Dummy bird starts flying late by Liu Chunfeng 2007

Dummy bird starts flying late

A Talk Between Liu Chunfeng and Wang Qingsong


Liu Chunfeng: Where are you from? Where did you grow up?

Wang Qingsong: I'm not very sure myself. My ancestral home is Jiangsu but I was born in Daqing Oilfield. We spent two years at home in Jiangsu, and then another two years in Daqing Oilfield.? I then grew up in Jianghan Oilfield in Hubei and throughout primary and middle school things from the oil fields always surrounded me. Sometimes I'm not really sure which place I can truly call home.

Liu: Was it because of your family's work that you moved around so much?

Wang: Yes, my parents both worked in the oil fields so we were on the road a lot.

Liu: From your childhood memories, what is it that has left the deepest impression?

Wang: I think the deepest impression is maybe from those years I spent drilling oil wells.

Liu: You've drilled wells?

Wang: Yes.? When my father passed away, it was really tough for us.? My mother begged the foreman to bring me back from drilling the wells but he refused.? This had a huge influence upon me, I told my mother, "We won't ask for help from anyone ever again". I then asked firmly to be placed in the drilling team where my father had worked before me.

Liu: When did you start studying art?? Was your family involved with it?

Wang: No they weren't. My mother was illiterate and my father only finished primary school. I only really started studying art after finishing high school.? In 1981 I was studying at a college five minutes away from our home.? One day, I picked up a bit of paper from the ground with a picture of an old peasant tying up a handkerchief on his head.? I thought it was great fun and sketched a little at home.? That was when it first interested me.? It wasn't until 1997 that I found out this sketch had been one of Hou Yimin's.

Liu: That makes Hou Yimin the teacher who first inspired you.

Wang: Yes. But I think it was probably a copy done by a university student on a sheet of A4; it really did leave a mark on me; I think he'd imitated the original really well.? Perhaps both of them count as the ones who inspired me.

Liu: Did your family mind that you were studying painting?

Wang: My mother didn't try and control me back then, she just hoped I wouldn't lose my mind. My father's death had an enormous impact on our family.? She thought that even if she kept the kids at home every day, it still wouldn't help, she felt that if she didn't irritate us, things would be better.? But she certainly didn't believe in my painting.? When I would go abroad for exhibitions, she wouldn't believe me either.? So I took lots of those touristy style photos abroad to show her.? That way, just before she died, she was able to believe for the first time that I was starting to make a name for myself.

Liu: Many artists are quite composed, quite independent.? Did you start doing your own artwork right from when you started at university? When did you start to form your own ideas?

Wang: I hoped to be able to learn some techniques at university but after the first year I was already bored, I didn't really learn any new skills. ?The ideology at the time was awful, even worse than today. It was chaotic, teachers would always be leaving schools and never really lecturing. I always wanted to communicate with the teachers like friends would.? I never thought I'd go on to produce work myself.

Liu: When was the first time you used photography as a method for artistic creation? Did you experiment with any others before?

Wang: In 1996 I used photography to make some montages. At first I felt that photography was far from being art and didn't want to brand myself as a photographer.? It was only in 2000 that it became clear that what I was indeed using the medium of photography.? I chose photography because I wanted to express something very modern, I didn't want to use painting any longer, photography is just that bit closer to reality.

Liu: Are there any people or events in your life that have been important in your becoming an artist? Perhaps your mother?

Wang: I hope that my mother can see that there's still one child in the family that's making progress. My mother was called Sister Wang at work, she felt so pitiful.? I hope that her colleagues can see that her son is now doing very well for himself in Beijing.? Tomorrow I'm going back to our hometown to sweep the graves; I'm going to take my sons too. I'd like our neighbours to take a look, to my boys, to see that I'm fine, that my wife has a doctorate degree.? I think there are still many vain things in life...

Liu: Do you think that it's living that's most difficult, or are other things worse?

Wang:? It's definitely got to be living.? I never thought that I would be successful in art.? It was living that was difficult; having enough to eat was a big problem.? I remember one New Year; I really wanted to go to Lao Li's house.? I saw some oranges for sale at 15 yuan a box and thought about whether I should buy them or not.? I had 30 yuan or so on me but said, forget it, and I didn't go.? They told me there was loads to eat at Lao Li's that year, and lots of people went.? I would have really liked to go over there to hang out and chat but didn't have the opportunity at the time. I really was starving when I lived out in Songzhuang.? When spring came, the water pipes in the courtyard quickly thawed, suddenly I felt the year was warming up.? I wanted to leave here, go to the city, perhaps live in a small room; there was nowhere to meet people here. After I moved into the city, I got a whole new look at society.? Being locked up in your house in Songzhuang is hard to take; I didn't know what to do with myself all day.

