Interview with Wang Qingsong for Du Magazine 2009

Interview with Wang Qingsong for Du Magazine

Anne-Celine Jaeger


When did you first get interested in art?

It was in 1982, when I was still in high school. I remember walking home one day and finding a drawing of an old peasant wrapped in an old style scarf with lots of wrinkles on his face. It was an incredibly vivid portrait, despite the fact that had just been drawn on tracing paper. There was something very intimate about it. It was a time when lots of students were tracing great paintings on tracing paper, making copies of the real thing. After that drawing became a hobby for me.

What did your time at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts teach you?

I didn't really learn anything related to art there. It was all about technique and how to create a technically well-executed oil painting.

How did you teach yourself about art then?

I taught myself about contemporary art by reading lots of books and once I started getting shows overseas, I could immerse myself more fully by going to galleries and getting my hands on more books. But I never once thought to myself ‘How can I make a good painting or photograph?' I'm interested in the stories that happen in these current times. It's my aim to describe these times and the impact they have on me and the rest of society.

Did any particular artists or movement inspire you?

When I first became interested in art in the 1980s, there weren't that many books that were readily available about the history of art and contemporary Western art. I spent a lot of time reading about Chinese classical paintings. So I should say not any particular artist or movement inspire me. My inspiration comes mainly from the drastic changes that happen in China that I eyewitness and feel.

What does art meant to you?

Art means for me a job. I enjoy working on art.

In Dream of Migrants (2005) you evoke the hopes people bring to the big city when they come from the countryside in China as well as the realities they are then faced with. What was your own personal dream when you first came to Beijing from Jinzhou, Hubei Province in 1993?

When I first came to Beijing, it was my dream to participate in a national painting exhibition. At that time everyone was dreaming about having their work shown in a national show, or an annual exhibition. But later, although I was never selected, I realised that it was actually not important at all. The main thing I was faced with when arriving in Beijing was the city's sheer size. The population was 100 times bigger than the town I'd come from. The cost of living was very, very expensive and it was very difficult to make a living.

Upon arrival in Beijing you threw yourself into painting and did 20 pieces in three months. What was this work about?

The paintings I did in those months were all about arriving in this big city and the depression, frustration, suffering etc one experiences as a migrant artist or simply as a young man in the big city.

What made you decide to move from painting to photography?

I became frustrated with painting and found that it was limiting in terms of what I wanted to express about the massive changes that were happening in China but also globally. I discovered there was a whole other medium that could be used. Gradually I found that photography was the best tool for me to describe the experiences and changes I was witnessing in contemporary culture.

You spent some time in the artist village Yuan Ming Yuan. What was it like living there?

The village was actually not a great place to work on my paintings. I spent lots of time chatting and talking to other men and artist friends. I learned about other people's perspectives and ideas. But I didn't actually create much when I was there. When I left, my whole perspective had changed and I learned to make and create new things.

You say 'other men' – were there no women in this village?

Only two or three young girls. At the time, i.e. 15-20 years ago, it was very difficult for female migrant artists to make a living. It was a tough life, so most young girls would find someone to get married quite quickly. But that's all changing now.

Your work focuses on the dramatic changes taking place in China in view of the country's modernisation and its full embrace of capitalism. To your mind, what is the single most disappointing change that has taken place and how have you expressed this in your work?

To me the biggest problem is that, on the surface, we are making huge progress and we speak highly of China's achievements, but we never look back to check whether what we've done is actually good or bad. I think it's a very dangerous mind-set to always think something is ‘great and glorious' without looking back. We are always looking forwards. We think we've made a huge success in the last 30 years. Yes, we've made lots of money, but we haven't actually created anything new or dramatic.

Like in Dream of Migrants (2005), everyone is hoping to make a nice living, but nobody is looking out for the interests of the others. It's a selfish set-up. Everyone is living a very isolated life, where we don't want to depend on others. It's a very separate world we've created. One where we are against ourselves.

In works like the Requesting Buddha series and Thinker (both 1997) or Billboard and Competition (both 2004), you are criticising or mocking the Chinese thirst for capitalism and all the desires that go with it. To what degree are you also trying to make a statement about the West, where the circus of the consumerist society began?

