Ballon Rouge is proud to present Pei-Hsuan Wang’s Gratitude Is A Colored Vessel from September 7 - November 11, 2023. The title is a direct translation of her grandmother’s married name in Chinese, 謝彩盆. It is a love letter.
Wang, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States in her late teens, has been exploring her identity as an East Asian woman growing up inundated and influenced by multiple ideologies and cultures since she began her career as an artist. Whether it be incorporating her half-Asian, half-White niece Iris as a muse and a metaphor, or drawing inspiration from her maternal grandmother's fruit farm in Taiwan, Wang has been parsing her identity vis-a-vis her matrilineal heritage. Woven throughout this is her use of myths and folklore from China and East Asia, and her invested knowledge in history, both real and fantastical as well as personal. In her works, her family—specifically its women—become mythic and symbolic.
Two Sisters (2023) is a stained glass piece. In it Wang uses imagery from a 17th century edition of “Guideways Through Mountains and Seas” (100-400 BCE), which is a compilation of descriptions of fantastic beings residing in various geological settings in ancient China. It was meant to be a sort of guidebook and index for people traveling or navigating physically and spiritually in the featured lands—a different kind of survival strategy for a distant day and age. Both the text and its illustrations throughout the centuries are sources of inspiration for Wang. In one story from “Guideways Through Mountains and Seas” the Xiang River Goddesses are said to be the two daughters of the supreme god Di. The two sisters roamed the depths of the Yangtze River in China, generating winds and rain and provoking unpredictable weather across the fertile lands of the Yangtze tributaries. Wang’s contemporary interpretation is a tribute to her sister who migrated to the U.S., the first in her family, and on her own at the age of sixteen. Her sister, the role model, the fearless guidepost for how to be in a new land for their family.
Then there are three new sculptural works in the exhibition all made during a residency this summer at the European Ceramic Workcentre in the Netherlands. These works are inspired in part by Tang Dynasty (618 to 906 A.D) stories and aesthetics; more precisely, a style of glazing particular to that time-period, Sancai ‘三彩.’ Up until that point in China and East Asia ceramics were predominantly glazed in a singular color. In the Tang Dynastic period, ochres, ambers, greens, blues, purples, and whites would appear together in varying combinations. Made from technology introduced from the West during Silk Road trade, the style is also known as tri-color glaze. The luscious surfaces of Sancai guided Wang’s research in glaze formulation and application, evoking that period in a contemporary way. Besides delving into the materiality and the process of Sancai, what interested Wang was also Sancai’s role in the construction of Chinese pride. As always, every detail and reference in Wang’s work is thought-through and beyond intentional. The intermingling of cultures, of ancient and contemporary, of fantasy and reality, and of family and history is totemic within Wang’s oeuvre.
Most of the objects found in this style were from burial sites of people of high importance, typically men. Shapeshifting mythological creatures, animals, and humans were the tomb relics buried as a kind of eternal funerary procession and form of protection for the dead. In her recent “My Sarcophagus” series, which was conceived in the early days of the pandemic, Wang began to deliberate on death and fragility, and, like two sides of a coin, on life and lived experiences. The pieces resemble funerary vessels—a holder and protector—imagined to contain ourselves and our loved ones' meaning and life source. Animal presences, seen in her other works, are also present in those pieces. The comparatively larger scale sculptures in this exhibition expand on this idea; where the “My Sarcophagus” series felt like singular stand-alone works, these sculptures feel very much like parts of a whole. They feel as if from an imagined altar dedicated to a pantheon of grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters. A sanctuary for the women in her family.
