The Other 80s of Wang Guangyi

“Thing in Itself: Utopia, Pop and Personal Theology,” Wang Guangyi retrospective.

Today Art Museum (Building 4, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing). Oct 14 – Nov 27, 2012.

Beijing Editors Iona Whittaker and Liang Shuhan examine the value, in hindsight, of Wang Guangyi’s activities and first paintings in the 80s, at the juncture of art, politics, and philosophy.

Liang Shuhan

Wang Guangyi is the epitomy of a “master” among contemporary Chinese artists, a title that connotes riches, treasures, auctions, artistic stardom, extravagant exhibitions and endless opportunities. What have been his achievements? For an answer to this question, we must dig around in the history of the Chinese avant-garde movement.

1989 was a seminal year for avant-garde art in China, when the spotlight shone on Wang and his peers for the first time at “China/Avant-Garde,” an exhibition held at the National Art Museum of China. There, Wang presented his signature Mao series, after which the value of his works rapidly rose from four to five figures (which is still a far cry from the current sky-high prices). In 1980s China, where people had lived under Mao’s cult of personality for decades, the leader’s iconic image was deeply impressed upon everyone’s hearts. Wang’s reinvention of Mao’s image stood out because it provided a new way of seeing and turned traditional experience on its head; this made great waves at the exhibition. From the perspective of international politics, it was interpreted as the criticism of those in power in the Socialist camps; this criticality also rippled through the artistic sphere. The avant-garde, after all, exists and perseveres when it finds momentum as a counterbalancing force, pushing against the norm. To put this a bit schematically, China’s new era of avant-gardism had arisen because there existed some form of critical thinking and resistance against power and its symbols.

Yet it would be mistaken to attribute Wang Guangyi’s success simply to time and circumstance. In that decade that desperately needed new ideas, his individual sensitivity toward the times made him walk on the cusp of the new. He began his Chairman Portraits series in 1988, and at the Huangshan Conference, Wang showed slides of his gridded “Mao AO” — even though his draft was then met with opposition from critics (not from a political perspective, but an academic and theoretical one). There, he took a significant step towards the forefront with his slogan to “expunge zealous humanism” (qingli wenren reqing). Comparable to conceptual artists from the 60s and 70s like Douglas Huebler, Victor Burgin, or Joseph Kosuth, Wang not only had a strong theoretical background but could also sense the progression of the times. In the early 80s, Wang was politically utopian (according to Huang Zhuan), philosophically infatuated with Nietzsche and Sartre, and artistically in love with the works of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger. Unlike most of the “arts and culture youth” (wenyi qingnian), he did not wallow in the existentialist anguish and collective sense of loss and sorrow associated with the years after the Cultural Revolution, nor did he become obsessed with the first hints and traces of the outside world. Instead, he turned to the contemplation of a classical, premodern culture. This obsession with the classic and the eternal not only birthed his Frozen Northern Wastelands series but also allowed him to take an objective, analytical stance toward the cultural context of the times.

In the mid-80s, Expressionism in China dawned as the “Scar” literature and art ran its course, and art began to focus on personal desires and outlooks. Yet Wang Guangyi felt the humanistic sprit of Expressionism did not further the development of art; instead, he thought of it as a plague eating away at an artist’s ability to evaluate the present. In a letter he wrote while at university to Yan Shanchun, he said, “I think there is an epidemic going around in the art world — a faith-based plague on rationalism. A superficial formalism and a self-indulgent individualism are invading the souls and bodies of artists. If art isn’t being turned into a visual game, then it is being used as a tool for young people to excrete their vulgar emotions. Artists are avoiding the pursuit of and concern with the ultimate ideals of humanity.”

Later, Wang Guangyi wrote an essay published in the Jiangsu Journal of Art (Jiansu Huakan) called “On Expunging Zealous Humanism.” In this essay of fewer than 2000 words, Wang showed a keen sense of the state of contemporary art. He felt art was being treated too subjectively in a zealous humanism:

“‘Modern art’ and ‘classical art’ [referring to pre-modern art, including that of the Renaissance] were both given meaning by the structure of classical knowledge; they are quasi-naturalistic produced through the projection of humanistic passion. This is all connected to faith and metaphysical fear, like the conjecture that the microcosmic experiences of humanity and the macrocosmic divine are somehow comparable. Artists had constructed a mythology based the starting point of the ordinary experiences and facts experienced in their common imaginary/delusion, and everything in this mythology was exaggerated and magnified in a humanistic manner. When an artist became subsumed by this ‘condition’ or ‘state,’ he inevitably believed this ‘myth.’” [Jiangsu Huakan (Jiangsu Journal of Art), vol. 10 (1990)].

In Wang’s opinion, artists must flee from this myth; artists should find their intellectual motivation in the external environment and cultural context.

