A cultural revolution on Oxford Street: East meets West End windows

Wang Qingsong is a merciless critic of consumerism in China. So why has Selfridges in London chosen the conceptual photographer to decorate its windows? Terry Kirby reports

Friday 20 January 2006 01:00 GMT

His work has mercilessly lampooned the rise of consumerism in his home country, using images such as the McDonald's and Coca-Cola logos in provocative and unusual ways to hammer home the message. So what is Wang Qingsong, arguably China's leading conceptual photographer, doing filling the display windows of that massive temple to consumer power, Selfridges department store in London?

"I want to improve the dialogue between East and West and between the consumer and the seller. What better place to get my message across?" he said. "This project highlights the irresistible allure of consumer goods to all people everywhere. I hope my work will create a new understanding of how the very act of shopping has become a way of engaging in international communication." Besides, he points out, Andy Warhol - one of his heroes - designed the windows of department stores in New York, so why should he not do it in London?

For the next five weeks, his installation, simply entitled Follow Me, will fill the Oxford Street windows of Selfridges. The work has been commissioned as part of the two-month-long China in London season of exhibitions and events, designed to coincide with next weekend's Chinese New Year and the growing links between London and Beijing, as both cities prepare for the Olympic games. The season is being organised by the Mayor of London, Visit London and the Royal Academy of Arts and climaxes with the start of the London to Shanghai China Cup Yacht Race on 26 March.

Selfridges happily acknowledges the irony of asking Qingsong to create a work for a store which, it claims, is the most popular destination on the world's busiest shopping street. The store has a long history of commissioning art, including work by the artists Sam Taylor Wood andJulian Opie and photographers including Rankin and Mario Testino.

Although Qingsong has a rapidly growing reputation in the art world, both in his own right and as part of a new generation of Chinese artists who are being given far more freedom of expression than their predecessors, this is the first time his work is being exposed to the public at large.

Often using large and elaborate posed tableaux of his friends and models, his photographs subvert images drawn from popular culture, classical art and religion to attack consumerism. His colours are primary, strong and almost hyper-real, with details and in-jokes packed into the bigger picture; the overall effect is often highly kitsch, with distinct overtones of both Buddhist and Hindu iconography and the American pop artist Jeff Koons, famous for his huge model puppy made from flowers.

But Wang Qingsong's work has none of the sugary quality of Koons. In one of his Requesting Buddha series of photographs, the many arms of the central figure, which resembles the Hindu goddess Kali, hold images of money, CDs, mobile telephones, cigarettes and sports trophies; the figure sits on what appears to be a plinth in the colours of Coca-Cola. In another image from the series, the Kali-figure has the words Coca-Cola emblazoned on her chest, while in Prisoner, a man stares out onto a border of brilliantly coloured flowers, grasping bars made from Coca-Cola tins.

In Follow Me, which he has been creating in London this week, Wang Qingsong dresses conventional shop mannequins in bizarre costumes and creates a spider's web from barbed wire, adorning it with a pair of Dior shoes, a bottle of champagne, trainers and sunglasses - mixed with bunches of fruit.

Mark Rappolt, deputy editor of Modern Painters magazine, who recently visited China to examine its expanding contemporary art scene, believes Qingsong is one of the most interesting Chinese artists working today. "So far as the general public in Britain are concerned, he is almost unknown, but very much worth getting to know. He has a clear message that people can warm to. Anyone can enjoy the games he plays with symbols like the Coca-Cola logo."

He added: "I think to really appreciate what Qingsong does, you have to understand the environment he comes from. That is why he sees no conflict in working for Selfridges because commercialism in China is now probably much worse than anything Oxford Street has to offer."

Qingsong is much more concerned that the consumerism of recent years has seriously undermined traditional Chinese culture and way of life. "We are moving too fast in China, we have to slow down. It is like we have jumped from one to five, without the numbers in between. The rise of consumerism in the West has moved at a slower pace and people have learnt to live with it much better, which has been less threatening to traditional aspects of culture."

Rampant commercial growth is something he has seen at first hand. He was born in a small town in the province of Heilongjiang in 1966, as China was convulsed by the Cultural Revolution. His father, a soldier, died when he was 15 and Qingsong became his family's main breadwinner, working in mines for seven years. Now 39, he graduated from Sichuan Acadamy of Fine Arts in 1991 and later moved to Beijing, where he now lives and works. By the time he arrived there, the economy had changed so much that his savings, which he hoped would subsidise him for five years, only lasted two months.

Originally a painter, he moved into photography fairly early in his career. By the late 1990s, he was being exhibited in places such as Taiwan and Singapore and had his first show in London in 1997. He has since exhibited all over Europe and the United States.

He has been seen as being at the forefront of the rising generation of new artists in China who became known as the "Gaudy" art movement. They have prospered amid a thriving scene of new galleries and intense public interest, much in the same way that modern art enjoyed a revival in Britain in the 1990s: indeed, Qingsong includes Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers among his heroes. He says the Chinese authorities tend to turn a blind eye to art, even that which criticises the system. "In the past I have been unable to show some of my work, but now I am very open about things and it is very difficult for the Communist authorities to do very much, because I am followed around by Chinese television and photographers everywhere."

Back at Selfridges, Qingsong pauses to adjust his barbed-wire spider's web. "Here, life is all about big business and corporations, but in China, people still look after each other and their families and life focuses on relationships between people. That is why I am concerned about traditional culture, about how ways of shopping and eating are under threat. That is why my work is about the relationship between people and business." And while Qingsong uses contemporary mediums to get his point across, he is very clear the message itself is essentially a timeless one.

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