Danni Shen reviews the online exhibition “Wonderland” at EPOCH. The group exhibition, including the work of Ziyang Wu, brings together the work of ten Chinese artists living and working in the United States and observing the imposed stereotypes.
Wonderland: Surviving Horror and Monstrosity
By Danni Shen
Beyond two entry columns hovers the industrial skeleton of a castle, illuminated from below and set against a just-after-sunset sky dotted with stars. Turn around, and you’ll see a full moon looming above the stretch of distant mountains. Crickets chirp relentlessly, suggestive of warm weather, yet there’s something unsettling here that chills the atmosphere. These are the sprawling grounds of Wonderland, an unfinished and abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing, that was demolished several years ago—now resurrected in virtual space. Borrowing its title from this original site, Wonderland is an online group exhibition at EPOCH, an artist-run virtual experiment by Peter Wu+ that I find myself traversing in from the mobile interface. Opening during times of surging anti-Asian sentiment, racial tensions, and global pandemic, Wonderland brings together the work of ten Chinese diasporic artists based in the United States. Each, in varying degrees, further flips or rejects stereotypes and tokenization around what it means to be a Chinese American artist.
The starting point of Wonderland is a one-way into the midst of Ziyang Wu’s Scene 11 from Where Did Macy Go? (2020), the beds evoke those used by the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, the first makeshift unit for COVID-19 patients. The central grounds of Wonderland rest amid piles of rubble. The castle infrastructure is Peter Wu+’s main contribution to the exhibition, which also houses a majority of the other artists’ works. Above its arched entrance is a neon sign in cursive that buzzes between “annihilation” and “assimilation”. The difference between the two is subtle, a blip where one becomes the other: a warning disguised as a welcome sign.
Just beyond the castle entrance is Shangri-La (2005) by Patty Chang, a video floating inside of what appears to be a rock cavern containing a cloud-filled lake. On the platform up are three oil paintings by Dominique Fung, who exploits Western canonical styles to depict various real Chinese porcelains; each merges narratives, worlds, and even prosthetics through their own agency. The themes of both artists—the tourist town Shangri-La first mythologized in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933), and the porcelains— reveal the enduring assumptions that underlie processes of colonial aesthetic subjectification and objectification. The virtual context of the Wonderland ruins here, functions in a similar way. Images of the original Wonderland’s haunting, half-built, medieval architecture have long been circulated online, particularly by Western media as indicative of the Asian financial crisis, economic failure, and layers of orientalist fantasy.
One of the works occupying the next level is Ziyang Wu’s Where Did Macy Go? (2020), a CGI video screened in full, accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack, and follows the mysterious protagonist Macy. In a post-pandemic world, a new human community arises from “decollectivization,” in which in-person gatherings no longer take place and everything is accomplished from the “tele-republic of home.” Those who have immunity stay indoors and are initiated into this new community. Eventually, it is reported that Macy goes crazy and sets out to find his father’s farm. While repetitive news narratives speculate on his death, resurrection, and whereabouts, the video shows Macy eventually disappearing outside of a set of hospital doors, followed by footage of his father’s farm, manned by two guards and overgrown with flowers. Whether or not Macy is found remains unknown. The work suggests the limits of digital collectivity in times of increasing surveillance, media control, and social confusion. Though nostalgia for community farm living presents a counter to the sublime void of technology, Macy’s failure to return to life warns of an irreversible moment in which a virtual singularity annihilates the real.
This thread of contemplation on our digital reality continues to manifest in works by Christine Wang, whose paintings of memes challenge cynical online attitudes toward global crises disguised as humor, and by Catalina Ouyang: her video Last Laugh (2019) features a green-skinned, femme pug-human hybrid and a one-eyed, cyborg made up of stone reciting a split monologue between an anti-climax of “ahs.” By fusing human and animal, this work questions the divide between these taxonomies while recognizing animality and transhuman subjectivities. Borrowing the language of self-help, psychology, and personal memory, Ouyang resists the idea of humanization in her process of self-healing and chooses instead to become one with others.
