Wang Qingsong

page 2


Wang Qingsong directs and controls every aspect and detail of these staged works – from making of the costumes to the position of all of the figures.

“This work poses an important but unanswerable question: what kind of future is going to emerge from the shared past and collective experience of the Chinese people confronted with present challenges?” – from “Sanguine Splendour – Wang Qingsong’s Works”.

“ Past, Present, Future (2001), a large-scale triptych that is one of Wang Qingsong's most ambitious works, grew out of his reflections on the historical position and destiny of the Chinese people. Through careful arrangements of the standing figures and the postures of the models, the three panels ingeniously mimic the kinds of monumental public sculpture that can still be seen in many Chinese cities.

Each of the panels refers to a different historical moment. Past, the right-hand panel, brings together 17 figures on a raised pedestal. In their mud-covered military uniforms, these men and women are far from glamorous. We see soldiers holding swords, rifles and pistols, and one man is blowing a bugle. Another man holds over his head a length of heavy chain that stands for the oppression they are all fighting to throw off. Wang Qingsong appears at the base of the monument as an observer, a soldier whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages (like the commander in "Another Battle"). Gazing upward at the figures, he holds a bouquet of flowers as if in tribute.

In Present, the left-hand panel, the muddy soldiers have been replaced by a procession of 17 gleaming, silver-covered workers. Instead of weapons they carry industrial tools, and many wear protective goggles over their eyes. They are being urged along not by a work unit leader with a megaphone. The artist appears again outside the group, looking up at the monumental figures, but this time he is portrayed as a young civilian in a sporty white cap who is accompanied by a well-fed pet dog.

In the central panel, Future, the figures are all radiant and golden. Carrying flowers and baskets overflowing with fruits, they all look directly out at the viewer. In this image, Wang Qingsong has taken his place amid the others, holding up a pair of cymbals as if to announce the dawn of a golden age. But this shining future is not completely certain: one man holds a rifle, as if awaiting future battles. And all the faces are somber and vigilant, not relaxed and joyous. Are they really convinced that a golden age lies ahead? An era like the present, Wang Qingsong says, has thrown into doubt all the ideals and the heroes of the Chinese past. Past, Present, Future poses an important but unanswerable question: what kind of future is going to emerge from the shared past and collective experience of the Chinese people?”

Christopher Phillips is curator at the International Centre of Photography, New York, and a contributing editor of Art in America magazine. This article is printed for the catalogue of one-man show for Wang Qingsong, Foundacio Oriente, September-October 2002.

Wang Qingsong, "Past, Present and Future", 2001, Size Variable, Archival Inkjet on Fine Art Paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

The making of “Past, Present, Future”

Wang Qingsong has also created works without models such as in his “Meat Flowers” series. The inspiration for this work came from of the floral displays in hotel foyers. He found them to contain a certain amount of sadness and reminded him of meat. He used meat to sculpt the flowers, peonies, symbols for nobility and wealth and the national flower. The photographs use the aesthetic of Chinese painting, carefully placed and balanced compositions of natural forms within the space.

Wang Qingsong, "Red Peony, White Peony and Frosted Peony", 2003, Size variable, Archival Inkjet on Fine Art Paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

The following is an extract from an interview between Wang Qingsong and Li Xianting in 2007:

Li: Those meat flowers are really quite special. Could you talk a bit more specifically about them?

Wang: Sometimes I do some artwork that isn't entirely for art's sake. Some friends would say, "You're always shooting those large scale photographs of people, can't you take some without people?" I too had always wanted to do some work without people. Society was flourishing so I though to take a photo of some beautiful flowers. At the time many large hotels were decorated in beautiful peonies, the CTS Hotel was a classic example. I felt that beautiful things also certainly contain a certain amount of sadness. It reminded me of the feeling of meat. At first the meat was fresh and hard but I waited until it was soft, thawed out until there was a pitter-patter of blood before photographing it. This was also to symbolise the erosion of ideals over the course of time.

In China we traditionally say that if plum blossoms are able to get through the cold weather of winter, they will grow even stronger the following year. Peonies also symbolise man's noble ideals, like those of intellectuals. In truth I prefer the feeling of classical painting, with no people at all. Those landscape paintings with only a few tiny figures can be disheartening. I hoped that when you looked at this piece it would be visually very beautiful but be chilling at the same time. I emphasised this coldness on purpose of course. I refroze the meat flowers in order to compare how they were before and afterwards. Perhaps these flowers (which represent ideals) would flourish after passing through a hard winter, or perhaps they would freeze to death. I used dry ice to strengthen the illusionary effect but at the same time added a faint glow of sunlight to the backdrop to express that there was still hope.

In earlier work Wang is more of an observer. The themes gradually grow darker, driven by the urge for satire. Wang draws attention to a number of social issues in works such as  “Follow Me”, “Competition” and “Poisonous Spider”

The work “Competition” draws from Wang Qingsong’s memories of the Cultural Revolution, when the walls of China’s cities were covered with handmade posters pasted up by rival Red Guard factions. The political slogans are replaced by commercial logos. Wang documents the omnipresence of advertising in China today as rapid economic growth overtakes other policy concerns of people and government. In the past the streets were hung with posters in fights over political beliefs. Now the struggle is over financial power and business gain. Wang Qingsong states that advertisements are like a rash growing out of control everywhere on our city streets.

