Constructed Images: The Art Odyssey of Wang Qingsong

Constructed Images: The Art Odyssey of Wang Qingsong
by Lu Hong


Professor Wu Hung, an art historian, theorizes the periodization of Chinese contemporary photography into four stages starting from 1976. Stage One covers 1976 to 1979, represented by “the rise of amateur photography societies and exhibitions beyond official administration.” Many of such works deviated from subject scopes and expressive methodologies regulated by the government. Stage Two, from 1980 to 1989, is called “New Wave of Photography”, characterized by new artistic explorations coming to the fore. The mainstream was documentary photography. Stage Three, from 1990 to 2006, is called “Experimental Photography”, featuring many contemporary artists switching from other genres towards making art works with photography as a medium. This rising tide could be authenticated by the varieties of art exhibitions and catalogues around that time. Like what was stated by Professor Wu Hung, “In the midst of this tide, photographers put concepts and discourses before expression modes and deconstructed realities through artistic experimentation. These artists stopped capturing significant moments in their life. Instead, they concentrated a lot more on the methodologies of artistic expressions and dived into sharpening perspectives in their works, resulting in the popularity of constructed images.” ①

My comprehension about this statement elicited by Professor Wu Hung is that there is a great distinction between experimental photography and documentary photography, meaning documentation or presentation of happenings along with sites is not the purpose any more for experimental artists. In the context of “virtual aesthetics”, artists tend to focus on reconstructing and fabricating images in a surrealistic way to convey their concepts and indulge in all sorts of fantasies. Numerous art works have proved that through a network of extraordinary artists’ hard work and ingenuity, experimental photography has gone far beyond the domain of traditional photography, which makes the two mutually-independent but co-related at some point. In comparison, the former constructs and reconstructs the latter, involving new concepts, new perspectives, new experiments and new interventions. Then following the earlier stages of development in photography, one will find the fourth stage with experimental photography delving more in depth and width.

From the biography of Wang Qingsong, one can find that he has been engaged in oil painting production since he graduated from Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1993 and moved to Beijing right after. His oil works had been exhibited in many important art shows. In 1996, he switched to producing photo-based art works. The inner propeller was that Wang Qingsong felt like he could apply photography as a creative medium to further express this astounding impact from current realities in the turmoil of globalization. Even if he mentioned repetitively that his art works were not “conceptual photography” but “documentary photography”, adhering to the origin of photography that its advantage of faithful documentation still prevails, stressing he was just a photo journalist, ② I still feel like that the comments by Professor Wu Hung captures Wang Qingsong’s creative strategy very pointedly. In fact, Wang Qingsong has never documented the realities in snapshots like what a photo journalist does. Instead, he creates a multi-faceted storyline of frenetic and funny scenarios to demonstrate his attitude towards life.

Kant, a German philosopher, said that “all realities in life or nature are nothing but superficial fantasies, so distant from the essence of life itself. If one is screwed up, he might come up with very superficial and superfluous expressions. If one is hallucinated, his vision might become popular statements or negative illustrations of lies.” I did not know if Wang Qingsong has ever read about Kant and his related theories, but I bet he must share with Kant’s perspectives to some extent. Otherwise, he would not fabricate surrealistic imageries so different from the traditional documentary photography. Moreover, I noticed that in the same interview, he specifically stated that he has been making “documentary photography.” Toward his statement, I believe he has enriched this notion of documentary photography with a new cultural connotation.

Let us analyze his creative process step by step. First, he fabricates some deliberate scenarios inside photo studios or certain locations. Then he invites many actors and movie extras to act out some roles, producing surrealistic compositions that are constructed but inspired by real life. This whole process is exactly like producing a film. Secondly, he instruments the real shoots. During this whole procedure, he adroitly merges performance, installation and other arts forms including role play himself. Therefore, his presence makes him not only an eyewitness of the current culture, but also a special cultural icon. To some extent, the production of Wang Qingsong photography quite resonates that of Shi Chong, an artist who produces installation first and then applies hyper-realistic painting technique to finish his work. These two artists work in the most amazing and identical way. Relating to the history of photography, we can find Wang Qingsong has been using “Staged Photography”. Many people who are familiar with the history of photography will identify staged photos by looking whether the artist invites people to perform a “faked” reality in front of some set scenarios or not. But Qingsong’s staged sets intends to express his personal attitude toward human life, pose cultural critique and make social commentaries through unrealistic pictorials.

