In this sense it is a deeply personal piece. But it uses the language of Minimalism to convey that catastrophe in neutral, universalistic terms. In other words, it is an impersonal representation of a profoundly sad moment..

Perhaps the Stairs are a series of paintings about the impossibility of using painting to represent an event. Painting becomes furniture instead, or a theatrical prop—a means of telling a story through mime rather than mimesis. In this way they say more than they could as paintings. Yet, if the paintings were not present, the Stairs would only be a minimalist exercise, devoid entirely of affect. It is the painterly aspect which annotates the form with its affect, and as such the paintings are essential. Neither painting nor sculpture, each terms seeks the other in form and content. The painting aspires to represent, as does the sculpture, but neither can do it alone. The result is a construct that opens up mundane objecthood and inflects it with an emotion, albeit indirectly.

In this tension lies the crux of attachment and loss. Grief arises spontaneously, within mundane life and without logic. As a subjective experience, it cannot be meaningfully parsed in ordinary language, only alluded to. Wong's Stairs are an inversion of the terms of Minimalism, which evacuate objects of any emotive or ideational content—here, Wong creates space to contemplate tragedy through the impersonal, insisting upon the presence of the subjective, the embodied, and the historically circumscript within the otherwise impersonal coterie of forms and objects that comprise our world. This process honours what has been lost, while providing a common language through which we may know the suffering of another.

 

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