“In my sculpture, I strive to find that which is universal in primitive Chinese form and the further back I go to the origins of this art, the closer I am to my idea of contemporary art.” - Wang Keping
Wang Keping’s historical significance in the emergence of contemporary Chinese art is beyond question. The “Stars” (Xing Xing) group that emerged in the late 1970s and amongst which Wang Keping was an outspoken leader, created contemporary China’s first genuine outburst of individualistic artistic expression. The group’s first exhibition was hung on the gates of the National Art Gallery and closed down almost immediately. Wang Keping recalls, “We called ourselves the ’Stars‘ because we envisioned ourselves as the points of light in the endless black and also because stars appear small but they are really giant planets.” The “Stars” protested, organizing a march on Tiananmen Square with banners demanding that art be liberated from the suffocating politics by which it had then been long encumbered. The march by that band of artists was the first step towards Chinese contemporary art’s emergence on the world stage. The groundbreaking “Stars” exhibition made it to the front page of The New York Times, where Beijing correspondent Fox Butterfield commented, “...Mr. Wang’s brazenly political, often grotesque sculptures stole the show.”
Wang Keping was born in 1949 and is a self-taught artist. He was a member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and later went on to become an actor and scriptwriter for the Central Broadcast Television Company. He began his work as an artist by sculpting whatever bits of wood he could find, despite its sparse availability in Beijing. Near the end of 1978, Wang discovered a discarded piece of wood from a chair in a factory. Wang took it home and carved a small sculpture from it. He first sculpted a head with a knife, then an arm on top of the head, its raised hand holding Mao’s Little Red Book. Wang named the sculpture Long Live Chairman Mao. This was Wang’s first sculptural work which is now part of the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Fukuoka, Japan. One year after the “Stars” exhibition began the process of freeing Chinese art from its authoritarian strictures, Wang Keping and the other members of the “Stars” were invited to exhibit in Beijing’s National Art Museum. In 1984, Wang emigrated to France where he still lives and works.
Wang Keping’s sculptures breath a living sensuousness. Wang lives by the motto: “La simplicité est mon idèal, la nature est ma complice.” (‘Simplicity is my ideal, nature my accomplice.’) Simple forms prevail in his work, but the female form remains his constant inspiration. Taoist philosophy and elements of Yin and Yang are combined in the forms, materials and subjects of his work. As Michael Sullivan, Fellow of Chinese Art at Oxford University reflects, “[Wang’s] instinctive feeling for sculptural form [is] so powerful that his figures seem almost to burst through their skin.”i Wang views the wood with which he works as a living thing which speaks to him. His hand is guided over and through the hardness of its knots and grains such that the finished work is nothing less than a collaboration between the material and the artist. The ebb and flow of the grain and the cracks formed from the drying wood are incorporated into the character of the final works, which achieve a remarkably animated form of material self-expression.
Bertrand Lorquin, Curator of the Musée Maillol in Paris, writes in his forthcoming monograph on the artist, “Wang Keping views France as the homeland of sculpture, the country of Rodin, Maillol and Brancusi. ... Selecting from amongst pre-existing forms may seem quixotic for a sculptor who wants to reinvent both representation and figuration, but that first step is more than poetic inspiration – it is a way to re-connect to the world. It does not matter so much to him that the branch of a tree suggests the appearance of a bird or the posture of a body. Resemblance is merely a relationship that subsists between the idea and the subject. Thus his work oscillates between realist figures (as in certain large sculptures) and almost abstract simplified forms. Abstraction flows from the drive for simplicity.” For Monsieur Lorquin, “Wang Keping is one of the few artists able to change the evolution of contemporary art.”ii
i “Preface,” Wang Keping. London: 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, 2001, pg. 3.
ii Bertrand Lorquin’s monograph on the artist is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2006
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