The Frontage of Conformists - the Concern and Pondering of Wang Xing Gang
One of the vital transitions of Chinese contemporary fine arts in 1990s is the transfer of the visual field - from the perspective of countryside to city, which is more or less related to a transfer of cultural context. With the drive for powerful modernisation from the government and people, the overall mode of development was transformed greatly. The countryside was urbanised and the urban city became a metropolis, in addition, the booming economy ushered in an information network and a culture of globalisation. The rapid expansion of the city and strengthening of society amongst citizens led to urban culture flourishing, but also attracted many unprecedented cultural problems. Thus, the city gradually became the focus of public attention. City topics pursued by the new generation at the start of the 90's increasingly became mainstream topics addressed in Chinese contemporary art. Artists keen on studying the transition of cultural patterns diverted to spontaneous urbanised creation and, accordingly, their experiences developed from being purely sensitive to abstruse and increasingly became diversified and microcosmic.
As opposed to the aforementioned aspects, the sculptures of Wang Xinggang always focus on simple and plain peasants - an obvious deviation from the contemporary Chinese arts. However, despite being distinct from artists who focus on the countryside as their topic of choice yet choose to ignore contemporary arts, Wang Xinggang has always been a central component of contemporary arts. He is not only familiar with the various channels of contemporary arts development, but is also actively involved in it. His choice is motivated by his personal cultural notion, driven by an affection to the countryside and peasants.
Superficially, with the dominant position of urbanization and consuming culture in the main field of contemporary art, the topic of countryside and peasants is far removed and Wang Xinggang almost falls into isolation. Whilst few contrasts and comparisons are available to make one aware of the overlap of agricultural, industrial and post-industrial society under the typical socio-historical background in China, the enormous economic income gap in different cities, regions and industries is constantly increasing. Due to substantial capital input, policy support, geographical advantage, etc., only a small number of cities developed rapidly, and could be matched with the moniker of an ‘international metropolis.’ In those developed cities, the notion of conspicuous consumption has become an indisputable fact. The consumption of culture is not restricted to the wealthy stratification of developed cities alone, rather, it has expanded and permeated various regions, including remote and backward ones. Therefore, although the countryside in China does not match the consumption of a city, the idea of a consuming culture has long been dominant in this area. Countryside groups who engage in consumption can identify greatly with the consuming culture despite economic restrictions and would to pursue and imitate the lifestyle of consuming groups regardless of personal or socio-economic status, paying the price for the desperate imitation, and even inhibiting and sacrificing their basic necessary gratification.
China has a large number of peasants, around three-fourths of their total population. Needless to say, they exist on the lowest stratification of the social pyramid, whereas from certain perspectives, it is these lowest groups who function as foundations for various advancements and evolution. However, there is less concern, or may we say, greater shortage of social and cultural information about the conditions in the countryside as well as serious problems emerging from the peasant group. The artist, Wang Xing Gang, who was born in northeastern China bears sincere affection and certain understanding towards Chinese peasants. His practical experience and cultural considerations over many years have increased his awareness on the negligence or oversight of these serious problems in contemporary arts field. With this view, Wang Xing Gang chooses to shoulder this cultural responsibility and confines his vision to this field in order to focus on peasants who have been overlooked by the tide of urbanization.
The topic of peasants does not only take a leading position in visual schema of the past but is also present in contemporary visual products. However, in these cases, it has either been furnished to meet the demand of an urban civilian's view of how the countryside landscape works or has been falsified to demonstrate thematic culture. Therefore, Wang Xing Gang's sincere concern and deep presentation is distinct from embellishment and falsehood. Through his works, we may find that he addressed the issue from the perspective of a contemporary arts background, initiated his observations and thought based on the value and mentality of peasants in a contemporary cultural context.
The foundation of modernity, with its spontaneous and voluntary cultural selection as topics of choice is individualistic and dominating. However, the prevalent foundation in China is one of conformity. Under tides of modernization, peasants have been manipulated and used like pawns, driven by authoritarians in the more dominant urban cultures. As such, blind imitation is pervasive and passive.
After many years of perception and contemplation, Wang Xing Gang realized that this ‘blind following of dominant trends’ was a major symptom of peasants and this trend manifested in his sculpture works. He has adopted a symbolic language to present peasants - the worn jacket and cotton trousers that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, together with ‘liberation shoes’ produced after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. As such, the status and lives of peasants are presented. In addition the sculptures are rendered with deliberate scratching, and piling. The property of Earth is revealed in the khaki coating, embodying the peasants’ intimate relationship with the land, life and death and also the ‘land complex’ of the sculptor who bears sentimental attachment to the land. Wang absorbed the sculptural concept of upholding the gist of the sculpture while removing minutiae or detail, thus restoring the nobility of the style and emphasizing simplicity, momentum, rhyme and blocking of the body in order to give prominence to spirit and energy.
Techniques of exaggeration were also adopted to describe other aspects, with the contribution of a few strokes. In this manner, the blind following and conformist mentality that is driven by the dominant culture of consumption stands out. Through his sculpture, we find that perplexed peasants driven by insatiable desire are moving forward in step and following their common lead. Even the lead peasant looks bewildered and what this signifies is that if he commits a misstep, stumbles and falls, all his followers will do so as well.
The works of Wang Xing Gang are symbolic descriptions of blind behavior led by a culture of conformity. In a contemporary cultural context, his works address peasants who are entrenched in an atmosphere of consuming culture. This could be extended to representing a blind following of every culture that seems to be more dominant and is not restricted to contemporary peasants alone, it is a problem that exists among other groups as well.
Modernity is a kind of plan based on today's imagination of the future, but whether the plan turns out to be utopia or future reality is dependent on the actions of participants and subjects. If we say personality determines one's action and action determines one's destiny, then for blind followers, what will their destiny be?