Some photographers apply staged sets to target at making huge propaganda impact by creating a “fake” reality and a “fabricated” perspective. In contrast, the method of staged photography by Wang Qingsong intends to create sur-realistic stage sets fabricated to relate to the realities in sync with life, highlighting this coherence and potency. From my own perspective, I think Wang Qingsong has taken a holistic method combining sociology, cultural studies, and historical analysis to contend with real-time reality, and give much deliberation into researching, analyzing, and pondering at the similarities between the real and the surreal in real life. These art works carry along with his warmth and representations of his unique world views and value standards, much more accurate and powerful than any other “so-called” documentary photographs which pursue nothing but popular taste and formalistic study through “staged photography”.

So far, Wang Qingsong’s works have been discussed a lot related to his aesthetics, namely, his understanding of life realities and artistic expressions, which also resonates in his processing procedure of imageries. He focuses on borrowing imageries from traditional cultures, red classics, contemporary social realities and pop culture, and converts them into critiques on value chaos at the current times. As a result, he has not done much work to transcribe contemporary western photography and image-making. His video and photographic works are so much closely connected with both Chinese contemporary and traditional culture, which distances himself remarkably from western contemporary photographers and video artists. This will be further discussed in three parts.

1.Learning from traditional culture and transforming into contemporary twists
Recently I have read through quite a lot of essays on Wang Qingsong’s art works systematically and thoroughly. I deeply feel that as he committed himself early on to making works of “Gaudy Art”, he kept certain traits of similar expressions from this genre, which was to learn from American pop art, and transformed some elements of Chinese contemporary pop culture into his newer photographic creation. What is rare is he also concentrated on looking for breakthroughs from Chinese traditional arts, such as Chinese vernacular folk art and Buddhist art. The contemporary twist is that he incorporates expressive post-modern elements such as appropriation and satire into his own works. In “Requesting Buddha Series No.1” (photo 1, 180x110cm, 1999), he adopted intentionally the posture of Buddha sitting for meditation. He acted out this contemporary “Thousand-hand Buddha” holding all sorts of consumer goods, such as mobile phone, cigarettes, money, VCD and etc. In this reincarnation, the artist poses a strong criticism against the pursuit of satisfaction with materials richness. In 2000, he made “Night Revels of Lao Li” (photo 2, 120x960cm, 2000), funded from the money of selling his two dozen of oil paintings at 12,000 yuan and reconciling about 8,000 yuan with his mother’s former working unit after she passed away. Later, he invited art critic Li Xianting, several contemporary artist friends, and movie extras, to finish this photo shoot. From this photo work onwards, Wang Qingsong has achieved extensive attention at home and abroad.

Through conversations with the artist, I learnt that his creative inspirations came from his deep sensibilities towards modern life and his deliberate reading of the original, “Night Revels of Han Xizai”. He made a relatable comparison to the contemporary world. According to the historical analects, the original painting was commissioned by Emperor Li Yu in post-Tang Dynasty who wanted to invite Han Xizai to work in the imperial court, but he was so suspicious of Han Xizai’s loyalty. Hence the Emperor dispatched Gu Hongzhong and Zhou Wenju, the in-house painters, to paint an exact imagery of what was happening at Han Xizai’s mansion. Han Xizai, a super intelligent scholar, pretended to know nothing about this distrust and dispatch of spies into his house. Instead, he arranged a frivolous party with his friends at his mansion, dancing, singing, making fun, indulging in decadent life, aiming only to dispel the Emperor’s suspicion of his political ambition. Originally, both Gu Hongzhong and Zhou Wenju finished their paintings, but the work by Zhou Wenju was lost, leaving only the scroll painting by Gu Hongzhong.

“Night Revels of Lao Li” was staged at a huge photo studio in Beijing, produced in the same proportion as the original painting. Based on the five sections in the original composition, Wang Qingsong arranged his actors into five clusters, replacing the old fun-making party for elites with modern twists of having fun. “Lao Li” in western-style suit, representing erudite scholars in modern culture, replaced Han Xizai dressed in traditional robe. Some contemporary female musicians and dancers replaced ancient courtesans. Modern foot-massage girls replaced antiquated servants. This contemporary rendition presents a far more exaggerated kitschy scenario and creates a replica of elites in contemporary life of decadence and revelry. Everyone that understands the background of “Night Revels of Han Xizai” and contemporary cultural context will have an interesting interaction with this new version.

