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Qingsong Wang
Night revels of the intellectuals
Interview with the Chinese photographer Wang Qingsong
Mai Chi thực hiện
Mai Chi: Dear Qingsong, your early oil paintings make a very strong impression. They show closed-up heads and bodies wrapped in transparent plastics. The faces are deformed, probably because of pain and fear. These people seem to be struggling in despair. Can you tell us more about these paintings?

Wang Qingsong: The series of oil paintings with figures wrapped up in plastics and deformed were created from 1995 to 1997. At that time, I was at a state of frequent mobility. Police often came to the artist village to check and keep on alert on artists in fear of sabotage. I had to move for five times a year. So I felt each person was very fragile. People can see what is going on outside and feel terrified to go out. Therefore these figures in my paintings express my fear and pain like a diary. Yes, you are right in saying that the figures are struggling in despair and fear.

Faces, 1995-97

Mai Chi: Please tell us more about the Chinese artist community in Beijing at that time? Was the artist village you mentioned the legendary artist colony Yuan Ming Yuan? How did the artist village come to existence, and how did it change over time? Was it true that the status of artists in the Chinese society in that period was very low? (I heard the joke in China that once a police man asked a prostitute if there are artists among her clients, she got angry and said "Do you think I am such a low person?")

Wang Qingsong: I am talking about the legendary artist colony Yuan Ming Yuan. At the beginning, only some musicians, poets and painters dwelled in that village. But later on due to its influence and vicinity to Peking University, many people were attracted there. It did change a lot over time. After 1992, the society changed and many people went for commerce. There appeared self-employment. So many artists seeking for freedom and low rent came to Yuan Ming Yuan which gathered more artists with time going on. By 1995, there would be around 100 artists, one-fourth of the houses were taken over by artists of all varieties. There was only one public telephone in the beginning which later developed into over 10 public phone booths. There were more restaurants going up soon. Hence the rent increased a lot. 99% could not make a living by selling art pieces. The joke you mentioned was interesting which I heard too because many artists were very poor. Therefore a low spirit spread around artists which evoked anger and disagreement sometimes even fights.
In addition, due to its close vicinity to important universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University, the government was very sensitive to its influence. In 1995 a world level conference on women was held. The government dispersed artists saying they were unstable factors. Now this area disappeared completely and reconstructed into a public park.
I stayed in Yuan Ming Yuan from 1993 to 1995. After 1995, artists were dispersed all over Beijing, including Shang Yuan, Tong Xian, Hai Dian and etc.

Mai Chi: Today Chinese art is very present in the international art scene. For example, the list of participating artists of the Venice Biennale this year is full of artists and projects coming from China. So how do you judge the process of Chinese art getting popular in the West? Has Chinese contemporary art became more complex, more diverse, or has it just became fashionable now and would be out of fashion when the attention of the West would turn to another country or region in a few years? Your photograph "The Art Express Bus" doesn't make the impression that the art journey from China to the world is a joyful one. It looks like a trip of poor peasants going to a New Economy Zone.

The Art Express, 2002

Wang Qingsong: Yes, there has been a close attention to Chinese contemporary art since 1993 when Chinese artists first entered Venice Biennale. At that time, many people predicted that such attention would not last for five years. The attention would somehow dim off gradually. It would be like the same situation as attention put on former Soviet Union artists. After one decade, we have seen more Chinese artists selected into several terms of Venice Biennale. China has become an element in the grand dinner table of world art. Everyone wants to become the main dish on the dinner table. At present, Chinese artists are nothing but a small cold dish. Even if it is disappointed for the large majority of Chinese artists, still a small percent of artists become richer and richer. This Euro-centric global attitude held by western critics and curators results in participation of Chinese artists at the very beginning. From the perspective of nowaday, the attention has been moving on to artists in South America, Africa, etc. due to their exotic cultural preferences and social instability. Maybe China will never lose its flavour of socialism which is still the last communist base in the world after the former Soviet Union collapsed. Accordingly, the west is very curious to learn what is going on in this land. Therefore, I cannot even predict whether such an attention will stop if socialist structure in China pertains for a longer time. Maybe after 50 years, China with its fundamental structure unchanged still attracts world attention on its contemporary art. In contrast, no Westerners are concerned about the changes in former Soviet Union at present because it is of no interest to do any further research into a country which shares similarities in social structure as in the west.
My work "Art Express" shows that Chinese art is basically relying upon the west for survival and outside stimulation. This work includes a signpost with directors to a lot of international biennales. The heavy smoke and crowds predict an uncertain future plus two buses going from China to the world crash against each other. I always think there is a relationship of being used and using others between Chinese artists and westerners.

