Interview with Contemporary Photographer Wang Qingsong 2001

Interview with Contemporary Photographer Wang Qingsong


Interviewer: Graduate students of Photography Institute
Time: August 8, 2001
Location: Wang Qingsong's studio
Q: Interviewers A: Wang Qingsong


Q: Hello! Mr. Wang. It is our great honor to interview you. Here in your studio we can see most of your art works hanging on the wall. I know you graduated from Sichuan Fine Arts Academy. How are you engaged in creating photographs?

A: Yes. I painted a lot in the past and participated in some group shows at home and abroad. After 1996, I started to work with photography. Now I am not painting any more.

Q: Many readers like your works a lot. Do you know what intrigues them the most?

A: Most of my photographs are about human beings. Because my photos are closely related to social relationships which select colorful and contradictory stories, most people find them very interesting and thoughtful.

Q: What is the original impulse that activates your creation?

A: People changed their mind and concept at the end of 1980s. Suddenly we had a lot of new ideas. I graduated in 1991. By then I was quite old compared with my classmates. However, my works tended to be in line with "new generation". Artists like Liu Xiaodong paid more attention to unimportant figures around him and stopped painting great masters. People had a sense of intense boredom though it was not boredom in its usual sense. Anyhow we all felt consciousness of responsibility though it was not grandiose any more. We were still responsible for friends and ourselves.
I started to paint works termed by art critics as the school of "gaudy art". What impacted me and society the most was the talk Mr. Deng Xiaoping gave in his visit to South China in 1992. After that, the commercial tendency became more rampant. Each cultural elite would like to confront with this adverse tendency instead of being cynical. I painted a series of oil works with figures wrapped up in plastic. These works expressed all psychological situations when people felt troubled which were difficult to get rid of. I gradually found the harm that commerce plays on culture. Maybe it is because Chinese people have been poor for so long time; each person has a pompous desire for money. In my works people can find my attitude towards "modernization". In addition, I become more and more interested in photographs even though not all ideas have to be expressed with photos.

Q: So it means what is important is idea and concept. Photography is only one kind of language which helps expressing your concepts. You select different media and forms to express different concepts.

A: That is right. Sometimes installation is considered. Sometimes realistic photography is requested. I don't think all people need to apply photographs. Actually, at the very beginning, I did not even think of photographs because I thought they were from the West. I only wanted to work on oil paintings and use the form of traditional Chinese yearly paper painting which had gaudy color and flat human descriptions ignoring perspectives. However, I found out oil paintings were also from the West. Almost all art forms came from the West. Why do I have to refuse the west? Since photographs give better description of my ideas, why to refuse it? Photos are much better in fitting for my intention. That is enough.

Q: Which work did you create first in the form of photograph?

A: My first photograph is Three Sisters which I made in a shopping plaza at the end of 1996. It is very much like a Chinese New Year painting. I changed the girls' heads with my head through computer manipulation. At that time I had been thinking of the issues about nationality and modernization. Therefore many works were like New Year peasant paintings which are also shown in my later works.

Q: Besides Three Sisters, can you introduce to us some of your earlier works?

A: Another earlier work is Last Supper(1997) . I find it much easier to express my idea through photographs because images are true. Different from paintings, photos give people more realistic feelings while paintings are much more active since the artist has more options. More precisely, I find photographs are much more fit for me to express "pop culture" and my attitude towards "pop culture" .

Q: Do you think the truth of photography comes from scenes that we capture from real life?

A: Yes. I make my photographs into "a false theater" which everyone feels familiar and sees it somewhere. However paintings cannot express such direct information.

Q: What requirements do you ask for models?

A: First, I don't have requirements about how the models look like and how old they are. I am not interested in whether they are beautiful or handsome. Half of the models work in the Central Academy of Fine Arts. As regards props, costume in particular, I buy from street peddlers at very cheap ones.

Q: We find that you use your own image as the direct narrator in your works, for example, your earlier works such as Thinker (1998), Requesting Buddha (1999), Another Battle series (2001) . In New Women (2000) , Can I cooperate with you? (2000) and Finding Fun (2000 ) , we see some female images. Could you tell us why you don't use male models when inviting models?

A: At the beginning I thought it more convenient to use my own image since I had to consider the right to use portraits of other people. I didn't want to have much trouble. The reason why I only invite female models is because it will be too difficult to mix men and women. In my works, the make-up for models is very important. They are dressed up with kitschy dresses. I often pay them at a much higher price than that on the market. In my works I want to express that the society is looking at me while I am looking at the society. If I am not involved, such effect cannot be achieved and it will be impossible to highlight "my" participation.

