Wang Yin’s Birthday II presents a compelling enigma: two females in ethnic costumes are seen perched close together in what appears to be a Western dining room. A candlestick glows, but the table is empty; behind the girls, a bare birthday cake stands forgotten on another table top. Beaming at a camera positioned somewhere to the viewer’s left, the girls – one with exposed breasts and both clad in incongruous ethnic turbans – are lit from a light source distinct from the candle in front of them. The colour palette is subdued and yet the scene is theatrical – in no small part due to its incompleteness. The mystery of Birthday II comes to light when viewed together with Birthday I from the same year; in the earlier painting, both tables are set properly, with the table behind laden with a sumptuous spread and the background wall decorated with masterpieces by Xu Beihong and Li Tiefu. By emptying the composition in Birthday II, Wang Yin foregrounds the displaced identity of the two minority girls, whilst simultaneously enacting a dialogue between his works as well as between work and viewer. In so doing, Wang Yin injects a critical temporality into Birthday II; as critic Colin Siyuan Chinnery observes: “In the process of playing with time and ideology, [Wang Yin] forces the viewer to slow down to meet his sense of time. Time spills out of the canvas into the exhibition space, into the relationship between viewer and work. This is perhaps where we are at our closest to Wang, in conversation with him, trying to understand him” (Colin Siyuan Chinnery, ‘On Wang Yin: Towards a Poor Painting’, in LEAP 33, June 2015).
Executed in 2008, Birthday II encapsulates the artist’s stylistic shift in motif around that time – a period in which he became preoccupied with the subject of ethnic minorities. Within the history of Chinese art, ethnic minorities became important as artistic subject material after the Cultural Revolution, with humanistic artists such as Ai Xuan, Chen Danqing, and Yuan Yunsheng travelling the country to seek authentic scenes of minority life. Such a practice was followed by later artists like Zhang Xiaogang and Mao Xuhui. At the same time, ethnic minorities were being positioned as political models to support the propaganda of ethnic unity. Therefore, Wang Yin’s engagement in the subject of ethnic minority is not only a continuation of an art historical lineage but also a critical commentary on social ideology. Employing artistic vocabulary and atmospheric aura from the classical old masters, Wang Yin placed Chinese ethnic women in a decidedly Western setting – extracting them from their original habitat and forcing them in a wholly foreign environment. Turning away from grand historical narratives, Wang Yin instead focuses on local narratives of minority subjects, shining a spotlight on isolated and often neglected discourses.
According to the artist, the title of the present work Birthday alludes to a kind of rediscovery of the painterly technique in oil akin to a mini-Rennaissance; to date, there are only two works in the artist’s oeuvre bearing such a special title. Born in 1964, Wang Yin grew up in Qingdao and began his art education at an early age, during which oil painting was part of his family’s traditions. Wang Yin was particularly influenced by his father, who endorsed the Soviet School of painting. His earliest inspiration came from the Soviet style and the “Workers-Peasants-Soldiers” imagery of the Cultural Revolution period. Later, the artist discovered his father’s album of paintings, which included Chinese oil paintings from the Republican Period (1911-1949) that had been influenced by Western and Japanese styles. Under the atmosphere of the time when the Soviet School of painting was predominant, the oil paintings of the Republican Period were considered crude. However, Wang Yin studied these “crude” paintings and began to adopt their style as his own. Wang Yin stated: “After 2000, every now and then, I would put ‘Soviet paintings,’ Republican era paintings and my own works on a table, to examine the relationships between them, such as the relationship between Xu Beihong’s paintings and my own, or the relationship between the subjects chosen by ethnic minority painters and the subjects in my own work. I disassembled and broke down these relationships, but what it really revealed was the relationship between myself and oil painting, and why I make oil paintings" (The Gift, or This Thing Called Oil Painting and how it Because Connected to Us—Wang Yin in Conversation with Philip Tinari). Bearing testament to such influences and furthermore exuding a distinctive ‘stage’ effect in terms of lighting and theatricality that owes its roots to Wang Yin’s deep interest in theatre production, Birthday II is a symbolically and artistically superlative work from the artist’s oeuvre.