Wang Xiaosong and the Crisis of Faith
Demetrio Paparoni

Post in: Unruly Ants | July, 2012

WangXiaosong’s interest is focuses on the value of human existence and the crisisof faith. As abstract as his paintings may seem, they maintain a strong linkwith reality and do not fail to criticize contemporary culture. Except for thepaintings whose subject is Mao’s face, more of which will be said later, WangXiaosong does not give explicit meaning to the signs masking the ideograms,even when we seem to recognize in them human bodies floating in miniature, a disorganizedmass of maggots or ants, computer or genetic codes, or molecular structures.

Eventhough constructing the work with multiple layers of paint, almost as if hewanted to erect a visual barrier, he gives the viewer the chance to take a peekinto the crevices between the folds of the paint forming protuberances as theypile up on the canvas. “The top layer on the surface of the painting,” theartist says, “refers to the illusion of possessing a culture that allows you tounderstand the world. The layer beneath, what you see by looking through theholes, allows you to glimpse something disconcerting in the uncertainty of the darknessbelow. It’s not a matter of preoccupations only concerning the situation inChina, but worries that refer to the loss of human values ​​common to everyone.”[i]

Inapproaching the work of any artist we must bear in mind the relation connectingthe artist’s style to his individual history. The style is what is determinedby the times the artist lives in, his technical and intuitive skills, but alsohis personal life.

Andbecause every individual also finds himself confronted with the limits imposedby the outside world, this explains why the artist's stylistic boundaries arethe same as those that limit him in life. To understand the stylistic choicesand content of Wang Xiaosong’s work and understand how his abstract languageaddresses issues related to daily life, we must go back to his personalhistory.

WhenWang Xiaosong moved to Germany in 1990 to study art, he found himself facedwith more than one century of modernist experimentation, largely unknown inChina at the time. In Germany he experienced post-war Western painting by retracingsome of its steps through his own work. It could go no other way because apainter can penetrate the dynamics of painting only by painting.

Duringthe years spent as a student in Germany, Wang Xiaosong extensively explored thework of the modern and contemporary artists who seemed closest to hissensibility, and embarked on a journey that led him in a few years to develophis signature style. The works that define this code are those in which he excavates,etches and shapes a mass of oil paint and compact, pasty resin, basically monoor bio-chromatic, with the intent of revealing a sort of cryptic writing. Throughthese works he also revived the experience of Chinese calligraphic painting typicalof the China of his youth. The works prior to 2003 are mostly characterized bya division of the surface of the painting into two parts and by drawings that recallthe world of childhood, obtained by scratching the color with a sharpinstrument.

Since2004, the references to children's drawings have disappeared entirely from hiswork and the texture of his paintings has taken on the connotation of a sort ofcryptic writing obtained by drawing characters in relief that are reminiscentof those in the Chinese alphabet, but in reality non-existent, and with formswe recognize as miniature men, insects and much more still.

Ascryptic as they may be, these invented ideograms, which appear to have beensqueezed out of a tube of color right onto the canvas, the mass of color thenflattened out, are significances that only find their meaning when in referenceto the internal context of the painting. The significance of Wang Xiaosong’swriting is not due to the signs considered individually (man, the inventedideogram, the ant, etc.), but by their interaction: the meaning is the sum ofthe signs. The work offers two levels of interpretation: in formal terms it isexpressed through the universal language of art, which reaches everyone andeverywhere, a bit like what happens when we abandon ourselves to listening to asong in a language we do not know. In terms of content, it is addressedprimarily to those who have shared the human and socio-political experience ofthe author. This means that a Chinese person senses a familiarity with thecryptic alphabet invented by Wang Xiaosong, identifies its matrices, but is unableto decode it inasmuch as it is a writing style that does not communicate by usingtraditional canons.

Recognizingsomething that seems familiar yet obscure at the same time makes the viewerfeel like someone who has lost his memory, and thus his identity. This helps tounderstand the social, political and realist nature of Wang Xiaosong’s abstractpaintings. Being aware of the nature of the false ideograms, the myriad offloating little men or of ants present in the work, it ceases to be perceivedas a set of abstract signs and contributes to writing a narrative whosecontours begin to be defined. No longer meaningless significance, the multitudeof men and ants become a metaphor for a community that shares common rules,beliefs, symbols, hopes, hatreds, and fears. In this dynamic, each sign helpsdetermine the structure of the pictorial scene, but loses its identity at thesame time. The two things – being part of a community and losing your identitywithin it– go hand in hand. Wang Xiaosong’s objective is to define within theperimeter of the painting the borders of a metaphysical place

assignedto amplify and accelerate the becoming, which, in other words, is the same assaying that you need to have more faith in the ability to react to the numerousrestrictions that condition our lives and which we are often unaware of.

