Wang Qingsong: Cultures in Collision

Wang Qingsong: Cultures in Collision


Since turning from painting to photography in the late 1990s, Beijing-based artist Wang Qingsong has produced a stream of ambitious works that explore China’s ongoing encounter with global consumer culture. Working in the manner of a motion-picture director, he conceives elaborate scenarios involving dozens or hundreds of models that he often stages on film studio sets. The resulting color photographs frequently contain ironic ref¬erences to classic Chinese artworks, which are reinterpreted with inten¬tional awkwardness. The result is to throw a fresh light on present-day China, emphasizing its new material wealth, its uninhibited embrace of commercial values, the eclipse of traditional Chinese culture, and the social ten¬sions created by the massive influx of migrant workers to its cities.

Because he employs sprawling studio settings and stylized arrangements of models to make enormous color photographs, Wang Qingsong is sometimes likened to contem¬porary artists such as Jeff Wall. A more apt comparison, however, might be to an earlier artist like George Grosz, whose drawings and paintings from Weimar-era Ger¬many are similarly filled with needling social observation, sardonic humor, and sometimes grotesque exaggera¬tion. In Wang Qingsong’s works, the artist’s deep-seated attachment to his country exists alongside his dismay at its boom-era excesses. He recoils from what he calls the “superficial splendor” of today’s Chinese nouveau-riche taste. Yet he also insists, “I like Chinese civiliza¬tion. It offers an enormous space for imagination. Things take one form today, and then change to another form tomorrow.”

Wang Qingsong’s life story brings to mind a saying often heard in China: “Noth¬ing is easy, but everything is possible.” He was born in 1966 in northeastern China, in the Daqing oilfields where his parents were employed. It is still hard for him to explain how, as a boy growing up in a series of oilfield towns around China, he made the decision that he would become an artist. Yet his pursuit of this improb¬able goal was single-minded, and he was unde¬terred by the inevitable obstacles that he encountered. The most serious challenge came after his father’s death in an oilfield accident in 1981, which left the fam¬ily without financial resources. The seventeen-year-old Wang Qingsong took his father’s place on a drilling platform and worked there for the next eight years. During this time, he continued to take part-time art classes, studied art magazines for news of the independent art move¬ments that were springing up in China, and learned about the unconvention¬al artworks being made by such fig¬ures as Xu Bing and Cai Guo Qiang. He regularly took college entrance exams and sent off applications to China’s top art academies, and just as regularly he was rejected. When he was ultimately accepted by the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, he was already in his mid-twenties, older than most of his fellow students. He studied oil painting and graduated in 1993.

Because of the recent introduction of “market economy” principles in the Chinese world, there were no longer guaranteed jobs awaiting new art-school graduates, and Wang Qingsong knew that he would have to make his way as an in¬dependent artist. He moved to Beijing in 1993, at a moment when Chinese contemporary art was just beginning to attract international attention. His first years in Beijing were marked by extreme privation and frequent changes of living quarters. For nearly two years, he resided in the Yuan¬mingyuan artists’ village near the old Imperial Summer Palace on the northern outskirts of the city. Although many of the artists there lived in near-poverty, some of them, such as the painters Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, were already supporting themselves comfortably by the sale of their art. Wang Qingsong’s paintings of this period—introspective, expressionist canvases that portray suffocating figures struggling to break free of encumbering plastic sheets—also found buyers. But he first won real recognition thanks to his involvement with the Gaudy Art group, a short-lived, Pop-style movement of the mid-1990s that was championed by China’s most influential contempo¬rary art critic, Li Xianting.

Conceived in the wake of Chinese premier Deng Xiaopeng’s 1992 pronouncement “To Get Rich Is Glori¬ous,” Gaudy Art was the first art movement to reflect the country’s new social dynamics. China’s emerging reality was shaped less by political ideology than by commerce, consumer fantasies, and a get-rich-quick ethos. As many artists saw it at the time, the problem was not the arrival of consumer culture in itself, but the fact that an aggressive¬ly vulgar commercial spirit seemed suddenly to resonate throughout the country’s entire cultural field.

In fact, a void had been created during the years of Mao’s rule, a period that witnessed the calculated demolition of China’s tradi¬tional values and Moreover, the giddy “revolutionary romanticism” that had dominated Chinese culture during the Maoist years marked the Maoist had, by the 1990s, also been discredited or abandoned. As critic Li Xianting observed, all that was left to fill the resulting cultural chasm were the tawdry cultural aspirations of the nation’s unsophisticated but suddenly prosperous peasants-turned-busi¬nessmen. “Damaged by Affluence” was the revealing title of one early Gaudy Art exhibition, and the artists in the group—who included Qi Zhilong, Xu Yihui, Yang Wei, Feng Zhengjie, the Luo Brothers, and Wang Qingsong—created works that directed attention to the exuberantly garish and pretentious taste of early-1990s China. Distantly aware of the kitsch aesthetic introduced by American artist Jeff Koons, they used techniques that were unorthodox by fine-art standards, and were taken over from distinctly “low” visual sources: street advertising, folk embroidery, kitsch ceramics, New Year calendar prints, and popular paintings on velvet. Although Gaudy Art lasted for only a brief period before rivalries among the artists led to the group’s dissolution, it effectively caught the momentous turn in post-Mao China from “politics in com¬mand” to “business in command.”

In addition to providing a new start¬ing point for Wang Qingsong’s art, Gaudy Art prompted his gradual shift from painting to photography. His newly awakened curiosity about the tumultuous society aroused his interest in photography. Photography, he sensed, was a medium that could enable him to quickly register and comment upon the economic and social changes that were sweeping China. Initially he tried using an inkjet printer to transfer photo-derived images onto acrylic velvet or sheets of reflective metal. Next came a group of digital photomontages (such as Requesting Buddha in this exhibition) that in their biting, derisive humor recall the Dada-era works of John Heartfield or George Grosz. Although his early digital photomontages awakened considerable interest in the Chinese art scene, by 2000 Wang Qingsong came to feel that unconventional supports and compositional approaches were less artistically promising than relatively straightforward renderings of the complex, multifigure scenes he had begun to imagine. Since that time, most of his works have been essen-tially unaltered photographs of the extravagant sets and arrangements of costumed models that he and his team of assistants have created in various studio spaces in Beijing.

The present exhibition at MOPS allows viewers to trace the development of the main facets of Wang Qingsong’s work of the past two decades. For example, the impact of the post-Mao economic opening to the West and the arrival of global consumer culture in China can be seen in Requesting Buddha (1999), Competition (2004), and One World, One Dream (2014). The triumph of commercial values and the deterioration of traditional Chinese culture is suggested in Night Revels of Lao Li (2000), Archaeologist (2004), and The Glory of Hope (2007). The shortcomings of China’s educational system, which often encourages the accumulation of superficial information rather than the pursuit of true knowledge, have been treated in a number of Wang Qingsong’s most memorable works, such as Follow Me (2003), Follow Him (2010), Follow You (2013) and Crazy Readers (2013).

A tumultuous era like the present, Wang Qingsong says, throws into doubt all the ideals and virtues celebrated in China’s past. In such circumstances, he asks, what kind of future can emerge from the shared memories and collective experience of the Chinese people? What kind of hybrid culture is going to arise from the current collision of China and the West? While the artist himself does not make predictions about what may lie ahead, his works provide us with a remarkable vantage point from which to gauge the possibilities.

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