Kate Woods in China: Meeting Wang Qingsong

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It feels like I’m in a kind of self–induced euphoria. On the walk home all the trees on the road swayed and sparkled in the hazy sunlight.

Following a chance meeting I was invited, by Wang Qingsong’s wife Zhang Fang, to visit his studio. I wasn’t sure what to expect and couldn’t believe I was going to visit such a prominent photographer, who I had recently read so much about.

I found the grey brick compound a few streets away from my studio. The buildings all looked the same - pristine, minimal squares. Fang welcomed me into their sunny courtyard and then into their large foyer area, the high walls displaying recognisable large-scale photographs: ‘Van Gogh Family’, ‘Temple’ and ‘Competition’.

I then met the artist. My vocab ceased, as I suddenly felt nervous. I think I may have mumbled an incoherent mixture of English and Mandarin “hi..ni hao”.

Zhang Fang, an art writer and lecturer, showed me her husband’s studio while Wang Qingsong made some tea.

It was exciting to see where the artwork is made. My vision was torn between the photographs on the walls, new sculptural pieces, a table of assistants and a basket of calico kittens. The kittens I later saw everywhere, they had dispersed into the many shelves of artwork and materials.

The artworks displayed in the room included: ‘Hard Seat Compartment’,  ‘Dream of Migrants’,  ‘Dormitory’ and ‘Follow Me’. The images, which usually have a strong social/political commentary, are all the better seen in real life so that every detail can be read.

Four assistants painted in the middle of the room. Closer up I saw they were painting the detailed weave of blue, red and white bag material onto canvas. The type of bag so popular when migrating. Fang also showed me metal models of bags, painted realistically, belying their heavy materials.

I was then offered a chilled Hersley’s Kiss and a delicate cup of tea and was free to ask Wang Qingsong questions. I asked whether drawings are created beforehand. Sometimes was the answer. Fang showed me a book with a long fold out (yet downscaled) print of the 4.2 metre work ‘The History of Monuments’. Over the top Wang Qingsong had made notes in terms of positioning for post-production.

She also talked me through the process. Wang Qingsong often works on a very large scale with sets and backdrops, similar to a film director. They previously hired film studios short term but now they have built their own.  Fang sometimes helps with logistics in terms of sourcing models, props, environments and getting everything in place. Since their new studio was built installations for works like ‘Follow Him’ can be left up longer. That way, if needed, they can naturally gather dust and cobwebs for the right effect. In the film studios they would source lighting and rent props – however they would create whatever they could themselves. Some digital post-production is used but generally one large format shot is taken (they have stockpiled 500 medium format films in their fridge since Kodak stopped producing them) and only small details are changed.

From this, and other recent experiences, I am learning to let the flow of Beijing pull me in the right direction. It can be a chaotic place but it’s worth just letting it take me where it will.

Out of respect of the artist I took no photographs but please check his website to view images of his work www.wangqingsong.com