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November 25, 2011

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King of pop: I do not judge

WANG Guangyi is considered China's pioneer political pop artist and sometimes compared with Andy Warhol for his irreverent play with cultural, commercial and political icons.

One of China's most influential artists, Wang reworks famous Chinese political figures and images, including "cultural revolution" (1966-76) posters and slogans, in the style of American pop art to deliver incisive commentary on China today.

The 54-year-old Beijing-based artist is best known for his oil painting series "The Great Criticism" (1990-2008), which juxtaposes propaganda images from the "cultural revolution" and logos of iconic Western brands that were anathema during the "cultural revolution" but are coveted today: Hermes, Marlboro, Rolex, Porsche, Coca-Cola and others. Today he finds less difference between the utopian socialists and mass consumerists.

Wang is one of the best selling painters in China and is widely collected, especially in the West. In August his 1988 oil painting "Mao Zedong AO" fetched US$4.07 million at auction, the highest for any of his works.

Last month he was in Shanghai to sign the prints of his 2007 work "The Great Criticism - Art Museum." The 100 prints (90x135cm) are sold at the MOMO Artshop for 50,000 yuan (US$7,870).

Wang doesn't hold many solo exhibitions. But these days he is preparing for a three-year touring show that will open next October in Beijing and feature around 70 oil paintings and installations created over 28 years. It then moves to Europe and the United States.

He doesn't say much about his current or future directions, apparently wanting the show to be a surprise.

Wang is often called a social critic for his juxtaposition of iconic Chinese political images and noble sentiments with icons of Western consumerism in "The Great Criticism" series.

"Though the work is named 'The Great Criticism,' I didn't mean to criticize anything," Wang said in a recent interview with Shanghai Daily, adding that many people "misread" his work.

"As an artist, I stand between two worlds. On the one side is utopian socialism, represented by propaganda posters that were commonly used to persuade people and change their minds. On the other side is the Western fetish for commodities and luxuries, which makes people crave commodities, just like the iPhone craze.

"What I did is put these two interesting brainwashing cases together and show the conflicts to get people interested, and make them imagine, think or ask questions. I do not judge. I simply have no attitude."

He emphatically said he is not a public intellectual and never asserted that he was one, though some observers have described him as such.

"Artists can express their ideas about public issues through their work, as well as personal feelings and emotions. Artists don't play the role of public intellectuals," he said.

He considers himself a rationalist, not one to indulge himself and express his own feelings and emotions on canvas. It's the ideas that interest him.

"I'd like to buff up the dignity of the word 'art.' It's one of the crucial requirements for human survival, just like religion and philosophy," said Wang who reads widely in philosophy and many other subjects.

Wang sat down for a talk with Shanghai Daily and later spoke in a telephone interview about his work and philosophy and what he calls misunderstandings. He cuts a "typical" artist's figure - shoulder-length hair, black shirt and cigarette.

Early days

Born in 1957 in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, Wang comes from an ordinary workers' family. His father was a railway worker; his mother is Manchu, with little education but dextrous hands that made beautiful paper-cut window decorations.

"When the sun shone through the window and lit up the paper-cut, there was illusion and mystery - that was my first recognition of art," he said.

Wang started taking art lessons at the Harbin Children's Cultural Palace when he was 15. After graduating from high school at the height of the "cultural revolution" he was sent down to the countryside along with millions of urban youth to learn from farmers. He spent three years in a remote village on the Songnen Plain in Heilongjiang. When his father retired, he replaced him on the railway, manning an overnight sleeper. His consolation was drawing.

In 1977 when he learned that the National College Entrance Examination, suspended during the "cultural revolution," had been restored, he applied for art school. He failed three times but on his fourth try he managed to grab one of the 10 spots open each year at today's China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

It was a close call. The academy only recruited 10 students nationwide and the cut-off age was 25. Wang was 24 that year.

"I had nearly collapsed and my head was a mess after failing again and again, but I was persistent and never thought of giving up," he said. "Still, it was like a miracle."

