WANG QINGSONG by Danielle Shang


by Danielle Shang

YISHU September, 2011


S: I have seen many versions of your biography; they are all slightly different. I want to for once get the correct information from you.

W: I was born in Helongjiang in 1966. My family moved to Hubei province, when my father was transferred to an oilfield there in 1969. After he passed away in 1980, I replaced him to work on a drilling platform. In 1990, I went to Sichuan to attend preparation classes for the art academy. I was admitted by Sichuan Art Academy the following year and graduated with an associate degree in oil painting in 1993, when I immediately moved to Beijing.

S: When you worked in the oilfield, how did you hear about Western contemporary art and Chinese avant-garde art movement?

W: Hubei was very progressive in the mid 1980s. Many young artists from Hubei participated in the ‘85 New Wave (1). I learned about contemporary art from my friends. There were three important art publications at the time that also spread the news: Fine Arts, Jiangsu Art Journal and Art Newspaper (2).

S: In most of your work, you illustrate the diligent pursuit of personal dreams and the uncertain outlook of the future in big cities of China against the background of globalization and modernization. How was your experience of pursuing your own personal dreams? What were your dreams when you came to Beijing? You considered yourself a “loser.” Why?

W: I took my father’s place on a drilling platform. Even though I enjoyed drilling, but I was very aware that the job had a low social status. People looked down upon workers on the oil fields. I was not good at schooling either. I took the admission exams for the art school for five times before I was finally accepted. I had failed so many times in my life before I moved to Beijing. I couldn’t even go back to the oilfield to work in a more decent department, after I graduated. When I came to Beijing, my dream was   to eventually enter a national exhibition.

S:  You were part of Gaudy Art. Why were you interested in that style?

W: Gaudy Art was inspired by pop culture. I was fascinated with pop culture at that time. I realized at the time that our tradition needed to be synchronized with our contemporary life. Gaudy Art was an attempt to digest. But the other reason was that in the ‘90s, Political Pop and Cynical Realism were already very popular. Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun had a fast and stellar rise. In 1993 and 1994, Fang was invited to participate in the Venice Biennale and San Paolo Biennale. It was not cool to be a follower. I saw no hope for imitating their styles. I actually wanted to quit painting all together.

S: While living in Yuanmingyuan, you hang out with many artists who were also known as Gaudy Artists, such as Liu Zheng and Xu Yihui. You discussed a lot about pop culture. What was the pop culture like back then?

W:  The pop culture was definitely different from the pop culture in the West. It started with music. Music was changing in the ‘90s. Many propaganda songs, that once were political and serious, were rearranged to become pop songs: not the pop songs for the middle class or city folks, but folk songs for peasants and truck drivers. The conversion made it easy for ordinary people to digest “high” culture. The repackaging also achieved a commercial success. Many songs about Mao sung by girls with coy voices became instant hits.

S: How was it like to live in Yuanmingyuan and later Song Zhuang?

W: In Yuanmingyuan, it was about survival. The living condition was primitive. Most of us were outsiders of society. Nobody had a steady income or a stable job. A few people hung out in Yuanmingyuan because they enjoyed the Bohemian lifestyle. Song Zhuang was a scene of prosperity at that time. Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Liu Wei had enough money to build their own studios. I didn’t have money, so I rented a place to live in Song Zhuang, after I was forced to move five times in ‘95 and ‘96.

S: In 1996, you finally quit painting. You stated that you were unable to continue painting. What did you mean by that?

W: I hit the dead end. If I had continued painting, I would have ended up being a copycat. If you notice, at that time performance art, installation and photography also appeared in China, because we could not make painting work. I started to experiment with photography and photo collage. You can see the cutouts from magazines and calendars in my images from 1996, 1997.

S: Our Life is Sweeter than Honey (1996) and the Last Supper (1996) were all photo collage?

W:  Yes. The former was made out of the propaganda poster for Hong Kong’s handover and the latter was made of a calendar: one girl from each month, plus me in the middle. Thirteen of us.

S:  Were you aware that the Last Supper was from the Bible?