At the entrance to burial sites would have been magical guardians, or “Earth Spirits.” Two or four hybrid human/fantastical creatures, often with flames or wings behind them, were symbolic protectors flanking tomb entrances. They were and are akin to guardian statues and paintings in temples or home altars. Traditionally there is a final ritual when creating these spiritual presences—to 'anoint' or 'mark' the eyes—so to formally conclude the artmaking process and to finally 'invite' the spirit to inhabit the statue or the painting. Here, Wang shows us one statue, one guardian: Ahma Holding Up the Sky With One Hand (2023). ‘Ahma’ means ‘grandma’ in Taiwanese. The lotus flower at the feet of the figure is a symbol of divine feminine, purity, nobility. Wang’s final touch of the glazing process on this statue was to paint its eyes in mother-of-pearl luster.
Wang’s works have always been influenced by the idea of shapeshifting as a metaphor for her own ways of being in and navigating the world. And, shapeshifting is a theme prevalent in the ancient folklore and artistic output of the region. The myth of “Nuwa Mending the Sky,” an origin story set in ancient China, is another major influence on Wang’s practice generally. It is said that at the beginning of time, the goddess Nuwa created humanity by molding peoples, one by one, out of yellow clay. The goddess, thought to have a serpent body with a woman’s head, was also a mender. When the sky collapsed during a war between the gods, wreaking havoc upon earth, Nuwa, out of sympathy for her earthly peoples, patched the broken sky with molten five-colored stones, and held up the heavens with the legs of a giant tortoise as pillars. Ahma Holding Up the Sky With One Hand marks and invokes her grandmother as both protector and creator, a guardian for the family, all while equivocating her within this momentous mythological story and world. Behind the sculpture is an intricate drawing, another foundational part of Wang’s practice. This drawing, Mother and Lychee Tree (2023), is a tribute to her grandmother and mother.
Huddled Mass (Tree of Aunties) (2023) is the largest work in the exhibition, life-sized. This piece is partly inspired by Kathe Kollwitz’s bronze sculpture “Tower of Mothers” (1937/38), where a group of mothers are depicted determinedly circling around and protecting their children. Wang’s sculpture is both a nod to that, and an homage to all the women in her family with references to motifs and emblematic visuals from East Asian sites such as temples and altars. The work also references, again, the important influence of the goddess Nuwa, that creator of humanity out of clay, on Wang’s practice. In Wang’s Huddled Mass (Tree of Aunties), you can see Nuwa’s serpent-like presence—the goddess both becomes and is, protects and heals, the women in Wang’s family. Creatures peek out, protrude their tongues (a way to ward off evil), peonies engulf (a symbol of prosperity), and clawed feet ground the sculpture as if all one solid entity. The women’s faces are a mixture of the members in her own family. It is like a shapeshifting “family tree.”
Mother As Griffon Carrying Our Family Name On Her Back (2023) likewise invokes the powers of shapeshifting. The griffon is a figure mostly associated with Western mythology, and would not necessarily have been named in East Asia. Wang makes it her own, inventing a new iconography. Her imagining of a griffon does not have wings nor the feet and head of an eagle or lion. Instead it has the hooves of a deer (an animal considered benevolent in Chinese symbolism) and a bird-of-prey face. Griffon’s symbolize wisdom and power. The Chinese character for Wang '王' literally means 'king.' One can also see this character on the foreheads of many beasts in relics and statues throughout history, as a mark to ward off evil. Wang’s Mother/Griffon sculpture is a new kind of mythological being, made for her mother, who, now the matriarch, carries its burdens with a family name that is not her own.
Pei-Hsuan Wang (b. 1987, Taiwan) has exhibited work at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Hong-Gah Museum, Taipei, and the National Gallery of Indonesia, among others. Recent solo exhibitions include Ghost Eat Mud at Kunsthal Gent, Ghent (2022), I've Left My Body to Occupy Others at Good Weather, Chicago (2020), For Iris at Gallery 456, New York (2020), and You Are My Sunshine at Taipei Contemporary Art Center (2019). She had a solo booth with Ballon Rouge at Art Brussels 2023 and this is her first solo exhibition with the gallery. Wang lives and works in Ghent, Belgium.