Individual contribution aside, at a time when the media was relatively un-fragmented, reporting by national and international media was essential to Wang’s fame. In 1984, after graduating from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Fine Arts), Wang returned to his hometown of Harbin and worked as a lecturer in the school of architecture and design. In 1985, Wang Guangyi, Shu Qun, and others established an artistic community engaged in the pursuit of the eternal and the sublime. Initially, this community was called the “Information Exchange Center for Young Northern Artists”; later, in Meishu Sichao (Currents in Fine Arts; then edited by Peng De), they publicly renamed themselves the “Young Northern Artists’ Group.” More significantly, Wang’s works were written about on several occasions in Zhongguo Meishubao (China Art Journal, edited by Li Xianting). Particular focus was placed upon works like “The Death of Marat” and “Post-Classical — the Return of Great Sorrow” in Wang’s 1985 Post-Classical series, a group of pieces he created after moving south to Zhuhai. Although Wang’s first overseas appearance only took place at the 1993 Venice Biennale, his works had already received international media attention. In March 1989, his “Mao AO” was featured in TIME magazine, while in November of the same year, a French art publication featured his works. And in 1992, his “Coca-Cola” from the Great Criticism series graced the cover of Italy’s Flash Art.

Meanwhile, the formation of a market for avant-garde art undoubtedly pushed Wang’s artwork to circulate and reproduce. In 1991, Lü Peng started Yishu•Shichang magazine  (Art•Market) in order to unite art and financial profit; he had only two conditions about the content chosen: first, the artist must possess a degree of fame and potential for development; second, the artist’s works should have reached a certain price point and volume of transaction. Wang therefore became the first artist featured in this magazine. Despite the fact that from as early as 1988, Wang’s works were being collected at high prices (high at least for then), it wasn’t until the beginning of 2000 that he drew the attention of Chinese collectors (although his Post-Classical series had been purchased by an entrepreneur in 1990). Unfortunately, this is also where the problem lies: nowadays, when there has been such an exhaustive degree of discussion about “art and politics,” when “Political Pop” has been capitalized upon and compromised, and when even the “post-90s generation” knows the importance of political issues, everything must come to a head because in-depth reflection has given way to the pursuit of value and the symbols of wealth.

Nevertheless, what makes Wang Guangyi classic is not the way his artistic methods guided the progression of art to its current state; his works are classic because he had his ear to the ground and sensed, at a precise point in time, the culmination of an era.

(translated by Fei Wu)

Iona Whittaker

One is inclined to appreciate the early paintings by an artist who, for his later Great Criticism series, has garnered huge international fame, but also to muse on their continued philosophical relevance to the evolution of culture and its relationships.  The first 11 oil paintings on display in the Wang Guangyi retrospective “Thing in Itself: Utopia, Pop and Personal Theology” are the earliest works we are likely to see by the artist, and rare is the opportunity to do so. They date from circa 1985-88, the brief but formative period that bore the Frozen Northern Wastelands and Post Classical series. These represent the first sustained output by a young and feverishly ambitious artist, then in his late 20s. Their potent, desolate hues and humanistic figuration lend themselves easily to description in written accounts of Wang’s early career before the revolutionary-brand imagery grasps attention, consigning this “cold” period to history and the opening paragraphs of most texts.

It is perhaps at this moment, amid the advent of retrospective exhibitions by Chinese artists of Wang’s generation both in China and abroad, that it is possible to appreciate more clearly and objectively the critical landscape (or want thereof) surrounding their early work. This is an ambition the exhibition aims to fulfil, but it remains to be seen how one such event — fairly comprehensive though it is — can contribute in the long term beyond self-contained essays in the accompanying tome, as rounds of exhibitions accumulate rapidly in its wake. In the chronological, developmental mode of art history, the Frozen Northern Wasteland paintings have served dual purpose: as evidence of the blooming of Wang’s philosophical inquiry and as surprising precursors to what came to count among the visual identity stamps of “contemporary Chinese art” — the “Political Pop” paintings. Wang’s departure from the chill environment of Harbin marked a turning point which saw him move to the Southern city of Zhuhai, where he was to embark on the “Post-Classical.” A sense of this potent juncture hangs expectantly over the first room of the exhibition; these paintings mark a manner of expression that the young artist thought his way into, but also out of. Arguably, the fertility of their explorations and also their subsequent redundancy for the direction of his practice warrants deeper inspection.

