Interview with Wang Qingsong - Demetrio Paparoni

Interview with Wang Qingsong

Demetrio Paparoni

Constructed with expensive scenographic techniques requiring large studios, complex architectural structures, park lamps and numerous extras, the disillusioned expressions in Wang Qingsong’s photos relate the broken dreams and promises of a society that changes too quickly to develop models of life that respect the needs of everyone. In them we recognize not only the China of today, but also traces of a global society that could be ours. His recent photo Goddess (2011), published in many Western newspapers, shows a clay bust of the Statue of Liberty, with the Mao jacket, entirely marked by cracks. About eight meters high and weighing twenty tons, the sculpture, made in the studio in Songzhuang on the outskirts of Beijing, is surrounded by scaffolding and debris. In the midst of the litter we recognize a plaque bearing the date of the Declaration of Independence of the United States and a plaster bust of the artist taken as a model to realize the large sculpture. Around this singular Statue of Liberty, built in 22 days, chickens freely scratch about. A freedom of movement not enjoyed by the Chinese people, highlighted the New York Times, which published the photo and a commentary on October 16, and which sees reflected in this work, a China torn between two ideals: Chairman Mao's doctrine and the principles of democracy. “Goddess has two meanings," Wang explains to me. "On the one hand, the scaffolding indicates that one is working on the creation of an ideal that is also a dream and a belief; on the other hand, the unfinished sculpture and sense of abandonment of the site indicates that one isn’t able to go all the way to realize this ideal, which has been demolished, destroyed.” I ask him again why the statue is wearing the Mao jacket and if this mixture of symbols expresses the concern that China may westernize as a result of globalization.

Regarding the economics and the market aspect – he replies - China today is more western than the West. Culturally, and also politically if we want, China has maintained its own identity and indeed has no intention of becoming westernized or conditioned by the West. But that's not what worries me. I’m concerned about the rapid, sudden changes inside Chinese society, which has always had a socialist approach that is also manifested in family and interpersonal relationships. In relationships with family or friends, for example, one didn’t use to sense that individualism that characterizes Western society. There was a wider circle of solidarity. But now, from this point of view, things are suddenly changing in an alarming way: society isn’t ready for such a radical change and people find themselves somewhat confused.

Chinese intellectuals, however, have looked to the West.

If they have looked to the West, they haven’t done it to learn or to conform, but simply to understand what Chinese society must not become.

In China, there are also artists convinced that after conquering the world economically, the Chinese will also conquer it culturally.

This way of thinking has nothing to do with art. Statements of this kind seem inspired by the Party. Everyone knows that it’s the Party talking like this, not the artist.

The most famous Chinese artist in the West is Ai Weiewei, known also because he is a dissident. Do you think the artist has a social responsibility?

There are two kinds of artists. There’s the falser one, who knows the West by having lived there and who exploits its system, mentality and strategies, and then there are artists like Ai Weiwei. He has lived abroad too, but uses the knowledge gained in the West proactively rather than opportunistically. But above all he knows the mentality, culture and history of China very well. Recombining the various elements of Chinese culture and Western culture, he creates something significant and new. I am very attached to him and to his art. I think he's a symbol. I like his position. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not clearly and deliberately anti-government, but is an action of disturbance. It's like the cat chasing the mouse. The cat won’t necessarily eat the mouse, nor is even interested in eating the mouse ...

Ai Weiwei has been accused of pornography for taking photographs of naked bodies. The nude has appeared in your work from the beginning.

I have never been formally accused of pornography, but in 2006 I had problems with the police, who raided the installation I’d set up and seized the film of the photo I’d just taken. Ai Weiwei encouraged me on that occasion. He urged me to react, but I behaved differently from him because I’m a reserved type. Unfortunately, that film has been lost, and I didn’t feel like redoing the work.

Why did they seize the film?

There were nudes and someone told the authorities that we were making pornographic photos. On other occasions I was luckier because no one was spying while the photos were being made.

So you’re not free to exhibit just any kind of work in China?

As an artist, my freedom has limits, but as an individual I haven’t had major problems so far.

In your video Iron Man (2008) the fixed shot focuses on your face, which becomes a mask of blood under the punches of a figure off scene. When they stop hitting you, you react with a mocking laugh. In Skyscraper (of the same year) the camera focuses on the rural outskirts and shows a house that explodes and the rapid rise of a skyscraper taking its place. The end of the work is celebrated with fireworks. These would appear to be subjects that one can’t exhibit in China. Doesn’t it create problems for you to deal with topics that refer to the current social and political life of the country?

There are absolutely no works that can’t be exhibited, but one must always take into account the political context of the moment: what events are being prepared, if there are any conferences or if there are changes in the air. The situation is clearly more delicate at those times. I showed works like Iron Man and Skyscraper without any problems. In other circumstances, the issues addressed by these works would instead be burning issues. Before 1989, the Chinese artist maintained a certain distance from society, and this guaranteed him some serenity.  Then everything changed. In the nineties, the State forced me to change my address all the time. The same thing happened to Ai Weiwei. It’s as if the outside world had pulled us out of our homes by force, both virtually and metaphorically.

Why did they ask you to move?

In 1995 the government decided to assign to the international conference on women of ONU the area of Yuan Ming Yuan which from 1992 hosted the art colony I belonged to.

In Dormitory (2005) you show an enormous dorm full of people pigeonholed like battery chickens and who, almost all completely naked, are trying to find a little intimacy.

Capitalism has modernized our country, previously agricultural. But that has not made China less chaotic than it already was. The relations with foreign countries are chaotic, the ones with Japan, with Southeast Asia and, more recently, those with America. It’s a matter of unstable relationships, ephemeral friendships that can change from one moment to the next. The same also applies to relations between individuals. There is nothing here that is stable and lasting.

Are you afraid that China may become involved in some sort of conflict?

China is more concerned about its internal stability. The danger might come from internal conflicts in the Communist party, or in its base. My work is aimed more at the conflicts within families or between people. These tensions have an impact on society. If we talk about international relations, it seems to me very unlikely that China will actively engage in a conflict, or that others are  interested in attacking China.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of your country?

I think the situation will gradually improve. For most people there are two different attitudes: there are those who think only of their daily life and improving their condition, but there are also those who worry about the political effects on society. For the latter it’s about being ready to grasp any sign of change. This obviously creates tension. Nevertheless, the situation seems destined to improve.

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