Wang Qingsong’s ‘Dream of Migrants’

Taken cumulatively, Wang Qingsong’s images carry a wry corrective to global capitalism, consumerist values and the corrosive infiltration of western aspirations into Chinese culture.

He shuttles between satire and what he describes as ‘photojournalism’ – but not in the traditional sense. As he has noted: “I’ve always thought of my work as press shots, not some kind of conceptual photography. You can read into press photographs. I hope that people understand my work like learning to read with pictures.” He is a reporter-artist, a kind of jester or wise fool, who taps into the essence of topical issues through strategies of exaggeration and dark humour, through the imaginative rather than the specific. He does this in a manner of the acerbic and humorous eighteenth century British satirist artists, Thomas Rowlandson or William Hogarth. Wang Qingsong has a similar facility with his cast of characters. They often appear like models in dioramas, and the artist himself can sometimes be seen as a protagonist looking on, or performing within, his own images. Wang Qingsong positions himself therefore simultaneously as a maker, manipulator, performer and an astute observer.

Over the last twenty years, experimental artists have consistently responded to the drastic changes taking place in China: large-scale internal migration, the disappearance of traditional landscapes and lifestyles, the rise of mega-cities, the indulgence of consumer fantasies, a widening distance between rich and poor, and new urban cultures. Many of Wang Qingsong’s works reflect a growing awareness of the fragility and mutability of China’s urban fabric. In the past two decades, China’s urban life has been completely transformed. Sprawling skyscraper cities have been created almost overnight, while historic urban centres have been utterly demolished, displacing tens of thousands of city dwellers. Although demolition and relocation were necessary to the much-needed urban modernization, the resulting social structure and its accompanying consumer culture have arguably brought about a growing alienation between the city and its residents. Wang Qingsong is one of the most powerful commentators on this recent situation in China and his work Dream of Migrants explores these issue in great depth. However, his work has a wider reach – beyond the topical specifics of this time and place. It points out the age-old human contradictions between the material and the spiritual. It is true that isolation, greed, waste, excess, despair and folly and are often Wang Qingsong’s themes. Yet the fact that and he transforms them into art, and they are brought to our consciousness, means that he tackles them with hope.

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