I feel like we need to take stock and actually think about whether the West is good or not. And if so, what are the good bits? I feel like we are emulating too much and too quickly by just assuming that everything that comes out of the West is great. For example, there are now some drinks that are sold in China that people literally look up to and believe to be much more than a drink. Through advertising and marketing they are lead to believe a certain drink has healing qualities and that it's good nutrition or great for the body. They look up to it. But it's just a drink.

The Night Revels of Lao Li (2000), a giant tableau and re-interpretation of the famous post-Tang dynasty painting Night Revels of Han Xizai, was a turning point for you. It features the celebrated Chinese curator and art critic Li Xianting, who has continuously supported independent contemporary art in China and who is affectionately known as Lao Li. Can you tell me a little bit about the piece and what you are trying to say about present-day intellectuals in China.

The Night Revels piece describes and comments on the frustration and disappointment of intellectuals in present-day China. Many want to do really good things for the country, but they are in a conflict as they are fighting against themselves and the new interests people have. In the painting, you can see lots of intellectuals looking worried. They want to do great things, but they have to find a way to enjoy themselves as nowadays, the hero is the person making all the money. So nobody really cares about what intellectuals are talking about. Our consumer society is more interested in food, entertainment, fashion… It seems people have forgotten about the things that actually create change in a society.

Do you feel this is still the case now?

Right now, all over the country, people are reflecting on the last three decades. China has made a massive jump in GDP, we've seen a double digit growth in the last decade. But for individuals and families, life is not growing at the same speed. Many will lose their jobs in this financial crisis. The government is thinking about donating money to build infrastructures to help the poor, we may also see some healthcare reforms etc.

Your pieces often involve actors, models, stage set design, rental of film studios, and collaborators etc. How do you go about planning your projects?

I've been working on bigger projects since 2000 and with every one the organisation becomes easier. I used to have to do lots of talking and e.g. convincing the models to strike a certain pose, renting the spaces. It has become a more natural process and I have a routine now. Before going to the film studio or outdoor shooting, I need to make a mock-up, either a sculpture, a drawing or a photograph. Then I get all the materials ready for the shooting. Upon the date, I will call on my assistants to get the models and lighting crew onto the set. So the shooting usually takes only one day.

What kind of time-line is involved from concept to creation?

I usually plan a piece for about six months. Then it takes me about a month to work out the set and the materials etc. The actual shooting preparation takes between one week to one month.

How do you finance your projects?

They are all self-financed. It works like a snowball. Any money I make from print sales, I re-invest into new projects. And the snowball always gets bigger.

You use your camera as a narration tool… What inspired you to create works of art that function as stories?

Truth be told, I would actually prefer to do videos as that would be more moving to me, but because it's so extortionate to make videos, I've turned to photography. I've got this analogy that it's like mixing together lots of old dishes. Rather than making one tasty dish from expensive ingredients I mix one up from  a variety of dishes. It's still tasty though because I make a good selection.

What equipment do you use?

I use a Sinar P2 8x12 large format camera.

How much post-production is involved in your work?

Sometimes I do some colour enhancement, but I prefer to avoid post-production whenever I can. It's one shot only for each image.

Can you talk me through your use of Kitschy colours and motifs, such as the fake meat peonies in Ethereal Beauty (2003) and the cloud mist in Romantique (2003)?

Many of the objects in my photographs are full of symbolic meaning. The meat used to create flower petals in Ethereal Beauty refers to pureness and the flower itself is a symbol of national glory, it's China's flower. The clouds, mist and rainbows on the other hand refer to good hope. I think society is very kitschy so I am only really using ideas taken from society.

Where do you get inspiration for new work?

Society is my inspiration. Take UN Party Diptych (2007)… it refers to the globally popular gatherings, conferences, dinners. I'd been invited to quite a few and I decided to create work from that. [In the left panel of the work over 1300 people sat around a U and an N shaped table enjoying cheap fast food whilst having heated discussions about the bright future. However in the panel on the right, all that remains are leftovers and a scene of chaos. ] – I took this section in brackets from the personal statement on wang's website as I felt the answer needed some more words… hope it's OK. OK

How did you come to creating your video project Skyscraper (2008)

I finally decided to invest money in creating a video. Over the last 10 years we've seen so much construction. There are buildings creeping up everywhere, but poor families still don't have the opportunity to live in any of these so-called ‘fabulous' new structures. Houses have nothing to do with human beings here. Therefore, I decided to build the scaffolding for Skyscraper. It's 35 metres high and 45metres wide. The scaffolding bars have been painted shiny and gold to give an impression of wonder and glory, but it remains a scaffolding. An empty shell.

