Testimony of the Hare is laced with conceptual wit, visual drama and subversive black humour – standing as possibly the most iconic, symbolic and representative painting in Wang Xingwei’s increasingly acclaimed oeuvre. On the left portion of the composition, Wang has depicted a screen still of Joseph Beuys’s seminal performance How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare; while on the right, the artist himself, his features taut with tension and his posture twisted in exaggerated angst, interrogates a hare bound to a torture device. Wang’s left hand seems to be yanking violently at the animal’s ears, presenting a jarring visual contrast to Beuys’s stance on the screen: his face impassive and unreadable, Beuys cradles the carcass of the deceased hare in a manner akin to the Madonna in a pietà. The finishing touch to the tableaux is the plump carrot at the foreground: a reward for the hare if he chooses to speak. From around 1995, Wang Xingwei began creating works that specifically referenced canonical works from the history of art, and the present work is one of the earliest incipient examples from the period. By interrogating and challenging one of the most infamous performances of Joseph Beuys, and furthermore by placing himself as the unambiguous protagonist in the narrative, Testimony of the Hare manifests not only as a self-portrait but as one of the most important works within Wang Xingwei’s career that encapsulates the very raison d'être of his artistic creation.
Known as the fun-loving jester of Chinese contemporary art, Wang’s acclaimed oeuvre is defined by a kitsch, nonsensical and gently absurd humour that belies a staunch commitment to continuously expand the possibilities of realism and the language of painting. Borrowing and appropriating liberally from Eastern and Western pictorial motifs, and referencing copiously from pop and literary culture, established traditions in classical art history as well as his own works, Wang has amassed a prolific and diverse body of irreverent creations that mocks, delights in, and ruptures the canonical respect for art history. In his masterful weaving of influences that stretch from medieval European and early Renaissance art to Dada and Surrealism, and from Western Pop to China’s own Cynical Realism and Political Pop, Wang constructs pictorial assemblages that are in equal parts cheeky and shrewd, nonchalant and discerning. Such an intelligently artful legacy was rightfully honored in Wang Xingwei’ grand large-scale retrospective at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in 2013; in the catalogue text, Philip Tinari observes: “In Wang’s world, the most basic tenets of painting undergo a thorough questioning […] His work ultimately suggests that there is still a place for the delights of figuration and narrative, even in a world, and a context, where greater structures of meaning and belief can seem dubious” (Philip Tinari, cited in Exh. Cat. Wang Xingwei, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2013, p. 10-11).
Such a ‘thorough questioning’ of the most basic tenets of art as championed by Tinari is consummately manifested in the present work. Here, Wang Xingwei takes issue specifically with ‘progressive’ modes of art-making such as performance, installation, conceptual art and new media, amongst others. The target of Wang’s interrogation is one of Joseph Beuys’s most notorious performances, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, in which the German artist is filmed and photographed for three hours as he moves through a gallery carrying the carcass of a dead hare, whispering inaudibly to it about the artwork in the gallery. The media-sensationalized performance, considered a key work by the artist, constituted the high point of Beuys’s development of an expanded definition of art which began in the 1950s and was re-created by Marina Abramovic; while the final photograph of the performance, as captured by Wang Xingwei in the present work, has been described by some critics as a “new Mona Lisa of the 20th century”, although Beuys did not agree (James Westcott, Marina Abramovic, ARTINFO, 9 November 2005). Regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century, Beuys’s oeuvre is one that represents a new impetus of performance and conceptual art – an impetus that entails a certain datedness of traditional two-dimensional painting. It is under this context that Wang’s Testimony of the Hare presents a resounding retort: “What”, the artist vehemently demands of the hare, “is the meaning of this?”
Joseph Beuys is a supremely highly regarded artist that occupies an almost sanctified position in recent art history. By calling him out, and furthermore by placing himself in direct dialogue with the German artist, Wang Xingwei’s Testimony of the Hare is mischievous, impertinent, and exceedingly bold. The significance of the present work is furthermore emphasized in Wang Xingwei’s portrayal of himself; whereas in other works the artist always depicts himself in a signature mustard yellow shirt, here he dons a white rather than yellow shirt with his features rendered in heightened realistic detail. Accordingly, Testimony of the Hare should be regarded as the self-portrait amongst all self-portraits of Wang Xingwei – the work that stands out as one of the most remarkable paintings in the artist’s career. It must be noted that Wang Xingwei does not only challenge Beuys, but also the dominating schools of Cynical Realism and Political Pop in 1990s China. Tinari elucidates: “First, [Wang] called out the legions of other Chinese artists whose 1990s practices focused with less intensity and nuance on directly aping precedents from Western art history; and second, [he] demonstrated a soft-spoken confidence, even arrogance, [in confronting] a Chinese material and intellectual universe that was self-conscious of its relative deprivation” (Philip Tinari, ‘Wang Xingwei’, Flash Art Online, 2015). In sum, Testimony of the Hare not only epitomizes Wang Xingwei’s conceptually rigorous investigations into the global art lexicon but also his irreverent yet steadfastly heroic and loyal commitment to the possibilities of the tradition of realism and the language of painting itself.
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