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Cans of Coke, packs of Marlboro cigarettes and wads of cash all mean corruption to Wang Qingsong, who frets about China’s fate as it slides towards capitalism. The brooding Beijing-based photographer constructs vast allegories of decadence, using pictures to tell of a once-vital spirituality now sapped and shrunken by greed.

In “Yaochi Fiesta”, hundreds of naked, shivering people loll about a vast bower of synthetic lawns and fabricated rocks. Women hunch and cross their arms across flabby breasts; men draw their knees up to their chests or shield themselves with dangling arms. This is Wang’s jaundiced version of the Daoist myth in which the Queen Mother of the West holds a banquet every few millennia and serves the Peaches of Immortality to her godlike guests. But these would-be deities look distinctly mortal and morose in their plastic paradise. The keen consumerism of today’s China promises a bounty as seductive as eternal life but the only imperishable thing it delivers is the contents of deathless landfills.

This cinematic – if sloppily out-of-focus – photograph hangs at the midpoint of Wang’s first US show, curated by Christopher Phillips and now at the International Center of Photography. It is an illuminating and frustrating exhibit, highlighting the artist’s vigour and at the same time laying bare his limitations. Wang works on an operatic scale, with a sophisticated grasp of colour and composition, but his sardonic tone lacks nuance and the more you see of his hectoring social commentary, the more superficial it feels.

Wang enlists an assortment of Chinese and western precedents as foils for his critique of contemporary values. The earliest work here, “Pick up a Pen, Fight to the End” (1997), updates a poster from the 1970s, in which a stalwart young girl, watched over by a portrait of the social critic Lu Xun and bolstered by a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book at her elbow, follows the exhortation: “Take up the brush of polemics and struggle to the end.” In his revision, Wang inserts himself in place of the young communist, and exchanges Mao’s epigrams for China’s new touchstones: gift-shop tchotchkes, $100 bills and exam study guides promising shortcuts to success. The artist mocks the easy money ethos of the 1990s but he is non-committal about the “revolutionary romanticism” it replaced. Is he really nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution? It is hard to tell.

That same ambivalence permeates his attitude towards the rising tide of China’s new rich. In “Night Revels of Lao Li”, Wang reinterprets the 10th-century masterpiece, “Night Revels of Han Xizai”, which describes the elegantly debauched domesticity of a government official. A long-time critic of the imperial government, Han Xizai despaired of reform and retreated into private revelries. With exquisite tact, the scroll depicts him feasting in the company of courtesans, listening to a pipa player, making music and watching a dance performance. Wang scraps discretion and turns a panorama of high-flown opulence into a grotesque tableau. Peasant women in minidresses and halter-tops substitute for the lavishly robed ladies of the original. The revellers guzzle Pepsi and Jack Daniels. His scorn seems less spiritual than snobbish, reserved specifically for what Phillips describes as “the tawdry cultural aspirations of the nation’s unsophisticated but suddenly prosperous peasants-turned-businessmen”. In the artist’s moral code, shallowness is a puny sin; bad taste is much more alarming. Wang does not despise consumption for its own sake – only its tackier manifestations.

He sees the source of that garishness in the rapid infiltration of crude, western-style materialism. “Competition”, another ambiguous, mordantly elegiac look back on a period of ideological purity, recalls a time when China’s cities were plastered with home-made Red Army posters. For his massive tableau, Wang covered the walls of a Beijing film studio with hundreds of hand-painted advertising posters, hawking global brands such as Starbucks, Dell and Harry Potter. Amid this explosion of artisanal marketing, the artist stands perched on a stepladder, howling into an old megaphone.

Wang portrays himself as a lone hero, shouting vainly into a blizzard of corporate messages even as he builds his own brand. Surely he savours the irony of snarling at the market for consumer goods from within the art market’s enthusiastic embrace. He stands to get rich by deftly reviling wealth.

The show’s final three photographs deal with another fraught aspect of modern China – the influx of millions into growing cities. Here, too, Wang flaunts his profound ambivalence. “Dream of Migrants” is a monumental, cinematic work featuring teams of extras planted throughout an enormous, three-storey stage set. Dressed as bumpkins and tramps, they enact a series of cliched vignettes in the crumbling building. A young bride and groom embrace in an upper window; a couple of prostitutes sprawl in front of another. Peddlers mingle in the muddy foreground, and three panhandlers menace a pair of tourists who have wandered into the dilapidation. The artist, who was born in north-eastern China and came to Beijing to make his fortune, portrays migrants such as himself with admiration, sympathy and contempt.

Wang simultaneously criticises and exploits the stereotypes of these new arrivals. It is fine, he implies, to feel superior to the unscrubbed masses, but their cheap labour fuels the new prosperity. That must be how Wang can afford to make his cast-of-thousands megaworks: it takes an army of models and assistants to help dramatise the ill-effects of a limitless workforce.



Until May 8; icp.org

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