‘The Scamp as Ideal

…man’s dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second, that he has dreams and a lofty idealism (often vague, or confused, or cocky, it is true, but nevertheless worthwhile); third and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humour, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will …  Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature.’

Lin Yutang ‘The importance of living’

[Li Yutang. The Importance of Living’,p.10]


In the meticulous art of Wang Qingsong the familiar signs and symbols of contemporary life are cunningly questioned through the guise of artificiality, stage and prop. His photographs convey a wry scepticism of progress by referencing distant and recent history in an attempt to confront the political, social and cultural issues of a rapidly changing China. The synthesis of communist ideology alongside economic progress is a twentieth century Chinese phenomenon that Wang Qingsong satirically mirrors and critiques.  Playing the role of marauder, interloper, investigator, documenter, teacher or Fool, you will often find him pictured ironically twisting fact and fiction in a daring construction of mockery – whether it be as war hero fighting for his life in a battlefield of McDonald landmarks in ‘Another battle series’; or as school teacher sitting dwarfed by an immense blackboard, copiously inscribed with banal Chinese political slogans in ‘Follow me’. Wang Qingsong’s investigative eye presents the paradox of human folly by challenging such subjects as the futility of war in an age of consumer ideals or the power of wealth in a society lacking spiritual guidance. Between the vagrant and the wealthy, the hero and the lost, a sense of dissolution and apathy coalesce in Wang Qingsong’s pointed dramas, however it is through humour that he embraces a sense of hope for the future and dignity of his human subjects.  

The Fool is an ancient character whose origin as court jester was closely aligned to the world of the spirits. In medieval courts, the Fool was a crucial commentator on the order of the day. As actor and entertainer, jokester and tragedian, the Fool held unique autonomy in being permitted to speak the truth without causing offence, which was limited by the guise of artifice, jest and ridicule. Through careful riddle and artful pun, the Fool relinquished the semblance of moral order, law and justice with the aim to admonish court opinion and thus in turn affect public life.[ ‘The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good.’ Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary]  

But although the Fool taunts King Lear for his inability to understand his mistakes he does not leave him to his madness. The Fool is an inextricable part of his master’s construct of reality and he in turn is dependant on this construction for his livelihood.  Wang Qingsong is as equally and fundamentally a part (and a beneficiary) of the flux of contemporary China – just as the Fool cannot desert his master in his time of need, neither can Wang Qingsong abandon the source of his inspiration. Both manipulate notions of ridicule and mockery – examining beauty, violence, lust and greed – to expose the contradictions of human behaviour. Where the Fool relied on cunning verbal puns, Wang Qingsong manipulates the visual and performative nature of the camera. 

Chinese contemporary photographic practice is an important artistic phenomenon of the last decade, its practitioners heavily questioning the role and meaning of the capitalist age and its effect on the cultural, social and political landscape of modern China. The language of the photograph, its ability to render reality as a myriad of perceptions, both natural and illusory, gradually challenged the dominant artistic realm of realism – an idiom that had fuelled the propagandist principles of the Communist regime [In China, the artistic discussion and depiction of reality was irrevocably challenged with Mao Zedong’s speech of 1942 in which he regaled art should be for the people, by the people. Historically, the place of art and culture resided with the courts of China and the educated elite, the literati. Painting, calligraphy and poetry were the esteemed arts of the gentleman who compiled books on art theory, criticism and history. Regarded as respected intellectuals they were often privileged members of a royal household, and in most cases, illustrious government officials of influence. Mao’s ‘Talks on Art and Literature’ in Yan’an spurned this chronological exclusiveness and promoted painting that spoke of the needs of the peasants. Artists were mandated to produce work that spoke of the glory of China’s national spirit or the heroism of the everyday. This Russian influenced artistic style was coined ‘Revolutionary Realism’ and possessed a profound ambivalence for China’s past and its artistic traditions – particularly Confucianism, a central foundation of moral comparison and learning of which the literati strongly aspired. Where the literati once trained their art in the copying of ancient texts, artists now (both educated and illiterate) were given the opportunity to paint from life. This so-called study of reality was a propagandist tool, a mechanism that popularised Communist party ideologies and was hugely successful in mobilising a nation into reform. This historical relationship between state and individual freedom of thought is a complex narrative, one paradoxically entwined with spiritual struggle and the changing nature of cultural tradition. It is the symptoms of this malady of progress that Wang Qingsong beautifully subverts in his photographs.]. It was not until the early 1990s that artists in China began to experiment with the nature of photography and the exploration of a human performative body[]– unlike the development of conceptual photography in the United States which saw Yves Klein in 1960 produce his iconic ‘Leap into the void’. In China, the transcendence of the realm of photography from official documentary tool to artistic object was hastened by an expeditious embrace of western visual culture, philosophy and art history. Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of the Open Door policy in 1979 created a commercial market of consumer goods that was motivated by an urgent need to modernise China’s economy. The visual landscape once agriculturally and politically driven became dominated by advertising billboards and building construction sites which uprooted ancestral homes and re-organised the possibilities for individual wealth.

