A PARADISE UP IN THE AIR: UNCERTAINTY AND INFINITE POTENTIAL
By Dr. Glen R. Brown
High in the stratosphere – gliding above an expanse of billowy, white cloud cover that offers no hint of the precipitation darkening the skies and pelting the earth’s surface far below – there is a silence, a tranquility and even an implicit suspension of time that any frequent airline passenger knows well. The descent through the clouds that precedes the inevitable landing is, after the placid, dreamlike experience in the sphere above, a necessary palliative: a gradual transition that prepares the passenger for a return to reality, a reintegration into motion and time. In the liminal state between the perfect serenity of a cloudy realm topped by a void of blue and the agitation of a concrete-and-steel airport reverberating with sound and swarming with the activity of a disembarked human cargo, there is a fleeting opportunity for reflection on the distinctions between pure potential and the finite, determined nature of the real. This moment of reflection provides the inspiration for Xuhong Shang’s A Paradise Up in the Air.
In Shang’s installation the references to a literal passage through the clouds and a subsequent descent and landing are numerous and sequential. Stepping into the white curtained interior and encountering a rush of air and the lilting motion of kites – lightweight structures that suggest the freedom of flight and invoke the exhilaration that comes with defying the influence of gravity – the viewer implicitly rides a thermal column into the sky. Surrounded by an enclosure of white fabric, suggestive of a wall of clouds, the viewer is sequestered in an airy space detached from the earthly realm. To regain that realm, one need only pass between the fabric strips, descend from the clouds, and reconnect with the tangible. Upon doing so, one encounters the thin band of the horizon, painted in blue with an accentuation of clouds, and extending across the gallery walls with the precise contours of a landing strip. Punctuating this horizon, are seven framed photographs that capture the impersonal but undeniably physical space of an airport.
These photographs – which depict sights ranging from a runway set in a flat but verdant landscape to rows of vinyl seats in an empty waiting area adjoining a departure gate – are strangely devoid of any actual human presence. In this respect they may be naturalistic, even documentary, but at the same time are abstract and conducive to interpretation on a symbolic level. Here, where the representation is most specific and the passage of the viewer from the intangible space of the clouds to the concrete features of the airport completes what seems to be an obvious narrative of airline travel, Shang deliberately introduces ambiguity. This quality implies that the viewer ought not to be content with the simple, denotative value of the installation and its imagery. That a deeper, metaphorical reading is encouraged, has, in fact, already been indicated by the double entendre of Shang’s title. The phrase “a paradise up in the air,” after all, may characterize the tranquility of the space above the clouds, but can just as easily suggest the uncertainty of one’s goals.
Clearly reflective of this uncertainty is Momentary #69, a seven-and-a-half-foot horizontal oil-on-canvas composition that hangs just beyond the curtained space opposite the gallery’s entrance. Suggestive of a tawny early morning sky giving way in the mists to the olive hues of an indistinct landscape below, the painting is an embodiment of both the positive and negative aspects of uncertainlty. It suggests the great potential that swells before any moment of determination and the inevitable loss that occurs when a decision is actually made and all other possibilities become, as a consequence, null. Anticipation and melancholy mingle in the soft vibrations of this image of dawn, and the future seems to hang inchoate in the air like the gauzy yellowish haze that obscures the harder features of the land. Implicitly, any plan of action formed in this nebulous momentary state will determine the future, but not in ways that one can fully envision. Shang seems to suggest that achieving the particular paradise that one seeks is a bit like landing a plane in a heavy fog: a matter of experience, an ability to read signals and, in the end, a degree of luck..
This metaphor is a thread running through the installation as a whole. Within the interior curtained space – an envelope in the clouds – a effect of pure potential holds momentary sway. Beyond the curtains the outlines of objects are visible but indistinct, awaiting the viewer’s determining actions, literally, a parting of the curtains, to revel themselves in all their clarity and detail. Before one actually disturbs the curtains however, these objects might be anything. Their indistinctness adumbrates the infinite. Only when one commits to unveiling them do these objects lose the purity of their potential and become actual: specific outcomes of the actions one takes. A Paradise Up in the Air reflects on this loss as a necessary aspect of living in the world and of exercising the fundamental freedom of volition, but at the same time the installation seems wistfully to perpetuate that momentary state of infinite possibility that precedes any specific action.
It also offers a commentary on the manner in which seemingly insignificant actions can alter the future substantially from one possible outcome to another. The kites, rocking perpetually in an artificial breeze, are reminders of the ‘butterfly effect’: a phenomenon described in chaos theory wherein a small change in the initial conditions of system, such as the weather, can produce wide variations in the system’s long-term behavior (a phenomenon most memorably conveyed by the idea that the motion of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon jungle might set off a tornado in Texas). One might also recall Chuang Tzu’s Taoist dream of himself as a butterfly and reflect upon whether the uncertainty of potential is any less real than the concrete and finite consequences of action.
As with any art worthy of the name, Shang’s installation is less concerned with conveying answers than with providing occasion to consider important questions. The work aspires, in other words, not to declare a particular point of view but rather, for the benefit of the viewer, to leave its ultimate meaning open to interpretation, deliberately up in the air.
Dr. Glen R. Brown is a Professor of Art History at Kansas State University