"We are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history……"
In 1989, Wei Guangqing's artwork, titled The Plan of Suicide (1988) was on display at the "China/Avant-Garde" in its No. 1 Exhibition Hall. It was regarded by some critics, to quote from "A History of China's Modern Art 1979-1989" by Lü Peng and Yi Dan, as "a piece of artwork characterized by a theme of the uniquely compromising act of suicide." It was indeed a visual explanatory approach to Albert Camus' famous quotation, "There is only one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." And it had nearly all the features of China's modernist artworks: vague metaphysical language, fictitious tragic setting and plot, and existentialist theatrical experience. It, however, turned out to be the modernist swan song of Wei's art with China's rapid transformation in the 1990s from its Enlightenment era to its consumerist era.
In 1992, Wei Guangqing's first Pop Art work, Red Wall—A Harmonious Household, was on display at "The First 1990s Biennial Art Fair Guangzhou, China," as a representative work of "Hubei Pop." His work won an award with artist Wang Guangyi's Great Criticism, which marked the beginning of an important period of art, namely the transformative era of Chinese art during the 1990s with the dominant Chinese Pop Art. Critics later labeled Wang's painting as "Political Pop," while Wei's as "Cultural Pop" based on the different types of images they employed. In essence, Wang's images about the Great Cultural Revolution were not necessarily non-cultural symbols, while Wei's traditional images also had their political implications. The labeling, to a certain extent, drew our attention away from questioning about the truth and significance of Pop art in the local Chinese context: why did misreading and appropriating American Pop Art become a mainstream painting trend in contemporary Chinese art in the early 1990s?
Pop art emerged in the United States after World War II under the historical background of both its culture and art. Nurtured by American mass culture and pragmatic aesthetic tradition, it was indeed a physiological reaction to post-war mass consumerist culture. It was also a reaction against the elite modernism----Abstract Expressionism. It used a language, characterized by appropriation, flatness, demeaning, and devaluation to deconstruct the modernist myth of the Enlightenment.
In early 1980s, Andy Warhol paid a visit to China. Later in 1985, Robert Rauschenberg held his solo show in Beijing and Lasha, which began the spread of American Pop Art to China when it was witnessing the heyday of its '85 Modern Art Movement, of which Enlightenment as well as revolt was the main theme. When American Pop Art met the Chinese modernism in that very context, a certain mystery was produced: Pop Art was readily understood as a Dadaist destructive art, while its cultural deconstructive property seemed to be ignored. By the early 1990s, due to political reasons, China had undergone rapid social and cultural transition from Enlightenment era to consumerist era. While artists, who were still in despair due the failure of the cultural Enlightenment movement, found themselves confronted with a completely new economic market and their ideas mingled with those of modernist Enlightenment and post-modern deconstruction. Therefore, they turned to the style of Pop Art, based on a misreading of American Pop art: considering it not only a weapon of criticism, but also a means of deconstruction.
The statement for Wei's Pop awarded work Red Wall—A Harmonious Household at "The First Guangzhou Biennial of Chinese Art in the 1990s" writes, "This piece of Pop Art work, with its apparent use of symbolic and metaphorical language, and with its rich colors and proper size in the style of traditional Chinese woodblock prints, has changed the original essence of Pop art language—eliminating its meaning. It offers to us a valuable example for studies of the variants of contemporary western art language in the new Chinese context."
