Interview by Joao Ribas; introduction by Bryant Rousseau
Artists are rarely their own best critics, but Wang Qingsong, one of the brightest stars of the contemporary Chinese art scene, is quite insightful in describing his work: ¡°Kitschy, but powerful ¡ Contradictory, but critical¡± is what he says of his large-scale photographs.
Wang’s recurring subject is the overly enthusiastic embrace of Western culture by a rapidly globalizing China. American brands, especially McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, figure prominently in his highly staged and garishly colored photographic tableaux, which have drawn comparisons to the work of Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall; Jeff Koons, too, is frequently brought up when discussing Wang s work. (Wang himself says he was influenced by the staged photos he saw in newspapers as a youth growing up in Hebei Province, where he was born in 1966¡the year the Cultural Revolution began.)
Undeniably humorous, there is also quite a bit of the pathetic, the ludicrous and the sad in in his photographs¡they are biting commentaries,lampooning the speed with which an ancient culture has become an ungainly hybrid by jettisoning many of its traditions and adopting many of the less appealing elements of another culture that it doesn’t quite understand.
In some of his earlier works, Wang’s critique of the worship of consumer goods was explicit. In Requesting Buddha Series No. 1 (1999), an 11-armed figure holds not spiritual objects, but cigarettes, cellphones and cold, hard cash. And in Thinker, the figure strikes a meditative pose, but has the McDonald’s logo emblazoned on his chest.
In his more recent, richer, more nuanced work, Wang’s epic accumulation of detail in his massive, incident-filled images capture the social and aesthetic confusion of a society in rapid transition. They manage to be simultaneously playful and judgmental.
And appropriately enough for an artist concerned with the meeting of East and West, his work contains numerous references to images from both the Western and Chinese canon. In Romantique (a gigantic 21 x 4) and China Mansion (120 cm. x 1,200 cm.), Chinese models (mostly nude) strike poses from Western art classics; the Night Revels of Lao Li was inspired by a 10th-century Chinese scroll whose theme is the helplessness of intellectuals in a corrupt society¡a thousand years ago and today.
Wang’s first solo exhibition in London opens June 9 at the Albion Gallery and runs through July 16.
Are you surprised by this big boom in interest in Chinese art among collectors in the West? It seemed to start with the Venice Biennale in 1993.
Yes, since 1993, Western people, including gallerists, curators, dealers and collectors, have come to China looking for art. There is not only an increase of exhibitions for Chinese art, but also a lot of commercial gains.
In 1993, I personally thought that the West would lose interest in China in no more than five years, like what the former Soviet Union experienced. But after five years, there was no diminishing interest in Chinese contemporary art. Now 15 years have passed, and the West is still interested in Chinese art.
Nowadays, I am actually more worried that such a sustaining interest will be detrimental to Chinese contemporary art. Therefore, I even hope that the West would leave Chinese artists alone. Maybe less interest will nurture a healthy progress for Chinese artists.
You started as an oil painter in the mid-1990s. What made you switch to working with digital photography?
At the beginning, I worked with painting, which is still my favorite medium. My earlier paintings depicted my own confusion and suffering in this drastically changing society; they were more like a private diary.In the mid-1990s, Chinese society experienced dramatic changes, and I found painting less effective in capturing a glimpse of that fast movement in China than the camera lens. So I gave up painting in late 1996 and started to experiment with the possibilities of photography to describe my perspectives into this fast changing society.
Let’s talk about your process. How do you go about creating these theatrical scenes?
I have a habit of strolling on the street, and if any phenomenon strikes me as interesting, I remember it very well and consider shooting it. But I cannot make my artworks simply emulations of real life; I need to find the essence and make my own point.Next, I work out some draft drawings, then locate and buy all my props for the theatrical scenes. After selecting models, I find a place, usually Beijing Movie Studio, to set up the scenarios.It takes around one to two weeks to get the scenarios installed with the help of 10 to 20 workers. The last step will be to choose one day for all of us¡models,assistants,photographers, cameraman, etc.,to finish the shooting. Usually one setting is shot with three to four negatives to make sure there will be nothing wrong.When the negative, usually an 8 x 10 large-format, is developed, I will leave it for a few days so that I can give it more thought and decide upon the final appearance. Next, I scan the negative into the computer to produce a digital file or the final version of this work made into another negative. There will be another one to two months before I fine tune the digital file/negative with its colors, hues and saturations. Then comes the final version of my art work.