Political pop art

However, Wang didn't mesh with academic art study. Students were required to objectively represent subjects, but Wang had no interest in drawing a particular, true-to-life picture. He scraped through in his major courses. "My teachers recognized that I did have talent, so they never failed me," he grinned.

By that time China was gradually opening up to the rest of the world and various styles of Western modern art and different philosophies were introduced. A tolerant academic atmosphere enabled Wang to experiment freely and discover his own artistic style.

After graduation, he taught art at the Harbin Institute of Technology. There he formed the Northern Art Group with like-minded artist friends, which developed into one of the major forces of the revolutionary 1985 New Wave Art Movement.

He came up with the idea of "clearing away humanistic passion" and getting down to essential ideas. For him art is not mysterious and illusive, but neutral and calm. In his "Post Classics" series beginning in 1986, he reworks the masterpieces of Western classical art, such as Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" (1793), stripping away all religious and heroic elements and painting it in grays.

In 1989, eight of his paintings featuring Mao Zedong appeared in China's Modern Art Exhibition. Wang took Mao from his pedestal and superimposed a neutral grid pattern on his face, along with meaningless alphabetic letters.

He moved to Zhuhai in Guangdong Province and Wuhan in Hubei Province, then finally settled in Beijing and began working on "The Great Criticism." One day he was reading about socialism and drinking Coca-Cola, he recalled, and that sparked the idea of juxtaposing the revolutionary propaganda with logos of famous Western consumer products. In 1991, his work "The Great Criticism - Coca-Cola" appeared on the cover of Italian art magazine "Flash Art."

He got his first big international exposure at the 1993 Venice Biennale, when he presented eye-popping examples of Chinese political pop art.

After 2008, he presented a dramatic installation series, "Aesthetics of the Cold War." "Politics in the world today are the result of the Cold War when everyone could be the so-called imaginary enemy," he said.

"The Cold War affects the ways we looking at the West and the way they look at us, and makes the two parties demonize each other," said Wang. "The Cold War has its cruel side, also its funny side."

Instead of using political propaganda, he reworks propaganda images used in the 1960s during the "Three Preventions" campaign (against atomic, chemical and bacterial weapons) when China and the Soviet Union became hostile. In the installation "People Living in Fear" (2007-08) he depicts people flat on the ground, covering their heads with their arms as a nuclear explosion blasts behind them.

Public misreading

"The public often misreads my work," Wang says frankly. "What they feel or get deviates from what I try to express. They presume I have certain political preferences, while actually I am neutral. But misreading is good because it enlarges the meaning of an art work. An important art work can get people interested and thinking, if not, the work has little meaning."

Some people said he profited from the suffering during the "cultural revolution" by glorifying its images and said the works lack aesthetics. Wang said he did it on purpose.

"Works will lose their power if they are too artistic. I want to make people think about something except art."

In March 2008, when the torch relay for the Beijing Olympics was disrupted by protesters in Paris, Wang withdrew from an exhibition at the Marshall Art Museum in Paris. His decision created a furor on the Internet in China and some people called him a "shallow nationalist," making a show of patriotism without taking any risk.

"It was blown out of proportion," he said of the affair. "I just felt annoyed, about the country, about the whole thing." He admitted it was a rare emotional moment in his generally rational life.


When he was around 20, Wang sold his first painting for 10,000 yuan. His hands shook with excitement. Today he is one of the richest contemporary artists in China.

Several years ago, National Art Museum of China wanted to collect one of Wang's works. He said he would donate it "free of charge on the condition that it should be exhibited for 20 years to let people see it over time." The museum refused. No deal. None of his work hangs there today.

People mistakenly think artists care most about money, Wang has said, adding that what the best artists really care about is "the feel."

Asked about the current atmosphere in China and whether it's conducive to real creativity, Wang said, "The atmosphere for artists in China actually resembles that overseas. They both have certain kinds of restrictions, though in different ways. I call it rationality of the state, and it does interfere with artistic creation. But interestingly, it can also inspire artists. An artist can't make good art work in complete freedom."

The contemporary art market is getting more commercialized, he said. "Young Chinese artists generally lake the reverence and respect for unknown things, such as new beliefs, religion and philosophy. But those unknown things are the reasons for the existence of art."


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