CHINESE ART MUSEUM SHOW REVIEW
Review of Wang Keping works 1979-2006 show at He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen China from 25 October 2008 to 23 November 2008.
On two floors of the little known He Xiangning Art Museum in Shenzhen China, sculptor Wang Keping’s works stand dark and squat on white pedestals: bulging globular forms which seem to hang bauble-like in mid air. Ranging from table top-sized to several feet high, the works selected span the period from 1979 to 2006 and show how his oeuvre has evolved from his earlier ideologically-inspired creations to later works which reflect his preoccupation with nature and in particular the female form.
Like other Chinese sculptors, Wang Keping has developed his own instantly recognisable style. Gleaming burnished woods are formed into what seems to be tight piles of bulbs and irregular orbs. From a distance, framed by the rectangular white architectural pillars and beams of this intimate museum, the sculptures appear to be abstract. Close up however the viewer can discern glowing breasts, round chignons and curved arms holding the balled body of a baby. Closer again, the viewer is drawn to reach out and smooth hands over the cracks and grains in the wood which are an integral part of each final sculpture.
“Wang Keping sometimes takes a year, sometimes up to three years to complete a sculpture” explains gallerist Katie de Tilly of 10 Chancery Lane who co-curated this show with Feng Boyi of the He Xiangning Museum. “He selects the wood when it is wet and then he waits to see how the wood cracks while it is drying and he lets these cracks direct him as he works towards the final form”.
Regarded as a founding father of Chinese contemporary political art which emerged after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1979, Wang Keping was one of the first artists to use his work publicly to criticise China and its government. In that year 23 artists came together to create the ‘Stars’ (Xing Ning) exhibition. This was an illegal exhibition in which the non-conformist and mostly self-taught artists hung their work on the railings of the National Art Museum of China before it was closed down by police.
Katie de Tilly takes up the story “After struggling with the authorities they managed to have it reopened in Behai Park two months later and this created an explosion which threw the doors to political and artistic freedom in China wide open.” The ground-breaking Stars Exhibition received international press coverage and the sculpture Silenceby Wang Keping made it to the front page of the New York Times where Fox Butterfield the newspaper’s Beijing correspondent commented “…Mr Wang’s brazenly political often grotesque sculptures stole the show”.
In 1984 frustrated by the restrictions of his homeland, Wang Keping emigrated to France with his wife Catherine Dezaly a French teacher at the Beijing University. The liberal climate in Europe allowed him to embrace his interest in the female form. “It is not only because I am a man, it is also because ..desire was prohibited. The leaders told us to work for the masses, the party. Sex was immoral, evil and capitalistic. At that time we never saw a woman’s body not even in books or films but it was something we always were thinking about”.
A man of strong enthusiasms Wang Keping’s appreciation of wood is sensual and his eyes light up with passion as he talks about its elemental qualities. “the wood whispers to me its secrets. Trees are like a human body with hard parts like bones, tender parts like flesh. You cannot go against its nature. I can do nothing but follow the wood and accept being its accomplice”.
But don’t be deceived by the distinctive tyle and repetition of motifs in Wang Keping’s works. He plays no part in contributing to China’s reputation for formulaic ‘pile ’em high’ market-feeding art. For example Wang Keping does not work with assistants: “Sculpting is like making love” he says “I don’t need anyone to help me”.
His art is slow, his vision unique and his execution his own. Perhaps this is what makes Wang Keping so confident that his work will stand the test of time. “What is important is that you create something that will remain throughout history. And with time it stays. Often all the superficial things float to the top and all the things that weigh sink to the bottom and when the water is poured away it is the things at bottom that remain.”