Q: The truth of lens is considered the most essential of photography. Once it is applied to describe a false scene, a dramatic tension shall be created. Is this difference your idea to increase a much more powerful impact on concepts?

A: There are some factors. When you see my pictures, you find them existing somewhere in reality. However such scenes cannot be found exactly in real life. In fact, I am parodying through imitating. Since I am imitating, the scenes in the photos are not really true facts.

Q: In your works we see firstly some shadows from Chinese culture from the perspective of your forms. For example, in Thinker (1998) , Can I cooperate with you? (2000) and your other works, why do you imitate intentionally the form?

A: This is not a simple imitation. What is most important for me is representativeness no matter it is the idol image in Buddhism or a Chinese painting that people know much about. These pictures are very typical. In these typical paintings, I apply new substance onto the old ones.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: What I imitate is very familiar to most of us. I choose the paintings or the postures that are very typical. Therefore it demands one have a thorough mastery over Chinese culture. Requesting Buddha (1999) represents Buddhism. Can I cooperate with you? (2000) represents diplomacy. Night Revel of Lao Li (2000) represents intellectuals. These ancient Chinese paintings have lost meanings for my creation. I only choose the painting that has some relations to the contemporary society. I don't wanna emulate simply since it is very boring.

Q: What do you think the most important for art creation, form or idea? As far as artistic form is concerned, do you think it is important to have such fresh feeling as the one who eats crab first?

A: It is impossible to have absolute creation in form in this contemporary society. Therefore the first person that eats crab does not exist at all. I hold that idea is more important than form since different times have different feelings and attitudes with regard to the same questions.

Q: Have you ever been confused by form? Are you faced with such difficulty as failing to find the most adequate manner to express your excellent ideas?

A: Of course I have such trouble. Once I lost clues as for what I should do next. However I was very eager to shoot some photos. There are also changes when photographing. Most of the time, the idea after finishing photographing is totally different from my original idea. New ideas come up when I photograph.

Q: Do you still have some regrets and how do you make up after your detailed preparation?

A: There are many regrets. I hope to achieve perfection. When I see unsatisfactory parts in my photographs, I often try to make up through computer manipulation.

Q: Do you like wars since there shows a taste for war in your work Another Battle series (2001) ?

A: This series are influenced by my experiences in childhood. I wanted to become a soldier when I was a middle school student. We were born in 1960s. We are different from those born in 1960s described in the novels by Wang Suo. Those guys are 3 to 5 years older than us and received different impact from the Cultural Revolution. They could sing revolutionary Peking opera while I could not. However many movies about war left a deep impression on me that include Little Solider Zhang Ga, Guerrilla on the Railway, Grenade War, and etc. In the contemporary society, certain specific situations that people experience in wars shall be reflected again. At present it seems that there exists a warring status expressed in the market economy. This is a war between economies.

Q: We have noticed that certain feelings reach climax in your latest series on battle. Does it refer to any changes you are making in your creation?

A: Exactly. I apply war to express the climax in feelings. It is like the most magnificent stroke in a painting. After that I shall change my thematic subjects and return to enthusiasm that was highly regarded before 1989. However such enthusiasm is totally different.

Q: Would you mind elaborating some more?

A: I will focus on ideal. Ideals change dramatically. I shall try to present enthusiasm in a low key.

Q: How can such thoughts be reflected in your following works?

A: My coming new works shall look more solemn. However I don't want them to be too serious. I want people feel more relaxed seeing my works. I am very conscious of the effect in exhibitions. In each exhibition I often stay far away and see people's reactions in secrecy. It is a lousy matter if none notices your work. It is very comforting if someone looks at your back once again even just for one second. When I shoot photos I want my photos direct and simple. I want to use three works to tell one same subject since it is difficult to express all problems with only one work. The first essential factor for visual art is aesthetics. As long as people look back again your work, it means your works deserves appreciation.

Q: Does your heart experience certain psychological strike or transformation at the era of a new millennium?

A: I think that we still need ideals in the new century. However we need to calm down and reflect upon the past. Have we fulfilled our past expectations? Do those ideals have certain meaning?

Q: Does increasing age impact your creation?

A: For sure the increasing age shall impact my creation. The first love for a 15 year-old man and 35 year old man is totally different.

Q: Almost all your works express a kind of confrontation against foreign commercial culture as far as thematic subject is concerned?

A: Yes. Up to Another Battle series, this idea comes to the most intensity. My new works are mostly about ideals. This ideal is not the past ideal. I am not praising main melody of patriotism. However ideal has a common feature.

Q: Which contemporary artist do you think influences you the most?

