Wang Qingsong - Salon 94, New York, 2004

Wang Qingsong

Salon 94, New York, May 23-July 21,2004

Wang Qingsong’s first solo exhibition in the United States featured larger-than-life photographs that play off famous scroll paintings in the canon of Chinese landscape painting. Wang’s works are heavily staged and so carry with them a kind of irony, or self-awareness, which underscores the contemporaneity of the works being made, even when the artist is referring to literati art whose history is central to China’s artistic development. But sometimes the references are not only to Chinese art; in the very large (120x650cm) historical scroll-like photograph Romantique (2003), Wang spoofs or some might say revives Western art historical culture by resurrecting famous images basic to Western art history; central to the image is a young Chinese women standing nude in a half shell; she uses her long, reddish-blonde hair to cover her right breast and her thighs; next to her is a dressed assistant who offers a long red piece of fabric to the naked woman, in a romantic approximation of Botticell’s Birth of Venus. On the left hand of the painting is a reconstruction of Manet’s Dejeuner sur L’herbe, another major art historical reference. The gardenlike atmosphere suggests a utopia of art; however, it must be remembered that this is a reading of art history, whose points are made in contradistinction to our often jaded interpretations of Western art, which is, in this case, seen through Chinese eyes even as it imitates, fairly closely, a cluster of Western images that form a major of the art canon.

More than fifty models grace the composition, including, on the far left, an image of Adam and Eve covering their nakedness as they leave the Garden of Eden. Wang, now thirty-eight, and a graduate of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chengdu, lives and works in Beijing; he is a bit too young to have experienced the Cultural Revolution as an adult. Instead, he is someone heavily influence d by the slick, throwaway, pleasure-oriented society of post-modern Western culture; despite the historical references, the main points made in Wang’s art have to do with a deliberately superficial recognition of different insights based on the images of a nude girl in a rickshaw, who mysteriously surveys all the references to Western culture. She is an enigmatic presence, someone who seems to be questioning the large spectacle or living tableau of which she is a part. Wang seems to be implying that a Chinese view of things, however humble or off to the side, cannot simply be ignored. In his often tongue-in-cheek presentations of East meets West, Wang is intent on updating notions of reciprocity and influence in ways that comment on both cultures’ willingness to remain unique, that is to say foreign, to the mores of the culture each imitates.

Are the imitations encountered in Romantique intended to highlight differences or represent similar values in Chinese and Western cultures? It is hard to say. Like the noted conceptual artist Xu Bing, Wang trades in brilliant, and also deliberate, misreadings of Western culture. While the work of Wang and other Chinese artists relates to both cultures, one can surmise that Wang’s brilliant photographic tableaus are not only aspirations toward a Western sublime; they are also Chinese interpretations of that sublime. The question is whether the imitations are an acknowledgement of, even acquiescence to, Western culture, or if the images of Romantique spoof the very history they are supposed to represent. Knowing a bit about how recalcitrant many Chinese artists actually are to the demands and influences of Western culture, I can say with some degree of confidence that there is an element of Chinese resistance to the blandishments of Western art history in Romantique. Imitation may be the sincerest form of praise, but in this case the praise, like the imagery, is jaded. The irony evident in much of Wang’s work undercuts his desire for a grand statement, but it also makes his social realist underpinnings tremendously contemporary.

Another encompassing interpretation of the past is Wang’s photomural Night Revels of Lao Li (2000), thirty-one feet in length. It is based upon the tenth-century artist Gu Hongzhong’s Night Revels of Han Xizai, a scroll painting in which a government official turns to pleasure after failing to enact political reform. In this version of the painting, Han is transformed into Li Xianting, the influential art critic who lost his job as an editor for a Mainland Chinese art magazine because he supported the initial efforts of Gaudy Art, China’s own interpretation of Pop Art. Li, for many the unofficial arbiter of the avant-garde in China, is shown in the midst of several scenes of easy pleasure, the women often in stages of undress. The spectacular tableau is a comment on the artistic demimonde in China, in which pleasure itself becomes a tool of subversion: on the right side of the photograph, a woman plays guitar, while the scene just to the left of it shows a woman engaged in interpretive dancing, Li accompanying her with a red drum. In yet another tableau, a woman in lingerie washes Li’s feet; the openly erotic implications of this powerful work suggest that the contemporary interpretation of the past trades on an accepted sensuality, the likes of which were certainly more reticent in the historical original.

Mainland Chinese art is increasingly dominant in the international arena: Wang’s work received notice by the New York Times head critic Michael Kimmelman, who wrote up the Night Revels of Lao Li for the benefit of the mostly middlebrow readers of the newspaper. Additionally, the summer issue of Art in America devoted itself to a thoroughgoing exposition of contemporary art from the Mainland. It is relatively easy to place Wang within a certain context; like the outstanding Chinese conceptual artist Xu Bing, Wang is an artist who makes use of tradition to make some very new points about the historical treatment of contemporary Chinese culture. Remarkably, Wang’s art fits nicely into the international debate, in which New York avant-garde practices such as installation art and conceptual photography, practiced for more than thirty years now, are employed using Chinese content in a highly contemporary style. We in the West may be taken aback by the historical references, which often need explanation, but we are comfortable with the methodologies in which the work is presented. It ahs become clear, then, that new Chinese art is very much a part of our world, even when it references its own history, as Wang has done so brilliantly in his photographs.

Jonathan Goodman is a poet and writer who specializes in contemporary Asian Art.

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