Facing the past, facing the future by Christopher Phillips 2002

Facing the past, facing the future

Christopher Phillips


The year 1992 witnessed two historic events in China. Deng Xiaoping made his famous southern excursion to the Pearl River Delta, and proclaimed that "to get rich is glorious." And McDonald's opened its first hamburger restaurant in Beijing, signaling the arrival of the global commercial franchises in China. In the 10 years since that time, China has been in the grips of full-blown modernization fever, and the public has swung between moods of euphoria and anxiety. For observant writers and artists, this has been a period full of rich possibilities. Among the visual artists who have sought to register in their work the extraordinary changes sweeping through Wang Qingsong has followed perhaps the most imaginative and unpredictable path.

Trained as a painter, he began making sophisticated digital composite photographs in 1996. His earliest works of this kind employ a strong central image that functions as a visual metaphor. Prisoner (1998) shows the artist as a clear-eyed convict who gazes calmly at the viewer from behind a row of bars made from tiny Coca-Cola cans. Thinker (1998) shows him seated on a giant cabbage leaf, blissfully meditating before a dazzling nighttime cityscape. His hands are clasped over his chest, but just above them we see the logo of McDonald's stamped into his flesh, as if by a branding iron. Such exaggerated images, which in their biting irony and visual wit recall the Dada photomontages of the early 20th century, serve as striking emblems of China's current social and cultural upheaval.

Wang Qingsong's earliest photographic works are notable for his use of digital manipulation to create such wildly fantastic scenes and characters. Since 2000, however, he has gradually moved in a more realistic direction. He now arranges larger, more complex groups of figures in the recognizable space of the studio or the landscape. At the same time, his use of digital montage has become less apparent, even though it has never disappeared entirely.

These traits are especially evident in his series "Another Battle," made in 2001. Wang Qingsong says that in conceiving this group of eight photographs, he was influenced by his memories of patriotic films that he saw as a child. These films portrayed the struggle of PLA soldiers to defeat the Japanese invaders and defend China. Wang Qingsong remembers how much he was affected by the scenes of heroic self-sacrifice in these films. He also recalls a text that he read in high school, by the popular writer Wei Wei, who praised such heroes as the "most beloved of men." Today, the artist says, modernization in China has created rise to a situation that can be compared to a new war, one that pits ancient Chinese civilization against modern Western commercial culture. It is not difficult to imagine the names of the battles of this war: the Battle of Starbucks, the Battle of Pizza Hut, the Battle of McDonald's.

The images in "Another Battle" are no longer as classically composed as Wang Qingsong's earlier Finding Fun or Night Revels of Lao Li. Photographed in the hills of Hebei province outside Beijing, this series is like a collection of film stills from an action movie. We quickly see that on this battlefield, traditional military banners have been replaced by the towering logo of Mcdonald's. The fighting on the hillside against the forces of the Golden Arches is fierce and bloody, but the outcome is painfully obvious. In Another Battle (No. 7), we see the wounded commander (Wang Qingsong) surrounded by soldiers who have aimed their rifles directly at him. His situation is hopeless, and he will soon be in the McDonald's trash can that waits just behind him. Nevertheless, Wang Qingsong's commander can take comfort in the thought that through his futile, heroic gestures, he has become a "beloved man."

"After the turbulence of the past century," Wang Qingsong says, "the traditions and ancient cultures of China are gone. Mindless pride in our nation is now replaced by a mindless desire for Western consumption." What is urgently needed how, he believes, is "to awaken the true sense of our own dreams.

" Past, Present, Future (2001), a large-scale triptych that is one of Wang Qingsong's most ambitious works, grew out of his reflections on the historical position and destiny of the Chinese people. Through careful arrangements of the standing figures and the postures of the models, the three panels ingeniously mimic the kinds of monumental public sculpture that can still be seen in many Chinese cities.

Each of the panels refers to a different historical moment. Past, the right-hand panel, brings together 17 figures on a raised pedestal. In their mud-covered military uniforms, these men and women are far from glamorous. We see soldiers holding swords, rifles and pistols, and one man is blowing a bugle. Another man holds over his head a length of heavy chain that stands for the oppression they are all fighting to throw off. Wang Qingsong appears at the base of the monument as an observer, a soldier whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages (like the commander in "Another Battle"). Gazing upward at the figures, he holds a bouquet of flowers as if in tribute.

In Present, the left-hand panel, the muddy soldiers have been replaced by a procession of 17 gleaming, silver-covered workers. Instead of weapons they carry industrial tools, and many wear protective goggles over their eyes. They are being urged along not by a work unit leader with a megaphone. The artist appears again outside the group, looking up at the monumental figures, but this time he is portrayed as a young civilian in a sporty white cap who is accompanied by a well-fed pet dog.

In the central panel, Future, the figures are all radiant and golden. Carrying flowers and baskets overflowing with fruits, they all look directly out at the viewer. In this image, Wang Qingsong has taken his place amid the others, holding up a pair of cymbals as if to announce the dawn of a golden age. But this shining future is not completely certain: one man holds a rifle, as if awaiting future battles. And all the faces are somber and vigilant, not relaxed and joyous. Are they really convinced that a golden age lies ahead? An era like the present, Wang Qingsong says, has thrown into doubt all the ideals and the heroes of the Chinese past. Past, Present, Future poses an important but unanswerable question: what kind of future is going to emerge from the shared past and collective experience of the Chinese people?

Christopher Phillips is curator at the International Center of Photography, New York, and a contributing editor of Art in America magazine. This article is printed for the catalogue of one-man show for Wang Qingsong, Foundacio Oriente, September-October 2002.

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