Within the core structure of Wonderland, installations by Sydney Shen and Candice Lin make full use of the castle’s medieval underbelly. The light clanking of chains echoes throughout Shen’s rendered dungeon, in which three shame fiddles are displayed. In this set of works, the artist reimagines punitive devices used in European medieval times to publicly humiliate people for petty crimes. Each violin-shaped device has been split in half, inside of which is installed an exit-less maze equipped with marbles. With this added layer of the carnival game, Shen thinks on how the subjugated human body could move the marbles through the mazes, while both remain trapped: a horrifying cycle of no escape. It is interesting to think that these models have recently reemerged as toys for masochistic pleasure in contemporary culture. And indeed we live every day with the regime of discipline and punishment that began during the Dark Ages, by which Enlightenment rationale mechanized the body for work-labor and, eventually, global capitalism. With the reinvention of the shame fiddle, Shen’s work asks if abject horror and conceptual interrogation of the Dark Ages can provide ground to rethink the divide between body, mind, and soul that constitutes our very perception of being.
Candice Lin’s A Gathering of Fresh Lumps (2021) presents an uncanny installation of three carcasses—breathing, skinned, and diseased. According to historical records, Mongols were the first to wage biological warfare by catapulting human and animal corpses infected by plague at their enemies. Such stories have contributed to the racialization of contagion as Asiatic. These abstracted masses of flesh by Lin cast mismatched shadows on the walls that are actually silhouettes of 19th-century political cartoons created by white Americans to blame Chinese immigrants for the spread of diseases. While attacks on Asians continue in the U.S., fueled by racist rhetoric regarding the spread of the COVID-19 virus, these hybrid forms strike as particularly disturbing. They are not posthuman, but rather humans—as well as nonhumans—who have violently been othered. Lin’s uncanny work in particular thus contests the “human” as a colonial construct itself, one that has upheld the ontology of a pure, uncontaminated whiteness separate from the rest of the world. The soft breathing of each “fresh lump,” however, refuses a kind of horror trope that is vengeance reincarnate and reminds us that we continue to endure and transform: an apt conclusion to the show.
“Eventually, some clever artist is going to build a veritable cathedral to himself in 3D, the sort of space that would be the envy of the art world if it were a real building in Chelsea or Berlin…It will become normal to present virtual exhibitions that have no real-world analogues,” writer Franklin Einspruch has claimed in The Virtual Critic: A Thought Experiment (2020).1 Whether or not such prophecies of otherworldly online art shows becoming normalized will come true, EPOCH has never concerned itself with a return to normal, brick-and-mortar, business as usual. Since its first exhibition in mid-2020, Wu+ has been building the “veritable cathedral” not only for his own practice, but to include the works of others. In Wonderland, Candice Lin, Patty Chang, Catalina Ouyang, and Sydney Shen each conceptualized and built the rooms for their installations in collaboration with Wu+, whose abilities in 3-D modeling and printing, photogrammetry, animation, projection mapping, and machine learning ultimately make EPOCH’s generative spaces possible.
Wonderland lives up to its name as an imaginary realm full of marvel. Yet it eschews a total environment of beauty, excitement, and attraction by introducing the strange, uncanny, and repulsive. What Foucault termed “heterotopias”—those worlds within worlds that mirror both real and unreal spaces while creating their own virtual images—is manifest here as the amusement park. As for the fate of the real-world Wonderland, at one point it was eventually reclaimed by local farmers (who led the shutdown by contesting developer’s overcompensation for property) to grow their crops. In its commercial demise, life found its way again. Resurrected on EPOCH’s platform, the site once again becomes a space of cultural interest, repurposed for art and no longer empty. While haunting indeed infuses all of its second life, its habitation allows an opportunity to rethink the unthinkable. Despite horror and monstrosity, life survives here.
In the context of this exhibition, all of the works push the limitations of the body as an interface, beyond physicality and identity. The “human” is called into question in some works in particular, as a colonial construct against which “lesser humans,” as well as “nonhumans,” have continuously been categorized and measured. By making (virtual) space for strange humanisms that draw on historical difference, cosmology, technologies, and speculative fiction, Wonderland creates ruptures in which multiple world-buildings begin to take form.