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Wang Qingsong’s First UK Retrospective at Beetles+Huxley BY Darryl Wee

Opening on September 22 at Beetles+Huxley is the veteran Chinese artist Wang Qingsong’s first retrospective exhibition in the UK, consisting of 11 large-scale photographic works that embody Wang’s signature spectacular style.

Born in China’s industrial northeast in 1966, the same year that the Cultural Revolution began, Wang Qingsong has built a career that deftly mirrors the rise of contemporary China and its turbulent social shifts and changes. Known for the massive scale, minutely conceived choreography, and enigmatic symbolism of his images, Wang has repeatedly even said that he does not view himself as a photographer or artist, but rather as a journalist who works with photography to record the incredible pace of change in China.

In his best works, Wang succeeds in balancing a certain social documentary charge with a liberal dose of fiction making that amplifies the force of his message. “MOMA” (2005), for instance, takes a detached, impassive look at comparative cultural aesthetics between China and the West. A live painting session of Matisse’s dance is being staged, but the audience has been expanded to include not just the artists, but also the camera-toting spectators eager to record the scene — Wang’s wry commentary on the contemporary penchant for self-aware meta-spectatorship.

In other works, Wang tends towards a more straightforward, magic-realist allegory. “Requesting Buddha No. 1” (1999) is a whimsical self-portrait of Wang as a many-armed Buddhist deity clutching all manner of consumer goods, a succinct depiction of the reality of contemporary Chinese society today.

Striking a notable contrast to Wang’s monumental stagings is the far more restrained piece “Red Peony, White Peony and Frosted Peony” (2003), a triptych that portrays flowers made out of meat in a skilled imitation of Chinese ink paintings on pastoral subjects — a rendition of themes close to Wang’s own personal interests: “these meat flower pieces are straight from my own heart.”

Wang was last seen earlier this April co-curating the first Changjiang International Photography & Video Biennale in Chongqing, Sichuan Province, together with Francois Hebel and Alejandro Castellote. The inaugural Biennale gathered together some 250 mostly unknown Chinese artists that offer visitors a selective portrait of artistic production in the outlying margins of a country that tends to center its attention only on coastal cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Wang Qingsong’s exhibition runs at Beetles+Huxley from September 22 through October 24, 2015.

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