From the Archive – Glass interviews Wang Guangyi of the Political Pop movement

Artist of Wizardry – Wang Guangyi, China’s leading protagonist of the Political Pop movement, speaks candidly about his life, his art – and his criticisms, not of Chinese communism, but of the Western love of consumerism

IF it weren’t for the fashion magazines, fashion wouldn’t have become the phenomenon we are currently witnessing in today’s China. The end of the 1980s saw the blossoming of such magazines. After establishing the first Chinese version of Elle in Hong Kong in 1987, in the year that followed Hachette Filipacchi Media founded the Chinese version of Elle in the Mainland. The readership in China may not be as broad as the once-famous slogan described the state of play in France, “Si elle lit, elle lit Elle” (If she reads, she reads Elle). The role that Elle China played at the time, however, can be seen as that of a pioneer, revealing the opening chapter of Chinese fashion publishing. Nowadays the fashion publishing battlefield features a cacophony of competitors, among which Vogue China and Harper’s Bazaar China are the two market leaders.

As Western commercialism and consumerism penetrated popular culture in China, fashion magazines in many ways paved the way to constructing the country’s fashion industry. The past decade has seen China rising from factory production that imitates, to a platform that harbours a great many home-grown talents. Desire for luxury goods and high-end living increases, yet the salary for average people remains the same. The gap between the rich and the poor is acute, and is continuing to enlarge rapidly. One shouldn’t be surprised to see an industrial worker dressed in ragged clothes carrying a roll of bread with some kind of mixed vegetables for lunch, walking past an advertisement of Dior.  This stark paradox is the springboard for Wang Guangyi’s skilful and ironic critiques of modern life in China.

Great Criticism- Coca-Cola, Oil on Canvas, 1993. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi StudioGreat Criticism- Coca-Cola, Oil on Canvas, 1993. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi Studio

Characterised by the combination of propaganda images, Pop Art and commercial advertising, the post-1989 Political Pop movement is one of the major artistic movements to have developed in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and the closure of the China Avant-Garde exhibition at the China National Gallery. Among the many notable figures of the movement, Wang is the leading protagonist who wittily combines the ideological power of communist propaganda with the bewitching charm of Western advertising. Juxtaposing revolutionary images with consumer logos and highlighting the conflict between China’s political past and commercialised present, Wang’s canvases weave an intricate narrative that tells a story both alluring and thought-provoking.

Born in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province in 1956, Wang graduated from the oil painting department of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in 1984. “I was never a straight-A student when I was in the art school. The college days were a painful memory to me. The teachers didn’t like me and were not passionate about my works. All my school assignments received merely a passing score. Perhaps such frustration did serve me well. I worked even harder to focus on my own artistic creations. Now I look back at the old works I did, they were all very much me, which went against the disciplines set by the school. What was required of us was realistic painting and I’m not that good at that.”

Wang goes on to elaborate, “Yet my classmates were very supportive of me. They often offered me great feedback on my art works. Through the college days I came to realise my weaknesses and my strengths. I had no choice but to emphasise my “weakness” and stick to my own aesthetics.”

Great Criticism- Marlboro. Oil on canvas, 1992. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi StudioGreat Criticism- Marlboro. Oil on canvas, 1992. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi Studio

When asked what inspired him to begin his artistic career, he replies, “When I was a kid, I had always enjoyed drawing. The idea of becoming an artist wasn’t that clear at the very beginning. What led me to embark on the journey of becoming an artist was actually my mother. I was very fond of the window paper cuts she made. You could say this was the very first moment that sparked my interest in art. After being admitted to the art school, I began to view art as a professional career.” (Originating from the Han dynasty, paper cutting is one of the most traditional folk arts that are still in existence today. Back in the Han and Tang dynasties, women used scissors to cut gold and silver papers and silk into decorative patterns such as flowers and birds to accessorise themselves. During festive seasons, coloured papers were cut into all kinds of flowers, animals and folk tales and pasted on the windows. Renowned poet of the Tang dynasty Li Shangyin even recorded the history of paper cutting in his poems.)

As one of the central figures of the Political Pop movement, Wang takes a critical attitude towards his home country. The scrutiny Wang presents in his best-known series, Great Criticism (2004), manifests his artistic attitude and philosophy towards Western consumerism and the dominance of icon worship of Western brands. The Series reflects Wang’s socio-political exploration of how such symbols of a foreign ideology as Hermès, Rolex, Cartier and Buick encroach on Chinese society today.

Great Criticism- Marlboro. Oil on canvas, 1992. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi StudioGreat Criticism- Marlboro. Oil on canvas, 1992. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi Studio

On the billboard-sized canvases the idealised peasants and workers yield pens instead of hammers or shovels, reminding viewers of a time of revolutionary political action. “I aim to express the ideological antagonism that exists between western culture and socialist ideology. The significance of this antagonism has more to do with issues in cultural studies than simply art in and of itself,” he had explained at the time.

Wang had delved into the world of books when in art school. “The library played an indispensable role in my college days. Almost every afternoon was spent in the library. To me, the word “art” alone is meaningless. It has to be bound with religion, philosophy and politics to extend to a spiritual level.” Inspired by the socialist realist statues he saw in his childhood, Wang created his well-known ‘materialist’ sculptures to explore the visual transmission of the socialist message.

These sculptures are considered a turning point in his work, moving away from the cultural conflicts expressed in his Great Criticism paintings. London’s Saatchi Gallery commented that “Stylistically merging the government enforced aesthetic of agitprop with the kitsch sensibility of American pop, Guangyi’s work adopts the cold war language of the ’60s to ironically examine the contemporary polemics of globalisation.”

Mao Zedong- AO. Oil on canvas, 1989. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi StudioMao Zedong- AO. Oil on canvas, 1989. Courtesy of Wang Guangyi Studio

Dubbed one of the F4 (top 4) in the Chinese art world, Wang Guangyi stands alongside Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi and Fang Lijun as one of China’s most financially successful artists. His massive Mao AO painting from 1988 sold for £2,036,000 ($4.1 million) at a Phillips de Pury & Company auction in London in December 2007. “The influence of the Chinese art market depends on the national power of China. If China stays influential in the world, then the art market will of course keep on thriving,” Wang remarks. “I don’t think my success is absolute. Everything is occasional. What I have created are within my capabilities. History will have its own evaluation of me and my art works. I tend to resist being exposed to a bulk of information. I have my own mindset. Art is humankind’s last wizardry. Of all the wizards, Van Gogh is the most bewitching master of art.”

Besides Van Gogh, Wang speaks of Andy Warhol as the other art master he admires. Many have referred to Wang as the Chinese Andy Warhol. Some may even say he adopts certain elements that Warhol utilised in his art. The style of his art presentation may look similar to a first-time viewer’s eye, yet the aesthetics and the philosophy behind the works definitely belie a fusion of the East and the West coming out of a Chinese-born artist.

As we walk out of the tremendously spacious work studio of Wang’s, I glance once again at the large blood-red canvases of the Great Criticism series. A mass of enthusiastic and dedicated Mao supporters dressed in the traditional wardrobe of the Communist party. The red background echoes with one of the most notable symbols of the Cultural Revolution – the Little Red Book. Looking back and reflecting where we stand today in Chinese society, the omnipresence of Communism is still evident, accompanying the Chinese into a commercialised today and tomorrow.

by Yolanda Chen

From the Glass Archive – Issue 9 – Hope

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