But in saying this, let it not be decided to think about artists’ careers only in and of themselves. Whilst this later time offers a productive degree of hindsight to focus again on particular periods relative to artists’ personal creative development, there is much at stake in neglecting broader interests. The period from which these Frozen Northern Wasteland and Post-Classical series come directly follows that which witnessed a flooding-in of information, images and ideas from outside the country as China opened again (both to the outside, and to itself) after a deadening and hysterical decade of Cultural Revolution. Wang Guangyi’s hunger to be not only an artist— for the changing times finally afforded figures like him such a hope — but a leader of art as a new force for mankind (no less) led him to intense reading of Western philosophy from the likes of Nietzsche and Kant.  His pivotal role in the Northern Art Group propelled an impulse towards a heavy theoretical stance: “Our purpose is to help humanity transcend the mire of a morose culture and to uplift the inspiration and health of the cultural spirit,” Wang proclaimed in an essay “Art—Conduct for Humanity,” published by Art News (volume 1, 1987). Such a statement, whilst clearly inflated by ambition and infused with the necessary rhetorical spin to engage both others and oneself at a time when new directions were by no means marked out, represents a will to forward-thinking of a powerful kind. The rich cocktail of Wang’s sensibilities at this time is indicative, certainly, of a particular historical moment, but need its relevance be bound only to that time?

The painting “Frozen North Pole No. 28” (which remains in the artist’s collection) shows two figures, though their forms are closer to just that: they appear less as human beings than as vessels, alike in tone and outline, and with an uncanny bluntness that belies action; they seem, then, simply to exist, their bulky shapes standing on planar supports rising unaccountably from a ground level. In the near distance in an area of white tone are three cloudlike shapes, shadowed, as are the figures, as if by a light source emanating from the left, beyond the composition. There is nothing of texture to see, only smooth flat or slightly curved surfaces; a distinctive horizon line evokes a world, but one knows not of what, or whom.  The white, grey and bluish colours in which the painting is realised are where most readings of such works as manifestations of rational philosophy, imbibed by Wang amid the frigid landscape of Harbin, are anchored. Yet it is also the attitude of the central forms, whose bodies appear to look together out from the foreground into the composition (the backs of their heads suggest the parting of hair, and we are led to assume they see ahead of them, away from us) that truly evoke humanist possibility — to borrow from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — “to look, together, in the same direction.” In Wang’s own words, “Such painting possessing of a sense of elevation should in appearance have a form akin to the Strasbourg Cathedral, rising up into the sky, lofty and magnificent, casting a wide shadow around it, its massive and harmonious bulk conveying the beauty of lofty ideas, encapsulating the perpetual harmonization of humanism and healthy emotions.” [Wang Guangyi, “What Kind of Painting this Era of Ours Needs (Women Zhege Shidai Xuyao Shenmeyang de Huihua),” Jiangsu Pictorial (Jiangsu Huakan), vol. 4 (1986): 33]

In the slightly later Post Classical series, we see crucial works from the Western art-historical canon re-worked by Wang Guangyi in an intensely stylized manner befitting the advance of his inquiry. In these paintings, such as “Death of Marat A” and “B” (1986 and 1987, respectively), and “Gospel of Matthew” (1986), familiar figuration is transplanted from its comfort zone (that is, one that affirms stability in line with the development of Western art via a series of revered masterworks), and situates it anew in something like the cool atmosphere of the Frozen Wastelands — relative to the closely furnished landscapes of Western religious and philosophical thought, a barren terrain.  This reduction of Western motifs and what might be termed a dissection of its idealism for a time occupied the young artist. Subversion, as is so often true, opened out an expansive territory in which received cultural standards ceased to be such, and became instead tools and components to be “corrected” or rearranged. In the ferment of the artist’s imagination, these tropes are like specimens laid on the slab, the algid light of the compositions flowing like liquid nitrogen around them — cultural dishes to be sampled cold. Brief though this period of experimentation with Western imports was, it marks an intensely cerebral and self-conscious one at a unique moment of cultural transformation.  The Frozen Northern Wastelands series, he wrote in “Fine Art in China” in 1985, “is not just a painting effort, it is a laudatory declaration of our ideological and cultural condition. When humans have suffered the philosophical paradoxes of life, they are left with the residual hopes of rebuilding an existential harmony.” Few artists can make such visual statements at such an early stage. These works pull so much towards them, implying the constants upon which society rests and which in China have undergone such tumult in modern history.  Perhaps, like the Frozen Northern Wastelands they have not been discussed adequately in terms of the marriage of visual image and philosophical examination they represent, albeit nascent with respect to the artist’s career; perhaps they retain relevance beyond their status as foundations for Wang’s later work.  Looking back from the present time in which we find ourselves, in which old orders both artistic and cultural continue to unravel and reform uncertainly, and where the Chinese situation plays such a crucial role, might we revisit such works in mode of exploration? In this context that affords retrospection, and at the same time begs deeper engagement on a philosophical level with a changing environment, the content of these works could extend towards a more contemporary purview.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *