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A person stands in a darkened gallery space. In the background, there are display screens of moving image artworks.

Wang Tuo, winner of the Sigg Prize 2023, discusses his creative philosophy and his reasons for selecting The Northeast Tetralogy for exhibition.

‘The Northeast Tetralogy’

I chose The Northeast Tetralogy[1] for the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition because it is the most important work I’ve created since returning to China. In fact, this piece was the very reason for my return. At the time, I wanted to create something related to my hometown, which is why I went back to the place I’m most familiar with. This work has served as a sort of bridge—one that connects what I’ve done in the past with new avenues of thought for the future.

Three moving image artworks are played on seven screens in a darkened gallery space. Cushions are placed on the floor for viewers.

Wang Tuo's Northeast Tetralogy (2018–2021) at Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition. Photo: Dan Leung. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

For me, the key to creating art is to examine different issues over a prolonged period of time. When I started The Northeast Tetralogy, I had just a vague idea of wanting to do something related to my experiences and memories growing up. I wanted to convey the sense of dissonance I felt towards my surroundings while growing up in north-east China as well as the ineffable confrontations with reality I experienced while traveling to and from home when I later moved to Beijing and then America. Though the work was quite vague to begin with, it was clear in my mind that, conceptually, it would revolve around the environment I grew up in and the history of the 1948 siege of Changchun. Beyond that, I had no idea what the narrative would be for the entire project. It wasn’t until 2018, when the Zhang Koukou incident happened, that the story of Smoke and Fire took shape. In this sense, research, literature, and, most importantly, everyday encounters, can all become sources of inspiration for the creation of art.

A still image of a moving image artwork depicts a person in a white cheongsam sitting behind a bunch of lotus leaves.

Wang Tuo. Distorting Words (still), 2019. Three-channel 4K digital video (colour, sound). M+ Council for New Art Fund. Acquisition in progress. © Wang Tuo. Courtesy of the artist

I learned about Zhang Koukou’s execution while I was conducting field research in Harbin in July 2019. By that point I had already completed Smoke and Fire, the first chapter of The Northeast Tetralogy. Then it dawned on me that Guo Qinguang, a patriotic student who participated in the May Fourth Movement, died on precisely the same day 100 years ago. It’s difficult to describe the connection between these two men. To a certain extent, Zhang’s case testifies to the challenges China is facing on its path to modernisation. These developments are in direct conflict with the country’s deep-seated Confucian traditions and have resulted in so-called fractures of modernisation. As we trace the roots of this transformation, one of the most recent key events we come across is the May Fourth Movement. In this sense, Zhang’s death seems to represent the present, while Guo’s passing represents its closest historical origin.

Literature and Fiction

Literature and fiction go beyond what they conventionally are in my work. At times, literature becomes a means of telling fictional stories, and fiction can in turn intervene with reality. I tell a lot of stories in The Northeast Tetralogy, including folklore and ghost stories from the past. When citing these tales, I’ve made certain adaptations that widen their implications.

Monochrome still image from a moving artwork depicting two people sitting by a tea table, facing each other in a room. Clocks, a wooden door, wooden desk and chairs, and a flowering tree are visible. Subtitles in English and Chinese scripts read ‘Brother, I am actually a ghost now…’.

Wang Tuo. Smoke and Fire (still), 2018. Single-channel 4K digital video (colour, sound). M+ Council for New Art Fund. Acquisition in progress. © Wang Tuo. Courtesy of the artist

In Smoke and Fire, for example, I reference Ming dynasty writer Feng Menglong’s Chrysanthemum’s Tryst. Once, while taking the high-speed train back to Changchun, I saw a tagline that read, ‘The high-speed rail sets off at dawn and arrives at dusk, covering 2,000 km a night’. A very similar line appears in Chrysanthemum’s Tryst, which is a story about a man who takes his own life so he can turn into a ghost and walk a thousand miles overnight to keep a promise to meet his friend. If only ghosts are able to travel such great distances overnight, does that mean that the high-speed rail and its passengers are all ghosts? Not only have high-speed trains connected cities and villages, they’ve also transformed the geographical landscape and accelerated changes in people’s identities as well. Similarly, I see Chrysanthemum’s Tryst as a tale not just about a commitment but also about the transformation of one’s identity.

A still image from a moving image artwork depicts a rural view filled with green bushes.  A person in a white sleeveless top and shorts grabs someone from behind on a small path to the right. Another person wearing an orange shirt stands in front of them.

Wang Tuo. Smoke and Fire (still), 2018. Single-channel 4K digital video (colour, sound). M+ Council for New Art Fund. Acquisition in progress. © Wang Tuo. Courtesy of the artist

This aspect of the story resonates with my personal experience: while I possess a certain identity in Beijing, when I take the train back to the north-east, I take on other identities. In Smoke and Fire, Zhang Koukou is a migrant worker in the city. When he takes the train home, he becomes an avenger. This transformation of identity is enabled by speed, which symbolises the fissures of modernisation we are currently confronted with. The wheel of development has been turning at a breakneck pace, and a lot of problems and questions have been left unresolved as a result. The speed of the train precisely epitomises this urban development and change of identity.

What Is the North-east?

As someone who was born and raised in this region, I initially never thought of myself as being from the north-east nor did I think about how it differed from other places. It’s fair to say that the concept of the north-east didn’t even exist in my mind back then; to me, it was just a place everyone lives and grows up in.