Why do you see yourself more as a journalist than an artist?

Journalists can find a true and realistic perspective to life. Artists are more focused on themselves. Therefore I prefer myself to be called as a journalist who observes the social changes with a more accurate vision.

Your work is sold internationally and you are represented by galleries such as Albion Gallery in the UK and the China Blue Gallery in Beijing – to what degree have you become part of the commercial world you criticise in your work?

I need to finance my art works. I even think of making a long film in the near future if money is in store for me. Therefore, I depend on galleries to promote my works and sell to museums and collectors. Then I recuperate money to reinvest into my art works. Certainly I feel the pressure of this financial crisis since last September. I'm now part of the global system. There's no getting away from it.

How much do your pieces sell for?

They average between $10,000 and $30,000.

You have been quoted as saying that a sustained interest from the West in Chinese contemporary art could be detrimental to Chinese artists. Could you explain what you mean?

There are cultural differences between China and the West so a one-sided focus from the West would be detrimental. Chinese artists are very affected by Western influences but they try to reject and deny them. China is a big country. We are an international assembly line for the world. People say China is the World Factory. We produce for the world.  However, we never build up our own national brands that sell in the world. In this perspective, we are always steps back from the advanced countries.

Do you feel a Western public can ever fully understand the work of a Chinese artist?

It is really very difficult for western public to understand fully the works of Chinese artists. Similarly, we, the general public of Chinese people, cannot understand Western art. One great artist from the West who writes very good Chinese calligraphy is never considered as a master of calligraphy in Chinese people's standard.

What is your view on art fairs such as Documental, Venice Biennale etc? You seem to be mocking them, or the people that go there in your work Art Express (2002).

I believe the Biennials have become very commercial. For us they have sort of lost their previous function. These days the only way to make something truly new is to have a solo show or a retrospective. If you are an important artist you may create great work for a Biennial, but often times works for these fairs are made purely with commercial gain in mind. The people scrambling to get on the Art Express bus in the piece Art Express are the enthusiasts and artists that want to hop on the ‘fast car' to attend the show. So I ask myself, why are we so attracted to that? Formerly, we depended on international art fairs to get exposure, but today, they are loosing their function as there are more galleries, museums and collectors in China, and therefore a chance to show work at home.

In your piece, the Glory of Hope, your family is standing in a mud wasteland looking towards the setting sun with a big emblem of the Olympic Rings etched in the mud. You made that piece before the Olympics came to Beijing. What would a Wang Qingsong look like if it were made after the Beijing Olympics?

If I were to create a new piece post-Olympics it would be about how it's difficult to make dreams come true. We can certainly make improvements but they're never as glorious as we'd hoped. Now people are talking about the amount of money we spent to create flashy infrastructures and stadiums and they are trying to figure out how the British will top that…

To what degree has your work been visible to the Chinese public? Has there been an awakening? A slowing down of the mindless consumption and worship of all things Western?

My work is now shown in many galleries and spaces in China, so people are certainly subjected to it. But I'm helpless in that I can't really stop the trend for embracing consumerism. It's a global trend. I mean think about it, many kids in China already think Coca Cola is a Chinese brand.

In your artist statement, when talking about Archaeologist (2004), you state that you think human beings are currently ‘dead in mind and soul' – do you believe this is true for all western civilisation? How can we save ourselves?

Yes. The death of mind and soul is happening all over the West too. Everyone is too influenced by globalisation. You can't be an independent thinker anymore. Perhaps the financial crisis will give people time to think it over. We must look back often to look at what we've made and think about what we are losing.

What does the future hold for China?

It's entirely unpredictable. We're such a big country. We might make miracles happen or fall into a deep chaos. I'm not sure which way it will go.

Several of your works, such as Pre-Incarnation and Incarnation (both 2002) are also a reflection on the destruction of the traditional culture of China – is it an unstoppable movement?

I.m not even sure myself which things we should be looking up to and which things we should be avoiding. But it's a fact of life, when you make progress some things are lost along the way. We just need to exert some caution.

And what does the future hold for you?

I'm not in good health right now so I only hope to live longer and feel healthy again.


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