Wang Qingsong's "Photojournalism" by Shu Kewen 2007

Wang Qingsong's "Photojournalism"

Shu Kewen


  One day I finally asked Wang Qingsong how he cut his hair: 99% of his head is bald, and the remaining 1% sprouts long strands, scattered and dispersed almost precisely across his crown. Seen from afar, one might think he has gone bald to the point where only a few hairs remain, and wonder why he is not ashamed to let them grow so long. But from within two metres, it looks as if he has donned a thin net. I always thought it strange that he would spend so much time to work around these long hairs. But he said it did not take long, that the first time he spent three hours, asking the barber to cut only black hairs, leaving the white ones. After it had taken shape, the hairstyle was actually easy to manage, as anyone who has used hair clippers can attest.

  As for whether there is any latent connection between his meticulous crafting of this hairstyle and his meticulous designs of images in the photographic studio, I cannot say, but there is some similarity at least in terms of methodology.

  Both are meticulously planned, deceptive images. In his photographs from before the year 2000, Wang Qingsong was still an observer, as in "Past, Present and Future", and "Night Revels of Lao Li". Even if he sometimes appears in these images as a performer, the identity of the performer is not important at all. What leaves a deep impression is how the observer presents to the viewer an image of deceptiveness, either serious or playful. I say that this is deceptive because the image is controlled by an invisible limit, just as his head is deceptively bald. This observer placed before these scenes conveys the failure of judgement, producing instead a deceptive interest, but this interest itself comes to seem dull and listless.

  Observers familiar with Chinese contemporary art can easily sense the satire at the heart of these works, but this satire is neither trenchant nor distinct. To a large extent he mixes his satire with its very objects, creating an exquisite external form. Although it remains satirical, the themes grow darker, coming to terrify its viewers. I don't know if this is his strategy, but at the very least it is his method.

  This method recurs continuously throughout his recent works, but his tactics have changed greatly. He believes his images to be "photojournalism", when in actuality they are still driven by the urge for satire, even if he refuses to admit as much.

  Still, his so-called "photojournalism" does have documentary interest in terms of recording a set of social interests. For example, his works "Follow Me", "Competition", "Beggar", and "Fotofest" all have a certain newsy character to them. "Follow Me" was an English-language instruction program on Chinese television twenty years ago, its viewership higher than any program currently on air. Twenty years later, Wang Qingsong's "Follow Me" picks up on this urgent desire to become a global citizen. "Beggar", "Come! Come!", and "Fotofest" were completed by fabricating a seemingly real scene, though of course these scenes are designed with an eye toward enhanced theatricality. "Lu Xun-2004" leaves a larger space for interpretation; as if Lu Xun were still alive today, Wang Qingsong has designed for him an icy, elegant background, Lu Xun holding a pipe in his mouth, squatting beside a fallen tree, holding a book of his own selected writings. Thinking? Perplexed? Is this awkward scene inferred or imagined? According to Wang Qingsong's interpretation, if Lu Xun were alive today, news about him would be just like this. "Competition" is a sort of double "news", employing the tactics of the Cultural Revolution "big-character posters" to create a certain image, but with the political slogans replaced with commercial logos. In this way he socially documents the omnipresence of advertising, even as he conceptually documents the implicit politics and movement-like tendencies at work behind this current commercial moment. This doubly documentary practice highlights historical similarities between two distinct eras.

  Appropriation is one of the most legitimate strategies in contemporary art practice, and Wang Qingsong's photographs appropriate many classics, or rather classical images, or classic stories, as in "Fountain", "Home", "Romantique", "Thinker", and "Yaochi Fiesta". In these photographs, you can see Botticelli's "Primavera" and "The Birth of Venus", Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" and "Olympia", Ingres's "La Source", Renoir's "Les baigneuses", and countless other classical images. And yet all have been rendered in slightly unrecognisable form, existing in parasitic relation to the originals. They are numb and vapid, scattered bodies and disorderly visions lacking any clear referent, devoid of identity and self-recognition, unnameable in any circumstance. The use of these bodies does not make the scene seem any more natural or elegant, any more restless or active, creating rather a sense of fear, a powerlessness that seeps into the bones.

  This sense of frustration attains even clearer interpretation in another group of images. By this point Wang Qingsong lacked the patience to remain an observer as in "Poisonous Spider", where barbed wire form a giant "spider web" from which hang the most ordinary commercial goods, or "Another Battle", where the wire-fence is hung with Coca-Cola cans, its appropriated battlefield scene expressing a clear resistance to commercial culture. But in this work, even resistance comes to seem futile.

  Whether warriors or parasites, the sense of frustration with commercial culture seems unavoidable in these works. Here, the warm colours of the earlier works have given way to an undeniably absurd tone. This absurdity is not the modernist metaphysical absurdity of Godot, but rather the real life absurdity of self-denial. Wang Qingsong's "photojournalism" is established in precisely this way.

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