Saturday, January 29, 2011


As China Evolves, So Does an Artist

Published: January 27, 2011

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.

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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 hyper-detailed 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).

Just as he shifted from painting to photography Mr. Wang has lately turned to video, making short works that, in a familiar YouTube idiom, compress lengthy or difficult endeavors into just a couple of minutes. Some of them pick up on the urban themes in the photographs; for “Skyscraper” Mr. Wang hired construction workers to erect a 115-foot golden scaffold on the outskirts of Beijing.

Others, though, are more performance oriented. In “Iron Man,” for instance, the artist is pummeled bloody by spectral fists. The work’s title, in Chinese, describes positive attributes of ambition and endurance. Westerners, though, are likely to perceive the violence as a dark meditation on human-rights abuses — notwithstanding Mr. Wang’s broad grin at the end of the video, or his vague comments on the wall label. “We all get hit in one form or another in life,” he says, “perhaps not literally but figuratively.”

Violence also dominates “123456 Chops,” in which Mr. Wang’s younger brother hacks a goat carcass into minuscule pieces on a wooden platform. It’s a spectacularly grisly version of process art.

If the videos are any indication, Mr. Wang is moving from critiques of materialism to more subversive topics and from Hollywood-style set design to stripped-down, body-centric actions. His art is getting tougher as it gets lighter.

“Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide” continues through May 8 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas, at 43rd Street; (212) 857-0000;

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


April 6, 2011 - April 9, 2011

Jack H. Skirball Series

In recent years, independent Chinese cinema has experienced a virtual explosion. Digital media have allowed filmmakers to be bolder, more daring and to explore hybrid forms of documentary and fiction, or mix found and live footage while playing with novel formal strategies. Independent Chinese cinema has also come of age. Reaching beyond nostalgia and social protest, it plumbs surprising corners of Chinese reality with humor that is at times light, dark, saucy, dry, raunchy or conceptual. Expect the unexpected.

Wednesday, April 6 | 8:30 pm


Los Angeles premiere | 2010, 80 min., DigiBeta

One of the most original voices of post-socialist China, novelist/filmmaker Zhu Wen has crafted, for his third feature, a droll, surreal and ironic tale in which East meets West . . . or does it? Thomas is a painter trekking through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, and Mao the scruffy “innkeeper” who lodges him. Gradually, what appears to be “reality” shifts. Who is the butterfly, who is the philosopher?

Thursday, April 7 | 8:30 pm


Los Angeles premiere | 2010, 91 min., HDCAM

Slackers in Inner Mongolia meet the poetry of the absurd. In a dreary little northern town, kids have nothing to do . . . while the adults are wily or apathetic. For his third feature, poet/filmmaker Li Hongqi effortlessly leads the viewer through a series of breathtaking tableaux in which tension accumulates and then releases in unexpected, and often wickedly funny, ways.

Friday, April 8 | 8:30 pm


Los Angeles premiere | 2009, 133 min., DigiBeta

In 2004, at 23, Liu Jiayin stunned the world by shooting Oxhide in CinemaScope in her parents’ 50-square-meter apartment. She is back at REDCAT with an even bolder “sequel.” More tightly constructed—nine shots that go around a kitchen/workshop/dining table in 45-degree increments, performing a complete 180-degree match—Oxhide II is also dryly humorous, intelligent and insightful, deconstructing the dynamics of a family in crisis.

Saturday, April 9 | 3:00 pm


U.S. premiere | 2010, 95 min., HDCAM

“This is a strange and delightful thing from China: a sex comedy, bawdy and a little raunchy, about four elderly farmers . . . all non-professional actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves. New director Hao Jie, with a bit of Boccaccio and a dollop of Rabelais, reveals a side of rural China you’ve probably never seen before . . . Chinese indie cinema at its most wryly entertaining.” —Vancouver International Film Festival

Saturday, April 9 | 7:00 pm


Los Angeles premiere | 2009, 58 min., DVCAM

A splendid, original experiment on how to translate urban texture on the screen. Huang Weikai collected more than 1,000 hours of footage shot by amateurs and journalists in the streets of Guangzhou. He then selected 20-odd incidents, reworked the images into quasi-surreal grainy black-and-white and montaged them to create a kaleidoscopic view of the great southern metropolis, in all her vibrant, loud and mean chaos.

