Criticism- Wang Fujui and the Fascination of Mysterious Sounds
Text ╱Alistair Noble
Wang Fujui and the Fascination of Mysterious Sounds
I first heard Taiwanese new media artist Wang Fujui in V-zone (1997), a track he contributed to the encyclopaedic CD set, An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music 1992-2008 (Sub Rosa). Built around a drone-like tone fed into a vast metallic reverb, juxtaposed against a subtle rhythmic pulse of glitch-sounds, the work references both 1990s Japanese minimalism and European post-industrial aesthetics. One third of the way into the piece, everything changes abruptly with a brief outburst of sounds that might be birds or children crying out in alarm, followed by a torrent of cascading water. Curiously, this dramatic interjection serves to refocus the listener’s attention on the dark and abstract material of the evolving drone, with its implied reverberant space framing the dancing glitches. At the very end, the source-tone of the drone stops and we hear the reverb fade out for several seconds, catching a significant glimpse of how the sound was put together as it dies away.
In this way, I came to listen to Wang’s work firstly in terms of music rather than as noise or sound-art. While this has to some extent coloured my appreciation of his work in general, there is certainly a strongly musical aspect to his creative aesthetic, even when the work is rather more abstract than we might traditionally expect music to be. In this sense, we can see that one of the contributions Wang has made is in systematically but genially stretching our aural imagination, allowing us to experience his remarkably coherent body of work as something distinctively musical yet not always music.
Wang Fujui grew up in Taipei listening to music, and later studying computer science. Although he worked as a programmer for a while, his early sound-art work was hardware-based and this fondness for physical controllers has influenced his performance style throughout his career. In 1993 he founded the now-legendary cassette and CD label Noise, which had a powerful influence on the experimental noise scene in Taiwan during the 1990s. After two years in the USA, Wang returned to Taiwan in 1997 and quickly became established as a key figure in sound-art performance and audio installation as part of the group of artists associated with ETAT Lab. Through his work with experimental new media he became involved with research and teaching at Taipei National University of Arts (TNUA), where he is now head of the Trans-Sonic Lab in the Center for Art and Technology. In recent years his work has become more widely recognized internationally with performances at major festivals (such as Transmediale in Berlin and Tonlagen in Dresden), exhibitions (Art-Basel Hong Kong, etc.), and in 2014 an extensive tour of China.
In Taiwan, all music seems to be political. Wang Fujui’s early work is often discussed in association with the Taiwanese noise outbreak of the mid-1990s, which is in turn commonly understood as part of the exuberant renaissance of art and music that followed the end of 38 years of martial law in 1987. Artistic production of the 1990s is broadly assumed, almost by default, to have been pro-democratic, but the actual political agendas of those early noise/sound experimenters are harder to reconstruct than popular mythology suggests. Some recent writers have gone so far as to argue that student noise artists were more often naughty rich kids than genuine radicals, and that noise is not so much subversion as a ‘surplus of culture’.
This is complicated further by the way some mainstream pop bands have also claimed that their origins in the 1990s confer a similarly democratic cultural capital. Yan Jun, a perceptive Beijing-based artist and critic, has suggested that the development of noise and sound arts in Taiwan is inextricably linked to the transition from martial law to capitalist democracy, and that this explains the trajectory of the movement from fringe underground art to packaged and labelled product. A similar argument might be made for bands like Mayday in the pop scene. What is clear is that Taiwanese artists of all kinds have often been working across minefields of unique and potentially dangerous political complexities. By cultivating an open-minded yet critical stance, observing and listening carefully, we may avoid simplified assumptions.
Earlier this year (2014) I experienced Sound Disc, one of Wang Fujui’s installation pieces, in the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts as part of the remarkable exhibition ‘ALTERing NATIVism: sound cultures in post-war Taiwan’. This work is visually quiet and minimalist in its lines, forms and colours—being a set of exposed computer hard-drives on the wall behind pieces of clear perspex (the controllers and whatever else is required to run the work presumably hidden behind the wall). The drives are active, doing something inscrutable, and their small motors and moving parts clicking busily are the sound source for the audio component of the work. Beautiful, fascinating, elegant and mysterious—this installation draws cleverly upon technology (hard-drives with moving parts seem happily retro) and invites the viewer/listener into its quiet orbit with an immediate pleasure, subtle and unanswerable.
In live performance, we discover a more theatrical side to Wang’s creative personality. He plays his economical desk of gear like a one-man rock band. There is a refined showmanship to his gestures, but also a concentrated involvement with the sound and the shape of the piece as it unfolds. He is the Jimi Hendrix of noise-art, only without the lighter fluid and matches. Yan Jun describes Wang’s live performance as ‘so beautiful and elegantly wild’. Wang, on the other hand, has been heard to speak of his own live performance works as ‘familiar but sometimes awkward’, which is perhaps another way of saying the same thing.
