The Glorious Life in China Where Dissonance Lingers Along

The Glorious Life in China Where Dissonance Lingers Along
by SEOK Jae-Hyun


What does “The Glorious Life” mean for China? Last year, China celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Chinese Economic Reform. The long march of economic development to realize “Chinese Dream” has resulted in the dazzling achievement of super-speed growth. Just as Korea achieved “the Miracle of Han River” in the 1970s, China has similarly achieved “the Miracle of the Continent.” In 1978 when China began the Economic Reform, its per-capita GDP was only $379, with a total of $20.6 billion in foreign trade. It was a dilapidated agricultural country with an estimated rural population of 250 million in poverty. Although the economic reform began with China striving to provide living essentials to its people, the country eventually became the second largest economic power in the world. China’s dramatic transformation can be likened to the advent of a whole new world. This miracle is likely to have been positively euphoric for the Chinese people. However, there is no flawless utopia on earth, and China also has to pay a price for its glory. As construction sites take over myriad corners of the continent, livelihoods become plagued by pollution and the people roam like vagabonds to find jobs amidst the urban jungle of skyscrapers. When Western culture lands across the nation and faces obstacles in assimilating properly with the Chinese environment, dissonance emerges through the cracks between tradition and modernity, cities and people, and bleak reality and hollow dreams. The artist Wang Qingsong exposes the true nature of China’s “glorious life” to the world, transferring the countless dissonances that he has witnessed into motifs in his works.

“I think it is meaningless if an artist only creates art for art’s sake. For me, the dramatic changes in China have transformed China into a huge playground or construction site. Whenever I go into the cities, I feel suffocated by pollution, social contradictions, and so forth. All of these factors contribute to the fact that artists cannot just make art for art’s sake. I think it would be absurd for an artist to ignore what’s going on in the society.”

Wang Qingsong is an indispensable figure in the discourse of contemporary photography in China. Wang is instrumental in creating a momentous ripple in the genre, and is beheld as one master of photography with international renown. Having majored in art, he chooses photography as a creative medium which carries the capacity to unveil ironies in the reality of China. Wang’s oeuvre, which merges installation art with performing art, presents an uncharted territory to the photography circle in China, where traditional documentary photography had prevailed until then. Wang’s works conceptualizes the chaos of values denoted by “The Glorious Life” in a hilarious yet cheerful, critical yet artistic manner. His works enrich and expand the concepts of Chinese contemporary photography through novel approaches and cultural significance.

Wang Qingsong was born in north-east China in the 1960s and led a stereotypical life as a Chinese citizen. Born and raised to the age of three in Heilongjiang Province, where China and Russia confronted each other in on-going military tensions, he vividly recalls the sight of tanks from his early childhood. Later, Wang relocated to Hubei Province with his family and faced the lives of oil workers toiling in oil fields that had previously been swampland. His father was a cadre. After his father dier his whole family. Upon entering college, Wang moved to Sichuan Province, the most populous one in China. The landscape of the metropolis was an unfamiliar sight, while workers roaming for jobs created a deep impression on him. After graduating from college and settling down in Beijing, Wang began to encounter situations of dissonance more often amid the enormous flow of urbanization. All of these life experiences become recurring motifs of Wang’s works.

Showing a remarkable passion for art since his childhood, Wang started his artistic career in oil painting after graduating from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in his late twenties. It was in 1996 when he changed his mind to shift from oil painting to photography. Wang believed that photography, which was recognized as a legitimate new media, was the most precise medium for creatively documenting moments of turbulence in the ambiguous “glorious life” that he had experienced. In 1997 when he was courting his future wife, he began taking photographs in earnest with his newly-bought Minolta film camera. Wang used the stone wall of his courtyard country house as the backdrop to create his seminal works “Thinker” and “Catcher” in 1998. His wife pressed the shutter of the camera on behalf of photographer-turned-model Wang Qingsong. At the time in the West when self-portraits were already in vogue, Wang took his self-portraits because he could not afford to pay the modeling fee of 1,200 yuan per day. Moreover, it was an inevitable choice for him to model himself, as even professional models were reluctant to expose faces or bodies to express the concepts that Wang envisioned.

There is a slogan coined and phrased as a global buzzword by Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Chinese Economic Reform. It is the “Black Cat, White Cat” theory, meaning that it does not matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice well. Regarding economic growth as the first priority and accumulated wealth as the predominant pride was prevalent in China in the 1990s. The dramatic transformations in its economy, as well as the high expectations of 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai World Expo were hyped up to let the Chinese people dream of a rosy future and a glorious life. Wang, however, believed the contrary. He caught sight of the dark shadows behind rapid economic growth, such as the loss of humanity, cultural conflicts, and contradictions across entire society. Through his works, Wang portrays another “glorious life” entrenched in the “glory”, the dark dimensions of economic growth, filled with counterfeited realities and fabricated viewpoints.

