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The Cultural Pop

Wei Guangqing and His "Red Wall" Author: Zhu Bin / Lu Hong Jun,1992

When discussing fine art of the last ten years, we are surprised by how many people are conceptually mixing the vanguard with the new trends in fine arts. In fact, the so-called vanguard art is not running after the international art trend, nor is the art only labeled "new". On the one hand, according to the opinion of a Japanese critic, the important principle of vanguard art is to set out realistic problems. On the other, a vanguard artist must be able to convert the cultural problem he or she proposes into a concrete artistic one and successfully resolve it. It is meaningless to dwell on transplanting concept to technique here. It can only bring a brief interest from the public at most, but not a major breakthrough in the field, or enter into the international art circle or the canon of art history. Based on the above understanding, we give special importance to the recent art experiment made by Wei Guangqing, because in these works, the painter has embarked on something new that possesses clear regional feature by emphasizing the cultural bearing with his medium and formed a deeper understanding into the basic concepts of vanguard art. Although these works are not without flaws, we feel they are quite rare for the present time.

As a latecomer to the new art trend, Wei Guangqing's work attract attention from home and abroad. But due to the hasty and utilitarian mood that swept over the whole art circle in running after the trend of internationalization, Wei Guangqing's works, same as many new trend artists' has clear traces of imitation, be it in the conception or the artistic expression.

For example, their concepts of expression remind one of the western thinkers such as Sarte and Freud, etc. The techniques bring to mind paintings of western modernist masters, like Bacon and others. We can say this shows the lack of originality or regional characteristics.

Realizing the threat of the above problem to his presence in the art world, the painter gradually revises his approach in his later work and successfully addresses his own artistic problem, which is to use the Chinese popular visual symbol to react to the cultural problem China face in the present. No doubt, the proposal of this problem arises from his careful study of art history and, more accurately, of pop art in relation to the present Chinese culture. Thus, the painter found a solid starting point, where he surpasses his predecessors and others, and made a virtual progress in his art making. The enlightenment of Wei Guangqing's recent works lies in the fact that, like children who need their parents, every artist needs influence from the outside and must deviate from that influence. Only in doing so, one can establish oneself in the contemporary art world.

If Wei Guangqing's recognizable visual language and his concerns with reality are quite similar to Pop Art, but the cultural problems he raise and his method of expression are clearly different from Pop Art's experimental ways. Firstly, he sets out from a special social and historical situation, and deviates from the motivation of American Pop Art in the direction of its commercial culture, and consciously makes traditional culture his theme. Secondly, he chiefly uses visual symbols from traditional culture as his form of expression and often combines them with modern and written symbols for the sake of connecting visual experiences between reality and history.

Compare to his earlier work, his recent series named Red Wall is more successful. The work clearly presents the direction of his themes and the originality of his art style.

The visual symbol of Red Wall is taken from the traditional moral classics "Zhu Zi's Family Maxim" and "The Virtuous Words". These themes targeted traditional morals.

From the privileged feudal officials' point of view, the ruling class consistently emphasized the importance of the monarch's framework of father and son, the superior and the inferior, and the feudal class order in the successive dynasties, and advocated feudal ethics, such as "the three cardinal guides and the five constant virtues," and "the three obedience and the four virtues," etc. Especially in the Nan Song Dynasty, Zhu Xi completed the feudal ethical morals and brought them to an understandable language, so that they can penetrate into every social corner. In his effort to philosophize Confucianism, he put forward the viewpoint that "reason differs minutely." Soon, the feudal class orders and ethical morals are looked at as the utmost justice, and people must act accordingly. Therefore, the tradition morals became almost like a law that was not in law form, and exert an invisible, yet huge pressure on people—up to now, people still can not break away from this entangling pressure. As many scholars pointed out, the biggest symptom of feudal ethical morals is its choking effect on people's individuality and creativeness. With the entire doctrine of the feudal system, it hindered on the healthy development of a society. As a man highly conscious of his Chinese background and traditions, Wei Guangqing has found that many of the modern problems are rooted in the feudal ethical morals, and thus has been his introspective approach to speak about the status quo, unlike American Pop Art's direct intervention. He is seemingly reminding people that all the real problems are historical problems, any solution to them must come from the clearing up historical problems; otherwise we would just step on the old road of our reformist predecessors again.

Nevertheless, Wei Guangqing is not a "critical realist". He is not directly extracting his material from a primary source, and bemoaning the state of affairs, or preaching to people. On the contrary, he forms a basic composition for his paintings using materials from a secondary source and the red wall symbol. Interestingly, this kind of technique melts history and reality together, and has cleverly cleared up the original meaning of the traditional symbol, making it an abstract symbol standing for the feudal norms, and hence anyone having a bit of interest in his works can perceive the project's theme. Wei Guangqing is smart in that he changes this cultural problem that no one can be exempted from being involved onto a visible graph, and enlists it openly under the illumination of consciousness. Certainly this would possibly stimulate some spectators to inquire about it. For example, does real morality come from the feudal idea of morality, made in the name of being moral? Did the moral mythology that the feudal society created show those constrained desires and anxieties? Seeing the painting, one can understand that the painter has given the right to answer these questions to the spectator and history. This is where the new artists differ from their predecessors. Frankly speaking, we appreciate the former more, because the new artists are not lecturing people. Their biggest hope is to use a more perfected artistic means to let the spectator gauge history; and they would be perfectly content as long as such that aim is achieved.

After close study of Wei Guangqing's recent experiments, more people would see the borrowing of recognizable symbols that formed his artistic style. Perhaps, according to traditional viewpoint, this kind of borrowing is plagiarizing, but we feel that discovering the deep cultural meaning in these recognizable symbols and then taking them into a surreal, absurd, and poetic context is, in itself, a new kind of creativity. It surely possesses the piercing power through the turbid layer of our present culture when the traditional visual symbols are flexibly borrowed; this is true in Red Wall. This naturally makes the work gain a special kind of formal beauty and aesthetic significance. Thus, the so-called "appropriation" is essentially a development and a screening process, and it needs the mind's eye. From another angle, borrowing these symbols has more cultural consideration than formal consideration. If we do not understand this point, we may make mistakes considering it from the art morphology and not relying on the value system it is based. About this, the painter's words are quite provocative: "Contemporary art is to concern society, history and culture. It can be said, for contemporary artists, the so-called artistic language is only an expression and has no meaning on its own. So, this involves two criteria in weighing the artistic language. First, whether the language accurately reveals the cultural problem the painter wants to show. Second, whether this language possesses the power to move the audience. In my opinion, if such criteria be met, creation or appropriation mean nothing." ----quoted from the painter's Art Notes.

Then, what reaction would Wei Guangqing's thought bring about in the contemporary art circle of China? Or, will it attract attention among the many creators of art today? This obviously cannot be immediately answered. But one thing is for sure, the painter has provided the Chinese art circle with a new enlightenment; namely when a painting drops its supreme goal in style and turns to reality, it is more penetrable to human cultural background. We eagerly hope all those concerning themselves with the development of today's art would sincerely study the realistic issues raised in Red Wall about China's art history, though judged by past standards, it is not artistic. We believe consistently laying out the issues and looking at a new background, China's contemporary art will have a rapid development and win over a more extensive audience, because people hope to find in artworks the morals and the meanings that they have been anxiously searching for in themselves and in this world.

Edited by Lin Sophia Ma, September 2007

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