Liu: It's really very closed off.

Wang: Yes, Songzhuang was too closed-off in those days.? I believe art needs to be open, even if it's just shopping, one can still feel some kind of emotion.? At the time I was pretty sure I needed to go into the city.

Liu: Since you've turned to photography, you've seen quite a lot of material success; do you enjoy this kind of lifestyle now?? Do you indulge in material goods?

Wang: It doesn't have that large an impact on me I think. Of course I can go to restaurants to eat now and don't think too much about production costs for my work anymore.? I just wish that my work rolls on like snowballs, that it's 1 plus 2 plus 3 etc. In the future it might roll into a really large piece, not necessarily a photograph, I could go on to do other things.? At the moment, I'm preparing to do some more interesting things; I think this is really important.? Money needed for working isn't a much of a worry, there have been some foundations that said they could support me but for the moment I'd like to stand on my own two feet.? That way I can feel more at peace with myself.? As soon as other people support you, you might end up feeling like you've failed, you might end up apologising to people.? My life is fairly simple; of course it would be great to be able to buy a house in the city.? The car is just your average Santana.? When I bought the car, the salesman said that it would be a good car for driving through construction sites.? I think they thought I was a labour contractor!

Liu: When did you sell your first work of art?

Wang: The first person to buy my work was Zhao Xu.? That day he invited me to dinner, spending 100 yuan.? He said: "I want to buy that painting of yours", I said, "OK, you can have it, for 100 yuan" He really did take it away that night, a two-metre high painting.? After finishing off the alcohol I was drunk, and walked away with the 100 yuan tucked into my pocket. Later people swore at him, "How could you do this? That's bullying isn't it?" The day after he maybe regretted what he'd done and returned the painting to me, saying he didn't want the money back, it was to support me.?
The first time I properly sold a piece of work was when I took part in the Taiwan Biennial in 1998.? I exhibited some work on velvet for the show.? It was the curator Fumio Nanjo who collected the piece. He wanted to buy it for himself and offered me US$1200 for it.? It was a big picture and I thought that was slightly cheap.? I asked if he could up the price a bit.? He said he'd buy 5 of them and I didn't know what to say.? I only had 6 or 7 pieces at the time, that I'd just finished and to sell them all off in one go... I offered to sell him just one, it was "Last Supper".? Back then I was selling photographs like paintings, I didn't know photos had numbered editions.? He thought it was pretty expensive but didn't explain to me why.? If he'd told me photos could make different edition numbers, I certainly wouldn't have minded selling them to him. So finally I came away with selling one piece of "Last Supper" at the price of US$2600.

Liu: Do you have any avid collectors of your work?

Wang: The earliest person to appreciate my work was the curator of the American International Centre of Photography, Christopher Phillips.? He's not a particularly rich man, but bought a small print of "Night Revels of Lao Li". Afterwards, he was to advise the International Centre of Photography to collect some of my work, including four of their most important trustees.? Phillips recognising my work had a huge influence on my later work.? There are now over ten international art museums that have collected my work.

Liu: When Chinese art museums establish contemporary collections, maybe there will be good opportunities.

Wang: Chinese art museums of course are not the same.? After all, they're state owned. I hope that some other Chinese art museums will gradually become more professional in their collection of photography.

Liu:? What kind of an artist do you think you are?? Are you willing to let critics and curators categorize you at all? Are you a conceptual artist, or another sort?

Wang: Of course I'd like to have a name, it's like people wanting to have a name; I think it's particularly important in the beginning.? But later on once you've already got a name, others start putting labels on you and that annoys me. I don't care anymore.? But I've never thought of myself as an artist, more like a journalist, eternally shooting a film of society.? I really like how journalists work.

Liu: Is this what you're trying to express in your photographs?

Wang: Yes, I've always thought of my work as press shots, not some kind of conceptual photography.? You can read into press photographs. I hope that people understand my work like learning to read with pictures. China is changing too fast; when we moved here for example, only the next day and the house was gone.? We're obviously going to think, why isn't this house here anymore?? Everyone is forced to face life very pragmatically. On top of this, being an outsider here makes me look onto this development in society with a kind of objective perspective, and also makes me care more about how others look at me.

Liu: Now, tell us about the individual language we find in your work, do you think it has its own style?