In this prophetical commentary, "variant" is an accurately used key word. Early Chinese Pop art followed the western Pop art language—appropriated recognizable images and juxtaposed heterogeneous images, but it also distinguished itself as a variant of its western counterpart. In contrast with the use of flattened, randomly taken, and neutralized images in western Pop art, it employed both contemporary and historical images, in which lied the most mysterious and contradictory properties of Chinese Pop art—instead of eliminating encoded meaning, it tended to deconstruct the original images by reconstructing their symbolic meanings. For example, Wang Guangyi's Great Criticism was powerfully critical, because of its juxtaposition of heterogeneous images from Chinese political history and western consumption history, while Wei Guangqing's Red Wall—A Harmonious Household was meaningful and deliberate in employing various images. The red wall, an image symbolic of Chinese culture and politics is the background of his work. The photographic film metaphorically referred to the imagery era or era of photocopying. Two brands of film loaders—one Chinese, the other foreign—suggested certain cultural conflict. The dominant thematic image taken from the traditional Chinese moral classic Zhu Zi's Family Maxims produced even more complicated displacement of the meaning. The juxtaposition of all those heterogeneous and diachronic images in the work dramatized the symbolic conflict. Moreover, it led to a generalization of its symbolic meaning, which embodied both the artist's confusion during Chinese cultural transitional period and his cultural complex dominating his works created in the 1980s. Wei admitted later when talking about his choice of images, "China has a long history of culture, in which lies its uniqueness. I feel that I have to highlight it and I guess that is what makes my Pop Art different from the western one."
The juxtaposition of criticism and elimination added to Chinese Pop Art's cultural dimension of "history", which the western Pop art hadn't had. In Wei's works, "history" was not only an element of his language, but also a demonstration of his attitude towards culture. His The Extended Virtuous Words (2000), named after a Chinese classic with the same title, followed the Red Wall series in that he turned to resources of images in the folk woodblock prints since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, which was a special period of mass culture in Chinese history with wide spread woodblock prints of a variety of themes and images. Wei, in his Pop painting, juxtaposed both the ancient and contemporary mass culture eras to establish a context for his expression of meanings. In other words, he did not use some single historical image but the whole traditional cultural context to build a sense of history in his paintings. He took advantage of the images in the Chinese classic The Extended Virtuous Words and proposed his concept "extending":
"I believe that what the artist's work produces for viewers is an angle, even sometimes a blind spot, through which they are supposed to become interactive. For instance, though there is no big change in the scheme of The Extended Virtuous Words series as compared with my early Zhu Zi's Family Maxims series, I believe I have shown some changes in my ideas. 'Extending' means 'adding'. I juxtapose some elements in my painting in order to convey to the viewer a message: I have added something to it, and you can also add something to it when viewing it. This is what is called "interaction," just like when viewing the Red Wall series: you can dismantle it, but you can also construct it.
To a broader extent, the potential "extending" when viewing Wei's works lied in the contradictory juxtaposition of images from both traditional and contemporary mass-produced cultural sources. The contradictory juxtaposition was indeed a deliberate cultural "misreading" and a deliberate extending of meaning.
In both of his recent works Made in China and Jin Ping Mei, however, the extending was realized through juxtaposition of heterogeneous symbols, instead of a presentation of conflicting images. In those works, the political symbol of the red wall was replaced by images from the works of American Pop artists Robert Indiana and Jasper Johns. The tone and composition were more decorative and advertisement-like. Words and Chinese characters began to appear as new forms and meaning. Porn images replaced traditional instructive images—all of which made the paintings more monotonous, and more like the typical Pop style paintings. Although some historical signs remained, it had more elimination of the meaning of the images, and had more counterpoints with the symbols of consumerist culture. This stylistic change might be individual and personal, but from a global perspective, it had to do with the transition of contemporary Chinese art into a consumerist culture, which was characterized by the trend that "there has been no style today, but only vogue," to quote from Channels of Desire, by Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen. Under this transitional background, will his historicalized Pop art turn out to be a pure game of imagery or even cultural redundancy, or a kind of empty "simulacra of that history"? This, I think, may be a hard question artist Wei Guangqing has to confront.
Edward W. Said proposed the "Traveling Theory" regarding cross-cultural communication in his book titled The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983). According to the book, there are four stages along a theory's course—from a provisional point of origin, the necessary traversal of distance, to conditions of acceptance, and change in another time and place.
In China, the transplantation and variation of western Pop art has followed similar stages, and Wei Guangqing has offered us an appropriate case for a better study and understanding of the "Traveling Theory".
Edited by Lin Sophia Ma, September 2007