This World is a Heap of Wonders

On Narrative Logic of Wang Qingsong’s Images

Xiaoyan Yang

Wang Qingsong’s FOTOFEST, created in 2005, describes a typical scene of photographic art creation: a group of people holding cameras who, surrounding several nude models, are taking pictures.

This is an unforgettable and indescribable visual spectacle.

The public revealing of female nudity is an event that violates public morality and constitutes a certain taboo in any society and at any historical stage. But what if it is aesthetic in nature?

It is said that photography is art. Therefore, viewing through the lens has become a legitimate aesthetic. Peeping, in the name of photography, is no longer a problem, and also becomes an aesthetic legitimacy. Also, there s no knowing when this began—the emergence in Chinese society of this kind of pubic spectacle; a few young female models are teasing, surrounded by a group of photographers engaged in frenzied picture-taking. A little attention paid to that group of shooters reveals that, without exception, they are middle-aged people, everyone with telephoto and wide angle barrels–hurried, breathing rapidly.

Fotofest, 150x300cm, C-print, 2005, courtesy of artist

In the West, the historical significance of nude art images have, without exception, always been judged relative to conceptions of pornography. In this context, “pornography” is obviously not a derogatory term, it is simply a description of an objective state of affairs. Of course, throughout history most of the people watched are women; behind this fact the power of male chauvinism has played a role. In patriarchal traditional Chinese society, viewing the naked human form has always been a moral taboo; this is an obvious fact. Generally, because there is this powerful backdrop, when Western art entered China, its depiction of nudity, particularly the female body, despite its legitimate reasons, has for a long time, up to the present, constituted a serious issue. The female body is innocent, yet is ceaselessly incarnated as a body burdened with “reactionary thought,” causing women to feel endless shame. Therefore, once aesthetic appreciation is publicly supported, taking pictures of women’s bodies becomes an incredible public landscape. In the name of art, pornographic peeping rises to aesthetic gaze, and a kind of posturing style spreads freely within the world of images.

Wang Qingsong named this spectacle FOTOFEST. Within this seemingly objective description there is a harsh metaphor.

From this point of view, it is appropriate to define Wang Qingsong as an image artist. For him, photography itself is both medium and expression. What the medium means is that its acknowledged documentary function allows for an unassailable objectivity in photographing a scene. The public has long been accustomed to this age-old characteristic of photography. For them, isn’t photography just an undifferentiated trace of reality? The power of photography is also reflected in this point. But it also seems to prove that without objects there can be no photography, and photography exists because of objects. But imagine that, if there was no photography, the object could not be transformed into, and preserved as an image. If we cannot preserve, then there is no image, so in that case does the object have any meaning? Thus, always the object permits photography to become photography; yet photography changes the nature of the object, causing it to become an image; thus, in this way, is written a history, a history in visible images. Therefore, it is not so much that there is no photography without objects as that there is no object without photography. At this point, the object is equal to the image, or the object is the image. Image is a medium; photography is the inevitable means to make the media become a medium; it is a meaningful object/image, consequently, it is a more fundamental media.

But photography is also a kind of expression. For example, realism is a style of painting. The realistic effect obtained through painting cannot compete with the documentary function of photography. Therefore, in the face of photography, and in the face of realism, painting must emphasize its artistry, emphasize the role of the artist’s mind, as well as the manifestation brought about through skilled hands. In the era when people think that photography is the same as simply documenting facts, it has been impossible to establish the autonomy of photography because, in the face of the painting’s air of artistry, photographers are simply ashamed. This is the inherent problem of photography. The self-saving strategy of photography is to equate documenting events with the real, emphasizing that the authenticity of photography has always been missing from painting. Photography thinks that this can bypass the trap of aesthetics and fantasizes that it is equal to painting. Therefore, there is a strange debate in the field of photography about whether the so-called candid snapshot is real, or the posed photograph is real, and the extremists emphasize the substance of candid snapshots and deny any substance to the  posed photograph. Little do they realize that photography only lets the object be equal to the image but does not let photography be equal to the event. Once the events are reorganized, once the subject is transformed into a director, and the documentary nature of photography is understood as a bias and an expression, the subjectivity of photography can be proved.

Photography lets the object transform into an image. Photography originally has just this kind of medium-nature. At the same time, through arranging, through the reconstruction of the landscape, the image becomes an authentic visual expression, and the image also gains its own independence from so-called documenting, and confronts reality. There is a split here, which I might call the split between image and photography. Image is no longer a record of a man-made landscape; image has become a visual retrospective, seemingly objective, but in fact anti-objective. Similarly, photography is no longer photography. All the interpretation attached to the medium of photography has disintegrated in the face of fictional images, and photography has become a genuine expression.

The meaning of the image is reflected in this division. Wang Qingsong constantly replicates the former landscape, through large-scale, almost crazy posing, letting the image emerge to become a work. He is not replicating a former landscape; if we were to understand it in that way, we would have no way to understand Wang Qingsong’s unique boundless calm’s infinite anxiety. To him, the world is a heap of wonders. Not only is this world a heap of wonders, but history is also a heap of wonders. The combination of the world and history is a heap of wonders. The reason why Wang Qingsong continues to work, his goal, I think, is probably to establish an existence corresponding to this heap of wonders. He wants to create an indefinable existence, the form of which is image.

FOTOFEST how split? Every one of his works is wrapped in this split, by dismemberment. From the creation of Night Revels of Lao Li in 2000 to the new work On the Field of Hope in 2020, we can, from these works, understand the extraordinary satire of such astonishing spectacle.

Did Wang Qingsong achieve his goal? Another of his works, Iron Man, may be a self-assessment of this question, or even a prophecy. The answer lies in the mind of the viewer.

Blood stained shirt, 180x300cm, C-print, 2018, courtesy of artist
The Making of Blood Stained Shirt in Detroit
On the field of hope, 180x300cm, C-print, 2020, Courtesy of artist
Iron Man, 120x160cmx2, C-print, 2008, courtesy of artist
Iron Man, Video, 35mm film, 4 minutes, 2008, courtesy of artist

A poster from the Cultural Revolution entitled To Live Like Such A Person refers to the appreciation of being a brave, honest, and heroic person. In our childhood, we have been taught how to live and why to live in political classes. These heroes were taught to as great models to emulate and to live up to as we grew up. However, the real world is very tough, stifled with conflict, war, violence, strife, controversy, fight, combat… People have to face up to all these severe situations. To be a hero means a lot of suffering, bravery, insistence, all sorts of skills of stamina to combat against the unexpected disasters. In Iron Man (2009), Wang Qingsong created a hero in his own image affectionately referred to as Iron Man. This term Iron Man refers to an oil worker hero (Qingsong worked in the oil-fields for over eight years) who dedicated his life to developing Chinese oil industry in the early 1960s. In this video this strong-minded hero has been beaten up by a lot of fists but always straightens up his head facing sideways as if Taking Death As Merely Going Back Home. He avoids the fist by playing Chinese Tai Chi (a Chinese body-exercise system of slow meditative physical exercise designed for relaxation, balance and health). Finally, though losing hair and teeth in the course of the beating, he still smiles at his opponents. Is it a fact of life or an absurdist satire against all forms of violence? Or what is Iron Man?

Rapidly completed on the way from Wuhan to Changsha to Guangzhou, China

On March 30, 2021