It is very interesting that when this photo work was exhibited overseas, western art critics and artists expressed super interest in this horizontal delineation of stories, breaking through focal perspectives in the western art. This linear rendition seems to narrate stories in a series of film sets. It is such an unusual and fresh experience for many western photographers that this photo work is appreciated as a rarity. I agree a lot with what critic Wang Duanting said that “From this work onwards, Wang Qingsong started to play the role of a film director, inviting other people to perform his thoughts and finish his conceptual expressions. From this work, his oeuvre has presented distinctive features of larger crowds and huge massive sets” . ③ Actually many other photo works by Wang Qingsong, such as “knickknack Pedder” (120x240cm, 2002), “Port”(120x380cm, 2002), “Sentry Post” ( 120x680cm, 120x680cm), “Romantique” (120x650cm), “China Mansion” (120x1200cm, 2003), as well as “Ethereal Beauty” and “Auspicious Snow” (120x280cm x 2 pieces, 2003) carry forward a visual vocabulary of appropriation and conversion of traditional art forms into contemporary backdrops that unfold his artistic creativity and materialistic fantasia.

2. Translation and appropriation of “Red Classics”.
Most people who know Wang Qingsong’s artistic creativity agree that in terms of how to make impressive art works, he never ceases to apply traditional cultures into contemporary discussions. Actually, his several pieces translate well “Red Classics” in a meaningful fashion. Such connection with both the traditional and the contemporary has a lot to do with the grand social background in the 1990s. After people reflected upon the successes and failures of learning from the western modern and contemporary art, some acute-thinking Chinese artists stressed starting from China perspective and adopted elements from cultural traditions and “Red Classics”. Hence, a great number of works popped up highlighting historical association with contemporary cultural realities and economic opening-up. Some documents prove that during interviews, several contemporary artists reiterated the relationship between the past and the present and reaffirmed their use of icons and symbols represented from collective memories. Some critics entitle such lineage as “Socialist Experience” speaking of this application of past experiences in contemporary art making. Other critics call this trend as “Red Memories” of contemporary art. Related art works within this genre have the following two characteristics. Firstly, artists stress the inner connection between collective memories and contemporary realities. The boundaries between art and society, art and history, and art and life have been broken down, taking contemporary art and its creative production on a brand-new stage. Secondly, they adopt very successfully the strategies of “post-modernism”, namely, historical imageries before China’s economic reform has been renewed, applied with twists of parallel, critique, satire, quotation, or insinuation. Along with one visual language transcribed into another one, former imageries and icons are translated into new meanings. The once popular iconography and its connotations have been transcended. What is highlighted is only the deep reflections of artists who apply historical iconography as foundational elements and deliver fresh messages. As new cultural messages evoke resonances within specific historical contexts, works that have relevant contextual background will engage a lot more positively with the audience.

“Pick up the Pen, Fight till the End” (photo 3, 180x95cm, 1997) was created based on a very famous political poser during the Cultural Revolution. Appropriating the original composition, Lu Xun’s portraiture and posture, and his autograph of famous sentence, “Frowning upon bad deeds and bad people, I’d bow down to serve the people”, Wang Qingsong, in the foreground, featured himself at Lu Xun’s position, and put golden ingots, U$ dollars, and series of books on entrance exams to colleagues at the spotlight. Moving away from promoting young generation to care politics and criticize anti-revolutionary thoughts, this new rendering encourages young generations to prepare for the entrance exam to colleges so as to make money in the future. It is visible here that different generations of youth at different times are faced with different cultural contexts.

“Another Battle Series” were adaptions from snapshots of movies celebrating heroism and patriotism. Such a surrealistic photograph, “Another Battle Series No.4” (photo 4, 180x120cm, 2001) constructs an interface of “Chinese soldiers” confronted with western consumer culture. A detailed reading of this scene discovers that both the artist and some youth acting out like “PLA” soldiers were proceeding daringly in the midst of smoke, while upfront on the barbed wires were nothing but Coca-Cola cans and containers of soft drinks. This staged scene hints that foreign consumer culture is intruding into China through legal trade and business strategies, achieving an impact higher than previous invasions. Such confrontation against this consumer culture invasion is a justifiable war, hence the title, “Another Battle”. Moreover, his works stress the fact that we should be on alert against any specific ideological infiltration. I also notice that other works of Wang Qingsong select acerbic perspectives from “Red Classics”. For example, “Old and New Soldier” (180x120cm, 1997) carries the representation of the glory for heroism. In “Past, Present and Future” (175x800cm, 2001), the artist borrows the red sculptures in front of Mao’s Mausoleum at Tian’an’men Square. “The Blood-stained Shirt” (180x300cm, 2018) appropriates the scenario from a red classical painting, “the Blood-stained Shirt”, depicting land reform in the 1950s.

