ArtSlant: Lady Liberty and a Dragon

Happy New Year: Wang Qingsong solo show

Tang Contemporary, 798 Art District, No.2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing

17 December, 2011 – 25 February, 2012

Photography seems to be the perfect medium for Wang Qingsong’s monumentally theatrical set pieces. In his overblown symbolic constructions and groups of people, the artist addresses issues of both a general and personal nature. In the gallery, these are presented as lush, large-format photographs allowing the artist’s attention to detail in the settings to be held static in front of our eyes for detailed attention. In the spaces of Tang Contemporary the artist is now presenting two set pieces, as well as the photographs, to the audience, which leads to the realisation that the extra dimensions may not benefit the works.

Photography’s power of presentation through the singular viewpoint is put to great use in Wang Qingsong’s epic tableaux. Despite the complexity of his settings, each piece works towards an overall symbolism – a message that each photo presents to the viewer. The works make comments on life, or address social realities in China today (consumerism supplanting the ideologies of the past, for example). Wang’s world is one highlighting the absurdities of the situations, breaking down our assumptions about them. The quality or value of the messages being put across in Wang’s images may be debatable, but the photographs’ effectiveness as spectacle cannot be denied.

Unfortunately, bringing these constructed situations back into real life seems to dissipate the coherence of the image and the symbolism that the photograph so effectively presents – the installations dilute their power.

Tang Contemporary’s main gallery space is taken over by a large installation made up of what appears to be the aftermath of a celebration. The sad remains of half-deflated balloons, and their shiny, cartoon-headed helium counterparts, are bunched together and dispersed around the volume of the room. Most are no longer capable of floating and are attached to strings hanging from the ceiling to keep them in place. In amongst these are objects which also partake of the balloons’ enforced defiance of gravity: a metal bed, a wheelchair and bits of furniture; a bicycle hanging with a Christmas tree; an old coat and a collection of duvets in colourful patterned fabrics. Through it all a long, flying Chinese dragon snakes through the debris, looking like a cheap decoration in the same gaudy aesthetic as the balloons.

More debris is littered around the side room next to the main space, this time with no support and left to grace the floor, adding a more uncontrolled feeling in contrast to the main room where everything is held in suspension.

This suspension relates to the second installation, Poisonous Spider (2011), in the back room of the gallery. This piece is a recreation Wang’s photograph of the same name (also on show in the upstairs galleries). The photograph shows a worker suspended at the centre of a huge, barbed-wire spider’s web. The artist has attached random, everyday rubbish to the web as if the spider uses this to attract its prey. The new installation replaces the suspended man with an empty wheelchair standing in front of the wire structure. The wheelchair appears in both installations, and (particularly with Poisonous Spider) places the body (and its lack) into the installation.

The large photographic prints upstairs show Wang’s elaborately constructed environments and heavily symbolic scenes. Aside from the aforementioned Poisonous Spider (2005), Home from the same year, shows a recreation of a half-destroyed Beijing hutong (alleyway) building with the character for “demolish” (拆) prominently spray-painted on its walls. The character 拆, and its associations with the destruction of traditional residences to make way for the “new,” has become a controversial symbol of the roughshod development of Beijing over recent decades. Wang’s photo shows a lone man with his back to us, leaning against a doorway in what could be a sad or resigned pose. This building is perhaps the figure’s ex-home with all his possessions strewn amongst the rubble.

I find this tendency to heavy-handed symbolism a problem with Wang’s work. This is exemplified with the newest photograph in the show, Goddess (2011). In a photo of another of his large constructed tableaux, in amongst a forest of decrepit scaffolding, discarded artist’s materials and a group of chickens, the torso and head of the Statue of Liberty can be made out. The scene appears to be a sculptors’ studio, with the figure made from large panels of clay applied to a wooden structure. However, the figure is only half-finished (or already beginning to disintegrate), as parts of her crown are missing and there are large cracks showing between the clay panels.

What takes this picture into the region of farce is that the figure of Liberty, instead of wearing the flowing robes of the original, here adopts a “Mao” jacket. This style of jacket, as a symbol, has such a deep resonance in the Chinese psyche and also in Chinese contemporary art that it’s difficult to judge its use here. For many contemporary artists in China it has served as a ubiquitous reference to “recent Chinese history,” appearing in works by Sui Jianguo, Wang Guangyi, Zhan Wang, Zhang Xiaogang, etc. So much so that it is now a cliché of huge proportions. I feel that, to be used now, such an image must be ironic – not of its original use as an item of clothing synonymous with China’s past – but of its use in contemporary art.

The wall-text suggests Goddess and Home represent disillusionment “both for the individual pursuit of basic materials (such as a stable home) or about the country’s political and religious ideals of conception.” Which may well be true, but the mixed messages of Goddess could also represent, on the one hand, a rapprochement reached between Chinese and other cultures (culture is simply a melange of different sources, with the process of assimilation half-finished, half-falling apart); or, on the other hand, this image may inadvertently suggest that China’s recent art history has in itself become a set of clichés ripe to be picked over.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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ArtSlant: Lady Liberty and a Dragon by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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