A: I think contemporary artists have few impact on me. However journalism photos during the Cultural Revolution influence me the most. Like many group photos, they are arranged to set up posture like the way it is photographed. 

Q: Do you think your works will be accepted extensively by domestic media?

A: Of course my works shall not be accepted extensively. The art circle is very small. It doesn't matter that much because art is not a savior. In the contemporary society, artists are not more important than entrepreneurs. In 1980s, if an artist appeared on TV, his status would be increased, such as Luo Zhongli who became well known once winning an award. However things are totally different now. There are not any news reports about artists. However some common guys can become pop stars, in particular in the fields of IT and computer industry. Almost all newspaper shall report his achievements because they are of commercial value. For example, the column New Vision of PHOTOCHINA is looking for more sales through publicizing contemporary artists. With this part of the reports, it will sell some more copies. However it is not simply for the sake of art because it takes a risk. Not only they want to seek favor from the public, but also they seek for commercial purpose.

Q: Do you pay attention to reaction of common populace on your works?

A: Common people like my works a lot. It seems they can understand my works. For example, Night Revel of Lao Li (2000). One person saw the work and told me, "your work is wonderful!" I asked, "why do you think so?" He said, "I understand it as soon as I see it." I asked, "How do you understand my work?" He said, "one old man sees people enjoying massage. He enters." I know of course that he reads the photo from the other end. However I think he is right too. He can understand some parts which are related to his education and experience even though he does not know much about the hero in the photo. Therefore it is easy to understand why he cannot see further. If he learns about the original meaning of Night Revel of Han Xizai, maybe the effect will be different. Anyway, you cannot tell each person your artistic attitude. It is not necessary first of all. Secondly it will allow for misinterpretation.

Q: What do you think of the difference between the concept of the artist and the understanding of recipients?

A: There must have different understandings. We should allow for different interpretations. For example, over the last two years some artists put corpses onto the stands in exhibitions. Many people could not accept it. I personally feel it goes too extreme. However some men feel it is all right. They think corpse is only one kind of material like an object under medical dissection. I think it such a good thing if different voices are mixed up. It will be too abnormal if all people disagree. But I do believe it is too much if this act is done out of sheer purpose of corpse and even worse when it may be developed up to refining human oil.

Q: Do you often invite photographers to shoot for your works?

A: At the beginning my wife took some of my earlier photos. I taught her how to take the pictures since I only had a camera easy to manipulate which did not have a function for self-photographing. At present I often rent a photo studio and invite photographers who are mostly my friends. Otherwise it will be very difficult to take those pictures. Before shooting, I often ask somebody to replace my position and stand where I will go so that I can see the effect from the lens. After adjustment, the photographer finishes the technical problem.

Q: Why do you limit the use of digital technology in your later works?

A: I want to change. Therefore I intentionally eliminate the use of digital technology as much as possible. I hope it will be more and more realistic. Moreover it is very tiring to produce digital photographs. Unless I need such technology, I would not use it.

Q: What status do you think photography belongs to in the category of art?

A: I feel that in the west the demarcation is not clear at all. Painters and photographers are called artists. They would not say that you are photography artists. They will never categorize artists in China into Chinese traditional painters, oil painters, printers, sculptors and etc. If you say that you are a printer, he would take you as a researcher in printmaking. Art as a profession is very mixed up. You can do this or that. Then how can the issue of profession of art be resolved? So it is much easier if they are called artists or visual artists.

Q: What do you think of conceptual photography?

A: I am not for this term of conceptual photography. I more like the term photographs. Conceptual photography sounds like reasonable. It will be like calling Chinese painting installation, conceptual oil painting, or Chinese painting of performance art. Therefore it is really ridiculous. I want to use photographs to categorize such art since it is more extensive. Anyhow it is only a medium with two dimensions no matter with what material one uses.

Q: Often artists who do conceptual art give people some feelings of currying favor. What do you think of this opinion?

A: It is normal to have such feelings. If you want to be avant-garde, you gonna be rebellious. If you are rebellious, you are gonna to give people feelings of currying favor. For example, if we take works in Van Gogh times to the age of Da Vinci, such works will be considered as currying flavor. However history shall evaluate all stuff. When Ma Liuming did performance, many people said that he was currying flavor by claptrap. However, I think it is all right. Once in Kwangju Biennale 2000, after he finished his performance, Ma Liuming slept for two hours sitting on a sofa. In addition, he snored which people mistook him as currying flavor. The reason, I think, that he wants to snore is at least because he did not wanna to be different from others. If five people all want to seek for favor, the noisiest guy will be the smartest one. It is very difficult to be different while to be successful through currying favor. People all stand at the same starting line. It is so difficult to be different. In 1993, when I came to Beijing, I saw paintings by Fang Lijun. I was amazed that he had such big paintings hanging on the wall. I was moved by his spirit that he continued creating at such a difficult time. He would never thought of selling a lot of money. In contrast, there are a lot of people who fail to create any new works even if they do not seek favor from others. I would rather appreciate those who curry favor because they are motivated to produce new stuff. This is a development course, which we cannot speak correctly or wrongly. However if we negate it completely, we must control a lot of new ideas and trials.

