Faces of New China: An Important Private Collection

(Chinese, B. 1966)
Night Revels of Lao Li
numbered and dated '8/9 2000. 2000.'; signed in Chinese; signed 'Wang Qingsong' in Pinyin (lower right)
chromogenic print
sheet size: 57.8 x 411.2 cm. (22 3/4 x 161 7/8 in.)
image size: 50.1 x 397.7 cm. (19 3/4 x 156 1/2 in.)
edition 8/9
Executed in 2000
two seals of the artist
Collection of Jean-Marc Decrop
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Modern Chinese Art Foundation, Portraits, Figures, Couples and Groups, Gent, Belgium, 2001 (different edition illustrated, p. 76).
Chinese Century, Paris-Pekin, Paris, France, 2002 (different edition illustrated, pp. 194-195).
Museu de Arte Brasileira - MAB Salao Cultural, China Contemporary Art, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2002 (different edition illustrated, pp. 182-183).
Culturgest, Contemporary Chinese Art: Subversion and Poetry, Lisbon, Portugal, 2003 (different edition illustrated, p. 67).
Asia Art Archive, A Strange Heaven: Contemporary Chinese Photography, Hong Kong, China, 2003 (different edition illustrated, pp. 118-119).
Skira, Modernit?s Chinoises, Paris, France, 2003 (different edition illustrated, pp. 52-53).
Smart Museum of Art University of Chicago/International Center of Photography/Steidl Publishers, Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China, Chicago, USA, 2004 (different edition illustrated, p. 135).
Albion/Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art Ltd., Wang Qingsong, London, UK, 2006 (different edition illustrated, p. 38).
Prestel Publishing, New China New Art, Munich, London & New York, 2008 (illustrated, pp. 158-159).
Queensland Art Gallery, The China Project, Queensland, Australia, 2009 (different edition illustrated, p. 176).
Paris, France, Espace Cardin, Paris-Pekin, 5-28 October 2002.
Lisbon, Portugal, Galleries 1 and 2, Contemporary Chinese Art: Subversion and Poetry, 15 January-30 March 2003.
Shanghai, China, BizArt Shanghai Biennale, Portraits, Figures, Couples and Groups: From the Collection of the Modern Chinese Art Foundation, 8 November-3 December 2000.

