Wang Keping, China’s prodigal son and associate of Ai Weiwei, returns to Beijing for a major exhibition.
Exiled Chinese dissident artist Wang Keping has returned from France to Beijing for an exhibition of his sculptural work in China, showing at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art from 27 September 2013 to 5 January 2014. But decades in exile have done little to mellow the defiant artist, whose UCCA show has already sparked debate on censorship.
The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is hosting “Wang Keping” (27 September 2013 to 5 January 2014), a solo exhibition of one of China’s first contemporary sculptors who was also one of the founding members of the dissident artist group The Stars (Xing Xing). More than fifty works are on view, spanning the artist’s 35-year career and comprising a wide range of subjects.
The Stars, considered to be one of the first contemporary avant-garde art movements in China, was founded immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Founded by Wang Keping, Ai Weiwei, Huang Rui, Li Shuang and Ma Desheng in the late 1970s, the group fought for artistic freedom as China’s government was beginning to loosen their strict controls on expression, according to the UCCA press release.
Who is Wang Keping?
Wood sculptor Wang Keping (b. 1949, Beijing) first gained notoriety with his most famous work Idol. The small wood carving appears like a Buddha figure with the facial features of Mao, but what made the sculpture so controversial was that it mocked China’s Communist leader rather than idolising him.
In 1984, Wang moved to France with his French wife Catherine Dezaly (who had taught in Beijing) and began crafting more naturalistic sculptures. Wang no longer carves overtly political sculptures, but rather works within five themes instead: women, men, couples, birds and pure forms.
Wang has exhibited in major museums and art centres around the world, such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in France, the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland, the Brooklyn Museum in the US, and the National Art Museum of China and He Xiangning Art Museum in China.
Wang only works with wood, creating small-sized pieces that are approximately thirty centimetres to larger pieces which are several metres tall, with signature traits including voluptuous and sensuous forms and lyrical abstraction.
According to the press release,
His works are evocative of Constantin Brâncusi’s Modernist explorations, Han Dynasty funereal figures, and African fertility sculptures, though their warped formal abstractions and embrace of eroticism place them squarely into a class of their own.
In the press release, Wang discussed his artistic quest for originary and primal forms of expression:
In my sculpture, I strive to find that which is universal in primitive Chinese form, and the further back I go to the origins of this art, the closer I am to my idea of contemporary art.
An interview with the artist in ARTINFO describes his association with the Stars and their fight for freedom of artistic expression in China.
In August 1980, the government allowed the group of artists to hold an exhibition at the National Art Museum, where Wang exhibited his controversial Idol. Approximately 100,000 visitors attended the show. The success of the exhibition and the political nature of some of the artworks drew the authorities’ ire.
Art Speak China provides a detailed history of the members of The Stars group and a chronology of the exhibitions they held.
Wang and wood
The ARTINFO interview also describes Wang’s methods of working with wood. Timber cutters provide him with logs. After Wang performs a necessary first carving, he can control where the wood will crack during the three-year drying period. After the wood is dried, Wang, who already perceives a specific form emerging from the wood, chisels it into shape. A process of sanding and scorching with a blowtorch to create a mahogany-like patina completes the process.
Wang’s way of working with wood is trial and error, and his studio is filled with finished and unfinished carvings. When a sculpture is not successful it will end up in the fireplace.
A market for Wang Keping
Although Wang’s work rarely sells on the secondary market, says ARTINFO, when pieces do come up at auction, his earlier in-your-face political pieces fetch the highest prices, as in the example of Idol, which set an artist record of HKD920,000 (USD118,000) at Christie’s Hong Kong in May 2011.
Chinese artists and censorship today
According to a review of the UCCA exhibition published on 16 October 2013 in The New York Times, the organisers self-censored themselves by not submitting Wang’s politically-themed sculpture titled Silence for review by the governmental board, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture. UCCA decided that, thanks to “the current chill on expression in China”, it was unlikely that Silence would be palatable to the authorities. UCCA Director Philip Tinari, quoted in The New York Times, explained “the entire show would have been put at risk if Silence were submitted for approval.” The Bureau needs to approve all artworks that are imported for exhibitions.
The defiant artist responded by quipping, “Chinese artists all live very comfortably, as long as you don’t oppose the government,” notes The New York Times.
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