Saturday, April 9 | 9:30 pm


Los Angeles premiere | 2010, 138 min., HDCAM

China’s most significant filmmaker of the decade has done it again, with another alluring hybrid of documentary and fiction. Here Jia weaves a dense texture between amorously shot footage of contemporary Shanghai and the films the city created or inspired. Peeking through the gaps of an architecture menaced by permanent urban renewal, he finds the traces of a romantic or brutal past, and echoes the voices of survivors or those who went into exile.

Curated by Cheng-Sim Lim and Bérénice Reynaud.

Program presented in collaboration with Museum of the Moving Image (NY), Pomona College Art Museum, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles Filmforum and Echo Park Film Center.

Funded in part with generous support from Wendy Keys and Donald Pels.

Date & time General
Admission Students
with current I.D. CalArts
Faculty and Staff
Wed 4.6.11 8:30 pm $9 $7 $5
Thurs 4.7.11 8:30 pm $9 $7 $5
Fri 4.8.11 8:30 pm $9 $7 $5
Sat 4.9.11 3:00 pm $9 $7 $5
Sat 4.9.11 7:00 pm $9 $7 $5
Sat 4.9.11 9:30 pm $9 $7 $5
Follow the link above to purchase tickets online or
call the REDCAT box office at 213-237-2800.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

LA ART SHOW 2011, a disheartened disappointing fair

The 16th annual LA Art Show opened last night at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Thank God we did not participate.) The organizer boasted a special program on contemporary Chinese art trends. As a contemporary Chinese art specialist, I was excited until I entered the exhibition hall. The program, titled “China Today,” featured an exhibition of three unknown and uninspiring Chinese artists: Feng Feng, Qin Jin and Liu Qingyuan, slapped together by an unknown curator Hu Zhen from an unknown Chinese museum: 53 Art Museum in Guangzhou China. I wondered what the curatorial idea was and what made the fair invite such a curator without a vision. The fair, supposedly by invitation only, included more than a dozen Chinese galleries who never before showed outside China and also were hardly heard of within China, such as Cocolan Art Center, Louie Art Space, Min Gallery, Proud Gallery and See+ Gallery from Beijing, F Q Projects from Shanghai, Hao Space from Gaungdong and Phoenix Art Palace from Jiangsu Province. Like most galleries there, those Chinese galleries showed decorative art and souvenir-like objects. An unknown painter Tao Dongdong was crowned “famed” Chinese artist, who would deliver a lecture about contemporary art in China.

Not only was none of the historical and influential figures in Chinese art history presented at the LA Art Show, but also many of the works displayed were so poorly rendered, that you would mistake the fair as a flea market. To many art professionals, it was offensive to see a wealthy scandalous self-claimed Buddhist sage from Taiwan, who only began to pick up brushes in 2006, showing his amateur paintings and photographs, just because he paid a handsome fee. One can’t help but wonder who was in charge of selecting the artists and work. Does this art fair even care about art at all? Or would it accept anybody who is willing to pay to play? Do they even have any art professionals on their committee?

At the opening last night, the only presentation was given by a member from the Los Angeles city council and the general consultant of China in Los Angeles. It was opened by Viking River Cruises' advertising performance and mediated by a Los Angeles Chinese speaking local TV station. Even though the LA Art Show claims itself as the longest running fair on the West Coast, it seems to have lost its purpose and quickly transform itself to disheartened “everything goes” entertainment, gambling for money. In order for the fair to elevate itself, the organizer must have serious artists, galleries, curators and critics involve in the process of choosing and admitting exhibitors. To make LA a respected art destination, the attitude towards art has to change. A good art fair is not a swap meet. There should be a measurement for the quality of art. The quality of art and the vision of the organizer determine how attractive it is to collectors, galleries and art journalists. If merely by calling itself the best and the fabulous, and by selling tickets on travel websites and craigslist, it does nothing to guarantee a successful show but to lower itself to a level of a vulnerable street vendor. You could smell the monetary desperation in the air. The strong political engagement, or “support” as the fair called, from the city and from Chinese sponsors, was overwhelming. No doubt it was creative for the fair management to solicit funding from various sources, but unfortunately by doing so, it jeopardized the integrity of art. I doubt whether LA Art show will survive next year, but if it miraculously manages to do so, it should at least make a little effort to make sure that a “famed” artist was heard by a few people and that a sponsor “museum” was legitimate. And please, let an art fair focus on art.