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Lot Essay

Night Revels
Throughout the 1990s, Chinese painters relied on the layering of oppositions, dualities, and metaphor, to reveal their complex, ambivalent, satirical, and often cynical view of the world around them. Often, they drew from images and figures in their own social world, including their own self-portrait, but these appropriations more often than not lack the heroic individualism or psychological observation sought in Western portraiture. Instead, these figures were employed to suggest an entire social order, its values, and its impact on the human spirit. In many ways, this approach to portraiture, understood in harmony (or in Yue Minjun's case, disharmony) with the surrounding material world, is an approach to identity, representation, and the self as old as Chinese culture itself. These paintings are often deliberately awkward, full of passionate expressions sublimated into oblique metaphors and symbolic systems, suggesting new directions in the long history of oil painting while simultaneously revitalizing and modernizing China's own great aesthetic traditions.
These aesthetic tactics were first explored in oil painting but penetrated other media as well. Wang Qingsong as one of China's best-recognized conceptual photographers, has also employed his own image along with strategies of appropriation, metaphor, and humor to address China's ever-changing social order. As a young painter, Wang was influenced by Political Pop and Cynical Realist painters, and was affiliated with their offshoot, Gaudy Art.
Completed in 2000, The Night Revels of Lao Li is one of Wang's most ambitious and conceptually rigorous works, showing the artist expanding his earlier tongue-in-cheek self-portraits, while also moving in the direction of the large-scale tableaus for which he is now recognized. From the beginning, China's rapid turn towards a consumer culture, and its associated values, was the primary source of inspiration for Wang. In his conceptual photographs in the late 1990s, he drew from popular and folk culture to create invented icons and deities for a changing in reality, often featuring cabbages, Coca-Cola, flip phones, and other ubiquitous objects of contemporary Chinese life. In Requesting Buddha No. 1 (Fig. 1) from just a year prior, Wang himself appears as a Guanyin-like figure, with multiple arms radiating out from his torso. Conventionally, a "thousand-armed" Guanyin would be holding different objects that were symbolic of the infinite paths to enlightenment (Fig. 2). Here Wang is dressed in nothing but his boxer shorts, seated in lotus position wearing a bowtie, and holding essentials as Marlboro cigarettes, a mobile phone, cash, and Yanjing beer, suggesting the dubious new paths to enlightenment sought in China's burgeoning consumer culture.
Night Revels of Lao Li marks a significant change in Wang's practice in scale, conceptual rigor, and ambition. The title and the composition both refer to the Southern Tang period painting by Gu Hongzhong, The Night Revels of Han Xizai (Fig. 3). The painting depicts historical figures: Han Xizai was a court minister who, disillusioned with the regime, refused to serve, and instead retreated to a life of decadence and debauchery. The emperor, either curious or suspicious of Han's refusal, sent a spy to observe him and find out exactly was preventing him from serving the court, and the painting depicts Han and his guests over the course of an evening in five separate passages and at different times, greeting his guests, playing the pippa, watching dancers, resting, and seeing his guests off, all the while under observation by the imperial spy. The painting therefore sets up a fundamental epistemological question for the viewer and ultimately for history: was Han truly so disillusioned that he descended into a life of leisure and indulgence, or was he already so entrenched in his own private pleasures that he simply couldn't be bothered?
Wang sets up a similar dichotomy through his choices, his "actors", and his imagery in his own "Night Revels." The work is, first, a work of great technical and theatrical mastery. Replacing the original ink scroll with Wang's own preferred large-format photography, the large version of the work is over 30 feet wide, featuring nearly a dozen men and women, who recur in five separate scenes across a seamlessly executed, horizontal scroll-format photographic composition. Physical screens, furniture, empty space, and the variety of arrangements suggest the passage of time over the course of an evening.
Wang has reworked the characters in the drama to speak to his own contemporary world. The role of Han Xizai has been replaced by Beijing-based curator and critic, Li Xianting, one of the earliest supporters and promoters of the Chinese avant-garde, but who was eventually removed from his editorial post at an important official art magazine. His guests are replaced by exceedingly average-looking men, dressed in plain casual slacks and dark shirts, closely shorn crew cuts, lounging in house slippers, the uniform of middle-aged men trying to find their footing in Beijing's newly entrepreneurial world. The entertainment is now replaced by the "courtesans" of the day, dressed in flimsily cheap, fluorescent, gauzy material, faux feathers in their hair, and excessive makeup piled like the circles around a panda's eyes. The court spy, in this case, is embodied by Wang Qingsong himself, appearing on the periphery of each scene, peering from behind screens, under curtains, drinking tea, or making mobile phone calls as if reporting his observations. Li Xianting, meanwhile, greets his guests, listens to and plays music, watches a dance performance, and has his feet washed, while his guests receive massages, drink wine, and enjoy the evening's festivities. As with the original painting, the depiction of the evening's debauchery is far more mannered than rowdy. The tacky and bright costumes of the performers are so ridiculous and ill-fitting as to seem almost child-like, and the spread, featuring fresh fruit, Sprite, Coca-Cola, and some spirits, is so humble as to be almost quaint. Li Xianting, in fact, in his real life role as a critic, had written in support of Gaudy Art and its insights into contemporary life. In 1998, in an essay on Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and their influences, he wrote that Gaudy Art is driven by "a peasant-like, get-rich-quick taste, it seems to me that all cultures are founded upon the existence of a set system of social standards and values. Yet, over the past hundred years, as China has broken with its traditional culture and accepted the impact of Western culture, it has never really approved the value system underlying Western culture."
As such, the inclusion of Li Xianting himself tells one version of this story, but is incidental to Wang's point. As a curator-critic, he was indeed expunged from his official position. But the focus of the work is less Li's presumed decadence, but of Wang's relationship to the scene. He highlights the ways in which the pleasures of bourgeois life might easily distract one from a life of idealism and public service. At the same time, the kitschy and playful manner with which these pleasures are depicted are so humble as to beg the question, and those indulging in them seemingly indifferent to the proceedings, that he also begs the question as to whether or not these new consumer pleasures are really worth it, and whether or not those who have adopted them are truly comfortable in these new roles. As such, Wang is not a spy for the state or imperial court, but instead a kind of cultural spy, appearing as a curious and bemused outsider to this strange, artificial world. In this way, through his use of allusion, appropriation, and metaphor, Wang not only stages Li's own experiences, but, more crucially, the shifting values of contemporary life. By rendering them tragically gauche, he demonstrates the obverse of Yue's maddened world, one that is full of seemingly dull, hollow performances of dubious pleasure, ones that both the artist and the curator observe with considerable skepticism and concern. As such, Wang's work also foregrounds the relationship between the artist and society that is hinted at in the preceding works. All of these artists are participant-observers; they have are part of and also removed from a generation and a broader social milieu that they feel greatly alienated from, and their disillusionment led them to practices that drew from traditional and contemporary aesthetics, revealing the new and worrisome truths of this shifting world, while also forging unprecedented new possibilities in contemporary art.

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