Michael Zheng at Mission 17

by Scott Oliver

“The Taoist sage Chuang Tzu once dreamed he had turned into a butterfly. When he awoke, he couldn’t help but wonder whether it was he, who had dreamed of becoming a butterfly, or the butterfly, who had dreamed of becoming Chuang Tzu.”

And so I was introduced, by way of an email announcement, to As The Butterfly Said To Chuang Tzu, Michael Zheng’s exhibition at Mission 17. To be clear the story about Chuang Tzu is not the literal subject matter of Zheng’s artwork but a philosophical departure point (a frame of reference) for inquiry into the nature of human perception. All of this, I gathered, before ever stepping foot in the gallery.

I only mention it because with As The Butterfly Said… Zheng has articulated his interest in how experiences (particularly those of viewing art) are framed. For “Big I,” the show’s only titled piece, Zheng cut a long, vertical rectangle into the gallery’s wall and pulled the freed chunk of sheet rock a half inch into the space. The resulting shadow line and raw gypsum edge delineate the boundary between 2 and 3 dimensions, between wall and art or painting and sculpture, yet we are always aware that what we are looking at is essentially the wall. In this way Zheng explores the limits of the gallery as a context for art and continually asks how one’s experience of art is shaped by it’s framing. This inquiry extends both to physical frames (architecture) and mental ones (our expectations and assumptions). It is the space between these—the “gap” suggested by Duchamp—where Zheng’s work really lives and where the question of framing becomes most fertile—in the mind of the viewer.

Big I

Zheng’s spare visual sensibility and preoccupation with the phenomenological possibilities of the gallery space are well suited to creating openings for the viewer’s subjectivity. As The Butterfly Said… is almost pedagogical in this respect. Zheng uses a variety of strategies to engage and challenge his viewers, and to provide opportunities to enter the work. Take the seedling piece for instance (perhaps the show’s most accessible). At the far end of the gallery, near the windows, is a table with a watering can and three small, labeled pots, each with a seedling. A sign nearby instructs visitors to water the plants if the soil is dry. As they do they are to utter encouraging words to the plant labeled “encourage,” discouraging words to the plant labeled “discourage,” and nothing to the plant labeled “neutral.” It’s one’s own relationship to belief and empirical evidence that comes into play here. When I visited “neutral” had grown tallest and “encourage” was the runt.


One might move on, as I did, to ponder the set of old blinds hanging on the gallery’s south wall, or the incongruous plywood column, or be confused by the distorted space of the Mylar cylinders collected in a corner, or catch on the disembodied sound of a passing motorcycle. But all of these point back to the gallery itself, and so I began to notice details native to the space—how light entered the room, the placement of electrical outlets, repairs to the wood floor, inconsistencies in the trim work along the ceiling and so on—a heightened sense of awareness that lingered with me long after I left the building.

As The Butterfly Said To Chuang Tzu has been extended for one week to July 7th. More information can be found at the Mission 17 website http://www.mission17.org/

Posted June 27, 2006 08:46 PM (579 words)

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