Wang Qingsong’s Sprawling Photographs Capture the Aftermath of China’s Economic Boom

Contemporary Chinese artist ’s epic large-format photographs mix reportage, theater, film, painting, and installation. In them, he presents a gimlet-eyed view of modern China in all of its excess. These engulfing visions are the subject of a solo exhibition, his first U.K. retrospective, currently on view at London’s Beetles + Huxley.
In his lifetime, Wang has witnessed both China’s Cultural Revolution and the country’s economic boom, events that have clearly shaped his outlook and his art. He was born in 1966, the same year the Cultural Revolution began. After graduating from art school in 1993, he moved to Beijing. The city was in the throes of rapid development, thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy, which unlocked the country to foreign investment in 1978. During his early years there, Wang became a keen observer of his country’s economic expansion, the influx of Western influence, and the social and cultural ramifications of the changes. Though trained as a painter, he determined that the medium was too slow to keep up with the rapid transformations happening around him, so he took up the faster-paced medium of photography.
Eleven of Wang’s large-scale photographs dating from 1999 through 2014 are on view in the show. Many of these works are the result of a laborious, highly coordinated process, in which the artist constructs intricate sets and populates them with people to create the dramatically staged tableaux that read as allegories for cultural shifts in contemporary China. These scenes range from humorous to somber in tone. Among the darker works is HOME (2005). Reflecting Wang’s concern for the widespread displacement of people in the wake of the rampant development of China’s cities and countryside, the image features a dreary image of a partially demolished home strewn with consumer and construction detritus. This scene calls to mind huge swaths of Beijing, where entire neighborhoods of hutongs (narrow streets formed by traditional, low-rise residences) were reduced to piles of trash and rubble to make way for new construction. In the photograph, a man with his back to the camera stands at the threshold of this endangered home—and the new realities of modern China.

Wang Qingsong” is on view at Beetles + Huxley, London, Sept. 22–Oct. 24, 2015.