Wang Qingsong: China’s Cultural Commentator

Kyle Johnson,

Known for his striking cultural commentaries and often opposed ideas of free expression, Wang Qingsong has made waves throughout the art scene with his theatrical take on contemporary culture. At first glance, his works are a bit surreal, but upon closer inspection, they symbolize everything he’s grown up to believe. Born during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, his ideas are often radical and eccentric. Not because they lack a connection with reality, but because they represent a world where referencing the taboo and often acerbic nature of idealism can be met with censorship and adversity. Thought provoking and insightful, he juxtaposes the ideas of China proper with its new material wealth and rapidly growing consumer culture in a wonderfully informative collective endeavor that cherishes the truth and challenges the status-quo.

A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 14th issue of ODDA Magazine.

For a little perspective on your empathy for your craft, explain why being an artist is so important to you? And can you talk about your time working in the oil fields and how you spent five years applying to art school.

I think being anyone in this world, something to be held dearly is very important for his or her whole life journey. We cherish love, friendship, family, and we enjoy passion, peace and harmony, career success, life achievements… Each of us carries our capacities for loving hearts, speaking languages, living experiences to share with others what we enjoy the most in this world. Being an artist is no exception. I have all the compassions of common people. However, being an artist at this moment of dramaturgy, in this world of chaos and confusion, I feel an imperative to use my vision to document my personal observations into social dramas.

Temple, 2011 ©Wang Qingsong


I still remembered the palpable moment of excitement when I picked up a drawing of a farmer’s face from the playground when I was so devastated by the decease of my father on a business trip in early 1980s. From then on, I was immersed into copying this drawing repeatedly to kill the time and forget the loss of my dad. So, during those eight tough years, I did not care that I was not young enough to sit in the training classes for pre-college entrants. I did not care that my fellow oil drillers made fun of my dream of becoming an artist. I did not care that I failed five times in eight years to pass the highly competitive entrance exams to colleges. I was just desperate to get out of the oil field.

There is only one chance every year to try out the college entrance exam, which was the only way to guarantee one to have possible future “decent” jobs at that time. I was very keen to get into colleges as something unfortunate happened to my family one after another that stimulated my urge to take this exam over and over again. I wanted our neighbors, friends, whoever they were, who they knew our family, learnt about one son from Wang’s family was not a good-for-nothing. I felt desperate to leave the oil drilling job as it was not only harsh working conditions, but also the fragility of life, the death accidents that I saw happening frequently.

From the most essential and significant years of my life, aged 17 to 25, I have tried to get into an art academy. Finally, in 1991, I was accepted. By then, my teachers were even younger than me. I never felt proud to boast of my acceptance into colleges as I assumed before.

When I moved to Beijing, I stayed in a small village painting a lot of oil works of people wrestling with each other or people “imprisoned” in plastic bags, suffocated. Then the increased economic reform boosted people’s fantasy of making money. From 1995 onwards, I was working on oil works of painting pets, flowers, peasant-style gaudy bright colors onto silk velvet. Since late 1996, I moved to photography.


Dormitory, 2005. ©Wang Qingsong


How did growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution influence your work? What risks have you had to take to produce your work?

I was born in 1966, the starting year of the Cultural Revolution. I did not remember quite clearly what happened around those years as I was too little to recall. Most of the stories were heard from my parents or media. However, my photo works which apply staged set-ups, still-posture modeling, were inspired by the “propaganda photography” around those years.

The challenges of being an artist in China are the risks of touching upon issues such as politics, violence and pornography. My works are not really related to these three taboos. I would describe my art works as humorous “social documentary photos” even if they are fabricated. They bear sarcastic and humorous components, they are bitter and sweet reflections. I have been treading upon “hitting the ball from the sides.”

In China, Taiji boxing strategy to combat everyday trifle is needed. It means that one avoids to have direct contact with the opponent, visible or invisible, physical or mental. To win the battle, one applies the power exerted from his opponent and his deep inside to win over. is counter-effect forces bring successes.


You’ve said that, “China in the Western idea is like a tiger — a danger, a threat. But maybe China is just a big rhino, gentle and harmless. Not a monster.” Explain.

Yes, I do think China is not a monster. China has been experiencing all kinds of transformations since early 1900s, industrial revolution, agricultural reconstruction, economic reform… Like surgical operations, it is here treated and there perfected. Probably it has lost its original face, power or “attempted” threat. Therefore, this “tiger” is either in its infancy, too young to be intimidating, or in its seniority, too sickened to be recovered. So, China is a “benign” rhino.