WangXiaosong does not, therefore, intend abstraction the way Greenberg does, i.e. asa system of self-referential signs. Greenberg’s arguments about theself-referentiality of the abstract sign were in any case largely overcome inthe eighties by artists who have used the abstract sign to allude to thelandscape (Jonathan Lasker), social organization (Peter Halley), to light as ametaphor of the change of state at the time of death (Ross Bleckner), and to mythopoeiccontent in the representations of classicism (David Reed). Considering that theclear-cut contraposition between abstraction and figuration theorized by Greenbergis out-moded, Wang Xiaosong, directed his own painting towards an art that isat once analytical and phenomenological: analytical because he is interested inexplaining the limits, the potentials, and the hidden meanings of the abstractsign; phenomenological because he poses the problem of describing socialtransformations and the effects of such transformations. It is well-known thatin abstract art every gesture, sign, spot, color, formal relationship orcoloristic theme brings memories near and far that recall an infinite fan ofexperiences: from Islamic to African art, from ancient Chinese calligraphy tothe geometrics of Malevich or Mondrian, and so on.

WangXiaosong’s purpose is not to identify the matrixes that have generated thesigns and the formal and coloristic relationships  that characterize his work, but explores whatpossibilities the painter has to contain all the many meanings that emerge inthe work, regardless of one’s will, thus opening up the work to multipleinterpretations. Controlling the formal result, not being overwhelmed by thework but dominating it is, moreover, the feature shared by all artists notinvolved in the psychic automatism that mainly characterized Surrealism andAction painting. In the West, already in the sixties and seventies, with Post-painterlyAbstraction, Minimalism and Conceptualism, there was less the idea that artcould be the automatism of the gesture and the autonomy of signs orcombinations of color due to the sensitivity of the artist alone. Much more isasked of art. It requires a rigorous and rational formal elaboration: nothingmust be left to chance or to the emotionalism of the moment. Yet, despitehaving definitively shelved the neo-romantics impulses present in the Actionpainting, the work has never managed to escape the conflict of interpretations.In Wang Xiaosong’s paintings, for example, the flow of dotted signs engraved ona mass of paint might recall the image of water that is flowing or falling downfrom above, recurrent in Chinese painting and in terms of meaning alludes tothe cyclical repetition of a beginning and of an end in which nothing changesand everything is regenerated. This vision leads Liu Jude to recognize a tragiccomponent and a heroic component.  In thework of Wang Xiaosong that manifest themselves in the desire to integratepoetic beauty, Chinese harmony and the heroic tradition of Western tragedy. LiuJude identifies these attempts in the works in which in the works where thereare crowds of human beings in miniature, which he interprets as a metaphor forthe integration of joy and sadness, tragic and romantic feelings.[ii]

Thistragic component, which would be wrong to call Expressionist, as it does notintend to show an altered vision of reality again, finds a successful moment ofsynthesis in the series of paintings from 2010 that show a wound in theircenter. In front of this the mind races to the cut on the material canvases ofLucio Fontana. But while the cut in Fontana’s works is the artifice that allowsthe work to emerge from the virtual pictorial spaces of the Renaissance to showa real space, the cut in Wang Xiaosong’s work, being a wound, is themanifestation of a condition that is both spiritual and material. "In mypaintings," Wang says, "shapeless color has no symbolic meaning. Itis the space that the color occupies that determines the symbolic meaning. Forexample, a huge red circle has meaning and presents visual effects totallydifferent from those produced by a small red dot. In other words, what happensinside the painting guides the structure of the painting. Sometimes I need redbecause it suggests the presence of the color that I have already spread on thecanvas. Colors only have the role of strengthening the formal balance of thepainting and its expressive power. Most people associate the female sex with paintingsthat have the cut in the middle. But the variation of color does not change themental associations that lead to these cuts. The symbolic significance of coloris lost in this way.” [iii]

Therefore,the work of Wang Xiaosong is less consonant with Fontana’s cuts than with thecuts we find in some of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures. Kapoor’s work aims toconciliate opposites and consequently he strives to bring together the materialand spiritual, external and internal, feminine and masculine, high and low. “Yousee” says Kapoor” it might happen that we admire a beautiful flower only todiscover inside it an insect eating another insect. It is obvious that theharmony of the flowers and the horror at the death of the insect aresimultaneous and complementary”.[iv]

WangXiaosong has a similar view of the world. As often happens in the work ofKapoor, in the wounds, in the holes, in the scratches that we find on WangXiaosong’s canvases, we sense a reference to both the harmony of nature and thelaceration of the flesh.  This syntony isfurther confirmed by the colors used, which for the most part are those used byKapoor (red, blue, yellow, white), who mixes them together with a wax thatnever completely solidifies the pigment so as to obtain his distinctive shade ofred reminiscent of meat and blood. In other words, regardless of the colorused, Wang Xiaosong’s little men, organized as a colony of ants floating amongthe codes and ideographs of a cryptic language, are also flesh and blood.

