Wang Qingsong Pauline J. Yao 2009

Wang Qingsong

Pauline J. Yao


Michael jackson’s “thriller” was more than a music video: it was an event. Its debut in 1983 captivated audiences across America and propelled its hero to full blown pop stardom. But the overnight success of the behind-the-scenes account “the Making of Michael jackson’s ‘thriller,’” released on video only months later, penetrated its spectacular facade and, remarkably, outsold the album itself. the popularity of the documentary speaks to a common and natural gravitation toward “truth,” as if watching the artifice unravel before our eyes somehow takes us closer to a semblance of reality.

the pinpointing of truth and reality has rarely been at stake in the art of Wang Qingsong, an artist who has earned a solid reputation for elaborately staged photographs that simultaneously mimic and undermine systems of excess and consumption. His large-scale tableau vivant photographs were instrumental in popularizing a going fashion among chinese artists for using “kitsch” styles to critique and malign the mass operations of consumerism and sprawling economic change occurring within their home country. richly textured and carefully composed, these visually seductive images feature signifiers Western and chinese, ancient and modern, high and low. And while the underlying portrayal of china as an übercapitalist society obsessed with Western consumer goods might contain more than a grain of truth, Wang’s chosen mode has always been firmly theatrical.

over the past four decades, Wang has been witness to the unprecedented changes and breakneck speed of china’s political, social, and cultural transformation. Born in a small village in the northern province of Heilongjiang in 1966, the year china catapulted itself into the ten years of upheaval known as the cultural revolution, Wang spent his early years working the oil fields, providing for his family after his father, a soldier, died when he was only fifteen years old. After several attempts Wang gained acceptance into the prestigious sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, and upon graduation in 1993 he relocated to Beijing with only a few dollars to his name. Like many artists of the time, he bumped around the various art enclaves—songzhuang, tongxian, and Dongbahe—making paintings and generally trying to survive in an atmosphere that was oppressively monitored and commercially unviable.

Before long Wang gave up painting and began staging photographs with friends and models, using the tools of pastiche, appropriation, and parody to humorously deride the effects of globalization happening at his doorstep: a deepening infatuation with Western material goods, slackening political interest, and ever widening economic gaps that verge on downright contradiction. In the signature work The Night Revels of Lao Li (2000), the demimonde of the chinese art world is crossed with the tale of a tenth-century chinese classical painting, yielding a sarcastic message about the helplessness of intellectuals in the face of an increasingly corrupt society. Upon achieving success and international recognition in the early 2000s, the artist poured his earnings back into the making of his photographs, snowballing his productions into ever-more sophisticated undertakings that now involve hundreds of hired models, truckloads of props, and time-consuming set design. Works like Another Battle Series (2001), Competition (2004), and Dream of Migrants (2005) have the look and feel of film stills, owing perhaps to ample production budgets, but also because the scenes were staged and shot in the cavernous soundstage of the Beijing Film studio.

to linger on Wang’s photographic surface, however, would be to ignore the artist’s own deft grasp of the fictions he constructs and his participation in their making. He began filming his own “the making of” documentaries in 2003, upon the suggestion of a friend who had heard a rumor that Wang’s work was created solely through computer digitization. What is revealed is not only the logistical complexities of his productions but also the change in the role of the artist from passive observer or producer to active participant. Wang’s usually soft-spoken and reticent demeanor is transformed as he immerses himself in increased interactions, dialogues, and confrontations with various situations and people from all walks of life and explores more collaborative ways of working. the “truth” that emerges from seeing what lies behind these images comes from confrontation with contemporary realities and entanglements with social and political structures. Come! Come! (2005) required the staging of a political demonstration with several hundred participants, but due to laws limiting freedom of assembly in china, Wang was forced to contract with more than one company to provide them and specifically chose a clandestine location—a dry riverbed in the murky territory of Beijing’s municipal limits—to avoid potential discovery by local police. such glimpses into the real-life contingencies behind his images sharpen their relationship to the social and political context from which they emerge and reveal moments of veracity within even the most determined superficiality.

Skyscraper (2008), Wang’s first video, is a meditative treatment that nods to the medium’s capacity for depicting the unfolding of time while presenting an eerie allusion to our uncertain place within it. on the rural outskirts of Beijing, a mammoth construction of golden scaffolding emerges out of the landscape into the ominously traversing clouds. Any trace of human intervention is curiously absent, lost to the folds of time-lapse photography and therefore recorded history. An invisible human presence is also insinuated in Wang’s other videos, but the results are decidedly more visceral, suggesting that the artist’s previous concerns for the surface contradictions of profligate consumerism have now given way to a darker undercurrent of violence and crisis.

If the embrace of new patterns of consumption accompanying the integration of china into a global capitalist system has yielded vibrant modes of prosperity, then these benefits have also been accompanied by radical instabilities in everyday life and culture that are only now being fully acknowledged. the art of Wang Qingsong has always set out to critically reexamine these conditions and assess the effects of these changes upon how regular people live their lives. the process of global restructuring taking place in china and around the world is defined not only by swift economic change but also by unsolvable individual and social struggles. By penetrating the surface of these realities, Wang’s art satisfies our desire to go beyond mere appearances.

Pauline J. Yao is an independent curator and scholar based in Beijing and San Francisco. Her writings on contemporary art appear regularly in magazines, books, and exhibition catalogs. She is the author of “In Production Mode: Contemporary Art in China” (2008.)

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