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Passing Through History and Reality

A Semiotic Approach to Wei Guangqing's Works Author: Lu Hong 2007-03-26

For the past two decades, the artist, Wei Guangqing, approached painting by appropriating woodblock illustrations from traditional Chinese publications and integrating them with certain pictorial formations to convey his artistic ideas.

It is safe to say, from the angle of art history, Wei Guangqing developed a unique style from the art tradition established by American Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein. They earned their reputation in the 1960s when turning their interest to mass-produced urban cultural products and away from Abstract Expressionism and narrative oil paintings. As some veteran critics claimed, American Pop owed the acceptance of its new artistic ideas as well as its influence in many other countries to the prevalence of images in such mass media as film, TV, pictures, painting catalogues, advertisements, and cartoons after World War II. Artists growing up in the world of imagery tended to create their artworks using images as the motifs. Wei is no exception, but he differs from those American Pop artists in that he continuously employs historical images, which are uniquely Chinese and often used to refer to contemporary cultural issues in China. In so doing, he formed his own unique style of artistic significance, even worldwide.

Wei emerged with his work, titled Red Wall, which he created in the early 1990s. For this work he won the Grand Prize at "The Guangzhou Biennial of Oil Painting". The images in his Red Wall were taken from traditional Chinese moral classic, entitled Zhu Zi's Family Maxims. They were originally meant to advocate traditional ethical morals in a readily accessible way. Theoretically, I would like to view them as a semiotic "interpretant." Juxtaposed with the red wall, a symbol of modern politics of Red China, these borrowed images turned out to be the cultural symbol of traditional ethical morals. It was with this contrast of the heterogeneous signs and symbols that viewers would find that history and reality are closely related to each other. Thus, they can make inquiries: were the so-called ethical morals in the name of ethical morals really moral? Didn't the so-called ethical morals suppress our desires and instincts? Should we have more humane and more reasonable standards for ethical morals in the new era? It was clear that the artist did not give his answers to these questions. Instead, he used his artistic media to encourage the viewers to talk about history and discover their own answers. I, together with critic Zhu Bin, have discussed those questions in our critical article, titled "Cultural Pop." Therefore, I shall not dwell on them. What I want to emphasize here is that in the mid-1990s, Wei focused more on the connections between a contemporary political China and its history. Since the late 1990s, he has been showing more concern in the connections between an economic China with its history, which I regard as his change in response to the historical change of China.

How has Wei deliberately changed his design of the paintings in line with the social changes? Let's take a look at his art works:

The first example is his Jin Ping Mei, a series of works collectively named after a Chinese classic novel with the same title. Instead of using the red wall, a symbol of political China as his backdrop for this series, Wei employed a new type of signs. He transformed color ribbons we may see on TV screens and bar codes that appears on commercial goods as clear references to the economically booming contemporary China. Throughout the paintings, colors of the new signs are juxtaposed in different ways in each painting. He also appropriated art-of-love-making woodblock illustrations from the novel Jin Ping Mei in order to suggest the internal relationship between the sex culture prevailing in today's cities and that in ancient cities. He deliberately made parts of the images semi-transparent. This produced a mysterious visual effect. Wei once explained, "I guess mystery is something very important in oriental culture. But what is behind the mystery? I guess it's readily accessible for some people, because mystery is no more than a thin layer of gauze, which is not that hard to see through." Wei also deliberately placed some Chinese characters like "中国制造" (literally "Made in China") and English words like "LOVE" in his paintings and placed them under specific images. This, I think, served double purposes. One was to return to the forms and images of those Chinese characters and English letters, and blended them with the narrative in the painting, thus strengthened the visual effects of the whole, and made them more readily accessible to the viewer. The other was to suggest that reality embodied history. Interestingly, in order to highlight the concept of "sexuality", Wei also employed the culturally charged symbols of teapot and teacup sets, which further enriched the implied meaning and visual effects of his works.

In light of his previous artistic creation, we find that Wei was actually developing in Jin Ping Mei his ideas from the early 1990s, when he began to appropriate images of pin-ups or sensual beauties from some popular magazines to create a series of works, titled Puzzled by Pornography. For which critic Peng De wrote a lengthy article, proving that Wei was sensitive to realities and had an in-depth insight into history.

The second example is his Thirty-Six Stratagems series. He frequently used the Arabic figures "36", placed them under the sign of bar codes. He also painted, in prominent parts of his works, the woodblock images, which were taken from the Chinese military classic, entitled "Thirty-Six Stratagems." It was in this juxtaposition that Wei created his new system of signs, producing more meaningful narration and imagination.

In a foreword for one of the Wei's solo-shows, artist Xu Yongmin wrote that Wei's painting, as a visual means of reading, opened a space for our collective memory. It is quite true, and I also think that viewers of his paintings are very likely to think about the multiple relations between contemporary Chinese commercialized culture and the traditional Chinese culture, for the Chinese classic military strategies are often employed in modern business strategic management.

The third example is his The Art of War series, which followed his previous works in that he employed woodblock prints from the Chinese military classic The Art of War by Sun Tzu, for instance, from the classic's chapter five and chapter ten. However, he transformed shooting targets and chess into new cultural symbols for the background of his paintings. This was intended to emphasize the complicated relations under globalization between China, a nation with a long history and rich traditions, and the rest of international community. I understand that the shooting target symbolized the impact of modern international wars, while the chess symbolized the international game. Both will encourage us, the viewers, to think more about the new cultural issues in the Chinese context.

I shall not dwell more on my interpretation of each and every one of Wei's works, for he is prolific. However, all the above-mentioned examples are sufficient to indicate that Wei Guangqing has established his unique system of expression through images. That is, he has already established an interesting and provoking relationship between specific "index" and art motif. And it is in that specific relation that we pass through history to address the contemporary problems, which is certainly no easy thing to do.

All in all, I approach the above-mentioned works of Wei largely from the perspective of semiotics. But there is one thing that shall not be ignored: Wei Guangqing is unique in his artistic presentation of specific signs and symbols.

Like artists Warhol, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein, he employed traditional woodblock prints—a combination of texts and illustrations—In order to raise questions about realities and history. Wei "present(s) to the audience in a non-technical language something more readily understandable, more accessible", as commented by some critics. To a large extent, the traditional woodblock illustrations were not only his source of images, but also the source of his techniques. He adopted, instead of traditional oil painting techniques, the hand printing process, imitating traditional woodcut printing. Wei said, normally he would first project the original draft painting into the canvas for enlargement, and then paint it by hand to pursue the print effect of the original images. At the same time, he would emphasize the flatness, the transience, and the hardedge effects. Among these, the fuzzy edge line, which was characteristic of rice paper prints, is also featured Wei's works. As an important visual element and a sign in history, it brought to his works a unique sense of history, contrasted with the modernistic bar codes. Besides, he used in his works bright and abstract colors, which were often seen in folk art. With his adaptation of a common and popular visual means of color representation, Wei's narration in the painting became readily accessible, and might receive a response from the audience in an interactive way.

With an understanding of all this, we may say that Wei's style and expression of ideas were in essence closely related to each other, which had nothing in common with the other modernist artists, who always seek many artistic forms and styles as their foremost pursuit.

Edited by Lin Sophia Ma, September 2007

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