Wang Qingsong makes art

Opening in a couple of days on June 11 is Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, showcasing the genius of video and photo art from China since the mid-1990s. One of the artists exhibiting is Wang Qingsong, who also has an exhibition in New York at Salon 94, and is receiving huge amounts of attention for his works Romantique and China Mansion.

This is not the first time that Chinese contemporary art has grabbed the spotlight; a first wave of so-called “post-Mao” artists Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen and Fang Lijun met with immediate international success when their works were seen in the United States and Europe in the early 1990’s. But this younger generation, inspired by digital cameras and video technology, could witness, record and participate in the vast changes in their culture during the last decade, as their country embraced McDonald’s and Power Macs.

For them, globalization is not a theoretical proposition or a curatorial strategy but a strangely surrealistic reality found right at their own front doors. “This approach not only allows us to glimpse the complexity and richness of Chinese art traditions, it also gives us a surprising mirror view of some of our own Western obsessions,” [Between the Lines co-organiser] Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Wang has turned his own case of cultural whiplash into very large-scale photographs of dazzling beauty, present-day equivalents of history paintings packed with whimsical details and dramatic effects. “Romantique” (2003), measuring 4 feet by 21 feet, presents a garden of earthly delights, orange groves, lush green grass, cobalt-blue sky, filled with more than 50 live models, all Asian, re-enacting poses found in Western art history. On the far left are Michelangelo’s Adam and Eve and the quartet from Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.” In the center, Botticelli’s Venus rises from her clamshell, surrounded by voluptuous bathers and lounging maidens reminiscent of paintings by Ingres, Velásquez, Matisse and Gauguin.

But off on her own at the far right, a nude woman sits in a rickshaw. She is a concoction not found in the Western canon, yet she stares directly at the audience with all the forcefulness of a modern-day Olympia. Her presence adds a cautionary note to this otherwise bucolic scene, a warning that the new China might not be simply a picturesque paradise ripe for exploitation by foreign investors or for total immersion in Western influences.

Follow Me color photograph, 120 x 300 cm edition of 10, 60 x 150 cm edition of 20, 2003

China Mansion color photograph, 30 x 300 cm edition of 20, 60 x 600 cm edition of 10, 120 x 1200 cm edition of 8, 2003

Romantique color photograph 55 x 300 cm edition of 20, 120 x 650 cm edition of 10, 2004

all images courtesy courtyard-gallery