Wang Qingsong

Wang Qingsong, Dream of Migrants, 2005, 170 x 400 cm

My photo shoot sets often grow into full-blown installations, such as in “Dream of Migrants” (2005). This term “Migrants” is very derogatory in China. It means aimlessly drifting population from one place to another, mostly from countryside to big cities to look for jobs. This group of people is called an “unauthorized population flow”. The term hints at the risk of social instability. This “floating population” has special terms and is marked with demeaning characteristics such as bad personal hygiene, instability, and threats of dangers to others. In Beijing alone, there are nearly 3 million such people. They all hold a dream and look for opportunities when they flow from their hometown into big cities. They bring stimulus by way of human labor for urban development but they also bring forth a lot of unstable social factors, such as the plight of their children without papers to study in the city and lacking stable housing. This population is accustomed to being shepherded from one city to the other, helpless with little money and bad reputations. Some people recognize them as vibrant force, but most people regard them as human signs of social sickness. The array of derogatory terms to such population is often associated with “Tramp, loafers, gangsters, rascals…”
I am empathetic to this “Migrant” population. I think they hold on dearly to their dreams and like to be recognized for their contribution to the constructions of China’s cities as they attempt to fulfill their dreams of improving their lives. In reality, their dreams are often hard to realize, as their early dreams of moving to cities are in conflict with their harsh realities discovered only later after they arrive.
In 1993, I moved to Beijing, also from a far away place, from Jinzhou, in Hubei Province. Jinzhou is a very small city. I also had my big dreams despite being surprised by the huge scale of the city of Beijing, a capital city with a population 100 times larger than the population of my hometown, so I witnessed first hand the dramatic social changes in China’s urban areas. I survived because of the realization that my situation was not special and there were tens of thousands of people just like me pouring into China’s cities hoping and trying to realize their dreams.
Wang Qingsong, 'Nu Shen (Goddess) 2011

Approaching the Statue of Liberty by boat for the first time in 1999, Wang Qingsong had visions of Botticelli. ‘‘It was just a little bit like ‘The Birth of Venus,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘It was a goddess born from the water.’’ Twelve years later, he took that image as inspiration for ‘‘Goddess,’’ featuring a 26-by-19-foot clay sculpture built in his studio in Songzhuang, an artists’ village on the outskirts of Beijing. As with all of his work, Wang constructs elaborate tableaux, which he then photographs and dismantles. For ‘‘Goddess,’’ he imagined Lady Liberty in a Mao suit, a reflection of China’s struggle between two ideals: the beliefs of the chairman and the tenets of democracy. The scaffolding around the sculpture alludes to the vast unfinished construction sites in China; the chickens that wander through the rubble enjoy a freedom that he believes the Chinese people do not. Though he has had only a few direct confrontations with the authorities (usually over nudity), Wang expects ‘‘Goddess’’ to be controversial. ‘‘People have lost their dreams and their ideals,’’ he said. ‘‘As an artist, as a citizen, I am very puzzled about where we are going and why we are lost.’’ --- Julie Bosman, New York Times

Watch this video interview with Wang Qingsong before reading the following extracts from artwriters:
An interview with Wang Qingsong for Artnet

