by Pia Camilla Copper
translated by Lu Wanwan 路弯弯
There has been much focus on the “Stars Group” of late, as well as similar art movements like “Wu Ming” (“No Name”). But one member of the defunct art movement living in Paris is not making many waves. In fact, he seems to be making no waves at all, much like a fish hidden deep in the recesses of the water, with only small bubbles now and then signaling his presence. Perhaps, though, his significance is this non-being—his particular brand of “wu wei”. Despite a recent retrospective at UCCA in Beijing, a group show at the Musée Cernuschi and a group show at Chancery Lane Gallery during Art Basel Hong Kong, Wang Keping likes to keep to himself in a garden/warehouse studio in Villejuif on the western outskirts of Paris.
When I go to meet him there, he has closely shaved his head, but there are still bristles like a paintbrush, and a clipped moustache. He cuts his hair himself with a clipper, meticulously.
We sit down for tea in a light, unadorned atelier room with a copper stove. He prepares tea for me in two large noodle bowls. Opposite us are two chairs, male and female, crisscrossed with marks and breasts (even the man’s). The seat of the chair is a protruding male organ, the woman’s a slit like lips or a cowrie shell.
On the wall hangs a sort of mask sculpture with pouting African-looking lips. Lips, eyes, and images of the female vulva seem to be all around the room. In the corner is what looks like a book-end—but it has breasts, voluptuous and bouncy.
“Those are wings,” Keping says, smiling.
On another table lies a polished copper necklace with a slit in the middle.
“A smile,” Keping says, “or turn it around—something else, a woman…”
Wang Keping, “Eternal Smile”, bronze pendant, 4 x 4 cm, edition of 200, 2013
Somehow, looking across at this man—his eyes like small fireballs, his large hands and torso—makes this meeting seem like a confrontation, a silent one, between male and female. He looks like a peasant worker, his only gentility in the cleanliness of his appearance—black shirt and black trousers. I can see his old Maoist work jackets and pants behind us, hanging on another chair; stained, limp, worn out, torn. He has obviously dressed to meet me.
When I ask him which of his works are new, he insists there aren’t any. He always sculpts the same thing, women and birds, some with erotic beaks. Sometimes he sculpts couples, male and female, often in an embrace. He is sculpting feelings, not series and instincts, not theories.
“I never think of a series,” he tells me, “I find how to do it with the wood, and it is organic. The most important thing is to look for the wood—it is difficult to buy. Mostly planks or beams are for sale. But I need big, rounder pieces. I sometimes go on excursions to the countryside to look for appropriate wood. Even when I find it, I am not sure I can use it but I bring it home anyway. I dry it. Then I mark the form and cut it with a chainsaw. Then I dry it again. Sometimes, I wait a year for it to dry and to crack properly. It is ready if it has cracked many times. I then use a chisel. And sand it. I then use a blowtorch to achieve the black, ebony color. The color is beautiful, yin and natural. Painted wood would not be the same. The contact with fire makes it natural. Fire is nature.”
He takes me outside to the stacks of penciled marked trunks and the chiseled pieces drying in the sun. The garden around is wild, with pink-hued peonies falling over in clumps next to raspberry bushes weighed down with berries.
I notice a work on the table outside—a male figure with an oblong head and two phalluses touching each other.
“There were two wooden branches entwined, I saw them. Erotic and unusual, isn’t it?” he says, catching my eye.
It reminds me of a painting I saw once at the old Shanghai painter’s house, Li Shan, a male figure with male and female attributes—beyond sex.
Somehow, the two phalluses make the wooden sculpture look more feminine.
“My works are not erotic,” he adds. “They are just real, human. Even the birds I sculpt: The beaks look masculine but this is the way people see them. If you look at Bada Shanren, all of his birds look sexual, but it is because they seem human—they seem to have feelings. Nature is a form of beauty and aesthetic.” I wonder if all art is not innately erotic.
“Oh, that is Liu Dahong’s,” he tells me. “He made it for me when I came to Paris in 1989. You can see me peeking out of a small window, in the buildings above. It is a depiction of Pigalle, the red light district. The man with the cap on crutches in the street, seen from the back, is Ma Desheng, also a “Stars” artist…. Liu asked me if he ever came to Paris, how would he find me? It was his way of joking—he’d know where to look. Pigalle, Montmartre, where all the artists end up, with women. I kept it as a memory.”
Women beckon from doorways in the painting; the sky is Van Gogh blue with stars. Wang Keping seems to have had a sort of Casanova reputation, except that he spends most of his time alone at the studio, with his family elsewhere. He is like a lone monk, day after day, with his pieces of wood, unremitting. Most of them are women, anyway.
He takes out an old play he had written when he was in New York with Ai Weiwei, visiting in the 1980s. It is about a woman artist sitting in a museum, talking to people, part of a performance. Wang comes in with his translator, Lao Ai (Ai Weiwei, in fact), and asks the woman if he can touch her, if she is an exhibit. She says, “Yes.” He replies that he is a sculptor, in any case: “I am a manual laborer, moving around bodies all day.”