Wang: I don't think there's any style as such, I'm more interested in the content.? I don't think I have any kind of 'individual language' either; it's pretty varied.? Once when I was abroad there was someone saying my work was like so and so's work, I was really happy. I don't mind who's work mine is compared to.? I have fun by saying it’s like lots of other people's work.? It's like having a face-lift; maybe one eye will resemble this person, the other that person, the nose like one person and the mouth like another person.? After surgery even though they might contain countless reflections of other people, they're still very recognisable as themselves.? Once, a magazine carried a part of one of my photographs as its front cover.? A friend called me to say that as soon as he'd seen it he knew it was one of mine.? Someone from the Ludwig Museum in Cologne told me once, "You're on a par with any of the great German photographers, you could easily go head to head with them in an exhibition." I found this funny, it's not my intention to rewrite or provoke anything.? Maybe we're not faced with the same issues, this is simply an interest for me; I'm not trying to provoke anyone.? There are so many things going on around me, I really indulge myself in this change.? Modernity in China and the West are not the same.? It rose gradually from the ground upwards in the West; in China the change has skipped a few levels.? It seems almost anything goes; it's opening up everywhere but without any clear explanation of what is right or wrong.? Things we think of as good today may be gone tomorrow.? Things are in constant flux.? Like the property market; the prices of a house when the plans are first released, when the foundations are laid and once the ground floor is constructed are all different.? It changes again once the first floor is completed.? Living with this kind of situation in China really encourages me to produce my work quickly, to keep up with surveying this rapid change.

Liu: With you being so interested in current politics, why do you often employ traditional elements in your work?

Wang: I myself am a very traditional person.? I have a really strange hairstyle - this is all so empty to me.? In my bones I'm very traditional and try to reject modernity. I guess it's all related to my living environment.? Back then I lived in Jingzhou, a very ancient small town of just over one hundred thousand people.? Although small, it had many traditional things.? I felt Beijing was far too big when I first arrived here; it was 100 times bigger than Jingzhou!?

After the Tour of the South in 1992, there was a substantial change that took place the country over.? When I first got here a bowl of noodles cost 5 jiao, then 7, 9 and finally 1 yuan and 1 jiao. In China prices often go up during Chinese spring festivals but when prices don't drop until the May Holiday, I realize that the cost of living has actually fundamentally increased.? For several years, the number of public telephones in the countryside has rapidly increased. Small cafes have suddenly become large restaurants in the cities within a year or two.? Peasants have started to build houses and rent them off room by room.?

I see the same changes taking place when I go back to my hometown; the old High Street is gone now.? Tradition and modernity are thrown together randomly.? I didn't used to care much for tradition but when things close to you disappear, it moves you and makes you wonder whether they were better as they were before, or as they are now.? Sometimes I think the past is better, but at others modernity seems really good too, I'm more and more confused.? I don't know why I like to put traditional things in my photos but at the very least I suppose I'm suspecious as to whether this change is for the better or for the worse.

Liu: Tell me about your painting "Lu Xun-2004". To me it seems a little bit different from the rest of your work. There's none of the irony, the cant, or the humour of your other works.

Wang: I don't see Lu Xun as a person, but as a state of mind. I'm always wondering: if he was around today, would he still dare to speak up the truth? So there he is in the harsh snow. I'm wondering whether or not he would freeze to death there. I just don't know if that spirit of his really exists these days. When we talk about Lu Xun we always say that he was daring and brave enough to say anything, but it's not like that any more. Nowadays no one dares to say anything. They won't even complain about their neighbours. Sticking too much to the middle path can end up feeling oppressive.

Liu: Which of your contemporaries do you admire the most?

Wang: Zhuang Hui. Perhaps because we've had similar life experiences, his pieces also tell the stories of the workers and embody the values of hard labour. His piece Strip Steel Workshop really stirred something in me. That cold, calm factory reminded me of when I was a miner, coming face to face with those enormous iron machines, knowing that each year lots of us might be injured or killed.

Liu: Who is your favourite artist from art history?

Wang:? The photographer Thomas Demand, who does those offices and telephones made of cardboard; I really like him.? His kind of modern civilisation is also full of contradiction.? I've never seen any explanation of his work but that's the feeling it gives me; it's astounding.? Once when I was in London doing an exhibition, he was there the very same day for his exhibition in Serpentine Gallery; our itineraries had clashed.? There were some people there looking forward to seeing us measure up to one another, but at least on the surface it all went by very smoothly.? The exhibition reviews for my exhibition was perhaps a little more than for his, but he had a really great presence on the scene.? To put it bluntly, I just love things that move me.?

Liu: In general, do you follow developments in the theoretical field?

