As China Evolves, So Does an Artist by KAREN ROSENBERG


As China Evolves, So Does an Artist

The New York Times January 27, 2011


Competition, 170x300cm, 2004
“Competition” (2004) is one of 15 works in the exhibition “Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide” at the International Center of Photography.

The Beijing artist Wang Qingsong, born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, has seen China morph from an insular, rural society to a globally engaged dynamo. His art has evolved just as rapidly, from Gaudy Painting (a Chinese variation on Pop) to giant photographs staged in movie studios and short, performance-based videos. All of these works regard recent changes in Chinese culture — the proliferation of McDonald’s, overcrowded cities, even a booming art scene — from an ironic stance that needs no translation.

In the 2004 photograph“Competition,” for instance, he standson a ladder with megaphone in hand in front of a wall of hand-lettered advertisements, giving a Western-inflected, consumerist twist to the old Red Guard posters that adorned city walls during the Cultural Revolution. Brand names including Citibank, Starbucks and Art Basel are visible, though much of the writing is in Chinese.

That striking image is part of a small survey, “Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide,” at the International Center of Photography. It’s not the first appearance at the center for Mr. Wang (whose full name is pronounced wahng ching-SAHNG); he appeared in the 2004 exhibition “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China,”organized jointly with Asia Society.

The current show is Mr. Wang’s biggest presentation in the United States so far, though at just a dozen photographs and three videos it’s a bit of a tease. It leaves you wanting to see more from this gimlet-eyed artist — and from the Center of Photography.

The curator Christopher Phillips, who organized the show, links Mr. Wang to Western photographers and painters like Gregory Crewdson and the Weimar-era satirist George Grosz. Other Westerners that may come to mind are Andreas Gursky, for his hyperdetailed depictions of unchecked globalism, and Thomas Demand, whose photographs of meticulously constructed paper-and-cardboard environments make fictions of “real”political events.

But it seems disingenuous to talk about the staged photograph, in this context, without acknowledging its Socialist Realist history. Government censorship is another subject left untouched in the show, even as the art world digests news about the destruction of the artist Ai Weiwei’s studio in Shanghai this month. (Mr. Wang, though less outspoken than Mr. Ai, has in the past been questioned by the police and has had negatives confiscated.)

The earliest works on view date from the late 1990s, after Mr. Wang abandoned his Gaudy Art paintings. They’re sharply observant but not very nuanced; the image of a materialist Buddha clutching cigarettes, beer and a cellphone is typical.

The humor is more sophisticated in Mr. Wang’s interpretation of the 10th-century scroll painting “Night Revels of Han Xizai.” He casts the Beijing art critic Li Xianting in the role of the debauched court official Han Xizai, and himself as the emperor’s spy. Scantily clad “courtesans” sip Pepsi and Jack Daniel’s as Mr. Wang peeks out from behind a curtain. Beyond the voyeurism there is a parable about the fate of the intellectual in contemporary China.

Almost as rich are the works from 2003-5, “Competition” among them, elaborately staged in a Beijing film studio and starring Mr. Wang. The sets are artworks in themselves, as is made clear by short behind-the-scenes videos at the photography center.

In “Follow Me” Mr. Wang sits at a desk in front of an enormous chalkboard covered in English and Chinese writing. The setup riffs on a popular BBC-Central China Television language-instruction program from the 1980s, but the words and phrases being taught here seem to have more to do with the millennial art boom; they include “Documenta”,“Venice Biennale” and “Uli Sigg,” the major Chinese-contemporary collector.

Other works offer wry commentary on the fast-tracked development of Chinese cities and the plight of the migrant workers who come from rural areas to build them. In the most recent of these images, “Dormitory” (2005), dozens of nude figures inhabit small compartments in what is essentially a giant bunk bed constructed by Mr. Wang. Curiously, some of them seem to be occupied by artist models (note the seated figure plucked from Man Ray’s “Ingres Violin,” one of many Western art references in Mr. Wang’s photographs).

Just as he shifted from painting to photography Mr. Wang has lately turned to video, making short works that, in a familiar YouTube idiom, compress lengthy or difficult endeavors into just a couple of minutes. Some of them pick up on the urban themes in the photographs; for “Skyscraper” Mr. Wang hired construction workers to erect a 115-foot golden scaffold on the outskirts of Beijing.

Others, though, are more performance oriented. In “Iron Man,” for instance, the artist is pummeled bloody by spectral fists. The work’s title, in Chinese, describes positive attributes of ambition and endurance. Westerners, though, are likely to perceive the violence as a dark meditation on human-rights abuses — notwithstanding Mr. Wang’s broad grin at the end of the video, or his vague comments on the wall label. “We all get hit in one form or another in life,” he says, “perhaps not literally but figuratively.”

Violence also dominates “123456 Chops,” in which Mr. Wang’s younger brother hacks a goat carcass into minuscule pieces on a wooden platform. It’s a spectacularly grisly version of process art.

If the videos are any indication, Mr. Wang is moving from critiques of materialism to more subversive topics and from Hollywood-style set design to stripped-down, bodycentric actions. His art is getting tougher as it gets lighter.

“Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide” continues through May 8 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street; (212) 857-0000;

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