In 1989, the official sanction of violence and the subsequent death of hundreds of passive protestors in Tiananmen Square revived the horrifying violence of China’s communist past. As a consequence, many artists felt compelled to re-evaluate their cultural identities.[ Li Xianting was the first to artistically analyse the burgeoning kitsch and satirical approach many Chinese experimental artists took to their art in the early 1990s, coining the use of the terms ‘gaudy’ and ‘rowdiness’ – a notion that wrestles with the idea of the joke, rascality, world-weariness, loafer, punk, bum, hoodlum. Get cat details.] The mocking portrayal of Chinese society through a satirical depiction of self is strikingly apparent as a pictorial ploy in Wang Qingsong’s early work (‘Thinker’ 1998) where he sits, Buddha fashioned, on a cabbage leaf with the logo of McDonald's emblazoned on his chest, sitting as if in a vacuum with the world whizzing past. The use of cynical humour in questioning individual purpose and historical relevance can also be found in the bored and yawning figures of Fang Lijun that listlessly sprawl across his brightly coloured canvases; or in Zhao Shaoruo’s re-framing of historical Chinese revolutionary photographs in which every man appears to be Zhao Shaoruo – a playfully ironic take on the Communist classless system.   A comparable use of consumer pastiche and digital montage is also of key significance to the work of Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer and Yasumasa Morimura, for whom the utilisation of photography as a process of self-transformation is evident in the juxtaposition of mass mediated reality with ideals of the past. Like Sherman, Holzer and Morimura, Wang Qingsong revels in the art of drama and pun. Employing the use of particular prop and stage, his photographs confront the contemporary ambivalence to the symptoms of progress, exposing the social and cultural repercussions of such unquestioned adherence to its principles. 

The illusion of the stage   

The cunning use of the theatrical stage was instrumental to the propagandist machine of the Cultural Revolution and Wang Qingsong was greatly affected by its popular modes of presence. ‘Model operas’, appropriations of traditional Chinese operas [ Do I need to say more about what these model operas were?] , tailored with revolutionary zeal, were of immense influence on the peasant classes during the Cultural Revolution. These operas were so successful in igniting a unified sense of national purpose they were produced as films, aired on radio, reproduced as posters and performed all over China. Also during this time official news agencies would print articles accompanied by photographs artfully staged, believing such photos more ‘realistic’ and better suited to the revolutionary form of reporting. The fact that many of these photographs were re-staged after the event greatly influenced Wang Qingsong and is subsequently evident in the composed and purposeful artificiality in his work. Wang Qingsong asks his audience – how is our understanding of the present shaped by the structures of the past; what truths do we dare accept in a world suffused with a plethora of manipulated digital images? 