Wang:? When I was living in the Old Summer Palace area I did, but these days I don't really care much.? If it's a friend, even if they're a critic it's great to talk about things aside from theory.

Liu: What do you generally do at home? Watch TV?

Wang:? No, we don't have one at home.? We used to have one but I became addicted to it, I'd always want to watch until the close of transmission.

Liu: Being someone so interested in life, how is it you can get away without a TV?

Wang: It's just like shopping.? Sometimes on the bus, on the underground, eating lunch, riding in a taxi you hear people chatting.? All sorts of people, nattering away, that's what real life is about.? I dare even less to watch films because I've always had a dream to shoot a film, even just a short one.? I don't like going to see other people's things. Recently I've been arranging some snippets of life; every day there's something fun. I just need to jot it down and one day with all these snippets brought together, I? might be able to produce a story.???

Liu: Are there any actors you like?? What kind would you select for your future films?

Wang: I'd still prefer to use models.? Of course it's cheap, but it's also easier to communicate with them, they understand what I’m trying to say.? Actors/actresses are too professional; it feels like they're a bit stuck up.? Originally I wanted to film a story before 2008 but now that doesn't look too likely; I've still not thought about it clearly enough.

Liu: What do you think is your best attribute? I guess you must have a very nice temperament.

Wang: Maybe that I'm a bit slow. Since being small my family has always thought of me as slightly stupid.? When talking to people I've never been quite sure of what other people mean, or perhaps I have done but only a day later it becomes clear, always very slowly.? Looking at it now I realise it's also a good thing, I'm not the " dummy slow bird that starts flying early"; I'm the "slow bird that starts flying late". The slow bird that flies late has benefits too: he can study things thoroughly, just as the bird without fully formed wings will certainly be quick to be killed by the hunter.? I think that in ten years time people will perhaps say that three or four of my works are still excellent.? That would be enough.

Liu: Do you like shopping? What kind of clothes do you like to wear?? Are there any brand names you like?

Wang: I don't have any brand names, if I do, they're just random ones, I dress pretty randomly.

Liu: How do you view the market?? The market for your work is so good at the moment, what do you think about that?

Wang:? When the market is good, you hope it slows a little; when the market is bad, you hope it picks up a little but these aren't things that you can control.? You can't manage the market, maybe it'll normalise in five years time but you've just got to produce your work as normal. You can't try and second-guess the market.? At the moment many factors are tending towards it slowly stabilising I think.

Liu: Do you follow the current so-called 'art trend' and activities of young artists?

Wang: The generation born in the seventies is pretty close to that of the sixties, they've been heavily influenced by them.? Those born in the eighties are a bit better, they were born truly after the reforms and so they're sure to be different.? Everyone from the eighties has their own individuality; you could say they're egoistical.? They're definitely emerging individually, not in groups like before.? They don't have the same environment like with the major trends of Political Pop Art, Cynical Realism, Gaudy Art, and they don't need it either.? Only when there's major social change or major disasters will massive movements emerge like before.? Young people's work is really fun, some of it really seems like the writing of a diary; it doesn't have the same feeling of suffering and hatred.?

Liu:? Are there any differences between your current work and that of ten years ago?? Has there been a qualitative leap?

Wang: In terms of scale, there certainly has been but in terms of the general conceptual ideas the change hasn't been huge though maybe I use different methods of production now.? I'm still focusing on people's lives and conditions but now on a broader scale.? Because the conflicts have become more complex, there isn't right and wrong.? Some pieces are more complex now, that is to say that their settings are more thought out, pieced together.? I'd like to do film, maybe sculpture too; there are lots of things I'd like to do.

Liu:? How has your work been progressing in recent years? Would you like to tell me anything about your future projects?

Wang:? I'd still like to do photographs for another two years or so; I'd like to summarise a little the relationship between man and the city.? I'd like to photograph a city void of humanity to show people what cities may be like in the future - both very familiar and yet extremely strange. I'd also like to shoot something related to the Olympics, after all, they're such a huge event, it's impossible to remain indifferent to them.? This year I might also produce a work related to the sick in order to commemorate my mother.? I was by her bedside when she passed away and when she needed the doctors, they weren't there.? An expression of my stance towards China's health system might be amusing, it might be quite pretentious, I don't really mind either way but at least I'd like to do something like this.? I've many plans at the moment, just got to take one at a time.? With the support of a gallery at home now things are better.? Working with Western galleries in the past, it has always been difficult to communicate.? I hope that we can use the resources of the gallery to their full potential, and that working together can be really fun.?

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