Follow Him, 2010 ©Wang Qingsong

About the Chinese government and an artist named Ai Weiwei whose studio was demolished by the government authorities, you mentioned that artists have a duty to question their surroundings saying that, “we should be suspicious of what is real and what is false. We must make our own judgment.” What effect did/does knowing, seeing or hearing that the government is doing these things to its people have on your right to free expression? Do you live in fear that the government will censor your work keeping you from telling your story? Tell us about your 2006 photograph The Blood of the World.

Facing realities is the hard facts of life everyone must encounter on day to day basis. Everyday life is intertwined with good and bad news and experiences. One is distracted by so many versions of different exposures to eye-catching but fleeting news. But one’s experiences that happen to ourselves or our close-by environment, we feel deeply hurt and disturbed. Then, people need to start up to voice their disagreements. Such things pile up for accumulation. There will have reforms.

I concentrate on what is going on, seen and heard, or even felt, over and over again. With such a strong system of institution and government, one must address these issues tactfully. Is it to address those conflicts directly? Yes and No. Fighting is brave, but keeping on one’s potency is another strategy. In Chinese philosophy, one need to stand in the middle way, not to be swayed and twisted by either direction, left or right.

But how to stand steadfast on your own is a hard question. Which is better, is fighting bloodily or beating the “monster” without exertion of one own energy? For example, if one tiny needle is inflicted into its skin one time, the tiger feels nothing. Over and over again, with thousands of small tiny needles, the tiger will bleed out. So, the most powerful way is to exert forces repetitively and let its power vanish and perish slowly.


Describe your creative style in three words.

The three catchwords for my art making are cooperative/confrontational, realistic/suspicious, and documentary/creativity. Each duet seems to conflict with each other. But they make sense together. First, my art works are confrontational targeting at cooperation. These photos pose suspicion towards problems/social vices in reality. Thirdly, these photos are staged/creative but documentary.


Follow Me, 2003 ©Wang Qingsong

Your work often deals with consumerism and globalization within the Chinese economy, especially as it relates to the influences that Western culture has had on your home country. You also touch on the life of migrants, war and sickness and even education. What are your favorite social causes and how do they influence your work?

The most interesting feeds from this world, or this society, is its multi-faceted stories. They have so many rich dimensions and diversities. Endless stories from life have kept inspiring me.
Moreover, the confusion that one thing is right today and the next day it is wrong, which is so conflictual, keeps me interested in learning about why. The most frustrating fact of life is that China is trying to set up a new order, a new way of thinking as we lose our traditions and values. The traditional ideologies have been broken down. There have been so many contradictions in China’s economic and political systems in addition to its cultural rifts. China is the second largest economic entity in the world. We say that out of the 10 highest skyscrapers in the world, maybe 7 are built in China. In this crazy rush to rapid development and modernization, China must re- establish its own value system to hold its people together. The last forty years of modernization witnesses people to be pushed away to the shore of desperation for fortune and fortuity where we can see the glory on the other shore, but it is just too far to see it to be realized. Like the beautiful term, Dream, which is discussed in both the Chinese government and the West, I think it is very positive, but it has lost its previous glamour.


List three main differences that you see between Chinese society and Western society in terms of art and the ability to prosper as an artist.

To prosper as an artist, three prerequisites are freedom of expression, active and supportive academic system and healthy gallery/auction system. First, it seems valid to assume that both Chinese society and Western society offer freedom of expression to artists. But underneath, surveillance and censors- hip exist in two societies.

Talking about supportive and active academic system, these two societies seems to differ a lot. China has quite a number of art academies, art critics, committees and research centers, private and public museums. But the structure and validity of these institutions still need quite some time to build up. In this regard, western academic researchers or scholars might be more independent and analytical or even critical of their artists and art works. Thirdly, both markets, gallery and auction systems, seem now to be more interested in getting well-known artists to make money for them. They care less and less about nurturing and cultivating real passion for art. Hence young and emerging artists have to face lack of support.


With a degree in Oil Painting from the Sichuan Academy of Art, most of your recent work uses the medium of photography. Explain the shift in mediums from painting to photography. How has this change helped your self-confidence as an artist in telling your story through your work?

I graduated from Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. I have been painting between 1993 to 1997. The reason that I moved to Beijing in 1993 was because of my two experiences in Beijing in 1993. The rst was when China National Art Gallery was exhibiting some Japanese art. I walked in and was amazed at how many people, old and young, were trying to emulate the strokes and colors. The second was my encounter with a shoe-repairer. I lost my way during my visit to the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) since it was located inside a small alley of neighborhood. I asked this shoe-repairer. Then he told me where to go. He probably thought I was a student of art school and he asked about what I planned to do there. I told him just to buy some canvas. Then, this old man on the street started to elaborate on what kinds of canvases there were and how to differentiate good ones from bad ones. I was completely impressed by how much Beijing people were cultivated and Beijing must be the ideal place for artists.