From film set to playhouse, the formal role of the stage is to provide a conceptual divide between audience and actors. The stage is the symbolic epitome of artifice and it is this very transience that Wang Qingsong predominantly exposes in his human dramas.  The static subjects of Wang Qingsong’s pithy tales often convey a sinister quiet, as if the footage is being held at pause, like a detective’s eye moving presciently through a possible crime scene.  In Tramp a homeless couple lie in the wake of debauchery and lust, her ample breasts spilling onto a makeshift bed of FedEx and Coke-a-Cola boxes which her partner (Wang Qingsong) shares. Money is carelessly strewn on the filthy floor alongside half-eaten watermelons and flesh-stripped bones from a ravished meal. The trial of Saddam Hussein lurks on the newspaper’s daily headlines as a faithful dog sits waiting patiently for its owner to rise, a lone witness and moral arbiter. The faces of these life-less characters are robotically transfixed, frozen in the act, this underground bunker dark and oppressive, full of the cheap skeletons of consumer life which is devoid of the presence of nature.  

The man-made guise of artificiality we are accustomed to on the stage is also found in Wang Qingsong’s employment of kitsch, particularly evident in his mythologised narratives in which contemporary nymphs and naked ne'er-do-wells romp within the frame of History and folk lore. ‘Romantique’, a six metre long photographic panorama that was shot in an 1800-square metre movie studio in Beijing, pictures a Chinese garden with an azure blue sky in a manufactured atmosphere of cloud. Nakedness abounds amongst the foliage as Western art masterpieces are re-staged - some recline in the manner of Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l'Herbe’ another in the pose of Ingres ‘La Odalisque’; a woman stands centre stage as Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ while a golden Chinese Buddha looks on. Hidden tones of mockery dwell as the Chinese symbols of loyalty (dog); strength (tiger) and fidelity (duck) frolic in a synthetic paradise. The illusion of prosperity and happiness in this romantic idyll is bought with art historical references of beauty, yet its obvious artificiality suggests a darker pretence of narcissism and purposelessness.

In ‘Yaochi Fiesta’, Wang Qingsong calls forth the ancient tale of the Eight Drunken Immortals who travel to Yaochi, to celebrate ‘Pantao’ (Peach of Immortality Party) and the Queen of Heaven’s birthday. The Eight Immortals are legendary figures in Taoist thought, praised for their meditative and ascetic way of life, though also popularly celebrated as wandering reclusive sages who enjoyed the pleasures of earthly delight. In ‘Yaochi Fiesta’ the scene of mystical indulgence is distinctly subdued, this earthly heaven seemingly dull and oppressive as men and women, glaringly naked, stare apprehensively at the camera. Numb and aimless, these contemporary fairies express a lack of direction and purpose, this once historical place of frivolity now an obligatory attendance. Nakedness is synonymous with sex in the eyes of Wang Qingsong and his deliberate and often humorous depiction of human flesh as ridiculous and mundane is a reference to the ‘smokeless factory’ of the sex trade in China.[ ‘In China today, sex as trade is considered good for the environment, thus the joke ‘smokeless factory’.’ Email correspondence with artist 19/02/06] In ‘Fotofest’, five naked women perform Matisse’s ‘Dance’ to a score of 600 people, composed of retired cadres,  students, unemployed and construction workers, who hold fake Styrofoam cameras. This comical scene mimics the commercial enterprise of Photographic Unions in China where many photographers pay to attend organised events intended to examine the relationship between ‘beauty’ and ‘nature’ – which in reality is a shoot of naked women posing erotically to the whims of men in various outdoor locales. 

Using the device of stage and prop Wang Qingsong contemplates the motivations of human desire. As viewers, we are asked to assess our acceptance of new customs and rituals that re-contextualise spiritual, moral and ethical values of a culture and its traditions. 

Looking back

Wang Qingsong’s derisive employment of humour and scepticism in the portrayal of social and cultural extremes is a method of absolution which resonates with ancient texts of Chinese philosophical thought:

‘If you would not spill the wine,

Do not fill the glass too full.

If you wish your blade to hold its edge

Do not try to make it over keen

If you do not want your house to be molested by robbers

Do not fill it with gold and jade

Wealth, rank, and arrogance add up to ruin,

As surely as two and two are four

When you have done your work and established your fame,


Such is the Way of Heaven.’