W: Of course. I knew it when I was taking art classes. Everyone was copying Western masterpieces and making sketches of Western statues: Caucasians with curly hair. All the art works that we studied were European church related. Such is our art education system: completely borrowed from Europe. It was first introduced to China by Xu Beihong.

S: I know that Li Xianting was influential in the ‘90s and you were friends with him. When was your first solo show? Did Li Xianting have anything to do with it?

W:  My first solo show was at Ludovic Bois’ Chinese Contemporary Art in London. It was a painting show. Li was not involved.

S:  I want to talk about Night Revels of Lao Li (2000). Was there a particular reason to choose Li Xianting as the protagonist? What is your experience in China as an intellectual? Do you think you are carrying out the responsibility for social reform and political progress? Or do you think that you are resigning to the state of Han Xizai (3), because you feel disappointed and powerless about China’s reality?

W:  I didn’t intend to involve him. He was so famous and idolized, and I was nobody. I was actually intimidated by him. Before the photo shoot, I had a conversation with Li. When he heard about my project, his eyes were brightened. He told me that he just finished an article on the destiny of Chinese literati and Night Revels of Han Xizai. He volunteered to play the role of Han Xizai for my shooting after our talk. I originally hired someone else who had a long beard and looked very much like the figure in the original painting. But Lao Li had something that nobody had: his manner, his emotional depth and his experience in life. He was the perfect Han Xizai. After I developed the film, I was profoundly impressed with his expression of powerlessness and stoicism; it was precious. You know, what happened to Han Xizai a thousand years ago is not different from what happens to today’s intellectuals.

Li was not acting. It was his true feelings. In 2000, when Chinese government began to involve in contemporary art, many renowned artists collaborated with the government. Li never verbalized his disapproval, but I could see it on his face. Once I spent the night on the sofa at his home. He asked me: “Do you know who have slept on this sofa before? From Luo Zhongli to Fang Lijun to Wang Guangyi, they all have slept here. Now you.” His sofa was a metaphor for Chinese contemporary art scene. He saw enough of coming-and-going and was skeptical about the clueless illusion of success.

S: You sold all your paintings by the end of the ‘90s. You don’t have any paintings left, do you?

W: Technically I didn’t sell anything. Nobody bought my paintings. But I begged and added pressure to a few people to pay for my paintings, because my mom was fatally ill and I needed money for the hospital bills. In 1999, I gave three of my biggest paintings for only 10,000 RMB. I fundraised about 20,000RMB for my mom.

S: Before 2000, you could only afford to take pictures of yourself. How were you able to rent large film studios, hire numerous models and build elaborated sets after 2000?

W: Money was tight in the ‘90s. A model would cost over 100RMB, which could afford someone to live for an entire month. My mother passed away in 2000. Before her death, her working unit compensated her for some of the hospital expenses and ten-month-worth salary. She left every penny to me. I spent it all on the production of Night Revels of Lao Li, for which I began to prepare in 1998, but I kept putting it off, due to the lack of money.

S:  Because you employ sprawling studio setting and stylized arrangements, you are often compared to Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. I find your sensibility quite different from theirs. Their photography is sleek and polished. Many images look like still-images from big-budget movies. But yours are rough, awkward, satiric and whimsical.

W: When someone first pointed it out to me, I had no idea who they were. I looked them up. Their photography emphasizes on technique. Their work is textbook-perfect. But I don’t care about technique. If we must talk about inspiration, my work is inspired by the photography during the Cultural Revolution. Most of propaganda photos at that time were ridiculously staged. They made up hundreds of photos of a young soldier Lei Feng and they gathered crops from other farms to fill up one rice paddy field for the photo shoot of a miracle harvest under Mao’s leadership. Pictures of people reading Mao’s books in the sun are laughable. How can you see anything in the bright sun?

I was also influenced by Pierre & Gilles. I saw a postcard of their work on the street of London. I immediately detected the similar mockery and sarcasm in their work. Their photo of a tearful army official of the former Soviet Union (4) was amazing: garish, erotic and ridiculous. I later bought their books to further study their art. Their art is not exactly photography, because it involves postproduction of painting and coloring. I regard them as great artists. When they came to China to exhibit in Shanghai, we almost met. They expressed the interest in remaking one of my photographs. I liked the idea. We exchanged emails and tried to make a plan to meet, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.  It was a pity.