3. New style arisen from real life and pop culture
In the introduction to Wang Qingsong’s works inspired by cultural traditions from earlier revolutions and “Red Classics”, I talk about his critical interventions into current social realities. Due to different analysis, I focus on different sets of issues and works. After an overall comprehension of Wang Qingsong’s art works, we will understand that his main focus has been connecting artistic creativity with social reality to illustrate his artistic concepts through personal and shared experiences in which his suspicion about education, medicare, demolition, migration, consumption and other weird abnormalities are revealed. His art works are so different from other artists who pursue popular and hot issues just to create eye-catching commentaries. Furthermore, as the topics of his photography and video works are rooted in current social contexts, his imageries and expressions are merged seamlessly into his own vocabulary. There are quite astounding numbers of works. Here I am going to introduce just a few.

The three works, “Follow Me”, “Follow Him” and “Follow You” have been created over ten years which demonstrate his deep reflection upon multi-faceted issues arising from education. Different from the traditional “documentary photography”, Wang Qingsong created his own scenarios and invited actors to collaborate with him. For example, in “Follow Me” (photo 5, 120x300cm, 2003), he became a “professor” with a pair of glasses, giving a lesson and holding his teaching stick. The blackboard behind him was scribbled with lots of words in Chinese and English. This chaotic scene reminds us of disillusion and confusion of contemporary education. The name of the work, “Follow Me”, replicates the title of a celebrated TV educational program at the beginning of the economic reform. “Me” here is symbolized by the “professor” immersed in this chaotic teaching order. It is clear how ridiculous it will be to learn from this professor. In “Follow Him”, the bookworm reenacted by Wang Qingsong was surrounded by piles of books and discarded papers in a huge dirty room. Buried into the stacks of books on his table, only half of his head was visible. It is apparent that Him refers to this “bookworm”. Follow Him (photo 6, 180x300cm, 2013) can only produce “Exam Copycats” who know nothing but read and recite from static books. It will not be conducive and productive to the long-term development in China. The above two works talk about individuals in larger social contexts. Different from this, “Follow You” (photo 7, 180x300cm, 2013) sees packed students dozing off in the classroom, while one “senior student”, Wang Qingsong, turning old with white hair and long moustache, still listens attentively with IV bottles on. Such an exaggeration is so satirical that it highlights the awkward orientation of “education” for the purpose of examinations ONLY. Some other works by Wang Qingsong are inspired by social realities with hindsight into contested social issues. For example, “Billboard” (170x300cm, 2004), a fabricated huge billboard with its fantasy to misguide customers, allures viewer’s participation. “Dormitory” (170x400cm, 2005) unveils the crowed living situation and hardships of migrant workers in a very haphazard way. “Bath House” (120x150cm, 2000) and “Finding Fun” (120x150cm, 2000) usher in social vices related to sex industry erupting in different cities in the 1990s.

During an interview, the journalist Brother Fan asked Wang Qingsong, “Do you have any tricks to recommend to the beginners of photography?” Wang Qingsong answered, “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. Your photo works can be inspired from daily observations. After you accumulate experiences, you can sharpen your observation a great deal. 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.” I think this statement by Wang Qingsong resonates cohesively what Lu You, a great literati in Song Dynasty, talked to his son that “If you really want to learn how to write poems, you must proceed from beyond, far away from poetry itself.” This is the essence of understanding Wang Qingsong. We believe that as Wang Qingsong’s overall presence increases and continues his shrewd logarithms of staged photography, he will produce more and better art works. Recently I learn from Wang Qingsong that he does not feel like photography is all powerful any more. He wants to invest in making a film, a story about two brothers. They come from a small town, Jingzhou, but experience very different ways of life. There will be a lot of dialogues about social issues. It will be entitled “Bloody Buddies”. I cannot help waiting for this upcoming film. I wish him another hike of success.

April 04, 2019, in United Art Museum, Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

① Wu Hung, “Forty Decades of Chinese Contemporary Photography”, Issue 7, 2017, Pictorial.
② Picture Worm, “To learn photography, you need to see more masterpieces”, WeChat public channel of “Secretes of Photography Masters”, 02/28/2018/.
③ Wang Duanting, “A Blink of Eye --- Introduction to Chinese Contemporary Photography, Image-making and Digital Art as Conceptual Art”, printed during “Sudden Enlightenment: Comparative Research Exhibition of Sino-German Conceptual Art”, published in February 2016, by Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House.

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