Singapore Art Week

Art Titans: Wang Guangyi

The Chinese avant-garde artist Wang Guangyi, a titan in the Chinese contemporary art scene, is often referred to as the "King of Political Pop" for his Great Criticism series, which superimposed popular Western capitalism icons onto Communist-style revolutionary propaganda posters.

The handle, which has since stuck, was thrust upon him by the Singapore media, Wang recalls.

"I remember, it was the headline of an article in Lianhe Zaobao when I first visited Singapore about 15 years ago. It took on a life of its own after that. Even my friends in China remember it," the 58-year-old says with a laugh, speaking to The Straits Times in an interview last week.

He was in town to launch his new exhibition, Image Correction, held at the Museum of Contemporary Arts at Loewen Road. It is part of the ongoing Singapore Art Week.

  • VIEW IT / IMAGE CORRECTION BY WANG GUANGYI

  • WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Arts, 27A Loewen Road

    WHEN: Till Feb 10, 10am to 6pm daily

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.mocaloewen.sg

The exhibition showcases his recent works, which are more muted and smaller in scale compared with the Great Criticism series (1990 to 2007) on which he made his name.

The newer works include Details Of The Species, completed last year, which features blurry closeups of disembodied body parts, such as the navel and the crook of an armpit.

"These are not as public as the face, but they are vital to our knowledge of ourselves... I feel like humans are constantly in a process of discovery," he says.

Other exhibition highlights are the Gurus (2011), a series of four phantom-like portraits of communist leaders Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin; and the Cold War Aesthetics series (2007 to 2008), a group of installations which shows people seeking shelter from air raids, largely based on Wang's experience living through the Cold War.

The exhibition's curator, Hangzhou-based art critic and historian Lu Peng, who is also in town, says: "Wang's work is informed by China's experience. He started out looking at philosophy, religion and history in China, but as the country opened up, he began to explore issues such as the Cold War and international relations."

Wang explains: "I feel like all historical images contain an obscured reality. Through my works, or 'corrections', I'm trying to locate, or return to that reality."

After a brief pause, he continues: "Perhaps reality doesn't exist. All reality is an illusion, so what I'm trying to correct is an illusion. By putting myself into this predicament, I've approached another."

Such are his philosophical musings during the hour-long session. Speaking in Mandarin, the Harbin-born artist often cuts himself off mid-speech, thinking for a bit before verbalising his thoughts in a deep, measured baritone.

The same careful, considered approach is reflected in his oeuvre. One recurring motif in his works is the grid, which appears in his most expensive work so far, an oil-on-canvas triptych of Chairman Mao, titled Mao Ao, which netted £2 million at an auction by contemporary art auction house Phillips de Pury & Company in London in 2007.

The high-profile deal has made him one of four top-selling contemporary artists in China, alongside his peers Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun, earning them the label of "F4" by industry insiders, an ironic reference to the hot Taiwanese boyband of the noughties.

But while Wang has the windswept, brooding look of a movie idol, his cerebral views are the antithesis of inane bubblegum pop.

"The grid has the power to magnify what is small and shrink what is massive. With the Mao piece, I deified him the way normal people have, but I simultaneously diminished someone who is larger-than-life. It shows how we view things through the framing our mind imposes on them," he explains.

Yet, he professes a "deep admiration" for the Communist leader, who has been the subject of his works and was a constant, looming figure in his life when he was growing up in the 1960s.

"I admire Mao from an artist's point of view. He is a figure of charisma. I grew up looking upon his visage. So I do feel some conflict that my opinion and feelings towards him differ from those of the public," he says.

Born in 1957 to a railroad worker and a housewife, Wang, the youngest of three boys, says his passion for art was sparked by his mother, who made window flower decorations for their home.

"I would see them before going to bed and, in the morning, they cast a shadow in my room. They made me realise how art has a transcendent appeal, free of external influences. Its beauty is a pure aesthetic," recounts the artist, who lives in Beijing with his wife, a housewife. The couple have a 26-year-old daughter.

Wang found work painting propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution in his teens. Shortly after it ended, he enrolled in the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied oil painting and graduated in 1984.

Since then, he has produced close to 20 series of works in a career spanning close to four decades.

His notable works include Frozen Northern Wastelands (1985), inspired by the culture of northern China, as well as Great Criticism, done in the pop-art style popularised by one of his artistic influences, Andy Warhol.

Success has somewhat undercut his commentary on capitalism in 21st-century China, as critics have derided how he has profited from marketing the Great Criticism works.

Asked about this, he replies evenly: " I see these criticisms as a type of concern about my work. As an artist, I must be aware of my own weaknesses and focus on what drew me to art in the first place."

He adds: "Artists are a special lot. Our value lies in how we stand as an independent polity in society. We need to preserve that value. If we are unduly influenced, we reveal our inclinations and our art becomes burdened."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2016, with the headline 'Art Titans: Wang Guangyi'. Print Edition | Subscribe