China started to change dramatically after 1992. I did not think that paintings can sufficiently fulfill my discoveries. Hence, I moved from painting to photography. I am a very sensitive person. Whenever I find some interesting, I’d like to keep it in my mind. Then I start to think about it before I take steps into making a “staged” photo.


Why is it important for an artist such as yourself to incorporate sarcasm, irony, satire and humor into your work? How does using these artistic styles of expression help to expose the truth behind the ideas in your so-called protest art, thereby making your work more relatable to your audience?

As I said earlier, one must apply Chinese Taiji boxing to deal with ongoing social, cultural and political issues. One should not be dismayed by social realities. He needs to release observations, comments, and criticism through elaboration, description. Hence sarcasm, irony and humor are applied. is is to pose questions, throw doubts, and offer possible solutions or at least provide personal perspectives to weird social phenomena.


As an artist who has overcome adversity, you once struggled to pay rent as you found yourself penniless moving further and further from the capital of Beijing into the marginal artist’s villages outside of the city where you experienced the forced detachment from the city’s mainstream society. Eventually, China adopted the Open-Door Policy which opened the countries trade to outside markets. How did this experience and/or policy affect your outlook as a young artist? What influence did/does this have on your work?

It is hard to say which era is better. Before the Open-Door Policy initiated, all people seemed to be equal though we were restricted from knowing what has been going on outside China. But after the open-door, drastic movements force people to move around, chase after making satisfying livelihoods.

We all feel disoriented, both physically and psychologically. Political polices change with di erent party lines. For artists, like common people, they must readjust to new life, new situations.
The policies are like rubber bands. If one walks far, the rubber band gets tight and brings one back. If one walks not far, the rubber bank is loose. Then one can try to reach out a little further. So one can maneuver over some range.


Presently, you’re married to art writer and academic Zhang Fang, whose scholarship includes writing, curating and organizing contemporary art exhibitions. Tell us how you met. Does your work go hand in hand? Are you a collaborative couple in terms of your work?

That is a long story. In October 1996, Zhang Fang worked as an interpreter to take some Danish people to visit Chines artists’ studios.
Within 10 days, they visited almost more than 50 artists. She was impressed by how much creativity and daring came out from the artists about her age. Their oil works describe what she felt strongly about the social movements. I was one of the helpers to guide through them to find artists’ studios amidst the farmers’ houses. Then, I was called back to identify the artist works with photographs which miss the names, titles of works… There we met again. At night, we went back in a cab. At that time, we used beepers.

So, beeper messages were the only contact we got in touch with each other. By Jan. 1st, I reached out to say New Year greetings to her. We to touch base again.

Zhang Fang went to the U.S for two years’ studies, we did not break up and when she came back in 2000, we married. Until now, we have been together for nearly 20 years. She has been assisting me to interview, organize shootings, and work around exhibition arrangements. Regarding my creative work, she participating in the preparatory stage. I decide upon my art making.


Can you give us some insight on your current projects? What are your plans? What kind of work can we expect to see from you?

Since 2010, I have been preparing for shooting films. I went to Beijing Film Academy to learn about lm theories and directorship for a whole year. So my next project is to make a movie.

After more than four decades of economic reform, Chinese movies seems to gain more recognition from the world. I want to make an “interesting movie”, a story of my own.
Nowadays, network has been influencing the new generations a lot. People still need to be inspired by good movies by going out instead of staying at home.

During the last four months, I have been teaching at an art school in Seoul, Korea. I am especially surprised to find that Korea has so many churches. Walking every 20 minutes, there is a church. Christianity seems to blossom a lot. So that might be a chance for me to think about religion and life. So there are many new things to explore.


As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has
developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of
businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab
A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his
clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and
cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand
strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient
of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom,
Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards
competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful,
quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design
advice to his peers.

the writer

Kyle Johnson

As a creative director, marketing manager and fashion editor, Kyle has developed brand identities and creative strategies for a variety of businesses and written on a variety of fashion topics for ODDA and Lab A-4 magazines. With his background in advertising, he helps his clients understand complex ideas, motivates them to action and cooperates with media outlets to carry out successful brand strategies. But the madness doesn’t stop there. He is also a recipient of numerous international industry awards hosted by AVA, MarCom, Hermes and GDUSA, and a judge of several international awards competitions where he competently utilizes his passion for meaningful, quality design to give constructive criticism and insightful design advice to his peers.

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