[ Lao Tzu, Chapter 9 as referenced in ‘Chinese Thought: from Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung’. The New American Library, New York, 1953, pp. 89-90.]

The need for balance and equality; to know humility and dignity in times of loss; to understand the cyclical powers of the universe in the face of greed are sentiments that have counterparts in every culture, however Lao Tse’s philosophy of the ‘rogue’ which also expounds the ‘wisdom of the foolish, the advantage of camouflage, the strength of weakness, and the simplicity of the truly sophisticated’[ As in 1. p. 105] is particularly played out in the art of Wang Qingsong. 

Claiming the role of journalist and documenter, Wang Qingsong’s tales of excess and licentious behaviour are as much a part of a history of protest by Chinese literati [ The literati (‘men of letters’) were men held in high esteem in the courts of ancient China.  They were artfully skilled in the ways of verse and painted image and historically discussed as followers of the teachings of Confucius and the philosophy of Taoism.]  and officials in times of government coercion [ As Chinese critic Li Xianting states, ‘Take for example the literati and officials of the Wei and Jin dynasties (get dates). They tackled the coercive government more through crazy self-mockery and physical licentiousness, and thereby reached the aim of self-absolution…in the Yuan Dynasty’s non-dramatic songs, works of rowdy self-mockery can be found everywhere. Ming Shenkuo’s ‘Dream Pool Essays’ (‘Mengxi Bitan’) describe these Yuan dynasty literati as ‘all having comical, shameless works’. Get details of catalogue] as they are the result of contemporary circumstances. Wang Qingsong’s ‘Night revels of Lao Li’ is a stunning double play of Gu Hongzheng’s famous tenth-century Tang dynasty masterpiece ‘Night Entertainment of Han Xizai’.[ A much revered Chinese painting currently in the collection of the Imperial Palace Museum, Beijing.] 

Han Xizai was Emperor Li Yu’s Internal Secretary, a man Li Yu respected as statesman but alleged as traitor to his Imperial rule. Han was renowned for his lurid and indulgent parties of endless drinking and singing girls and Li Yu, provoked by jealously and a desire to politically expose his potential opponent, sent his court painter to investigate and document the proceedings. Careful not to be exposed on his errand, Gu Gongzhong produced from memory what was considered a scene of wild excitement and immoral licentiousness. Wang Qingsong’s almost life-size photographic rendition follows the same composition and format of the original scroll with Chinese art critic, Li Xianting, playing the role of Han Xizai. Hiring female models to dress in the garishly kitsch and revealing attire of prostitutes and surreptitiously surrounding them with contemporary brand-name consumables, these consorts parade and perform in front of other Chinese contemporary art personalities.[ such as prominent curator Gu Zhenqing] By representing the Tang dynasty court officials as members of today’s art academic elite, Wang Qingsong deliberates on the analogies between historical and contemporary hierarchies and power structures. In ‘Night revels of Lao Li’, the artist poses in the frame as both court painter and Fool, kneeling in a corner or quietly smoking a cigarette. Unbeknownst to Emperor Li Yu, it was Han Xizai’s fear of death by the State that catalysed his moral abandon, Wang Qingsong asks – what motivates contemporary society in their abandonment of ethical and honourable principles?

