|Wang Guangyi: Great Castignation|
Lynn MacRitchie once noted that "China is one of the few places where the term 'avant-garde' retains its original meaning and its sense of heroic struggle against a blinkered and oppressive academy."(1) This statement sums up reality for the contemporary Chinese artist who has, since the 1949 victory of the Chinese Communist Party and the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC), has had three choices: abandon art, bend his or her art to either serve the state or least gain its approval, or to risk their livelihood, freedom, and sometimes their lives for the sake of creating meaningful art that not only does not serve the state, but oftentimes criticizes it. In the 1980s, as Chinese society became increasingly open, a number of Chinese artists began to increasingly take the latter of these options. Wang Guangyi was not merely among their ranks, but stood at the forefront of Chinese Avant-Garde, promoting his unique vision of 'Political Pop,' heedless of the difficulties inherent in such a path. While Wang Guangyi continues to criticize the government and society of the PRC in his work, it is his "Great Castigation" series that most powerfully captures the essence of his message.
Like the great American pop artists of the twentieth century, Wang utilizes images which have inundated Chinese popular culture. There are, however, marked differences. First, whereas American pop culture may be seen as essentially evolutionary and lacking distinct breaks, Chinese popular culture has undergone several serious disjunctions in the twentieth century. Of particular importance to Wang's work is the dramatic shift from a landscape dominated by traditional Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist imagery to one enveloped in that of commercial and Western imagery. "China's cities began to be festooned with commercial billboards" in the early 1980s.(2)
"The visual effect of the advertising signs was so strong, it reminded us of the [political] posters in the past . . . . Two periods of history had come together. Everyone had to react . . . . An artist had to face it directly, had to take an attitude to it," said Wang when asked about the transformation.(3)
Wang thus began experimenting, using Chinese popular imagery in his work. He did not, however, merely follow suit with his American peers:
Wang is careful to point
out that his own work differs from the 'happy
The elements of Wang's paintings are derived from two primary sources: traditional Socialist Realism propaganda and contemporary Western advertisements. He beings each painting with a composition of traditional Communists symbols, human beings. Workers, peasants, and/or soldiers are arranged in dramatic and 'revolutionary poses,' arms raised, faces hardened. While traditionally such figures would be armed with the tools of their trade, weapons, flags, or a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao better known in the West as the "Little Red Book," Wang's figures have taken up the a personal symbol, the devices of the artist's trade: the pen and brush.(5) The importance of these symbols is, in most analyses of Wang's work, understated. The brush and the pen do, of course, parody the traditional soldier-worker-peasant,(6) but they also speak to the role of the artist in China, both in the Maoist period and the Reform Era. The artist, whether as a propagandist or as an advertiser, is necessary to the system, the base of it. Without the artist's ability to convince and manipulate the masses, how could a state control its populace? The artist is the source of the state, the key to its survival. Therefore, Wang, like the German neo-Expressionist Anselm Kiefer, uses the tools of the artist not only the mourn the loss of the pure artist, the artist unrestrained, the artist capable of creating and not merely manipulating, but he also uses it to condemn the artist, to point out his or her responsibility for the fervor of the Cultural Revolution and the moral disintegration of the Reform Era. The pen and the brush are both the condemnation and greatest asset of the artist, and Wang recognizes this.
Each composition is then juxtaposed with China's new set of symbols, the children of the era of commercialization and Westernization. The corporate symbols of Kodak, Fuji, Coca-Cola, Evian, Hitachi, Disney, Marlboro, Bennetton, and Casio all appear in his works, standing side-by-side with their traditional Socialist Realism counterparts.(7) The inference is multifaceted. First, by amalgamating these two sets of symbols, Wang is attempting to level the playing ground, inferring that regardless of their ends, both are symbols specifically aimed at manipulating the populace, and therefore, at their root, neither may be regarded as 'superior' to the other. Wang is also criticizing the apparent lack of a middle-ground, the inability of the Chinese society to develop a viable middle-ground. Yesterday, slaves to the state. Today, slaves to the economy.
This seemingly arbitrary
combination of political and commercial symbols
Wang's use of color and form are also of note. Students of Western Pop Art will no doubt feel a definite kinship to the bright coloration and the broad expanses of color which Wang utilizes, yet the Chinese viewer will instantly recognize them as harkening to the woodblocks which were used so prolifically for the making of posters during the Cultural Revolution. "But," notes Scarlet Cheng, "while his surfaces remain relatively flat, there is just enough texture created by the brush strokes around the lettering and the occasional drip of paint to reassure you that these are indeed paintings done by the human hand,' thus breaking with the American Pop Art tendency to reproduce the popular image either mechanically or in a manner that appears to be mechanical.(9) Furthermore, MacRitchie states:
The bright colors,
familiar from Western Pop, have a deeper
Red is the color of fervor, red is the people's color, and red is the symbol of the Party. Combined with the color yellow (color of the emperor, Confucius, the earth, complement to red in most communist imagery, and the 'color' of the Chinese nation as expostulated after interaction with a 'white' West and a 'black' Africa), another traditional color in both Chinese and Communist imagery, an underlying theme is expostulated: these works are Chinese, created by a Chinese artist to critique a specifically Chinese subject. Furthermore, the use of yellow and red in such quantities has a second benefit in the realm of design and composition, a benefit which is evident to any schoolchild. They are the colors of fire engines, the colors which get our attention, that tell us there is something important here that requires our attention. Were a painting from this series to be placed in a long hall full of paintings of less dramatic tones, there can be little doubt that this work would probably get more than its share of attention simply because its colors capture our eyes, forcing us to give them our attention.
Other aspects of Wang's composition and design are worth note as well. For instance, a quick perusal of Wang's work shows the trained eye that he is familiar with triangular composition, which he uses incredibly effectively, adding to his composition's ability to capture eye-movement dramatically. Furthermore, Wang covers his composition with hundreds of tiny numbers, spread erratically and randomly over the surface like rubber stamps or military equipment stencils, all in such a manner that they tend to sink from than reappear into the viewers conscious vision. MacRitchie touches on these numbers, calling them "an alienating device."(11) Indeed, these numbers serve a very specific purpose: they change the work into an inhuman creation, something harsh and numerical. No longer are these symbols meant to persuade, at least not in the sense that they were originally intended at their inception.
Wang Guangyi may be said to have a mature understanding of the tools of his trade, a well-developed sense of composition and design. Furthermore, Wang Guangyi without a doubt has an in-depth understanding of the changing social, political, and economic tides of contemporary China and the audacity to critique it in an environment distinctly less than friendly to such criticism. But perhaps most interesting, Wang unapologetically straddles the netherworld where China and the West meet, confronting it head on, and holding a mirror to its face, whatever it was, is, and is becoming.
1. MacRitchie 52
2. MacRitchie 51
3. MacRitchie 51-52
4. MacRitchie 52
5. Cheng 184
6. Cohen 106-107
7. Cheng 184
8. China Avant-Garde, "Wang Guangyi"
9. Cheng 184
10. MacRitchie 52
11. MacRitchie 52
AsianWeek. March, 1999. http://www.asianweek.com/030499/images/arts_coke.html
Cheng, Scarlet. "Hong Kong: Wang Guangyi." ARTnews.
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Cohen, Joan Lebold. "Chinese Art Today: No U Turn." ARTnews.
"Exhibition: New Art in China." New Asia Pacific
MacRitchie, Lynn. "Precarious Paths on the
Mainland." Art in America. March 1994.
Art in China, Post-1989." San Jose Museum of Art Online.
"Notable Collections." Chinese Type Contemporary
"Sprawling exhibits in two museums showcase contemporary
Asian artists." Seattle Times.com. http://www.seattletimes.com/news/entertainment/html98/insi_19991118.html
"Wang Guangyi." China Avant-Garde. http://www.china-avantgarde.com/
"Wang Guangyi." Connect-Arte.com. http://connect-arte.com/archive/china/artistas/wangguan.htm
Yu Jiang. "Course Notes: Week XV-XVI: The Twenty Century
Chinese Art." Art of China.
A guide to image sources
I. "Disney," 1997: Artnet.com
II. "Coca-Cola," 1993: China Avant-Garde
III. "Bennetton," 1992: Art of China
IV. "Fuji," 1993: Connect-Arte.com
V. "Hitachi," 1990: Chinese Type Contemporary Art
VI. "Elle," 1997: Chinese Type Contemporary Art