Q: One view holds that Chinese avant-garde art often is forced to play a role of weakened culture in the front of cultural imperialism represented by western art. What do you think of this view?

A: When Chinese artifacts enter the vision of westerners and get accepted, somebody thinks that Chinese artists are flattering the west. Many people have such views at the very beginning. Yes, it is correct that Chinese stuff is different from those in the west. Even if paintings by Chinese artists are the same stuff, Chinese will have a different perspective. On this part I believe Chinese people are at an advantage. Anyhow it is a good thing if Chinese artists' works are exhibited in an international exhibition together with western masters. When I attended Kwangju Biennale 2000, Kiefer's works were right beside my photographs. I don't think they are different from mine. If it is not Kiefer's works, other people might take a more detailed look at my works because they are more interesting.
I think this is a way to resolve the problem in the abnormal period of time. Finally good works will be produced. This course of development is very slow. If not, you just keep silent. On the stage of western art, Chinese avant-garde works are very limited since there is not a well disciplined art market. We are lack of good exhibition halls. So there is no way out. There are a lot of exhibitions funded by artists themselves. In this case, people have to find another way out. For example, artists take the perspective which westerners can accept. If the westerns like their works, they will invest. I don't see anything bad about it. Of course a lot of others will emulate if this way is successful. Out of 100 people who imitate, there must be one or two persons' works which are good enough. Once one is successful, he will establish his value and status. In your words, westerners shall listen to what you say. They feel your works are hot which are of course made in China. If many western museums have your "merchandise", they will safeguard your interests. At this time, your own language shall be expressed freely. Otherwise, there is no opportunity for you to speak up.
Nowadays many Chinese artists living in the west have a hard time since they have no way to resolve their problem. If they play Chinese card, somebody says that they are currying favor from the west. If they don't play Chinese card, can they play western card? It is like westerns are learning Chinese calligraphy. If Van Gogh is reborn, he can be the worst calligrapher at most. However as long as he insists on his way of writing calligraphy, he will become much better. Therefore this is a way under the condition there is not any better way out. However, after five or ten years, things will change for the better. People who fail to get favor from the west will drop out. Chinese people will become much mature. I am sure it will take a long time. I am not holding back my idea.

Q: How do you like photography criticism or art criticism?

A: At present criticism is very limited. I have no clue about the situation in photography criticism. However in the art field, criticism is pretty general. Some exhibitions were realized by independent curators such as Mr. Li Xianting. Since art exhibitions are commercialized, it needs a lot of money to sponsor an exhibition that includes printing catalogue. In the past there were not any catalogues. A lot of people came to see the show and remembered the works by heart. Sometimes art magazines might publicize the exhibitions, with only tiny photos printed. The artists would be very happy. When business gets involved, situation is totally different. Curators must go all out to find sponsors. However as educated men, curators mostly are very embarrassed. So sometimes artists would collect money from participants and organize a very simple invitation exhibition. In 1996, we held the first show in Beijing and made only an invitation on a piece of paper that included our names and the time of the exhibition. At that time we were very proud.

Q: How did you come to Beijing?

A: If I stayed at home, I think I would not insist on doing art since there would be no point of stimulation. I remember when I came to Beijing in 1992 to see a collection exhibition sponsored by Japanese Art Museum in China National Art Gallery, I saw a lot of visitors keeping notes. I was moved. After the exhibition, I wanted to buy some canvas. I learnt that a shop outside the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Wang Fu Jing Street sold such cloth. However I could not find the shop in the crossroads. So I asked an old man who repaired bicycles. "Grandpa, where is the Central Academy of Fine Arts?" He responded, "why are you looking for the Academy?" I told him that I wanted to buy some linen cloth. He told me "Linen is great." He continued to tell me that linen would not be transformed and had a sustainable performance. I was so amazed. People in Beijing were so well educated. Therefore I made up my mind to come to Beijing. Later on in 1994, I asked a friend and learnt that the old man was the model for decades of years in the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Everyday he listened to what the students said. Therefore he became a half expert.

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