Leaving the Menagerie: Wang Yefeng's ['penthaus]


Combining elements of installation and video art, Wang Yefeng’s ['penthaus], a continuation of the series "The Drifting Stages", considers the ambiguity between the home (personal/inner space) and the universe (exterior spaces). The spaces present in the two video works of ['penthaus], are both macroscopic and microscopic. The main video of the series opens with a vast and empty world. We see a pig floating above a darkened sea. The sky is blank, white, expansive, and limitless. Following the pig’s movements, a transition is made into a crowded apartment filled with an odd assortment of disorderly objects - statues, paintings, household objects. The two spaces present in the video could not be more different. The pig, our protagonist, slowly floats through these spaces.  It reveals little emotion, remaining ambivalent and uncertain of the space it traverses.

Yefeng describes the video series as a collection of photographs. As with photography, both the tangible and intangible is captured. The environments the pig roams through are both fleeting and comforting. A mysterious sea; a familial room of relics and knicknacks. In this way, the work is directly linked to Yefeng’s personal thoughts of moving to the United States, returning occasionally to his home country, and also existing on the internet. His inspiration for the work also stems from an old Chinese novel, A New Account of the Tales of the World. In the novel a drunk poet contemplates that the universe is his house and that his house is his pants. Still, in a fit of delirium, the drunkard cannot fit into his own pants. This serves as an allegory for the drunkard not understanding his own self, let alone the space he lives in. Yefeng takes this poem and applies to his recent experiences - one that involves living in different places, confronting the vast space of the internet, and the relentless pressure of a society driven by acquiring “things” and “stuff”. In this way the series speaks to both the interior of the mind and the exterior world that influences it.


The space the pig navigates is unsettling but much more subdued than Yefeng’s previous "The Drifting Stages" videos The objects in ['penthaus], while beautiful and decadent, have ominous attributes. Statues populate the room with half human and half petrified attributes. A larger gold statue also appears. Holding an iPhone it’s eyes pour out a strange black liquid. The statues allude to our obsession with objects, but it is more profound to not over analyze them and instead appreciate their mysteriousness and how they fit within the larger picture of the video. As the video continues time moves slowly. The pig wanders aimlessly attempting to find a place to call it’s home.

The scale at which Yefeng has created the pig, small and miniature, means the pig is a roaming a space that is larger than life. It is not impossible to navigate, but it is certainly daunting.  The ambivalence that the pig feels might actually be more appropriately described as a longing to find an appropriate place to exist. It eventually finds a pair of pants to live within, but, they are too large and to make matters worse the pig does not have back legs. Unable to fit within the pants the pig is left to wander. It’s relationship to the space is poignant as we know it is searching for something that is unable to find.


For Yefeng, as an artist embedded in digital culture, creating these types of works is also a response to his relationship to digital space. The internet in particular is a paradox. It is difficult to escape its allure, and at the same time we will never understand its depth. It is vast and open ended, yet portable. It is the closest thing we have to a representation of the universe. However, the internet is not a space entirely full of freedom like the black ocean in the beginning of the video. In this way the internet is in-between a universe and a home. The internet is a menagerie of things and places to visit, but it is increasingly filled with ads, restrictions, and a lack of anonymity. It is a crowded house, it is a cluttered computer desktop.

Different from the more narrative-highly detailed piece is a video triptych Yefeng made using oculus technology. The piece is more rapid, but it remains stagnant in the sense that it is cyclical and repetitive. The colors, vibrant and psychedelic, are intentionally disorienting or attention-seeking. They almost normalize the strange creature on both the left and right sides of the piece. This creature, perhaps is a representative of an inhabitant in our hyper-consumer internet-driven world. It is a mutation, something that would seem like a surrealist beast to painters of the 1920s, but is now, in our generation, normal or a welcomed representative of our identity. For us, in our present world, the video is not unsettling, if anything it is understandable or relatable. It is an animation stuck between erratic movement and repeated behavior. It’s unsure of what it is, as many elements are thrown together, sharp lines contrasting jagged shapes and so forth.


The videos of ['penthaus] are wistful. There is something both slightly sad and hopeful imbued in the series. This is a counterpoint to the shocking quality of the earlier works in the series. "The Stagnant Imageries", is slower in pace and it appears to take on a more methodical approach to the broader theme of "The Drifting Stages". These themes include boundaries, moving across borders, opposites, time and space, and how we construct our personal identities in a global digital world.

We easily become comfortable or rooted in our personal spaces and the things that we surround ourselves with. Ultimately, by getting wrapped up in our phones or work, we are introspective but at the cost of seeing the outside world, and escaping our comfort zones. On the other hand, leaving behind our homes can present both a sense of freedom and insecurity. The drunkard that Yefeng alludes to considers his home as the universe because it is all he knows. This is not entirely negative. The room can become a place for observation and appreciation, seeing it as a large wondrous space of new insights, but, it can also become a trap. The drunkard is likely not going to leave the space, especially if he can hardly even fit into his own pants. The poem, like Yefeng’s work, is about balancing two realities - the inner self and the world at large. Despite the pig being a profound symbol in many of Yefeng’s works, the video actually made me think more about hermit crabs. These tiny creatures abandon a part of themselves in search of something new. They effortlessly perform an action that we often fail to achieve. They are constantly moving and trying on new shells, but at the same time their home is of the utmost importance, taking it with them whenever they go.