Yet the rebellious machismo of the short play seems to stem less from the artist than from the socio-historical context. The Stars endured a lack of freedom which was not only political but also sexual; that generation lived under sexual repression. Another artist friend from the same period told me that the first time he drew a nude, the police came to knock down his door and the poor girl had not fully undressed. The nude as such was unthinkable.
Seeing Huang Rui’s erotic drawings of the same period, one can sense the repression, the lure of the forbidden, the hurried sessions.
The story of his life as Keping tells it sounds like Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night—a voyage of self-discovery, more than anything. It is as though the “Beijing Spring” generation was simply grappling for freedom and in the end, turned to art, freedom’s highest form.
“I was a Red Guard; we were sent to Heilongjiang, the far North,” Keping recounts. “We lost our hukou or residence permit. I joined a theater troupe—an army troupe to escape the countryside and return to the city. I was originally cast as Lei Feng, the Communist Party hero in a Shenyang theater group, but then I was refused the part as they thought I had gotten it through the houmen or back door (my mother was an actress with connections). I was eventually accepted into a Kunming theater group—It was paradise. We were two to a bed, not more, no fleas; we could sleep lying down instead of vertically. But most of us at that time underwent a sort of sexual depression. One couldn’t even talk to girls or dare look at them without being criticized and punished.”
“At first, I was happy being an actor, but then I thought, everything I do can be subject to criticism. It is like prison. I decided to leave the army troupe and work in a factory in Hebei. But I left that too and started working for CCTV first as an actor, then script writer. The director thought I was so talented, acting and scriptwriting at the same time—he couldn’t get over it. But whenever I mentioned the Gang of Four or some other touchy subject, I was censored. I was asked to put on Waiting for Godot with the French embassy. But it had to be done according to party ‘guidelines’. I was under the yoke. I thought, ‘I need to escape again.’”
“When Mao Zedong died, Beijing was really starting to really “swing”. Foreigners were coming, people were into freedom, and the ‘thing’ at that time was a ghetto blaster. I traded one for a painting—people did in those days. If you had one, you could dance in the park or at home, have a party. Soon, the Party put up signs: NO DANCING. The police arrested dancers. Everything was forbidden.”
“Some of the art movement began as fankang yishu [“revolt art” or “resistance art”]. I started to sculpt as a revolt. My first sculpture was a man screaming holding a book, a little Red Book, It was theatrical, representing political figures as puppets.”
“I had never had any training. Just a need to create. To do my own thing.”
“Everyone was an autodidact back then. The universities were shut down. Writers, artists, we all gathered round the Stars group—people like Ma Desheng, Bei Dao and Wei Jingsheng, the activist. I met Forest Blackfield, the New York Times correspondent in a park, clandestinely. He wrote about me first, a new art movement around the Beijing Spring. People looking for freedom.”
“Now people can do things in the freedom of their homes, in China. Of course, there is a lot of self-censorship; this business of Ai Weiwei with UCCA is part and parcel of that. When I did my show at UCCA, I wasn’t allowed to invite Li Xianting. He could come, but he couldn’t speak. Artists now have a great life – unless you make a conscious decision to oppose the government. My father was a writer, my mother was an actress, and everything they did was criticized. From my youth, I thought: all art should be free. That is what I said on the banner I carried during the Beijing Spring.”
“What about influences?” I ask. “If you didn’t study art, what inspired you?”
“I do think I was inspired in some sense afterwards; I traveled to Henan, collected the wanju, old toys of the peasants. The Han dynasty I like in its simplicity.”
But Wang Keping doesn’t really remember any of the first Western artists he saw or any foreign influence. He told me he feels his art is “instinctive”. Some might call it “art brut” or primitivism; his works often remind people of African idols or Brancusi’s animals and birds. He tells me he did not want to suffer outside influences, preferring instead to keep a clear, simple eye and mind.
“I have always had the temperament of a sculptor. I was arrogant even as a child. People said I should study. But I didn’t want to join in, look at this, and look at that. Some artists now just take from here and there; they have no language of their own.”
“Technique can be taught, but the jingli (experience) and gexing (character) can’t be. There are composers and there are interpreters.”
“Sometimes, I use half a day and nothing comes out of it. The most important is not to make something beautiful or resembling a thing, but to make something original. I want to be a composer.”
“I am also Chinese; I do not make Chinese contemporary art or Chinese art, necessarily. I am making art as an individual.”
With this, Keping tells me he has to get back to work. He heads towards the chiseling room where a few women are kneeling forward into a circle, their hair tied in a bun like a dot at the end of a question mark. They look like spirals, infinite, spiraling mother figures, the origin of the universe. The simplest thing and yet the truest. If you never move—wu wei, non-action—you might attain some truth, some inescapable reality, some revelation.
The bear lumbers back to his den with his chisel, ready to find something in the wood.
Wang Keping, “EX-VOTO: Fruits”, poplar, 46 cm high, 2003