In the midst of the opening of last year’s Shanghai Biennale, Wang Qingsong sat on a suitcase like an emperor on a throne. He was surrounded by shopping bags, briefcases, backpacks, and bundles of clothes that looked light and portable but which, in fact, were all fabricated in bronze. The installation, titled Luggage (2008), is a commentary on the pace of change in China, so rapid that it has made migrants out of many of the country’s 1.3 billion people. Though sculpture was a departure from Wang’s usual medium—photography—it wasn’t much of a stretch. The artist’s photographs often address current events. At the biennale, the visitors, capturing their friends and families posing with the artworks, took the pictures for him.
“Wang Qingsong’s focus since the mid-1990s has been on the impact of consumer culture in China,” says Christopher Phillips, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York. Phillips included a number of the artist’s monumental photographs in the exhibition “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China” in 2004, and next year he will mount a survey of Wang’s photographs, consisting of spectacles involving as many as 300 people. Wang continues to stage such images even as he moves into installation, sculpture, and film projects. “He is working in the same territory as Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson,” Phillips notes. “But I think what you find in Wang Qingsong’s work is a little more obvious humor and more specific social and historical references.”
Wang, 42, speaks no English but communicates fluently through his wife and translator, Zhang Fang. His face is animated, with piercing eyes, high cheekbones, and a haircut designed to draw attention. This year he has combed his thick, gray-flecked hair upward in imitation of the flame-shaped heads of the cartoon mascots for the Summer Olympics, while last year he shaved his head with an electric razor, leaving random strands to sprout from the top. “I’ve experimented with different hairstyles ever since I became an artist,” says Wang, as if it were just another outlet for his creativity.
Migration is not an abstract issue for Wang Qingsong (pronounced Wong Ching-sahng), who has experienced firsthand his country’s upheavals. Born in 1966 in Daqing in Heilongjiang Province, he moved in 1969 with his family to Jingzhou in Hubei Province, where his father found work in the oil fields. “My family lived here and there, so I never had a feeling of location,” he says. After his father was killed in an accident, in 1981, Wang worked for eight years drilling in the fields, all the while trying to gain admission to one of China’s prestigious art academies. His decision to become an artist was almost accidental. One day, walking home from the oil fields, he found a drawing of an old man who reminded him of his father. He copied the work repeatedly, impressed by its realism. Finally, after five attempts, he was admitted to the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, known for its oil-painting program.
He moved to Beijing in 1993. “I thought of Beijing as such a cultured city, with people visiting museums and being really interested in what they saw,” he says. But it turned out his meager savings would last him only two months. So he settled in a village at the edge of town, unable to afford even a mattress. After a year, with assistance from his brothers and sisters, he moved into the Yuanmingyuan artist’s colony, a collection of rundown neighborhoods near the old Summer Palace where many of the leading artists of the post-Tiananmen Square era had set up shop.
In the city’s mid-’90s experimental atmosphere, Wang struggled to establish himself as a painter. His first series, “Dysphasia” (1996), portrayed people flailing to get out of plastic wrapping, and then “Competition” (2004) depicted naked bodies wrestling on the ground. These works communicated Wang’s frustration with society at a time when there was little hope for change.
Wang participated in his first exhibition, organized by the prominent Beijing critic Li Xianting, in 1996. As a result, the dealer Ludovic Bois of the Chinese Contemporary gallery in London visited his studio and offered him his first solo show. Bois paid him a few thousand dollars up front for all the paintings in the exhibition, but sold only one. “My mother doubted that I was a good artist, and where I came from it was impossible for anyone to believe that you could travel to a foreign city,” says Wang. At this time his mother was dying in a hospital back home. “So I took a photograph of myself with scenery behind me,” he recalls, “so my mother could finally see that her son had become a good artist who had shown overseas, and she told all the other patients in her ward.”
Already Wang was exploring the power of photography, and he soon gave up painting. “There were so many changes taking place all across China, and you couldn’t paint anything that could match this reality,” he says. His first photographs were colorful self-portraits created with Photoshop, showing the artist brandishing both Chinese emblems and logos from international companies that had by then invaded his country. In one, Thinker (1998), he sits cross-legged with the McDonald’s logo etched across his chest. And in Requesting Buddha Series No. 1 (1999), he is a multiarmed deity holding a pack of Marlboros, a DVD, a handful of U.S. dollars, a tiny red flag, and a cell phone, among other items. These pictures placed him in the company of other artists in the so-called Gaudy Art movement who were exploring the rise of consumer culture and the erosion of traditional Chinese values.
Wang’s breakthrough work was Night Revels of Lao Li (2000), a photograph more than 30 feet wide and laid out like a scroll painting. An update of the 10th-century masterpiece Night Revels of Han Xizai, commissioned by an emperor to depict the debauchery of the literati of his time, this image focuses on the contemporary Beijing art scene, featuring well-known critics and artists as models. Wang made this piece, staged entirely in a Beijing movie studio, with money from his mother’s pension, after she died. “I would always say that this is a tribute to my mother,” he says. “She is a spirit that supports me, even up to the present.”
Wang often refers to both Chinese and Western art history. In Romantique (2003) he presents a Garden of Eden inhabited by characters from European paintings. At one end is the trio from Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, while at the center Botticelli’s Venus rises up from her shell. Groups of nude women fill this landscape, and a contemporary Olympia sits in a rickshaw on the side, surveying the scene. “Because I kept failing to get into art school, I thought I was not good enough in art history,” says Wang. “I went back to all the history books, and by the time I got into the academy, I could recite all the art-historical references by heart.”
