East collides with west By Francis Hodgson 2006

East collides with west

Francis Hodgson, The Financial Times


Albion is one of the new breed of giant self- confident contemporary art galleries that have spread around London in the last few years. The relocation of a Cork Street dealership, it is located in a building designed by Norman Foster on the Battersea bank of the Thames right opposite Cheyne Walk. The premises could easily be a small museum: it competes against the gigantism of such galleries as Gagosian or Hauser and Wirth.

In this ultra-fancy, high-tone gallery Michael Hue-Williams has been making a decent fist of selling international contemporary art of the flight just below the top. His artists don’t quite seem to slot into the Tate in the same way as the real heavy-hitters, but the gallery is arguably more interesting than your run-of-the-mill purveyor of art to the new gentry. You wouldn’t, after all, actually expect to be surprised at Gagosian, any more than you would at Harrods. That’s not what you go there for. At Albion you can still see things that you don’t know, and some of them will be very good indeed.

Its current show is of work by Wang Qingsong, one of the beneficiaries of the hungry way western art-fanciers are turning their eyes to China. Every other sector of western business is looking to China, and the art world is no exception. Wang is in fact now solidly an established artist, although he still plays the card of the outsider. In London he was one of the stars of the recent exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and will appear this autumn at the Hayward. He has also recently been asked (there’s status!) to design shop window displays for Selfridges. His prices in the present exhibition run high.

Wang works in large photographs of the kind that would have been familiar in Victorian London as “tableaux vivants”, which is to say elaborately posed and stage-directed arrangements of actor/models representing an allegorical scene. Indeed, one of the first impressions upon walking into a room of Wang’s pictures is of deep familiarity. I couldn’t quite place this until the arch, not to say camp, paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema came to mind. The same prissily not-very-rude nudes, the same mildly louche storylines, the same deeply superficial flirting with serious subject-matter. Wang Qingsong is as kitsch as Jeff Koons.

Wang was born in 1966. That means that he has lived and worked as an artist through upheavals of a kind that nobody has known in western Europe since the second world war. His way of making sense of it all is an art deeply anchored in words. His are pictures whose primary job is to transmit clear messages. Rooted in poster art, they often in fact make allusion to posters.

One of the pictures here is simply called “Competition” and shows a team of workers painstakingly covering an enormous wall in hand-drawn advertising posters in both Latin and Chinese characters. The idea is that these messages have so little elbow-room that they become unreadable as individual appeals to purchase and more like a Babel. But it’s well worth peering at these in some detail. In among the apparently random collisions of brands (Davidoff, Huggies, Durex) but positioned with more emphasis than most by hanging off a staircase proud of the wall is a sign that says “Art Basel”. Art Basel is the world’s biggest art fair. I can’t believe it’s a frequent poster on Chinese public walls, even though the Chinese art world is taking off. But it does give a clue about where Wang’s thoughts are tending.

The whole show is like this. While clearly addressing Chinese “big issues” ranging from censorship and repression to wild commercial laisser-faire and environmental damage, it addresses them in a language squarely aimed at western eyes. It’s a fancy modern version of Chinese export porcelain.

Wang quotes innumerable western paintings in the poses or the gestures of his sitters. A quick glance at “China Mansion” (2003), the huge centrepiece of this show, musters a Last Supper, a Rokeby Venus, a “Violon d’Ingres” by Man Ray, a Three Graces, an Olympia, even a comic recreation of Allen Jones’s “Table” . . .  There’s a mad lack of digestion in it all, as though hundreds of years of western culture were now in collision with hundreds of years of Chinese. And that, of course, is exactly what is happening in China, and exactly what Wang is addressing. He is sometimes funny, sometimes wry. The nude models paid to gyrate at the centre of a scrum of amateur photographers in “Fotofest” (2005) have been neatly turned into Matisse dancers. And the huge telephoto lenses pointing at them are all cardboard.

Perhaps it would be too much to expect a more orderly enquiry, but Wang produces no answers. Instead he asks us simply to see the whirlwind that is contemporary China. There’s something very cartoonish about this art, very overstated, and played for laughs. It consistently reminds me of imagery from an earlier time in photography, notably the massive moral tableaux “The Two Ways of Life” of Oscar Rejlander, which caused a scandal (nudity) in Manchester in 1857. Wang appears in many of his own pictures, often nude or near nude. Some might be reminded of Gilbert and George or Nan Goldin or of any one of dozens of contemporaries who figure in their own work. I find myself thinking only of the superbly camp self-obsession of Frederick Holland Day, who (among other things) made a habit around 1900 of photographing himself as the crucified Christ.

It is salutary to remember that photography, considered as a way of expressing oneself, is still very new in China. There is a splendid exuberance about Wang Qingsong. He misses as many targets as he hits, but it’s fun to watch him do it.

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