S: Not all of your photographs have grand schemes and massive studio sets. Follow Me (2003) was simple but nevertheless striking.

W: People thought that my art attracted so much attention, because I spent so much money on big setting. So I deliberately minimized the production of Follow Me and gave myself a budget of 100 RMB. The only things that I paid for were the box of chalks and the stick in my hand. The total cost was 20RMB. I regret very much that I didn’t document the shooting. It was so messy. The floor was covered with rubbish. But after I edited the photo and cropped out the floor, it became one of my favorite works. The image was immediately embraced in the West, because of the English words on the chalkboard, which made it easier to relate. The Chinese audience prefers Night Revels of Lao Li.

S: Most of your work has to do with food and the impact of Western consumerism on Chinese culture. When was the first time for you to eat Western food? Was it McDonald’s or Pizza Hut?

W: McDonald. I ate at the first McDonald’s in China. Someone treated me for a hamburger in 1994. We spent four hours there. The service was excellent. The place was enormous. A waiter brought food to our table and cleaned up after us. It was luxury and elegant. When I had my first McDonald’s in London in 1997, I could not believe my experience: it was cheap and uncharacteristic. The place was just a hole in the wall across street from a sewage maintenance facility. Workers came in for their break, still in their dirty uniforms. I left after only a few minutes feeling cheated. The contrast was so profound that I had to make a work about it.

S:  Was it your first time abroad? What was your first impression of the “West”?

W:  The West in my mind, before I first went abroad in 1997, was material-driven and money-thirsty. I went to London alone. I had a map of London but it was in Chinese with pictures of subways and museums. Naturally the map didn’t help. I pointed at my map to police officers on the street. They would walk me all the way until about 10 or 20 meters to the address that I was looking for. Sometimes they would walk with me as far as a kilometer. To avoid making me feel embarrassed, they always left a few meters for me to walk on my own. The officers were so nice and considerate. At first, I was intimidated, because you wouldn’t see police carrying weapons in China. I dared not to ask them for directions. But they always approached me voluntarily. I thought to myself: “My god, is it really capitalism? It’s even better than communism.”

S: You have made a lot of reference to art history, Western and Chinese. Do you intentionally incorporate art history in your art?

W: Masterpieces are like stage props for me. Masterpieces are too popular and too well received to provoke controversy. They function, in my work, as a helper for composition. They are so familiar to the viewer that they have become part of our subconsciousness. 

S: In 2006, you didn’t produce any work, but you did work on an elaborated and installation-based photograph titled Blood of the World, in which you referenced many masters’ paintings, from Delacroix to Goya. Could you tell us what the work was intended to be and why the films were confiscated? Have you had a lot of problems with permits and security? What kind of impact did this incident have on you?

W: 2005 had so many war-related memorial events: it was the 60th anniversary of the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II in Europe. I planned to shoot a photo to commemorate those events. The production was very intense. I spent over a month in 2006 in the studio to prepare the set. It would have been the most complex shoot for me. An extra actor told the police on me about the nude models. It had never been a big deal for me to shoot nudity. This incident changed my perception of artists’ freedom in China. Censorship had never occurred to me until then. I realized that there were boundaries and limits in this society. To survive, I need to put my tail between my legs. I must be humble. I can’t just think about myself and my art. I have children and a family now. Censorship could also affect them.

S: It has been 15 years since you began using photography as your primary medium. When you look back in your career, do you think your work has changed? In 2008, you employed new media: video and sculpture. The sensibility in the work is more reflective than reactive. Even in your photography, your interest has seemed to shift to the psychoanalytical impact of changes in China. If we compare Competition from 2004 with Debacle from 2009, we can see the frenzy action depicted in Competition, but Debacle is quiet and without one single person in it. It presents an almost abstract pattern with an eerie feeling of defeat and desertion. How did the transformation begin?