Weknow that ants have a rigid social structure that is based on precise codes ofcommunication. The same thing happens in large and small communities. Cementingthe codes of organization is first of all the language, because without itthere is no communication and without communication there is no common culture.But above all what has been learned from studying ants makes them the metaphorof a society in which everything happens for the protection of the community,which therefore counts more than the individual. In Wang Xiaosong’s paintingsinstead it is as if the ants and men lived in a Babel, where no one is able toform a group in constructive terms. According to the words of Wang Xiaosong,his work is a critique of the distortions leading to the ignorance and pain ofhumanity, and this leads us to believe that the subject of the work is the ideaof the wound as a disease from which you can and must heal.

Itis no surprise then that Wang Xiaosong decided to score the canvas similar to acut he made about ten years after his first incisions on the mass of paintspread on the surface of the painting. Fontana made the first canvases withholes in 1949 and it took him almost ten years to arrive at the cuts that wouldfinally characterize his signature style. Painting is a slow practice becausethe time to develop a formal awareness is slow. On the other hand, nothing causesmore opinion than abstraction, which can never be perfectly defined since ithas no role models. Xiaosong Wang remarked on his emotional involvement inquestions related to the defense of collective and individual identity in the"The Post-Mao Period" series created in 2008. In this series,consisting of a dozen paintings and characterized by the icon of Mao, at timeportrayed with his head upside down, Wang used the same technique as in hisother paintings. The construction of the work foresees an initial coat of darkcolor then covered with a mass of monochromatic material on which to interweavethe imaginary ideograms, little men and ants in relief. The mass of color is furtherpunctured and scored by dotted lines, to reveal a glimpse of the layer of darkcolor below. So Wang Xiaosong accentuates the effect of relief and dramatizesthe subject. In so doing, Wang Xiaosong accentuates the effect of bas-reliefand dramatizes the subject

Forseveral generations of Chinese, Mao Zedong was both a political and spiritualguide. Having faith in him was the necessary condition for imagining a betterfuture. Showing his image as it might be perceived in a negative photograph,Wang Xiaosong highlights how the China of today finds itself having to dealwith its own memory. As is an image seen in a photographic negative and not ina print, Mao's face is not clearly perceived in these paintings and the overalluncertainty also fades.

Inthese paintings the image of Mao, as with the invented ideogram that loses itsability to construct a narrative that people can identify with, becomes a blandreminder of what was. Above all it becomes a metaphysical abstraction withoutbasis in reality everyday. "The works of this series," says WangXiaosong, "suggest that China is going through significant change. I haveused many unreadable characters and small human figures in relief and othersigns again to highlight the last crazy fight in this crazy world "[v]

 Wang Xiaosong emphasizes that his work can be abstractionin a recognizable and realistic cryptic sign. Since the boundaries betweenreality and abstraction, and between true and false, are increasinglyundefined, the artist is no longer held to stage reality through his feelings alone.The truth is manifested in history, thus through the thoughts and concepts thathave ceased being the territory of the tangible world. Since the late eightiesin art these concepts have ceased to be the exclusive territory of figurativeart and it is a question of condition of postmodernism that today allows Wang Xiaosongto bring into play the concept of history by resorting to abstract painting.

[i] Conversation with theauthor, Venice, 2 June 2011

[ii]LiuJudem, Art in Restrictions, The ArtisticWolrd of Mr. Wang Xiaosong, in "Empty Layer", Hunan Fine ArtsPublishing House, Changsha, Hunan, 2010, pp. 22-23

[iii] Wang Xiaosong, e-mailto the author, Zhejiang, 18 May 2012

[iv] Anish Kapoor, Sublime moderno, conversation withDemetrio Paparoni, "Tema Celeste art magazine", n. 79-80, May June2000. Republished in I have nothing tosay, interviews with Anish Kapoor, Réunion des musées, Grand Palais, Paris,2011, pp. 67-72.

[v] Conversation with theauthor, Venice, 2 June 2011