Wang Qingsong was born in Heilongjian province, in North East China, in 1966, the same year that Mao’s Cultural Revolution started. Early in his childhood, Wang’s family moved to Hubei, in Central China, as a result of his parents’ employment at an oil field in the region.
When he was only 13, the death of his father forced him to take over his job to support his family, but by that time he had already developed a secret hope to become an artist.
Whilst working in the oil field, Wang stubbornly prepared for the entrance examinations of the most prestigious fine art schools in the country, and after five years of applying, he was finally accepted in the Oil Painting Department of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. In 1993 Wang graduated from the Academy, and it was during this same year that a new era started for China, marked by the start of the economic opening of China under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping.
It was in these early years that Wang acquired many of his influences and recurrent themes. Maoist and Communist imagery, in the form of posters and sculptures, converged with themes about the worries and hopes of migrant families in China. During the time he spent preparing for his entry to the fine arts academies he earned a vast knowledge of Western art history.
As he states, “Because I kept failing to get into art school, I thought I was not good enough at art history, I went back to all the history books, and by the time I got into the Academy, I could recite all the art-historical references by heart.” References to the classics of the Western art history canon are common in his works, with Botticelli’s Venus, Duchamp’s Fountain, Laocoon, Man Ray’s Le Violin d’Inges or Matisse’s Dance.
Just as he graduated from the Academy, Wang moved to Beijing and found himself immersed in the frenzy of the newly established market economy and the ensuing inflow of Western culture, fashion and consumer mega-brands. Fascinated by the pace of change and excited to integrate with the newly established avant-garde artist community, his hopes soon faded as he found himself penniless and moving further and further from the capital into marginal artist’s villages, struggling to pay rent.
This forced detachment from the economic and sociocultural changes that the Open Door Policy was producing in China provided Wang with the tools to analyse the birth of the new Chinese society as a fascinated yet external observer. His work took a satirical stance, using a kitsch, theatrical style to critique the new materialism.
Although he started his career as a painter, he soon realised that he could not keep up with the dramatic speed at which Chinese society was changing, and started working with the more immediate medium of photography. His photographs, however, are meticulously staged with thought given to to the smallest detail, and carefully composed before they are shot. They become living tableaux where shooting is only the final document of a broader artwork, somewhere between theatre, film, painting and performance.
His work shows a continuous criticism, mixed with bewilderment at the new consumerism that overtook China, lead by Western mega-brands like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. Wang explores how these symbols became, for the new Chinese society, aspirational brands: the place to go on dates or the preferred drink to have, as if they were high quality goods. As his career advanced, Wang started to explore new topics and although consumerism and globalisation remain highly present throughout his oeuvre, his latest works have seen darker themes, including the life of migrants, war and sickness. Education, the commodification of spirituality and the loss of tradition are also recurrent topics in his work.
His work challenges production by artist and studio, but it also challenges the regulations imposed by the Chinese government, which forbids meetings of over 20 people without explicit permission and under which nudity is also illegal.
Wang has repeatedly shot in the rural countryside to avoid censorship, but one of his photographs, The Blood of the World 2006, was censored by the authorities when news about the shoot reached the authorities. Wang was called in for three days of interrogation and his negatives were confiscated.
Today Wang is married to art writer and academic Zhang Fang, and has two children.
Wang’s work has been presented at the 55th Venice Biennale China Pavillion (Venice), the International Centre of Photography (NY), the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the 42nd Recontres de la Photographie (Arles), the Daegu Art Museum (Seoul), MOCA (Taipei), the Rockbund Art Museum (Shanghai) and the Mori Art Museum (Tokyo) amongst others.
Ofelia Botella, 2015
Watch the 'Behind the scenes with Wang Qingsong' video here
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