Damien Owen Trainor, in a very fine short film, has documented a performance that Wang gave at the White Fungus-curated ‘Depopulate 01’ in Taipei during 2012. This performance was another example of Wang’s characteristic opposition of tones (both pure and dirty) against pulses and beats. Here, one also perceives very clearly that there is something else going on, with interruptions (like the surprising cries and cascades in V-zone) that seem to blur the beats and tones into one another, sometimes cleanly, at other moments roughly. The base material of opposing forces serves as the frame for a space to be opened up in which a mysterious and volatile third substance arises as a result of Wang’s interventions. This, it seems to me, is where we hear the real voice of Wang Fujui, going beyond the planning, preparation, design and technology, and bringing some new thing into our living experience.
His performances are not always loud, however; not always so pulse-driven, and not always so visible. At Lacking Sound Festival in 2011, Wang performed an absorbingly slow, ambient, work (Inaudible Sphere) in total darkness. Here, instead of tones against pulse/beats, one heard noise against tones—the tones in this case are the ghosts of chords and notes; material drawn from what might once have been music set against shifting scans of radio white noise.
As an artist, Wang has sometimes spoken of an interest in extremes. We find this not only in his sound work, with the binary oppositions of tone/pulse, loud/quiet etc., but also in his cleanly designed visual and installation work, with a palette tending strongly to black and white (plus grey). It is the grey that I think is most crucial—even a work built of black and white materials will cast shadows in varied shades of grey, and this seems to me very important for appreciating Wang’s work in general. At first glance, or first hearing, we find often two base materials, but with deeper attention we start to hear the movement in the shadows. We might think of this in terms of Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the three-part dialectic, where one always finds not just this and that, but also the other thing.
Similarly, a binary political analysis of Wang’s work is unhelpful. His objectives were never merely rebellious—but they are hardly conservative either. To understand Wang’s art I think we have to listen a little more closely. The more of his work I come to know, the more I sense a core that is intimately didactic. Not, I hasten to add, in a pedantic sense of the word but rather in the experience of skilled communication, humanity and creativity that we have when in the presence of a master teacher. Some things cannot be taught in words.
Wang seeks to communicate through our experience of his work, and we meet him in the mysterious spaces between the beautiful and the elegant, between the familiar and the awkward. His artistic output is very diverse in terms of materials, processes and environments (perhaps also audiences) yet nevertheless maintains a powerful coherence in aesthetic and style. Wang Fujui has many ways of communicating with us but the message, from the 1990s to the present, has an unusual and impressive continuity.
 This anthology, curated by Hong Kong-based musician Dickson Dee, is essential listening for anyone seeking an introduction to the experimental electronic sound scene in the Chinese-speaking world. It also exemplifies the canonisation of a certain body of work produced since the 1990s, a trajectory of underground arts transforming into museum exhibits.
 In 2013, material related to the Noise label formed the core of an important retrospective of Wang’s early work at The Cube, a contemporary art gallery in Taipei. http://thecubespace.com/exhibitions/lurking-waves/fujui-wang.php
 Huang Ming-chuan’s extraordinary documentary film of the 1995 Taipei International Post-Industrial Arts Festival gives some insight into one notably mad x-rated noise adventure that took place during the lead-up to Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election. Huang Ming-chuan, 1995 Taipei International Post-Industrial Arts Festival [Documentary Film] (DVD, Formosa Filmedia Co).
 Huang Sun-quan, ‘If Noise Ever Was, It Was Far From Revolt’ in Leap: the international art magazine of contemporary China. (Issue 16, August 2012). http://leapleapleap.com/2012/09/if-noise-ever-was-it-was-far-from-revolt/
 Ron Hanson, ‘Art on the Beautiful Island’, Rhizome (April 2012). http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/apr/5/art-beautiful-island/
 Discussion of Taiwanese cinema is also characterised by such problems, see for example the difficulties with rationalising Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work as an auteur alongside his propaganda work for the KMT government. See Peng Hsiao-yen, ‘Auteurism and Taiwan New Cinema’ in Journal of Theater Studies (January 2012) 125-148.
 Quoted in Ibid.
 ‘LSF 46 Artist Talk’, Lacking Sound Festival (2011). http://youtu.be/1Th4_81BE4o
 Damien Owen Trainor, Wang Fujui at DEPOPULATE 01 Presented by White Fungus (2012). http://youtu.be/GqDObw9ZNYs
 Wang Fujui, Inaudible Sphere at Lacking Sound Festival 2011. http://youtu.be/h9xHtrEgRa8
 ‘LSF 46 Artist Talk’, Lacking Sound Festival (2011). http://youtu.be/1Th4_81BE4o
 For some discussion of this, see Stuart Elden, Understanding Henri Lefebvre (A & C Black, 2004) 36.