To summarize, Wang’s works constitute a kind of “role play in action.” He inserts himself into his works as preposterous yet ingenious characters such as a Buddha, a historical scholar, a teacher, a soldier, or a vagabond. Ranging from his early works in which he edited self-shots through computer software, to “UN Party” (2007) that mobilized a jaw-dropping crowd of over 1,400 people as subjects of photography in large film studios, Wang Qingsong conveys multitudes of social dilemmas that China has been challenged. To convey his messages, he adopts “tableaux vivant”, rather than typical documentary photography, through which he pursues the highest degree of perfection. Wang is a great talent with a remarkable sense for delivering his stories in visual form. To produce a scene with an exaggerated highlight like a theatrical stage, he would make sketches or blueprints before shooting, including historical backgrounds and situations, and even small details such as props and roles of every figure are specified. He seems to create each sketch or blueprint as perfectly as if it were a piece of art in itself, so that the numerous figures within it may exist in harmony in a single frame that combines installation art and performing art. Based on his life experiences and observations, Wang realizes that the sole medium enriched with the capacity to digest and represent his ideas is photography, which adheres strictly to his artistic method.

In fact, many people are curious about Wang’s working methods. They wonder how he takes the massive photos that seem like scenes from plays and movies, and how he completes gigantic works such as “The History of Monuments” (2009-2010), which is 42 meters long. In this case, he began from composing a photo collage using Photoshop, and later developed it into a continuous fifteen-day shooting spree of using a large 8 x 10 inches camera and light crews. In his diptych “One World, One Dream” (2014), which combined two photos showing a ladder in front of a giant blackboard, he was commissioned to create a work inspired by the space specifics. Most of his works are created in the manner as directors creating at large film studios. Wang Qingsong demonstrates a sense of intricacy in capturing the details of images and achieves a high resolution by scanning positives that he shoots with a large camera.

Wang’s hairstyle also attracts public attention as much as his working methods. Since the late 2000s, he has begun to assign symbolic meanings to his hairstyles as depicted in his works. He portrays himself against the backdrops of the metropolis and economic boom as a fragile intellectual, an underdog, a patient under treatment or others. For this reason, the artist appears in his works with his back turned to viewers, or as a voyeur or a witness who observes political or social situations. His production capacity is truly exceptional in sublimating social issues into art in an exaggerated yet witty way, thus inspiring viewers to become curious about the striking images in his satirical works. Moreover, in his recent work “The Blood-stained Shirt” (2018), Wang appears wearing a costume to which he cut out, collected and patched thousands of brand logos in order to realize a historic-loaded context and fulfil his artistic intent. Though it may be a mere trivial detail within a large frame, the diligent efforts that he dedicates into his works to reach perfection need no explanation. The young Wang Qingsong, who kept his long hair in a ponytail, was often subjected to spot checks by the Chinese public security. Therefore, he always carried with him his passport that was issued when he first participated in an overseas exhibition in 1997, since, at the time, a passport was a guarantee of personal status recognized by the Chinese government. Wang Qingsong lingered long in the periphery of the stable boundaries that society had set, and this is why his portrayals of the other side of the “glorious life” exude shades of intense mockery, despite their warm colors.

“Photographers need to learn anything beyond photography, to know about the society. Only through knowing more about this society, your photography can bear some warmth of humanity. ...... Most importantly, don’t go ahead to take photos without thoughts and purposes. In particular, at this epoch of digital media, one must cherish each opportunity to click the shutter.

At the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival held in Xiamen in 2018, the Museum of Photography Seoul was invited to represent Korea as a guest nation and presented artworks of major Korean photographers at a large-scale feature exhibition. The involvement of the Museum of Photography, Seoul in planning the said exhibition became the stepping stone for a solo exhibition of Wang Qingsong to be held in Korea. In fact, with the rising international status of Chinese photography, several group exhibitions of select Chinese artists had been showcased in Korea representing the current status of Chinese photography. The exhibition “Wang Qingsong: The Glorious Life” is the first large-scale exhibition by a Chinese photographer to be held in Korea. At this exhibition, the Museum of Photography, Seoul will display photographs and videos to which the artist has devoted himself for the last 20 years, and particularly, these selected works will aid an in-depth understanding of his photographic context. This is an exhibition designed for viewers to witness the reality of Chinese society that Wang has consistently delivered to us throughout his career, alongside his artistic perspective and the status quo of contemporary photography in China. The exhibition will serve as the first step for active exchanges in the field of photography between Korea and China, and will offer a useful opportunity to gain a chronological overview on the works of Wang as an artist who represents Chinese contemporary photography. The Museum of Photography, Seoul hopes that the photographic exchange between the two countries, which remains fragmentary and abstract in terms of their relationship, will take more concrete steps.

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