Mai Chi: How are artists perceived by the Chinese public and the government today? In Vietnam today, if artists express themselves in the media, they sound like pop stars. In the suburb of HanoI a new, super rich artist community is taking shape: large ranches, big villas, huge ceramic collections, etc. Is the picture similar in China?

Wang Qingsong: Chinese public and government start to give attention to Chinese artists or even in a subversive term, artists are used to create commercial values by the government. For example, in ShanghaI and Beijing Biennale, the government is involved in organization of such international biennales, inviting world-level curators and participating artists. Setting up Chinese Pavilion in Sao Paulo and Venice is the policy evolved from its focus on cultural diplomacy which replaces sports diplomacy China applied years ago. I think China wants to set up its own official contemporary art by participation in the world art. Of course this manner is very awkward since it is very unprofessional.
Actually the public have no idea or even refuse to learn about what is contemporary art. They are more concerned with who makes the largest amount of money and who tops on the music records. In fact, Beijing, like Hanoi, creates many artists billionaires who build their grand villas with huge acre land to show off their success and position. Of course, their success comes from foreign interests and attention.

Mai Chi: Your oil painting period was from 1995 to 1997, a fairly short period. What kind of work did you do before 1995? And with the paintings, you did find international attention, having some international exhibitions, in London, in Singapore, so what was the reason you decided to move into photography, a not traditional media in China, in 1997?

Wang Qingsong: Before 1995, I was also working on canvas, painting unimportant figures in their familiar surroundings, such as a man having his haircut in a barbershop, a butcher in his work and etc. Later on, I painted very traditional Chinese chubby boys onto silk velvet, trying to revolutionize some motifs onto special Chinese fabric. I have been found international attention by participating in some significant international exhibitions before 1998. By the end of 1996, I was trying on putting images onto shining and gaudy backgrounds to realize my idea to critique upon the mindless pursuit for commercial success through computer manipulation. I did not consider my test of new way of expression as photography at the very beginning. In 1998, I was still printing my works onto shiny and glossy paper in an attempt to reflect what people are thinking and doing everyday like a clear mirror. It was not until 2000 when I started to recognize my works could be printed onto Kodak paper as photographic works. So my decision to move into photography comes a long way. Right now, I have been working on photography with many supportive techniques, like digital scanning, printing and production.

Mai Chi: As your early works appeared around 1998, you were seen as one of the spokesmen of Gaudy Art, a term coined by the critic Li Xianting. Gaudy Art uses an artistic language typified by irony, parody and imitation to create over-the-top kitsch. As a blend of Chinese Political Pop and Cynical Realism, Gaudy Art certainly brought Chinese art to the world. However, the movement was relatively short-lived and was also criticized. Looking back, how do you personally see the Gaudy Art trend now?

Requesting Buddha Series no. 1, 180x110cm, 1999

Wang Qingsong: The rise of Gaudy Art resulted from the quick rush for commerce and development. The term coined by Li Xianting refers to the low and wild sentiment of getting-rich peasants, totally different from the bourgeoisie taste in the west. So I think it is very important that this trend would be brought to the art world. It still affects many art works by different artists. The reason that it was criticized so much was due to many factors which I understand. Firstly, it is in conflict with elite culture which took gaudy art as too much vernacular and even garbage. Secondly, many people cannot take it since gaudy art is reflecting the reality which many people disagree with. Now looking back, it is not important whether to praise or to criticize. For me, what is important for each artist is how to develop his own art; it does not matter whether to go on with gaudy art or not. So from today's perspective, it is beneficial for each artist who goes into maturity after experiencing with the earlier stages of experiment with gaudy art. I hope I could go further on with my future artworks. No doubt I will not dispense completely with gaudy art. I will only further this concept continuously.

Mai Chi: One of your major works is "Night Revels of Lao Li" (2000) which is based on the famous historical painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai" (Post-Tang Dynasty) by Gu Hongzhong. Could you tell us how this idea came to your mind and how "Night Revels of Lao Li" was created?

Night Revels of Lao Li, 120 x 960cm, 2000

Night Revels of Han Xizai, Post-Tang Dynasty, 33 x 281cm, Traditional painting, Gu Hongzhong

Wang Qingsong: Yes, "Night Revels of Lao Li" (2000) is based on the famous historical painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai" (Post-Tang Dynasty) by Gu Hongzhong. The original painting showed the cultural and social status quo of the post-Tang Dynasty when intellectual would like to contribute their energy and talents into the dilapidated country. However, this idea could not be adopted by the Emperor who was worried about being ovethrown.

