Small Talk is the name of Ziping Wang’s exhibition of paintings. Small talk: speech which serves no purpose other than to prevent a social relation from disintegrating, to keep the dynamic between people aloft, to stave off silence. Consider the cadence and pacing of this kind of conversation: its jagged questions, depersonalised rhythms, its emphasis on the banal—what is the kinship between this and the canvases that we see? How might we listen into the objects and scenes before us?
The artist uses commercial product packaging as a motif. In this body of work, the garish design of Japanese confectionery boxes are placed in dialogue with sauce bottles and strawberries still connected to their stems, fine line drawings of insects, a decontextualised geisha on a woodblock print, a human heart made of clouds whose arteries appear more like industrial pipes than anything organic. Such juxtapositions continue. But this chorus of discontinuous images—born out of the artist’s childhood memories and her fascination with the detritus of modernity—sit alongside and atop of one another as if to announce some kind of unity or correlation. The artist considers these works a formal response to “the overstimulation of contemporary life”, though the affective thread which binds them together can be phrased more simply and honestly: one’s desire to consume. These paintings strike at the condition of capitalism as contemporary life. Consumption is our ultimate seduction.
If the object and purpose of these works is to observe and comment on the aesthetics of commodification, there is an attempt by the artist to engage with its annihilation as well: grey chequerboard grids signify void spaces, appearing in the form of thick brushstrokes and reminiscent of the marks made by an eraser on Photoshop. These chequerboard strokes inscribe a visual break onto the canvas, a kind of punctuation mark or caesura in the conversation the objects and scenes might otherwise be having. Sounds, then, begin to emerge from these voids, and we register a conversation. What quality does such an exchange take on? A cacophony of noise: white collar professionals striking at their keyboards, a machine cutting cards and forming boxes, the loud thud of a shipping container, the sigh of labourers, the general strike. Here, these chequered voids become a disruption, cleaving into the depicted commodities to let such sounds and histories come to the fore. Such voids operate to rupture the continuous stream of things that we are sold—a wound to capitalism or an opening for historical consciousness—allowing us to consider the labour behind the banal surfaces we encounter from the village to the metropolis. In other words, behind this barrage of images is a very real human cost: not that of the cynicism or jadedness experienced by their passive spectator, but that of working bodies breaking themselves to produce and maintain this tableaux of commercial experience, which is to say, the shared culture of consumer society. Very little small talk, only toil.
Such is the critical aberration that Wang’s paintings bring into our field of vision, that which Guy Debord theorised in The Society of the Spectacle (1967): “…we recognise our old enemy the commodity, which seems at first glance so trivial and obvious, yet which is actually so complex and full of metaphysical subtleties… the commodity has [turned] the whole planet into a single world market.” Still lives—like that of a crystal orb, loose paper, books, and an ink brush in Dream of Thread (2023)—are rendered in white and ultramarine against black backgrounds, a palette that recurs throughout these paintings to suggest the removal of uniqueness within the regime of capital; that is, everything takes on the ontology of a commodity. This idea is echoed in the artist’s predominantly greyscale works like Dream Under Blue Filter (2023), where the entire composition is in the process of losing all its lustre. In these works, Wang has frozen the moments at which a surface becomes flattened and objects are stripped of their distinctiveness. Colours do not bleed away, but are cleanly destroyed. The culture of the commodity stunts how we see and truncates how we think about and feel for the things presented to us. This problematic, perhaps, operates on a deeper level: that the erosion of a thing’s aura impedes the intellectual processes by which one can turn their attention to the material conditions that give way to something’s existence. The evaporation of this awareness is most fatal—for nothing is willed into being, everything is made.
And so we let these paintings talk. If being saturated by images of commercialisation is a strategy enacted by those ruling capitalists to steer us into becoming more superficial—that is, more unthinking and passive consumers, worshipping at the shrine of the commodity—then Wang’s works might index how we can begin to work against this; to understand the banal and hear its histories differently.
Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung (Australia/Hong Kong/Germany) is a writer and cultural worker particularly interested in anarchist and dissident publication practices, utopian thresholds in language, and literary expressions of the revolutionary consciousness. He is the founding editor of Decolonial Hacker, an online publication which—through a web-browser extension—‘hacks’ the websites of cultural institutions, corporations, and nation states with pieces of criticism informed by decolonial politics at large.
Cheung was named Asymmetry Curatorial Fellow at Whitechapel Gallery in 2023. In 2021, he won the International Award for Art Criticism administered by The International Association of Art Critics. His writing has been published in Third Text, Griffith Review, Running Dog, Art+Australia, and 4A Papers, among others.