W: I wanted to revisit Competition, but I didn’t want to repeat. In 2004, the global economy was booming. Many Western investors came to China to open factories. But in 2009, when the economy plunged, many manufactories in the coastal areas were shut down. The world changes so drastically and so rapidly, so do people. I often think about revisiting Night Revels too, perhaps to make a video work.

I have changed psychologically and emotionally. Before my attitude was very blunt and unapologetic. Now I don’t see things black-and-white any more. I still question many things, however I am no longer so direct. Society has become so complicated. And I have become older now. I’m more cautious. I am now willing to look at various possible answers.

S: The style in your newer photographs, such as Romeo and Juliet or Safe Milk is quite different from your previous work. Professional fashion models are employed. The photos are sleek and stylish. Why did you abandon using Chinese models with awkward bodies and mundane expressions?

W: I wanted to test out a new idea to use foreigners or different models to reflect China’s new reality. I entered a group show with those photos. Many people did not recognize them at first. But I think, like my speech pattern, no matter what subject matter or what kind of models I use, I always carry my own accent.
S: You won’t go back to using Chinese models?

W: I don’t think so at least for now. I’m in the process of exploring new possibilities. I want to go to Los Angeles to do a project. In a foreign country, I want to collaborate with foreign models.

S: Your previous work addressed the polarization between the rich and the poor and the tension between Chinese tradition and Western culture. What about now? What does your work focus on?

W: Social conflicts no longer affect me as strongly as before. I was easily provoked by what happened around me when I was young. Now I contemplate more and reflect more, which slows down my work pace. It takes longer to decide on a subject matter and how to approach it. Last year in 2010, I was only able to create two pieces of work.

S: How did you like your first solo exhibition in the US at ICP?

W: They proposed to me almost five years ago. Originally I was asked to provide enough works to occupy the entire ICP space: upstairs and downstairs. I was also asked to do projects at other possible venues: Asia Society and New Museum were both mentioned. Not long before the opening, I was told that the exhibition was only going to occupy a portion of downstairs with only 15 pieces . The catalogue was canceled as well. I was disappointed and nervous. However I was wonderfully surprised at the opening, because almost 2,000 people showed up to see my work. All the curators, collectors, critics, journalists and gallerists came. They all took my work seriously. I was happy and satisfied with the job that ICP did. I realize now that the scale of the exhibition and a catalog are not as important as having people see my work.

S:  Have you read all the reviews in the Western media? What do you think? Do you think their writing reflects what your work is about?

W: I don’t think it matters. It’s great to have a different point of view, even if it is not what I intended to be. It creates legend and mystery. I like it!

S: You stated that Chinese art was the center of the international attention, because of the Olympics and the World Expo. Now Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo are in the past, what is your thought on the future of Chinese art?

W: The Chinese art market was full of bubbles before, but the bubbles won’t disappear so easily. The art system in the West tends to predict what’s the next or what the rules are. How can you set rules? Art is meant to push the envelope. Chinese art has a different vitality and dynamic. It’s more spontaneous. There has not been an international super star coming from China yet. Ai Weiwei could very likely become one. I think that he is a greater artist than many others.

S: What are you going to do next? Is your new studio in Song Zhuang ready for you to move in?

W: Almost. I will spend sometime getting to know the new studio space before I begin producing work. Hopefully I can create four or five pieces this year. And next year I’ll concentrate on only one piece. I am not interested in market or even exhibitions any more. I want to plan what I want to do in 10 years: a real long-term plan.


(1) As part of the New Wave, many experimental and avant-garde exhibitions were held in Hubei, such as Hubei Invitational Exhibition of New Chinese Ink Painting in 1985 and Hubei Art Festival of Young Artists in 1986.
(2) During the ’85 New Wave, they were widely called “two journals and one newspaper.”
(3) Han Xizai was the protagonist of the painting Night Revels of Han Xizai by Gu Hongzhong (937-975). The narrative painting includes five extravagant entertainment scenes at Han’s house. Han, a talented artist and intellectual, indulged himself with excessive revelry to escape his feeling of powerlessness and frustration towards politics.
(4) Le Petit Communiste (1990), with Christophe as the model.

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