Unveiling Confusing Encoded Symbols -- Interpreting Wang Xiaosong
Ji Wang

When I was young, I read the old version of My Country My People by Chinese scholar Lin Yutang. I believe the author’s description of the Chinese mind and their characteristics is the most splendid one. Compared with British missionary Arthur Henderson Smith’s account of Chinese characteristics, Lin’s book could still stand firmly as a classic. Artist Wang Xiaosong is such a typical Chinese according to the depictions of the Chinese in these books.

After weathering more than half a century of change, the Chinese have long lost their self-exhorted middle-way approach and inner restraint, while inheriting their traditional culture and absorbing foreign culture. The typical Chinese characteristics and their pride in national culture have been kindled again among returned overseas Chinese artists since they left their country. The China-themed phenomenon has been a popular way of narration in recent years, but Wang Xiaosong is obviously different in his expression of art.
Understanding Images
In his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” American art critic Clement Greenberg considered abstract art as one of all the arts. He thought that art does not receive any instruction, and is a way to truly achieve individual freedom. Meanwhile, he felt that abstract art takes on some political and cultural mission, actively participating in society, politics and reality. In the light of Greenberg’s theory of art, Wang Xiaosong’s paintings, replete with confusing encoded symbols, can be classified as abstract expressionism due to the elements of social and historical commentaries found in his works.

In terms of the colour gradation alone, Wang Xiaosong’s paintings with the confusing encoded symbols, like those of Piet Mondrian, use a number of squares of pure colour, adopting Mondrian’s red, yellow, blue as well as the remedial hues of black, white and grey, as background color for the painting’s surface layer. The visual impact of those colours can be freely accommodated into contemporary space. On the other hand, when making a painting, Wang resembles Antoni Tapies in terms of being unrestrained. The making of Wang’s painting, similar to the manual production process in the East, is different from the Japanese Zen-advocated spiritual act of formlessness and the infinite but has something of John Cage’s Zen realism. In terms of abstract expressionism, Wang’s paintings feature the intellectuals’ participation in society, with some degree of Eastern Zen. His paintings that contain confusing encoded symbols have distinct ways in linking Chinese characters that show good mould-like printing effect. Even the empty black holes Wang has specially arranged and overlapped in his painting allow the public to peek through for interpretation. This practice has actually strengthened Wang’s unique abstract painting. No doubt that Wang’s special way of painting, through which he shows concern over society and ultimate culture, is manifested under the influence of his extraordinary cultural career and sensitive instinct for art. His abstract painting is thus seen as social [social ??? commentary ??? ], similar to a kind of Eastern philosophy.

In contrast to the abstract in a political sense, Wang’s painting has obviously shown a transition from political to cultural abstract. Judging by the abstract composition of hues alone, the paintings portray Wang’s sensibility, his work is more mature and has a certain consciousness of renaissance, or newness.. As for rationality, his works show complex layout of symbols and elaborate spatial designs. Such duality in his creation is seen as even embracing the Bauhaus concepts of education and creation that merge the craft tradition with modern technology.

From another visual perspective, Wang’s works can serve as individual cases for discussing a certain humanistic mode of a neo-abstract art in an era when the East and West have rapidly formed close contact based on internationalized issues such as financial crisis, race and religion.

Iconizing Confusing Encoded Symbols
In the early 1990s during the reunification of Germany, Wang Xiaosong went to study at Berlin University of the Arts. He has settled in Berlin since his graduation in 1992. Though he did not create paintings specific to his own style in the early 1990s, Wang was certainly influenced during that period by minimalism, pop art painting, German expressionist painting, and American abstract expressionism. Such influence has continued till now.

In the late 1990s, Wang Xiaosong’s paintings showed some layers of encoded Chinese characters, such as two-way or four-way continuous patterns. In his later paintings, there emerged patterns themed with 一 or 十–shaped Chinese characters, or the form of an ant, currency, and some confusing encoded symbols, and even new separate 人-shaped Chinese characters. The patterns, mostly with a primary color as background, are made to have neat and well-balanced relief effect. For those hidden under the painting’s lowest layer, Wang has particularly left some irregular thin holes on the upper layer for people to peek through.

Wang Xiaosong’s confusing encoded symbols that have continued from the late 1990s to the present have obviously lost their regularity, balance and repetition. The symbolization of national consciousness under an individual’s will, such as Red Square, Tiananmen Square, the image of Chairman Mao, as well as the formalist language in Wang’s works, have directly integrated the preset time and space, thus giving rise to the iconizing of Wang-style confusing encoded symbols.

It is not hard to understand that Wang Xiaosong seems to pursue rational visual conception after the reorganization of confusing encoded symbols in light of aesthetics of a certain single primary colour on the one hand. Here refers to the attitude of intervention that Wang, as an individual artist, holds toward making national culture an art. At this time his confusing encoded symbols serve as a foil and metaphor to have symbolic function. On the other hand, Wang tries to establish contact with the lowest layer, based on the purity of hues and complex production background. This has essentially nothing to do with “cold” or “hot” abstract in terms of enthusiasm behind the painting, allowing the two-way participation of art to become Wang’s unique understanding of culture.

The meanings of Wang-style confusing encoded symbols after the experimentation of many forms are beginning to take shape and become clearer. 

Unveiling Narrative-ness
The achievements of visual revolution brought about by hooliganism in the 1980s undermined nationalist aesthetics and still remains until today. There still exist hooliganism on the cultural level. Due to multicultural intervention and integration to a larger extent, the uni-disciplinary aesthetics that leads to collectiveness has gradually become the past.

In semantics and philosophy, the abstract, as represented by Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevitch, and Piet Mondrian, treats the style and language of art as the spirit of art, namely, a viewpoint of early modernism. Freedom and un restrain expounded by Post-World War II abstract expressionism later became a cultural weapon for the United States during the Cold War. Thus, this abstract was seen as political. In terms of linguistic forms in a cultural sense, Wang Xiaosong’s abstract may have some similarities with the abstract in the previous two stages. The tasks demonstrated in his abstract appear even more complex, namely, seeking common ground between cultures through symbolization of abstract language. These similarities, to some extent, develop in step with the exchange of other forms of thought such as linguistics, philosophy and culture.

Here, I regard the similarities for such exchange as a Chinese-style abstract narrative-ness. Obviously, Wang Xiaosong tries to establish the experiments of such narrative-ness on the basis of linguistic confusing encoded symbols. Through his grafting, he aims to reconstruct a visual mode of a special cultural identity.

This reconstructive process, I think, is called “unveiling.”