“If someone asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I would answer, ‘I use all my time and energy to perfect useless, but very complicated objects … I’m completely uninterested in anything that is useful or functional.’ ”

b. 1958, Tianjin. Lives and works in Beijing

Many of Wang Zhiyuan’s early works were collections of wall-mounted silhouettes that could be viewed either as individual items grouped together, or a single sculpture broken into fragments. Magic Box (2001), for example, presents a variety of common objects as toys erupting from a partly open box on the floor. Some of these works contained underpants, whose ambiguous meanings soon commandeered the artist’s creative attention. Starting with flat pink briefs in low bas-relief, he employed the motif more and more boldly, until by 2008 he was making giant underpants carved like antique bronze (Unearthed Artefact, 2007–08) or decked with neon signs with musical accompaniment (Object of Desire, 2008).  More recently, he has turned to even less “beautiful” themes: rubbish both physical and verbal. Thrown to the Wind (2010) is an 11-metre-high tornado of plastic inspired by the avalanches of rubbish that deface Beijing and the countryside around it. For Wang Zhiyuan, the things we discard or reject are always worth a second look—and may be lovelier than we thought, or even uglier. Close to the Warm (2013) takes this idea in a more abstract direction, commenting on the decay of language into verbal sludge. The installation consists of a single hanging light bulb and thousands of stickers printed with words and slogans, which cluster around the light like flies. “All these words are dying clichés,” he explains, adding that words in China have been politicised so relentlessly and for so long that their meanings have been corrupted or lost. His placement of the paper word-flies in relation to the light reflects this: “The good and the bad, and the black and the white are often mixed up and sometimes even reversed.”

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