After so many years in Chinese history, I find no change in the destinies of intellectuals in China. Nowadays, as long as one makes a huge amount of money, be it a businessman or an intellectual who writes or creates something enlightening, he will be highly regarded. The attitude towards intellectual is directed by material gains rather than their function for cultural enlightenment. Therefore my works "Night Revel of Lao Li" depicts the fact that there is no way for intellectuals to do something for the government except to make fun and enjoy themselves in private. On the surface, it is very joyful that there are guests, parties, and funs. After the feast is over and guests are gone, the intellectual feels very sad. He wants to show people his superficial excitement underneath buries his deep worries and disappointment with the government.

This work was shot five sections telling separate stories of inviting and treating guests in one night, receiving the guests, dinner party, dancing and singing, frivolous with girls, seeing off the guests. I shot each section and combine them together through computer technique. This scroll photograph was shot in a large photo studio about 300 square meters and one huge light hovering over all the models in one scene.

Mai Chi: Who are the women in your photographs?

Wang Qingsong: The women in my photographs are models in many art academies in Beijing. Basically I select the models based on their images and bodies which must have interesting features that audience can read different minute details. They don't need to look beautiful and slim as fashion models. I am very happy with the models in my photographs. You can see the new work "China Mansion" where there are more interesting models.

China Mansion, 2003

Mai Chi: So in the China Mansion the guests - famous images created by Ingres, Monet, Man Ray, etc.- had taking place, sitting or lying beside bonsais, Chinese furniture, Chinese scroll pictures… These fundamental icons of the Western art have materialized themselves in form of ordinary Chinese women, just like girls in a Karaoke bar. Are you being ironic about the high-culture of the West, or is it your desire to blend the Western culture in a harmonical way into the Chinese contemporary life?

Wang Qingsong: I think you are right in saying that I am being ironic about the high culture of the West. The idea to trigger me to make this new work comes from the reality in present China. It summarizes my perception into the Chinese social reality in its opening-up program. Over the last two decades, China has been enthusiastic about inviting foreign experts in economy, technology, architecture and culture to give support and guidance in Chinese modernization strive. These foreign specialists help create many opportunities and bring many advanced thoughts for China. However, they manufacture many uncertain ideas. Due to such a quick inflow and outflow of advanced concepts, Chinese people are confused about what are right and what are wrong sometimes.
"China Mansion" is a scroll photograph that situates the scene in a typical Chinese styled home. In this five-scene photograph, I invite foreign guests played by female models in art, including honourable figures in paintings/photographs by Ingres, Courbet, Manet, Gauguin, Yves Klein, Jones, Boucher, Rembrandt, Rubens, David, Renoir, Man Ray, etc and etc. They are specially invited in my "Chinese family". I want to make them communicate each other across centuries and cultures and create certain relationships between themselves as well as with China. It seems these guests pose conflict with Chinese home.

Mai Chi: Many of your photographs, like "Bath House" (2000) show modern Chinese life as a flawless picture offering endless pleasure: flowers, smiles and Coca-Cola. Do you see yourself as a moralist raising his voice in a society where people are amusing themselves to death?

Bath House, 2000

Wang Qingsong: As an artist, I think I should sound an alarm to people who are immersed in superfical satisfaction of material gains. While we are mindlessly pursuing for fortune accumulation, we are losing sense of what life is really like. I hope my photographic works will bring awareness to people in dreams.

Mai Chi: What are your plans for the future?

Wang Qingsong: I will keep hold of what is going on in China to narrate my interpretations of the ongoing stories in present China. I will continue to work with photography which might later be developed into video works.

Mai Chi: Thank you for the interview.

Wang Qingsong, born 1966, graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Sichuan, China.
Currently lives and works in Beijing.

Solo exhibitions

Golden Future - Photography by Wang Qingsong, Galerie LOFT, Paris, France. Wang Qingsong Photographic Works Exhibition, Marella Arte Contemporanea, Milan, Italy. Wang Qingsong Photography, Foundation Oriente, Macao, China. Satirizing the times, Pingyao Intenrational Photography Festival, Shanxi Province, China.
Glorious Life- The Photographs of Wang Qingsong. Wan Fung Art Gallery, Beijing.
Wang Qingsong Painting Exhibition. Chinese Contemporary, London, UK.

Selected group exhibitions

China Art Now - Out of the Red, Trevi Flash Art Museum, Italy. Fashion and Style, The Museum Moscow House of Photography, Moscow, Russia. Prague Biennale 1, Czech Republic. Noorderlicht 2003 Photofestival --- Global Detail, Groningen, the Netherlands. Mois de La Photo Montreal --- Now, Images of Present Time, Montreal, Canada.
Run, Jump, Climb and Walk, East Modern Art Center, Beijing. Money and Value/The Last Taboo, Basel, Switzerland. Special Projects, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, USA. Let's go! The Art Museum of China Millennium Monument, Beijing. Chinese Modernity, Museum of the Foundation Armando Alvares Penteado, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Paris-Pekin, Espace Cardin, Paris, France.

© 2003 talawas