by Via Prospero

More Intelligent Life, 2011


Night Revels of Lao Li, 120x960cm, 2000


Wang Qingsong's photographs are darkly humorous. Staged and absurd, they tend to consider the hollow promises of consumer culture in China. In “Bathhouse” (2000), for example, the artist sits in a pool surrounded by plastic fruit, Coca-Cola bottles and painted ladies, all of whom look terribly bored (pictured below). Later works are both grander and more subtle, such as “Yaochi Fiesta” (2005), a mythical scene of paradise in which scores of nude Chinese look uneasy, even ashamed. With legs crossed and mouths pursed, they appear chagrined by what was meant to be a delicious fantasy. Mr Wang, a Beijing-based artist, arranges these scenes in a warehouse-like film studio. Though often amusing, they are more than mere gags. Rather, they often feel like odd group portraits, with plenty of powerful reasons to keep looking beyond the first snigger.

This wry approach to chronicling Chinaʼs economic and cultural changes is earning international notice. “Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide”, his most extensive solo show in America, has just opened at the International Centre of Photography (ICP) in New York. His work is also part of “Photography from the New China”, now at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. Mr Wang, at the opening of his show at the ICP, expressed gratitude for the attention. “Going overseas is like opening a door to what is happening in the West,” he told The Economist (in a conversation translated by his wife, Zang Fang). “In China we canʼt see whatʼs going on in the world.” Time in the West, and perhaps especially in America, helps to clarify for Mr Wang some fundamental cultural misunderstandings. “China in the Western idea is like a tiger—a danger, a threat,” he said. “But maybe China is just a big rhino, gentle and harmless. Not a monster.”

Mr Wang conceded that it is “tricky” to be an artist in China, where “the best student is the best follower”. Like Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist whose studio was recently demolished by government authorities, Mr Wang suggested that artists are duty-bound to pose questions in the face of Chinaʼs cultural uniformity. “We should be suspicious of what is real and what is false,” he said. “We must make our own judgment.”

Indeed, there is a palpable bitterness in Mr Wang's work, which often features corporate logos and vacant faces. In China, where Mao and his Cultural Revolution destroyed centuries of tradition, the newly prosperous are filling this cultural void with new material pleasures. Mr Wang depicts his unsophisticated countrymen in a thrall to empty, tacky consumerism, embracing McDonald's and Jack Daniels as signs of progress. He seems to lament not only the vulgar exports of the West but the way Chinese people gobble them up—a relationship he once described as a “mutually beneficial conspiracy”. “When McDonaldʼs came to China, it opened in the fanciest parts of Beijing, so people assume this is nice cuisine from the West,” Mr Wang recalled. Thousands of people rushed to eat burgers and many still hold swanky parties at the outlets. The artist seems pained by this misunderstanding, admitting that it was only years later that he himself learned that McDonaldʼs was nothing but a fast-food chain.

Trained as a painter, Mr Wang moved to photography in the mid-1990s, believing it was a better way to document Chinaʼs dynamism. “Night Revels of Lao Li” (2000) is Mr Wangʼs interpretation of a famous tenth-century scroll painting by Gu Hongzhong. The original, called “Night Revels of Han Xizai”, follows a frustrated court official who resorts to debauchery after he realises his reform efforts are falling on deaf ears. It is a painting that captures the uneasy role of intellectuals in Chinese society. Mr Wangʼs contemporary version (detail above) features Li Xianting, a Beijing art critic, who government officials had shoved from his post as editor of an influential magazine. The triptych sees Mr Li surrounded by dowdy concubines and shabby pleasures, little of which seems enviable. “After so many years of Chinese history, I find no change in the destinies of intellectuals in China,” Mr Wang has said of this photograph. “ After the feast is over and the guests are gone, the intellectual is very sad.”

"Photography from the New China" is on view at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles until April 24th; "Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide" is at the International Centre of Photography until May 8th


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