Critical Analysis #1

The Beijing artist Wang Qingsong, born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, has seen China morph from an insular, rural society to a globally engaged dynamo. His art has evolved just as rapidly, from Gaudy Painting (a Chinese variation on Pop) to giant photographs staged in movie studios and short, performance-based videos. All of these works regard recent changes in Chinese culture — the proliferation of McDonald’s, overcrowded cities, even a booming art scene — from an ironic stance that needs no translation.
In the 2004 photograph“Competition,” for instance, he stands on a ladder with megaphone in hand in front of a wall of hand-lettered advertisements, giving a Western-inflected, consumerist twist to the old Red Guard posters that adorned city walls during the Cultural Revolution. Brand names including Citibank, Starbucks and Art Basel are visible, though much of the writing is in Chinese.
That striking image is part of a small survey, “Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide,” at the International Center of Photography. It’s not the first appearance at the center for Mr. Wang (whose full name is pronounced wahng ching-SAHNG); he appeared in the 2004 exhibition “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China,”organized jointly with Asia Society.
The current show is Mr. Wang’s biggest presentation in the United States so far, though at just a dozen photographs and three videos it’s a bit of a tease. It leaves you wanting to see more from this gimlet-eyed artist — and from the Center of Photography.
The curator Christopher Phillips, who organized the show, links Mr. Wang to Western photographers and painters like Gregory Crewdson and the Weimar-era satirist George Grosz. Other Westerners that may come to mind are Andreas Gursky, for his hyperdetailed depictions of unchecked globalism, and Thomas Demand, whose photographs of meticulously constructed paper-and-cardboard environments make fictions of “real”political events.
But it seems disingenuous to talk about the staged photograph, in this context, without acknowledging its Socialist Realist history. Government censorship is another subject left untouched in the show, even as the art world digests news about the destruction of the artist Ai Weiwei’s studio in Shanghai this month. (Mr. Wang, though less outspoken than Mr. Ai, has in the past been questioned by the police and has had negatives confiscated.)
The earliest works on view date from the late 1990s, after Mr. Wang abandoned his Gaudy Art paintings. They’re sharply observant but not very nuanced; the image of a materialist Buddha clutching cigarettes, beer and a cellphone is typical.
The humor is more sophisticated in Mr. Wang’s interpretation of the 10th-century scroll painting “Night Revels of Han Xizai.” He casts the Beijing art critic Li Xianting in the role of the debauched court official Han Xizai, and himself as the emperor’s spy. Scantily clad “courtesans” sip Pepsi and Jack Daniel’s as Mr. Wang peeks out from behind a curtain. Beyond the voyeurism there is a parable about the fate of the intellectual in contemporary China.
Almost as rich are the works from 2003-5, “Competition” among them, elaborately staged in a Beijing film studio and starring Mr. Wang. The sets are artworks in themselves, as is made clear by short behind-the-scenes videos at the photography center.
In “Follow Me” Mr. Wang sits at a desk in front of an enormous chalkboard covered in English and Chinese writing. The setup riffs on a popular BBC-Central China Television language-instruction program from the 1980s, but the words and phrases being taught here seem to have more to do with the millennial art boom; they include “Documenta”,“Venice Biennale” and “Uli Sigg,” the major Chinese-contemporary collector.
Other works offer wry commentary on the fast-tracked development of Chinese cities and the plight of the migrant workers who come from rural areas to build them. In the most recent of these images, “Dormitory” (2005), dozens of nude figures inhabit small compartments in what is essentially a giant bunk bed constructed by Mr. Wang. Curiously, some of them seem to be occupied by artist models (note the seated figure plucked from Man Ray’s “Ingres Violin,” one of many Western art references in Mr. Wang’s photographs)
As China Evolves, So Does an Artistby KAREN ROSENBERG
The New York Times January 27, 2011

Wang Qingsong, 'Competition' 170x300cm, 2004

Wang Qingsong, 'Follow Him', 2010, 130 x 300 cm
"Around the time I shot “The History of Monuments” in 2009 (120x4200cm, c-print), I started to prepare for shooting “Follow Him”. During the whole year until 2010, I collected and bought a lot of used books, magazines, dictionaries and etc of literature, poetry, law, college preparatory materials and put them onto stacks of shelves. Then let all these books got rotten and dirty. Like a real scholar who reads so many books, “I” still fail to write any decent paper even if loads of blank papers were trashed all over the ground.
I am talking about the education problem in China. Knowledge is taught but not learnt by many people who fail to understand the real meanings. They don’t know the meaning of studies. They study for their parents, for their grandparents, but never for themselves, for the love of knowledge itself. Therefore we see so many students trash their books after examinations." (Wang Qingsong)

Critical Analysis #2

WANG QINGSONG'S photographs are darkly humorous. Staged and absurd, they tend to consider the hollow promises of consumer culture in China. In “Bathhouse” (2000), for example, the artist sits in a pool surrounded by plastic fruit, Coca-Cola bottles and painted ladies, all of whom look terribly bored. Later works are both grander and more subtle, such as “Yaochi Fiesta” (2005), a mythical scene of paradise in which scores of nude Chinese look uneasy, even ashamed. With legs crossed and mouths pursed, they appear chagrined by what was meant to be a delicious fantasy. Mr Wang, a Beijing-based artist, arranges these scenes in a warehouse-like film studio. Though often amusing, they are more than mere gags. Rather, they often feel like odd group portraits, with plenty of powerful reasons to keep looking beyond the first snigger.
This wry approach to chronicling China's economic and cultural changes is earning international notice. “Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide”, his most extensive solo show in America, has just opened at the International Centre of Photography (ICP) in New York. His work is also part of “Photography from the New China”, now at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. Mr Wang, at the opening of his show at the ICP, expressed gratitude for the attention. “Going overseas is like opening a door to what is happening in the West,” he toldThe Economist (in a conversation translated by his wife, Zang Fang). “In China we can't see what's going on in the world.” Time in the West, and perhaps especially in America, helps to clarify for Mr Wang some fundamental cultural misunderstandings. “China in the Western idea is like a tiger—a danger, a threat,” he said. “But maybe China is just a big rhino, gentle and harmless. Not a monster.” 

Wang Qingsong spoke to Danielle Shang of 'Yishu' magazine about his life and work. Read her interview with Wang Qingsong here:

Watch this video clip which places the work of this important artist in context (Warning:contains some nudity)

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