Night Revel of Han Xizai, Gu Hongzhong, 33x 283 cm, Post-Tang Dynasty

Gu Hongzhong, sent by Tang Dynasty Emperor Li Yu, came to spy into the life of Han who was suspected of rebellion. When Gu came back home, he painted « Night Revel of Han Xizai » through his acute memory to report to Emperor Li about Han’s life. This painting is divided into five sections, listening to music, watching dancers, taking a rest, blowing string instruments and seeing guests off, which are separated by wind screens. These five sections are continuous and independent that portray each major course in the night banquet and put Han Xizai as the major hero. This painting portrays clearly what is in the mind of Han Xizai. On the surface, he was very happy, manly, but underneath he is very unhappy and worried because he had to get rid of embarrassment of being suspected. Therefore he had to set up a banquet, invite guests and involved in luxurious and luscious life to dispel mistrust of Emperor Li. This painting well demonstrates the acute observation of the painter and his understanding of the hero’s destiny and psychology conflicts.

— Abbreviated from Overall History of Chinese Fine Arts, Advanced Education Press, 1989.

Another encompassing interpretation of the past is Wang’s photomural Night Revels of Lao Li (2000), thirty-one feet in length. It is based upon the tenth-century artist Gu Hongzhong’s Night Revels of Han Xizai, a scroll painting in which a government official turns to pleasure after failing to enact political reform. In this version of the painting, Han is transformed into Li Xianting, the influential art critic who lost his job as an editor for a Mainland Chinese art magazine because he supported the initial efforts of Gaudy Art, China’s own interpretation of Pop Art. Li, for many the unofficial arbiter of the avant-garde in China, is shown in the midst of several scenes of easy pleasure, the women often in stages of undress. The spectacular tableau is a comment on the artistic demimonde in China, in which pleasure itself becomes a tool of subversion: on the right side of the photograph, a woman plays guitar, while the scene just to the left of it shows a woman engaged in interpretive dancing, Li accompanying her with a red drum. In yet another tableau, a woman in lingerie washes Li’s feet; the openly erotic implications of this powerful work suggest that the contemporary interpretation of the past trades on an accepted sensuality, the likes of which were certainly more reticent in the historical original.

Mainland Chinese art is increasingly dominant in the international arena: Wang’s work received notice by the New York Times head critic Michael Kimmelman, who wrote up the Night Revels of Lao Li for the benefit of the mostly middlebrow readers of the newspaper. Additionally, the summer issue of Art in America devoted itself to a horoughgoing exposition of contemporary art from the Mainland. It is relatively easy to place Wang within a certain context; like the outstanding Chinese conceptual artist Xu Bing, Wang is an artist who makes use of tradition to make some very new points about the historical treatment of contemporary Chinese culture. Remarkably, Wang’s art fits nicely into the international debate, in which New York avant-garde practices such as installation art and conceptual photography, practiced for more than thirty years now, are employed using Chinese content in a highly contemporary style. We in the West may be taken aback by the historical references, which often need explanation, but we are comfortable with the methodologies in which the work is presented. It has become clear, then, that new Chinese art is very much a part of our world, even when it references its own history, as Wang has done so brilliantly in his photographs.

Jonathan Goodman is a poet and writer who specializes in contemporary Asian Art.

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