Moving forward

Deng Xiaoping once said ‘To get rich is glorious’, a significant phrase in considering the glittering skylines of burgeoning cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen which have destroyed the traditional residential areas known as ‘hutongs’; or the creation of township enterprises for international trade export which disguise an increasing number of sweatshops; or the emergence of an ‘entrepreneurial class’ at a time of intense unemployment. The art of national and international diplomacy and trade is the authoritarian decision of a powerful wealthy minority, a fact Wang Qingsong cunningly interrogates in ‘Can I cooperate with you?’ Taking the composition and frame of a Tang Dynasty hand scroll painting, Wang satirises Chinese ideals of progress by implying historical systems of power have not changed in the marriage between state and foreign gain.  The original work ‘The Imperial Sedan Chair’ is said to be an exemplar of Tang Dynasty diplomacy and one of the first paintings to document political relations between China’s central power and its minorities. It depicts Emperor Taizong, attended to by ladies of his court, greeting the Tibetan minister, Ludongzan, who is visiting the capital to welcome Princess Wencheng, the bride-to-be of the Tibetan king. [ The celebrated painter, Yan Liben (ca. 600-673) was made one of two Prime Ministers to Emperor Taizong during the Tang Dynasty, a most unusual appointment for a visual artist at that time. This cunning decision emulates early Tang politics in the belief of ‘wu’ (military might) and ‘wen’ (literature and arts) in the creation of History. Liben was responsible for documenting important court events, the commemoration of historical figures and the arts of Imperial diplomacy. Say something more about this being the first figure painting to document the diplomatic relations of the central power with its minorities over 1000 years ago. See Yang Xin; Richard M. Barnhart; Nie Chongzheng; James Cahill; Lang Shaojun; Wu Hung. ‘Three thousand years of Chinese Painting’. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997, p. 60.] In ‘May I cooperate with you?’ Wang Qingsong positions himself as ‘court lady’ and rickshaw driver, carrying his Western passenger towards a man waving a small flag of communist China. Two begging figures of disproportionate size stand in direct path of this oncoming cavalcade, trailed by women clad in cheap vulgar fabrics waving perfunctory standards emblazoned with the logo of McDonalds and Coca-a-Cola. Wang Qingsong’s shrewd use of humour in implying America’s support of communist ideology is a brilliant expose of hypocrisy, one compounded by the historical frame of the image which presents China as a political minority.

Wang Qingsong’s crafty cynicism continues in ‘Competition’, a scene of promotional chaos in which commercial enterprise, from multi-national to private business, jostle for prime positioning on massive walls of advertising, cluttered with the chaos of logo and slogan. In China, the struggle for ad placement in public spaces is not unlike a battle field, where one day a brand conquers only to be ripped down and replaced the next. This communicative madness recalls the Red Guard encouragement of huge character posters ‘Da zi bao’, which were posted by intellectual opponents during the Cultural Revolution and were subsequently condemned as counter-revolutionaries.  In ‘Competition’, this cyclical mayhem is pictured as a scene of destruction, the sheer enormity and scale of this public space ridiculously at odds with the inundation of paper signs that coalesce into an undecipherable montage.  The competition for space and location is deemed more important than the meaning of the message it bears – the message becomes trash, yesterday’s news, an absent and inconsequential memory.  

Many of Wang Qingsong’s photographic tableaux take the form of contemporary parables or allegories in which his imaged participation acknowledges his own complicit delight. This deliberate and humorously confronting relationship between viewer and artist is reminiscent of the infamous duo, Gilbert and George, whose wit and incisive use of photographic pastiche similarly plunders the depth and adversity of human culture in sardonic wonder.   Wang Qingsong’s cunning double play in the layering of vice and pun is also recalled in the work of seminal conceptualist John Baldessari whose deadpan, absurdist humour takes great delight in the idiosyncracies of human perception, whether it be the irreverence paid towards the history of Art or his pertinent awareness of the methods by which truth is delivered (through mediums such as photography, video and cinema). Wang Qingsong’s cynical foolery does not express an abhorrence of change, nor does he show contempt for the re-evaluation of tradition; rather, his direction is rooted in the resilience of the human spirit and fundamentally its capability to know, to learn, to understand. 

Wang Qingsong is an experimental artist whose works can only be properly understood as anchored in the complex reality of contemporary China and its rampant state of transformation. His artistic vision reveals the universality of human experience, which fundamentally questions truth and absolutism. As author Salman Rushdie writes, ‘How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive, extreme and dangerous as it is?’[ Rushdie, Salman. ‘The Satanic Verses’ – find pg.] Wang Qingsong touches on the brevity of man’s ambition and the historical legacy of human civilisation, his art revels in the notion of cultural opposites and the possibility of the new.

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