Q+Art: Artist Eleanor Wang Finds Meaning in Repetition and Muscle Memory
Remember how to cook a scrambled egg or ride a bike? Sure you do. Eleanor Wang is obsessed with these everyday physical sensations, which revolve around simple, repetitious acts. The London-based artist preoccupies herself with instinctive movements—flipping an omelet, braving a two-wheeler—that subconsciously propel us through life. In her ongoing body of work, stage, gesture, move, Wang explores the planned, practiced movements of performers who grope their way toward meaning through action.
Wang, who grew up traveling between London and China, regards her work as dualistic. “Language, music, art, and cultural exchange have always been important to me,” she writes in her artist statement, acknowledging that dissimilar cultures develop their own unique ways of moving. “I always catch myself analyzing movements, mannerisms, and routines,” she adds. “The role language plays within interpretation, and how dialect becomes a documentation of experiences, engages questions around how translation relates to gesture through material and context.”
Wang’s interest in action through language extends to other areas of her life. As a part-time translator, the painter spends her days sifting through the excruciating minutiae of meaning between languages. This attention to detail is something we see throughout stage, gesture, move, which wavers between representational figure work, and looser, more improvisational sketches. There’s a sense Wang is working quickly, laying down form and exaggerated stage movements with fast linework before the lights go out and the scene changes.
It’s these quick changes, however, that allow Wang to adapt. With each new sketch, the artist finds herself redrawing lines over and over again, attempting to describe the body as it moves. And with each new sketch, the act of capturing motion becomes easier to do without thinking. No one who’s flipped an egg 87 times will think very hard about the motor skills it takes to get an omelet. But Wang consciously cultivates her muscle memories, asking her brain and body to remember the small moments that slip quietly away.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Eleanor Wang discusses the upside to boredom, the link between feelings and physical sensation, and how to initiate a conversation with a work of art.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
Eleanor Wang: I think the idea of everydayness is a key informant to my work. Things that happen every day, but when highlighted become monumental. Feelings are a huge influence, especially when they can be so physical. A lot of the time I realize that the things I like reading are those that analyze or pick up on tiny details and expand them to fill a page. I guess I like detail and minute observations that others may not notice.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
EW: I have a whole list of people I really admire. I already mentioned Osama Alomar the writer, but also Denzil Forrester, Christine Sun Kim, Jana Euler, Paula Rego … the list goes on.
What are you trying to express with your art?
EW: I want to express a feeling of storytelling, because behind almost every work I make, there is a backstory that I am happy to share. I want the artwork to be experiential and to make people feel how I felt when the depicted moment first occurred. Something I always catch myself doing is analyzing behaviors, mannerisms, and routines. When I notice something funny, or something makes me feel a particular way, I make a mental note of them. Then that thing gets repeated or categorized through how I tell other people about it, and that’s how I process it.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
EW: Try limiting yourself sometimes, because then you'll find different paths to the one you would have initially taken. This was in relation to painting but I really feel it can be applied to life.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
EW: I have a variety of jobs, which come and go. Although they sometimes get in the way of me making work, they also remind me to be aware of real life things outside of my paintings. Translation work, scribing for companies, research—they are all everyday things that are actually so integral to wellbeing, communication, work, and life. I make sure to have some days at home to just get back to grips with things, and in some ways, to allow myself to get bored. I think it's really important to not feel like you have to be in the studio all the time, and to listen to your body when it speaks to you!
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
EW: I think that the artwork should try to engage with people in the same way the artist would if meeting someone for the first time. You don't have to give everything away, but you can try to get a conversation going, to find out more about each other. In a way you are testing the waters to gauge how generous to be with your information.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
EW: I'd definitely rather be a historically significant artist because I'd like to think that my work would not be driven by money but rather by feeling, content, and situation. I think it's unlikely that you'd be a historically significant artist and not feel some sense of this whilst still being alive.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?
EW: I'm still quite early on in my career so often feel I can't turn down opportunities yet. I know a lot of other people feel the same. I have noticed, though, that there are many more online platforms for selling work, and when approached by more and more of these, I have begun to turn them down in favor of smaller, one- or two-person run initiatives. A lot of these “smaller” opportunities are where I have felt more of a connection and lasting impact build. In my head it's a bit like choosing to go for a one-on-one coffee with someone, rather than attend a big gathering.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
EW: I'm working on a large painting for a movement director/dancer's studio. I love depicting movement in my paintings, whether it is a more literal image or within the method of making the work. I'm excited for this work to then be activated and reflected by more movement when it hangs in the space. I am also taking part in a large group exhibition in Beijing, China, later on this year. All the artists are of East Asian descent, and it will be my first time participating in a museum show.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
EW: I go on walks, swim when I can, and play the viola. For someone who lives in London, I somehow manage to find opportunities to swim in the sea quite often! I'm usually cycling around the city, so when I make a conscious decision to walk, it helps to slow things down a bit. Cooking really nice food also helps. All of these are a form of taking care of yourself, I think.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
EW: I dislike how competitive it is. I like sports and have played as part of a team before, but more and more I feel like I'm not interested in the competition aspect. It's really nice seeing people share the work of their peers and show that they admire those making work around them, not just the big names. I also don't like the idea that artists have to work with managers or dealers because "they aren't business minded." It feels like everything is thought of as a way of taking advantage of something: a situation, a person, an opportunity—rather than just living it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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