In only thirty years, China has moved from an inward-focused, rural, non-materialist culture to a booming, urban consumer culture with global tastes. In its major cities, old neighborhoods are being bulldozed to make way for highways and highrises. And parents, infatuated with all things western, are smoking Camel cigarettes and feeding their children McDonald’s hamburgers and cake instead of tea, fish and rice.
What do indigenous Chinese artists think of this transformation? At the International Center of Photography, a solo exhibition by Wang Qingsong, entitled, When Worlds Collide, has much to say about the clash between past and present. His enormous, staged color photos, shot with a large-format 8 by 10 Swiss camera, cast an ironic and sometimes angry eye on China’s cultural leap forward, with its nouveau-riche tastes and its often unfilled promises to impoverished workers from the provinces. It’s a subject the artist knows well because he, too, was once an impoverished migrant from China’s interior who migrated to Beijing as an art student to find his fortune.
Born in 1964, Quingsong labored, like his father, in China’s oil fields, and remembers the world of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. In the late 1990s, Qingsong turned from traditional painting to photography. And one suspects he may soon abandon photography for film because, in addition to shooting videos of his work process—three of which are in this exhibition—he thinks and works like a motion picture director within the medium of photography, setting up huge, complex “scenes,” which are elaborately staged, often on film studio sets, and captured as wall-sized color photographs.
Quingsong’s work is multi-layered in its meaning and often full of satire and irony. It alludes to China’s traditional cultural imagery and revolutionary heritage and puts a dramatic spin on the collision of these two “worlds” with contemporary consumer culture.
Competition, above, created in 2004, is a perfect example of the “cultural collisions” his work references. It is a visual take-off on the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when information was conveyed to the masses through hand-made posters pasted on the walls of China’s cities by rival Red Guard factions. In Quinsong’s image of a stage-set full of posters, global brands, not revolutionary slogans, are competing for the attention of Chinese consumers.
If you look more closely at this photograph, you will see that the posters—each one hand-painted by the artist—are ads for Western brand products, like Marlboro, Citibank, Coke and McDonalds. And you will also see the artist himself within the photograph.
In fact, like a film star, he is stage center or at least visually present in almost all of his images, posing, directing, observing, instructing. This self-referential leitmotif incorporates and perhaps comments on the Western idea of artist as auteur, star and celebrity figure.
Qingsong and his wife were present at ICP’s press opening. They looked every bit the global art couple working the room: he eagerly responded to press questions in Chinese while his wife translated his thoughts into English. For whatever reasons, his words about his work seemed less confrontational than the images themselves, which are rather biting commentaries on China’s brand-and-sex obsessed culture.
The exhibition, curated by Christopher Phillips, will be on view through May 8. 2011.
For those who want more bang for the buck, it should be noted that ICP has four noteworthy exhibitions running concurrently. In addition to The Mexican Suitcase (previously reviewed) and When Worlds Collide, there is Jasper, Texas, a selection of community photographs taken by Alonzo Jordan, and Take Me To The Water, photographs, many of them postcards, of river baptisms. The two smaller shows are fascinating American social history and, in themselves, well worth a visit.
International Center of Photography
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