In “Competition”, I constructed a huge wall, that stood about 14 meters high and 40 meters across, and then we posted over 600 pieces of paper (110x90cm each) on which I wrote in traditional Chinese ink brush style in some instances and in felt tip pen and magic marker in others, a random selection of slogans and phrases from the advertisements that bombard us here every day. These ads include both domestic and international information about companies and famous brands, such as the lease of houses, education programs, restaurants, foot massage, etc. Everything is advertised, from items as big as airplanes (eg. BOEING) or as small as vinegar and condoms. On my gigantic wall, I make the fight for advertising as fierce as a struggle for military power, with inevitable casualties on the battlefield. I have also included some of the famous brands that proliferate in China, such as Shell, McDonald's, Durex, Starbuck's, along with a few of the anecdotes behind them and the misunderstandings that arise in translating these into Chinese for a foreign audience. Altogether, I’ve used around 3000 varieties of products and services on my wall to show off the allure of this mass advertising campaign that surrounds us. 

Wang Qingsong 2004

Wang Qingsong, “Competition”, size variable, 2004, image courtesy of the artist.

In Wang Qingsong’s  “Poisonous Spider”, a barbed wire web is hung with a whole year’s worth of trash. Wang predicts the potential danger and collapse of society through reliance on commercial goods. The work is also a grim warning about the growing problem of rubbish is China which is polluting the landscape and poisoning the water systems.

“My work is not really critical towards “China today,” but rather takes a sceptical attitude toward exaggerated consumption. A lot of things are not actually that good, but their worth is amplified by propaganda, and people believe that they must have these things in order to reflect their social identities. This kind of logic has caused a lot of exaggerated consumption and blind waste. Early on, my work reflected more on China’s national culture, and changes in the modern cultural context.”

Wang Qingsong 2005

Wang Qingsong, “Poisonous Spider”, size variable, 2005, image courtesy of the artist.

Wang Qingsong’s work  “Follow Me” is named after an English training program from the 1980s. The works shows a huge blackboard with text in Chinese and English, complete with grammar and spelling mistakes. The work also has a contemporary context as many of the words and phrases seem to have more to do with the international art market; they include “Documenta,” “Venice Biennale” and “Uli Sigg,” the major Chinese-contemporary collector.

Wang Qingsong, "Follow Me", 2003, Archival Inkjet on Fine Art Paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

“I took the name of my work ‘Follow Me’ from the first and most popular English language-teaching program introduced by CCTV (China State Television) in 1982, during the early years of economic reconstruction in China. This English-training series had sixty programs, which were repeatedly broadcast for twelve years. It had 10 million viewers and sold over 30 million textbooks, setting a Guinness record for foreigners learning English. Many Chinese people got a glimpse of the western lifestyle from “Follow Me.” Farmers, workers, soldiers and students, even monks at Lama Temple, enjoyed watching the program which provided a window to learn what foreigners eat and wear and how they live. Many people in Mainland China consider “Follow Me” as the Bible for learning oral English. For example, one young soldier in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, was featured on CCTV Headline News as a national hero because he studied English so well. In the 1980s, “Follow Me” helped many Chinese people make real their dreams of going overseas to further their studies. The English teaching TV program’s significance went far beyond learning English. It helped Chinese people to learn about the west and the world, just after China emerged from its closed-door policy.

In the 1980s, I also enjoyed watching “Follow Me” while studying in high school. However, I could never keep up with the program. Twenty years later, Chinese economic reform has brought many dramatic changes. China now has a myriad of exchanges with global industries from around the world. China hosted the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. At least on the surface, China is communicating well with the rest of the world. However, when I look at myself, I see a “backward” guy, still failing to speak English. Such thoughts inspired me to create my photograph “Follow Me”. For the shoot, I constructed a huge four-meter wide and eight-meter long blackboard in Beijing Film Studio in 2003, and we scribbled many Chinese and English slogans and terminology referencing changes in Chinese history and culture, words mainly taken from China-based English-training textbooks and manuals. From the early TV series of “Follow Me” to my photograph “Follow Me”, it has been my dream to see to realise the well-known slogan “China Walks towards the World, and World Learns about China”.

Wang Qingsong 2003

Wang Qingsong, “Safe Milk”, 2009, image courtesy of the artist.

In the work “Safe Milk”, 2009, Wang comments on the Chinese milk scandal. Milk was tainted with melamine and caused a number of deaths. The issue raised concerns about food safety and political corruption in China, and damaged the reputation of China's food exports, with at least 11 countries stopping all imports of Chinese dairy products.

“In February 2009, I was invited by a French magazine to France to shoot some photo works. At that time, I decided to make another work for myself, ‘Safe Milk’. In an old castle in France, I invited western fashion models to work with me in staging a newer version of the ‘Last Supper’. Around 2008-2009, there was a nation-wide consumer scandal in China, involving tainted infant formula, milk and milk powder, contaminated with melamine, endangering the health of infants and small children. So I made this photograph. On a large table about 9 meters long, I placed yoghurt, and milk, asking models to bear their breasts. It was such a valuable experience that an American pregnant women volunteered to work with me on this photograph before giving birth a few days later.”

“I’ve never thought of myself as an artist, more like a journalist, eternally shooting a film of society. I really like how journalists work. ….There are so many things going on around me, I really indulge myself in this change. Modernity in China and the West is not the same. …Things are in constant flux”

Wang Qingsong – Film Works

Wang Qingsong’s  “Skyscraper” (2008) demonstrates Wang’s explicit message about the rapidly changing environment. The work is a time-lapse documentation of the building of a high rise, not built as a part of commercial development, but built by forty workers over a month especially for the photographs.

Wang Qingsong, “Skyscaper”, 2008, stills from the making of the video

The installation is about 35 meters tall, with a diameter of 40 meters. The scaffolds bars are painted with gold colors so that they look shiny under the sunshine.

(return to page 1)