How do you think your work relates to traditional Chinese painting? For example, you revisited classic works of Chinese art, such as your Night Revels of Lao Li, your photographic version of Gu Hongzhong’s famous Night Revels of Han Xizai. Can you tell us about that and about what the original painting means to you?
Sometimes I do use some traditional images. I revisited Night Revels of Han Xizai because it was an ancient painting describing the fate of intellectuals. I also used the traditional scroll painting Packman in my work Knickknack Peddler which talks about children¡¯s education. Similarly, I used the ancient painting Ladies with Flowers in my New Women to compare the ideals of women in the past and at present.I am not interested in simple emulation of the ancient paintings; rather, I want to use the traditional images to compare to the present times since the relationship between past and present holds significance to my critique. Comparing the past to the present times, I find there are some similarities. The intellectuals are all passive¡though passionate to change society. These ambitious men of letters had to give up since they are so powerless to change anything.
Does it seem a contradiction to you that while Chinese artists are highly sought after in the West, Li Xianting, a curator and editor, who is at the center of the your Night Revels photograph, was fired from an official art magazine after championing precisely the kind of work the West is embracing?
It is not difficult to understand this contradiction. What makes the Chinese contemporary art highly sought after is the fact that China is now getting a lot of attention with its escalating economic growth and that Chinese artists works pose a lot of fresh, new questions for this global world. Artists are always critical of the positive things brought about by economic development. Chinese artists propose anti-mainstream viewpoints. Here the mainstream refers to the official¡which is agreed upon by the government. Hence Mr. Li was fired from the official art magazine since he would not advocate the lofty ideals that the government wanted to promote. Instead, he let the work of artists critical toward the government be published in national art magazines.
Critics always remark that there are a lot of Western brands, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, in your work. Why do you use these brands, and what place and meaning do they have in contemporary China?
The meanings of these pop consumer products are not the same in China as in the West. For example, McDonalds, KFC and Burger King are nothing grandiose in the West¡ they re just convenient and cheap fast food/drinks. While in China, they hold significant meanings.They are popular with fashionable young people who get together in McDonald s for parties. One can see the popularity of McDonald s by the fact that over 10,000 people bought hamburgers when it opened its first store on the most popular street in Beijing. Now three McDonald s open on a daily basis across China. The funny thing is that such pop consumer culture has become one of the most important parts in Chinese people s life. Chinese people seem to forget their own traditional cultures by embracing the Western consumer culture.
My artworks tackle such issues relating to people s life in the midst of dramatic social changes in present-day China. Therefore, I find it relevant to associate such a dominant consumer culture with people s mental changes in my works.
A lot of Chinese art is said to be politically ambiguous or at least in ideological suspension¡ I m thinking of Cynical Realism, for example. But Gaudy Art, China’s version of Pop, which you have been a part of, seems to be different. It seems to take an ironic and even critical view of the paradox between socialism and the influx of Western capitalist culture in China?.
Gaudy art happened when a huge drive of consumerism intruded into China in the 1990s. Gaudy artists are more concerned about the impact and damage of consumer culture on Chinese traditional culture and its people. Obviously, such impact from consumerism is all-pervasive, touching upon traditions, ideas, fashion, architecture, design, etc. Gaudy artists use the kitschy art forms to satirize this gaudy life with an ironic and critical angle.
What do you think the influence of Gaudy art has been on today s Chinese artists?
Looking back upon the last 10 years, I think that Gaudy art and its artists have influenced a lot of commercial artists in terms of working format and ideas. But gaudy art itself lost its critical role after 1995. Since 1995, I have lost interest in ideas of gaudy art. I became more focused on the interaction of consumerism in China and consumerism in the West, which I see as a mutually beneficial conspiracy. Such a mixture of Chinese and Western consumerism creates weird social phenomena which are neither Chinese nor Western.
© Wang Qingsong