The Venus De China by Barbara Polack 2004

The Venus De China

Barbara Polack, on June 6, 2004, THE NEW YORK TIMES


EARLY 30 years ago, a college professor tried to alter my jaded stance toward Richard Nixon by underscoring the importance of the former president's 1972 visit to China. "You like art, right?" I recall him saying. "Well, don't you understand, can't you see, that given its 3,000-year-old history, its unparalleled standards in painting and craftsmanship, and the sheer numbers of its population, by the end of this century, China will produce some of the world's greatest contemporary artists?" To which I replied, with all the open-mindedness of a typical American 18-year-old: "What? Are you crazy? They'll never catch up!"

Thirty years ago, Wang Qingsong seemed an unlikely candidate to fulfill my professor's prophecy. He was growing up in Hubei Province in central China and aspired to be a soldier in the Red Army, like many of his classmates. But fast-forward through three decades - the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, the economic liberalization of the 1990's - and now Mr. Wang, 38, arrives in New York as living proof that Chinese artists have indeed "caught up."

He is here to celebrate his current show at Salon 94 on East 94th Street, where his monumental photograph "Romantique" has already attracted the interest of museum directors, collectors and curators. His work is also prominently featured in "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China," opening jointly at the International Center of Photography and the Asia Society on Friday. Organized by Christopher Phillips of the Center of Photography and Wu Hung, the specialist in Chinese art history from the University of Chicago, the landmark exhibition includes more than 100 works by 45 artists, many of whom, like Mr. Wang, have seen their careers skyrocket in the last five years.

This is not the first time that Chinese contemporary art has grabbed the spotlight; a first wave of so-called "post-Mao" artists - Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen and Fang Lijun - met with immediate international success when their works were seen in the United States and Europe in the early 1990's. But this younger generation, inspired by digital cameras and video technology, could witness, record and participate in the vast changes in their culture during the last decade, as their country embraced McDonald's and Power Macs.

For them, globalization is not a theoretical proposition or a curatorial strategy but a strangely surrealistic reality found right at their own front doors. "This approach not only allows us to glimpse the complexity and richness of Chinese art traditions, it also gives us a surprising mirror view of some of our own Western obsessions," Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Wang has turned his own case of cultural whiplash into very large-scale photographs of dazzling beauty, present-day equivalents of history paintings packed with whimsical details and dramatic effects. "Romantique" (2003), measuring 4 feet by 21 feet, presents a garden of earthly delights - orange groves, lush green grass, cobalt-blue sky - filled with more than 50 live models, all Asian, re-enacting poses found in Western art history. On the far left are Michelangelo's Adam and Eve and the quartet from Manet's "D¨¦jeuner sur l'Herbe." In the center, Botticelli's Venus rises from her clamshell, surrounded by voluptuous bathers and lounging maidens reminiscent of paintings by Ingres, Vel¨¢squez, Matisse and Gauguin.

But off on her own at the far right, a nude woman sits in a rickshaw. She is a concoction not found in the Western canon, yet she stares directly at the audience with all the forcefulness of a modern-day Olympia. Her presence adds a cautionary note to this otherwise bucolic scene, a warning that the new China might not be simply a picturesque paradise ripe for exploitation by foreign investors or for total immersion in Western influences.

While the practice of staged photography is certainly a worldwide phenomenon, Mr. Wang is sensitive to knee-jerk comparisons of his photographs to better-known images by Western artists like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. In February, during a visit to New York in preparation for the show, Mr. Wang, whose work was first shown in New York at P.S. 1 in 2002, explained in an interview that staging a photograph is nothing new in China.

"In reality, when I was growing up, all the photographs in the newspapers were fake, or inspired by a false reality," he said, relying on his wife, Fang Chang, to translate. "So I am making photoworks, just the way those journalists reported the truth, but I want to make them more interesting, more humorous and more critical."

The fact that an artist working today in Beijing, where Mr. Wang lives and shows at the Courtyard Gallery, can speak of being critical and expressing his opinions demonstrates how much China has liberalized its approach to censorship. While the country is far from a democracy, freedom of expression has become increasingly "negotiable," Wu Hung said. "Since 2000, and the Shanghai and Guangzhou Biennials, things have changed," he said. "There is censorship, definitely, but now local officials see the practical side for the economic and tourist industries, and they want to present their cities as modern, intellectual centers."

Though Mr. Wang speaks and reads no English, and, like many of his generation, could not decipher foreign art magazines, books or Web sites after they became available in China, he demonstrates a savvy grasp of consumer culture. "There is a Chinese superstition that what you make, you will become, so I try to keep humor in my work, because my personality is already a bit bitter," he said. One of his early photographs - and he began working in photography only in 1996 - is "Thinker" (1998), in which he superimposed a McDonald's logo on his chest, as he sits cross-legged in a meditative pose. "Look Up! Look Up!" (2000) shows a small crowd of Chinese women pointing up to a luminous Coca-Cola bottle descending from the sky like an alien spacecraft. In both works, these icons of American mass-production were digitally inscribed on a realistic backdrop. But in his latest works, Mr. Wang has gone a step further, arranging huge numbers of characters in elaborate settings, created on a sound stage at Beijing Film Studio, where scenes for "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" were produced. To capture the entire view, he shoots a series of 8-by-10 negatives that are later combined in Photoshop. The outcome is as expansive as a literati scroll and, like that thousand-year-old tradition of Chinese painting, filled with figures embellished with symbolic meanings.

"Opening relations between China and the world is supposed to be a happy experience for both the Chinese and Westerners," Mr. Wang said, "but most of my artworks are examining the fast pace of this modernization, which is coming too quick for the Chinese people to analyze or digest."

Tradition is very important to Mr. Wang, who is sophisticated enough to have his own English-only Web site. Born in 1966, the first year of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Wang was the son of a soldier assigned to the oil fields in south central China, who was killed in an accident when his son was 15. To support himself, Mr. Wang also went to work in the oil fields for eight years, applying five times to the art academies before being accepted at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1991.

Through this combination of experiences - traditional techniques of Chinese paintings overlaid with a deep-seated iconoclasm toward all things "official" - Mr. Wang keeps his distance from dominant trends, even now as his travels in the United States and Europe present him with opportunities to acquaint himself with the latest currents in contemporary art.

"I visited museums and galleries in New York, but not many and not very often, because I wanted to minimize this impact on my art," he said, adding with a smile, "I was much more interested in how Flushing and Chinatown compared with China."

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