But aside from being a geographical location, the north-east also has a historical dimension. We cannot overlook the region’s past and how it became what it is today. The region’s particularities, however, do not make it unique, since other places also possess their own particular traits and issues. Because I am from the north-east, I can see the region as an entry point to discuss the bewildering and complex reality that China is in.

Exploring Pan-shamanisation

I’ve always been interested in Manchu shamanism. I see it as a way of understanding the world and time, and I also view it as an avenue for communicating with other times and dimensions. I call this process ‘pan-shamanisation’—a fluid concept that has myriad manifestations in art.

A still image of a moving image artwork depicts two men in green army clothes approaching a frost-covered barbed wire fence in a snowy background.

Wang Tuo. Tungus (still), 2021. Single-channel 4K digital video (colour, sound). M+ Council for New Art Fund. Acquisition in progress. © Wang Tuo. Courtesy of the artist

In Tungus, the third chapter of The Northeast Tetralogy, I weave in the history of the 1948 Jeju uprising. This incident was considered highly sensitive and could not be openly discussed in South Korea prior to 2000. Despite the importance of shamanic traditions in Korea, suppression of this topic meant that many people were not allowed to perform the shamanic rituals to summon or pay tribute to the souls of the deceased. In the film, samul nori—a kind of percussion music performed by peasants to celebrate good harvests—stands in for the shamanic soul-summoning ritual. To me, this is an embodiment of pan-shamanisation: it’s not the ritual that matters, as that’s just the medium. It’s the people’s thoughts that really count.

A still from a moving image artwork depicts a man wearing reflective glasses and  pulling a rope in a decrepit building.

Wang Tuo. Tungus (still), 2021. Single-channel 4K digital video (colour, sound). M+ Council for New Art Fund. Acquisition in progress. © Wang Tuo. Courtesy of the artist

In my work, pan-shamanisation also represents desire and ideology, two driving forces that connect time and space. Take the elderly scholar in Tungus as an example: refusing to flee Changchun during the siege, he becomes caught between conflicting ideologies and falls into a hallucination in which he decides to commit suicide. This act brings him face to face with the spirit of Guo Qinguang, who took his own life in 1919. In this sense, pan-shamanisation becomes a way to harness past and future perspectives to solve the problems of the present.

Art and Reality

We project our thoughts onto what we create. When an idea takes hold of me, it fills my mind with various threads and layers that I’ll weave together when I produce a work. For example, there are two parallel narratives in my previous works Roleplay and The Interrogation. In The Northeast Tetralogy, there are five to six narrative layers. This shows how the ideas in my head have become more complex.

A still from a moving image artwork depicts the profile of a man and his reflection in a mirror, with his face illuminated by a beam of light.

Wang Tuo. Wailing Requiem (still), 2021. Two-channel 4K digital video (colour, sound). M+ Council for New Art Fund. Acquisition in progress. © Wang Tuo. Courtesy of the artist

I used to always wonder why art has to be simple when reality is so complicated. Of course, simple artworks can sometimes have the power to provide a sense of shock or freedom that feels like an answer. Still, I find this to be insufficient, since we are once again confronted with a tangled mess as soon as we turn away from the artwork and return to reality. That’s why I believe art is meant to replace reality. Art should be as complex as the world. Art can only help us understand reality when it is able to evoke the unresolvable and ineffable feelings one has when navigating the world. Each narrative layer becomes an independent space-time, and new narrative threads are created between these layers.

The Marathon Runner

Since being notified about winning the Sigg Prize, I’ve been pondering what this award means to me. What is the meaning of receiving an accolade, and what is its significance to me or to artists in general?

A person sits in a darkened gallery space. In the background, there is a display screen featuring a moving image artwork.

Wang Tuo with his work at Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition. Photo: Dan Leung. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

I feel very lucky, because the Sigg Prize is a great encouragement for me. Many artists often feel lost and unsure of the path they are on. We may even question if our work has any meaning at all. Receiving this recognition from others gives me a sense of security. At the same time, however, I know that this feeling will eventually pass.

Many friends have congratulated me since I’ve received the award. I’m also extremely happy about this accolade. Yet I also know I have to embark on a new task and a new journey right away. Creating art is like running a marathon with no finish line: some may run with companions, and some may run alone. Others may cheer you on along the way, but it’s not really possible for the runner to stop and listen to those sounds of encouragement. As you continue to run, the cheers will also start to fade away. Eventually, you’ll be alone once again on that endless path. With the award now behind me, I’m back to my relentless self-inquiry, wondering if I can discover more meaning through art.

—As told to Isabella Tam

This article is extracted from a conversation between Isabella Tam, Curator of Visual Art at M+, and Wang Tuo, winner of the Sigg Prize 2023.

Image at top: Wang Tuo with his work at Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition. Photo: Dan Leung. Courtesy of M+, Hong Kong

  1. 1.

    Comprising four films—Smoke and Fire, Distorting Words, Tungus, and Wailing RequiemThe Northeast Tetralogy narrates the fates of multiple protagonists across different time periods.

Wang Tuo
Wang Tuo

Wang Tuo (b. 1984, Jilin) is based in Beijing. Working with various mediums including moving image, painting, and performance, Wang interweaves historical archives, mythology, and fiction into speculative narratives that blur the boundaries between time and space, reality and imagination. His practice is a powerful examination of modern Chinese and East Asian history, often exposing the underlying forces within society and disentangling the collective unconsciousness and historical traumas.

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