Building the set for Romantique required 25 assistants working around the clock for a week. The entire set, constructed on an indoor soundstage, was about 131 feet wide. The sky is an airbrushed backdrop, and the garden is made up of trees, artificial foliage, and swaths of grass placed over mounds of earth. On the day of the shoot, an additional team was called upon to illuminate the display. Wang, overseeing the production, took a series of 8-by-10-inch negatives that were later stitched together digitally to create the final image, and then a videographer was hired to document the proceedings.
Wang attributes his interest in staged photography to the propaganda he grew up with during the Cultural Revolution. “When I was about 17 years old—it was 1983, long after the Cultural Revolution, so people began to speak the truth—a journalist admitted that the photograph he shot on the occasion of China getting the atom bomb was staged,” he recalls. “That was totally a big surprise for me.” Realizing that the images he had seen in the newspapers during his childhood were fabricated, Wang decided to take a different approach to his photography. “It is staged,” he explains, “but it has some truth.”
“Wang Qingsong’s work seems more and more relevant,” says Judith Keller, curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She recently acquired three monumental Wang photographs for the museum and is planning a solo show of his work for December of next year. Because of Wang’s focus on change in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the recent economic reforms, Keller believes that Wang was way ahead of the curve.
Nevertheless there are risks in China in staging photographs on this scale. Though government censorship has relaxed in recent years, nude photographs can still be denounced as pornography, which is illegal. More important, simply gathering together a large group of people requires governmental clearance, to ensure that no political agendas are being promoted. Wang tends to circumvent this rule by setting up shoots in out-of-the-way locations.
In the fall of 2006, however, Wang ran into trouble with the authorities as he was setting up his mammoth production The Blood of the World. For this photograph he created an epic battle scene involving 200 actors, 4 horses, 1 tank, and 2 jeeps. The set, built inside a huge hangar on the outskirts of Beijing normally used for agricultural hydroponics, was more than 3,000 feet long and included 35-foot-tall hills, deep holes, and smoldering fires. The final work was a medley of war scenes from famous paintings, such as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and well-known news photographs, like Eddie Adams’s 1968 photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Vietcong prisoner in Saigon. Many of the scores of actors were naked and draped across the landscape as dead bodies. It was a particularly cold day in November when the shoot took place.
The next morning, much to Wang’s dismay, a news item appeared in a Beijing paper accusing him of staging a pornographic event. Former president Jiang Zemin saw the report and ordered the mayor of Beijing to investigate. Wang, who was called in for questioning, was released after three days, but his negatives were seized and have not been returned to him. The Blood of the World was never printed.
“I want to forget about this incident,” Wang says now, three years later, “but sometimes it still looms large in my life and my dreams.” He continues, “If I hadn’t given them the negatives, they would have found more excuses to detain me, and I would have had much more trouble.” Since then he has not used nudity in his photographs, but he has not backed down from offering visual commentary on his society. Last year, just months before the Summer Olympics in Beijing, he produced a group of works that were exhibited at Albion Gallery in London. They offered a less-than-flattering glimpse of China’s Olympic fever. In the diptych U.N. Party (2007) he provided a humorous before-and-after look at an international soirée. The first image shows more than 1,300 partying diplomats circulating around two tables in the shape of the letters U and N. The second focuses on the debris they left behind. In The Glory of Hope (2007) the artist and his family stand facing a bleak horizon. Behind them, interlocking rings, the symbol of the Olympic games, are carved deeply in the mud, filled with dirty water.
With works like these Wang now commands prices ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 for new images; older works that have sold out their editions are more expensive. Follow Me (2003), an image of the artist sitting at a desk in front of a blackboard covered with English and Chinese sayings, brought a record $865,200 at Christie’s London in July of last year. Wang has also exhibited with Salon 94 in New York, Chinablue Gallery in Beijing, and PKM in Seoul and Beijing. His work is collected by many museums, including the Getty and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and by individuals, such as Guy and Myriam Ullens and Donald and Mera Rubell.
Success has allowed the artist to build a new studio in Caochangdi, a Beijing suburb that has become a hub of expensive galleries, and to buy an apartment in the center of town, where he lives with Zhang Fang and their two sons, Michelangelo and Leonardo, named after his wife’s favorite artists. When he is not spending time with his large extended family, he enjoys sharing meals and having long discussions with his fellow artists at one of the many upscale restaurants in this lively capital city.
Last October at Northern Stage, a theater in Newcastle, U.K., Wang turned an auditorium into a hospital operating room for his Temporary Ward. He had the theater staff pose as doctors and orderlies and recruited 300 volunteers to be patients. Besides experimenting with performance, he is now exploring sculpture, installation, and filmmaking. He recently completed Skyscraper, a short film that was exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last summer. In this work a multistory structure made of bamboo scaffolding was erected at the edge of a forest, seemingly in minutes through the magic of time-lapse photography. Fireworks explode against the night sky at the end of the day’s construction.
In August Wang shot his largest work to date, The History of Monuments. It involved taking a photograph a day for 15 days and then assembling the shots into a monumental 120-foot-long image.
The extraordinary thing about this ambitious project, which Wang is funding himself, is that he had no idea of how, where, or even whether it would be shown. Wang says, “I just follow my ideas and see where they lead me.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.