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It’s an open secret that in China creative liberties are extended at the behest of the government. In the confines of the studio anything goes, but outside those sacred walls it’s a different story. For many artists the trick to avoiding the authority’s paranoid scrutiny is to simply keep a low profile. Freedom of the unseen. Wang Qingsong (pronounced: Wong Ching-song) can’t stay out of sight. Wang works like a film director, creating elaborate stages and employing dozens of actors. On sight he tends to employ his own lookouts.
When Worlds Collide is not only Wang Qingsong’s first major solo exhibition in New York; it’s a retrospective that reaches as early as 1997. The exhibition includes photographs, videos, and artist books. The title references Wang’s primary motif: the inculcation of western culture in China. “Requesting Buddha Series, No. 1” (1999) imagines the Buddha (played by Wang) as twelve-armed deity with each hand full of material goods: Marlboros, compact discs, a cell phone, and roll of film, to name a few. The image is humorous, bordering on kitsch, but points to a larger concern. In a globalized economy how does one keep from creating a homogenized world?
Continuously reinvigorating the traditions and stories that make up a cultural heritage is one way to prevent the generational erosion of value systems. In “Night Revels of Lao Li” (2000) Wang reinterprets one of China’s most famous scroll paintings, albeit with a dour tone. In this nearly thirteen-foot photograph, Wang replaces the high court official with Li Xianting, a celebrated curator and scholar of contemporary art whom the government removed from his position as editor of a leading arts magazine. The image depicts an evening of debauchery swirling around Lao Li. The intellectual is doing nothing intellectual.
Because of his working process and the exceptionally grand scale of his photographs Wang is often compared with Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall. While both of these artists produce more refined images, neither approaches the visceral impact of Wang’s visions. There is no such thing as a soft collision; they’re always violent. Wang’s images acknowledge this violence, and attempt to place it within contemporary culture. When two worlds collide neither survives intact. Out of the fragments a new world emerges. This strange place is the artistic territory of Wang Qingsong.
~ Charlie Schultz
Images: Requesting Buddha No. 1, 1999; Follow Me, 2003; Competition, 2004. © Wang Qingsong. Courtesy the artist and ICP.