Ernie Wang
Play Area
10 November–22 December, 2023
Gut feelings

by Rob Crosse

“When it comes to life expectancy, reducing the amount of added sugars you eat will help lead to a longer healthier life. Whilst a certain amount is needed for your body to produce energy, a permanent abundance can be deadly. So what is going on in my head when I crave that kirsch plunder or apple streusel slice? Dopamine is a chemical released by neurons in the brain that signals a positive experience. It’s a type of reward system that reinforces patterns of behaviour. When frequently stimulated, connections in the brain learn to adapt leading to a level of tolerance that can only be satisfied through increased repetition. Inhibitory neurons positioned toward the front of the brain are responsible for controlling this behaviour and are crucial when making decisions.

I arrive at Ernie’s studio feeling weak because I’ve rushed across town by bike and my blood sugar levels feel low. Much to my delight, I’m immediately offered a chocolate ice cream. The combination of sugary sweetness and frozen sensations in my mouth are revitalising. My eyes are drawn to an array of printed references stuck to the studio walls. Computer game rollercoaster layouts, characters from animations and historical Chinese paintings are indiscriminatingly assembled in a row. Taking time to explore the clues on offer in Ernie’s work, enriches the experience in negotiating the complex layers at play.

Witnessing the evolution of sculptures in Ernie’s studio is a joy to behold and I have followed the development of his work closely since we met, around 4 years ago. He outlines plans for the exhibition and the mountain of tasks yet to be completed. Split
in two, the cavernous sculptures Polly Pocket (2) (2023) and Polly Pocket (3) (2023) contain an intricate display of both familiar and unfamiliar objects. A repetition of forms suggest an attempt to remember, like trying to recollect a dream from a fragmented memory. Encased within a large rock like surface the interior spaces contain a hive of activity, a proud showcase of overstimulation, reflecting an economy built on an endless pursuit for our attention.

Sugar travelling through my veins generates a nervous energy and I’m finding it hard to focus. A momentary high offered by a sudden rush of sugar must always be outweighed by the inevitable crash that’s soon to follow. The precarious slides and half formed ladders in Ernie’s sculptures offer little respite and the potential dangers conveyed in the selection of weapons is not masked by their colourful exterior, just as the tantalising sweetness of sugar cannot erase the violent history inherent in its industrialisation and exploitation of labour.

Toy manufacturer Mattel’s ‘Polly Pocket’, consisting of miniature compact domestic worlds with figurines, can be folded and easily transported. Whilst curved handle
like shapes positioned around Ernie’s sculptures hint at the possibility of easy transportation, their sheer size and weight suggests otherwise. Freedom to move from place to place or across nation states is a privilege not afforded to everyone. Building a miniature world where all elements are controllable is a chance to reassess an imbalance, making connections visible that were previously unimaginable.

A printed freeze frame from Disney’s 2023 live action remake of the Little Mermaid featuring Halle Bailey is positioned prominently on the wall. Ernie is dismayed I
haven’t seen it yet and plays an online clip. ‘Wandering free, wish I could be, part of that woooooooorrrrrrllllld’. I wait patiently until the song finishes and let the words linger. Like a parent packing their children’s lunch box with an assortment of tasty treats or a meticulously assembled bento box, the worlds of Ernie’s sculptures are dense with meaning. He describes the process of making as a method for avoiding conscious decisions. Instead, the work becomes an area of subconscious play, as if the sculptures themselves compel their own making. But where does that feeling come from?

Cells in the gut transmit signals directly to the brain through the release of serotonin. Studies show this information is transferred almost instantly,triggering emotional shifts. Sensors and transmitters throughout the body create a system of sensory abundance. But the tubes and pipes entering and exiting the sculptures in the exhibition Play Area form their own internalised logic. Poking and prodding, these animated forms test the limitations of the fortified towers containing them. Shapes coil around or are held into place in either a loving embrace or a suffocating strangulation. Sharp edges are softened but yet still penetrate the shiny surfaces producing ruptures that appear to ooze.

The rush of sugar in my body is beginning to fade so we leave for a nearby noodle restaurant. After ordering we hurry inside to avoid the imminent rain, scrambling to find a free table. From the pulsating LED lighting display to blasts of steam rising from the kitchen stove, the shift from outdoors to indoors is dramatic. An influx of customers all wanting shelter from the elements is causing chaos to the staff’s ordering system. Stirring chilli paste into my pink noodle soup the spindly strands become entangled with bits of vegetables floating on the broth’s surface. I slurp down a mouthful, underestimating the spicy pepper’s intensity. The heat is almost unbearable as the noodles slide down my oesophagus causing a burning sensation and pain receptors on my tongue signal to my brain I’m overheating. Tears form in my eyes and mucus falls uncontrollably out of my nostrils. I begin to sweat but soldier on regardless, deriving pleasure from the pain inflicted inside my body.

Combined inside my gut the food is broken down via bacteria and digestive juices so that nutrients can be absorbed and circulated to different parts of the body. Muscles lining the digestive system contract and relax, shifting the mixture forward through a repetitive action. When a movement is repeated over time it becomes engrained in
the brain’s memory allowing it to perform actions with little to no conscious effort. The decisions at play in the work of Ernie aren’t weighted by expectation, rejoicing instead in an excavation into the unknown. Sometimes, it’s better to trust your gut.”

Ernie Wang
Polly Pocket 2 (Left), 2023
glazed ceramics
73 x 39 x 23 cm
Ernie Wang
Polly Pocket 3 (Right), 2023
glazed ceramics
62 x 42 x 25 cm
Ernie Wang
Castle 1 (Mineral garden), 2023
glazed ceramics
62 x 32 x 34 cm
Ernie Wang
Castle 2 (Poppers bottle), 2023
glazed ceramics
60 x 40 x 50 cm
Ernie Wang
Castle 3 (Zoo habitat), 2023
glazed ceramics
52 x 42 x 40 cm
Ernie Wang
Untitled (Shower head), 2023
152 x 80 x 51 cm