Matthew Collings Visits Wang Qingsong's Studio in Beijing 2008

Matthew Collings Visits Wang Qingsong's Studio in Beijing

Matthew Collings, Cops bust art


Chinese contemporary art is hot. Most of it seems opportunistic, shallow imitations of trendy western art. But one artist I like is the photographer Wang Qingsong. Imagine an Emperor hears that his first secretary, an intellectual, a thinker, a poet, is having sexy parties every night. "I don't like the sound of that," the Emperor thinks--"I hear there's dancing, drinking, girls, maybe free thinking." He sends a top watercolor artist to investigate. The artist puts a painting together and shows it to the Emperor. It's an amazing expression of the times, very lyrical, very beautiful, and it really does show what the emperor imagined: the secretary's moral abandon. The twist is that it is fear of death at the hands of the State that drives the secretary to throw those parties. Under imperialism you can't protest, you can't think, you can't disobey: what can you do? There is only abandoned despair.

The work, a tenth-century Tang dynasty masterpiece Night Entertainment of Han Xizai, by Gu Hongzhong, has been transposed by Wang Qingsong into a staged 31-foot-long photomural. 'Night Revels of Lao Li' (2000) shows intellectuals and art critics from the current Beijing art scene standing in for long dead literati. When you see this work in exhibitions you feel like you're present at a parade - the theme is the corruption of art -- people in the gallery around you seem to merge with the people in the photo. Garishly dressed modern tarts waft through the scene. There is plenty of Westernised luxury. In a consumer world, the West is the best. Formally the work is delightful. It does what art does. It's a Chinese panorama, an unfolding, scroll-like space; the light, the action, the displacement of forms about the digitally montaged interior are absolutely even and consistent, while through it all the eye enjoys a ripple of unpredictable life and movement.

As in many of his works, Wang Qingsong himself features. He recurs several times along the length of the image, acting a part, the observer in the wings. He smokes, talks on his mobile and sips Coke. Artificiality beautifully handled - this is his strength. His theme is the modern mind. His mode is endearing, a mix of light-hearted and menacing.

Last October I turned up at a Beijing movie studio with a TV crew to film Wang (in China the family name comes first) shooting a new photo. Until now I'd never met him and I had no idea what subject this photo-shoot was about. We had an interview with him booked for the next day. As I arrived a crowd of people was on its way inside the huge aircraft hanger-like space. As they entered Wang's assistants organised them into small units, each with a leader holding a little flag, like tour groups in museums. They stripped off. The assistants smeared their limbs and faces with muddy brown colour scooped out of buckets. Some were made up with false wounds and given bandages. Some were given military outfits and weapons.

The TV crew and I walked a couple of hundred yards into the space towards bright lights and the sound of shouting. We saw hills, tanks, jeeps, artillery and barbed wire. Real horses arrived and clip clopped up to the hills. On the artificial grass at the front of the set were animal carcasses, enormous bloody rib cages, very sculpturally impressive. Rifles, model bombs and grenades lay around. The mock hills ran for several more hundred yards and were about seventy-five yards deep. There were trenches, craters and abandoned vehicles, plus rickety wooden fences with burned tin cans tied to them with wire.

Behind the hills was a vast spray-painted sky, which I now saw from a Xerox photo copy of a plan of the whole set -- a collage of reproductions of famous war images from art and photo journalism -- was a blow-up from a detail of the sky in Tintoretto's epic Crucifixion in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. Wang surveyed the scene from his position on top of a scaffolding tower, looking at his photo-collage and out again at the set-up. Live models, the majority completely nude, started being hustled onto the hills in what seemed at first to be disorganised loose clumps. Then some of them were organised by assistants into familiar poses -- soldiers hoisting the US flag at Iwo Jima, a Vietnamese chief of police shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head, the allegorical female figure with one breast exposed in Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, and the firing squad victim in a crucifixion pose in Goya's Executions of 3rd May. The scenes weren't precise but generalised. The models acing them out weren't specially dressed. They just had a distinguishing prop or two - a flag or a gun. Everyone had the same look, two states -- either military uniform that looked vaguely like the French army, or nude.

There was an overall feel of World War I combined with Vietnam, but also combined with medieval hell - hundreds of male and female nude bodies of all ages huddled in clumps like the look of the damned in paintings. The mass nudity was exciting even though as individuals the models were completely unglamorous.

A few months later Wang said he chose models who looked interesting rather than seductive, and he wanted the nudity to be absurd rather than sexy, like a relative taking their clothes off. The overall feel was light. There was energy and suspense but it was theatrical and fun. I looked at the layout again: executions in Uganda and the Congo, Picasso's 'Guernica', the nude girl running towards the camera after a napalm attack, the Buddhist monk on fire after dousing his body with petrol and setting himself alight.

The light towers out in front of the set and the people up the towers shouting instructions - Wang and his wife and their assistants - and further assistants riding up and down the set on bicycles and shouting out more instructions, summoned up images of 'Apocalypse Now', in particular the concert for the forces lit by powerful arc lights, where the whole idea is sudden mass stimulation, and General Kilgore on the beach surrounded by carnage and bodies, shouting through a megaphone, where the idea is giddy moral disorientation.

The set-up was ready. Time to click the shutter. Petrol was poured on a Buddhist monk statue and a lighter applied, and the flames started leaping. The scene was so vast. The nude bodies seemed like pink-grey sexless shrimps festooned around the war scenes. It turned out some of the tin cans had earlier contained spray paint and they'd been chucked into the mix before they were completely empty, because now they started exploding loudly and the fake grass on a couple of hills burst into flames.

That was a place you didn't want to be if you were nude. There was chaotic shouting and sudden orders and a bit of shrieking and the hissing of fire extinguishers, and the shrimps shot up and ran to get their poor anoraks, jeans and sneakers back on. The photo was done and the shoot was over.

Afterwards I had lunch in an arty restaurant in Factory 798. It was like New York's Dean & Deluca in the 1980s. The customers were all Western, in black, some with kids. The next day it turned out we couldn't interview Wang yet because some articles had come out in the local press about the photo shoot -- artist degrades poor Chinese women - is it art or porn? The police took him in and interrogated him all night. Over the next few days while we waited to do the interview he was interrogated repeatedly, and the articles continued appearing. Some of them said the event was staged specifically for the titilation of the western press, which was confusing because while of course it wasn't true that he'd put the event on for us -- all his photo-shoots are like this - it was true that it was exciting, and like much contemporary art it was pornographic. Anyone who goes to art exhibitions or reads art magazines knows that for the last twenty years the porn element has been outrageous. It is part of art's desperation but from the point of view of the high priests of art at the moment it would be said that it is part of art's new openness to exploring society.
The work we filmed Wang staging was to have been titled 'The Blood of The World'. Its subject was war and history, war's idealism versus its inevitable destruction and death. Although we eventually filmed the interview with Wang at a retrospective exhibition of his photos held in a museum in Germany, the negatives confiscated by the Beijing police have never been returned and so he still hasn't been able to print it.
Matthew Collings is an artist and writer who lives in London. He studied painting at the Byam Shaw School in the 1970s and at Goldsmith's in the early 1990s. He has written several books including 'Blimey!' and 'This Is Modern Art'. He has written and presented many TV programmes, including the series, 'This Is Modern Art,' which received several awards including a BAFTA. His most recent series, 'This Is Civilisation,' was on Channel 4 in November 2007 and will be repeated on More4 in 2008. A book to accompany the series has been published by 21. Collaborative paintings by Matthew Collings and Emma Biggs can be seen at the Fine Art Society, London. Their next exhibition is in May 2008.


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