About Wang Ningde’s Some Days
In Chinese, there is an expression: “The whole world is drunk and I alone am sober." This phrase conveys something of the poignancy and conflict of the observer who stands outside the group, looking in: one who may benefit from the clarity of perspective but also feels the sting of estrangement. Wang Ningde is an artist who consciously embraces this bitter-sweetness of detachment in his great photographic series, Some Days.
These works explore
themes related to memory, history and the forces that combine to create our
individual sense of reality. The dreamlike quality that pervades Wang Ningde’s
photographs makes the camera’s subjects seem like apparitions that have arisen
from the inner depths of the artist’s imagination, or perhaps from our own. The
figures in Some Days range from young schoolchildren to Communist soldiers,
captured in staged surreal scenes that are by turns strangely comical, morbid
and unsettling. These ghosts of times past are alike in one aspect: they have
their eyes closed and heads inclined to one side, or else their backs are
turned to the viewer. Lost in their own thoughts, they seem similarly lost to
This is the most
often misinterpreted aspect of his work, which can be understood as a refusal
to communicate with the audience. Yet, as Wang Ningde argues, those instances
in which our eyes are closed are often when we are most profoundly and
artlessly ourselves: when dreaming, in thought or in moments of extreme
emotion. In these photographs, by removing the subjects’ consciousness of the
presence of a camera audience, Wang Ningde allows the viewer to share a moment
of much more intense intimacy with the subjects as, he says, they “open up the
projector of memory and screen upon their inner heart the silent movie of their
of the Some Days photographs are cropped in a way that suggest they are but
a part or detail of a bigger picture, a broader story. The theme in each
tableaux has a connection with the familiar yearnings and concerns of our
lives: wedding dresses and family portraits speak of the longings and ambitions
of adulthood, a table in a gambling house hints at the unpredictability of the
future, a carriage in a train suggests the difficulty of knowing in which
direction we are headed.
Ningde is not trying to recreate the past by provoking our memories of it.
Instead, he is trying to examine the process of remembering and how it
interplays with how we conceive of our present selves. If someone shows you a
photograph of yourself that was taken ten years ago (and which you have never
seen) while gazing at something you know is familiar, you will still experience
a sense of strangeness, of unfamiliarity, because you and this photograph have
traveled along different paths. The “reality” of the photograph is different
from your own memories of the same “reality”. Memory thus changes the past:
what was beautiful becomes more beautiful, what was ugly becomes uglier.
This function of
memory is particularly relevant to Wang Ningde’s generation. For those born in
the 1970s in Mainland China, memory carries a specific burden. To them, the
past is shaded by a perception of great upheaval and change as China emerged
from the Cultural Revolution into the modern world. First-time experiences like
riding in an elevator or tasting CocaCola are burnt into the consciousnesses of
this age group. Memory is not something that exists peacefully in the back of
the mind, but is an actual and wily protagonist in the play of daily life. How
to navigate both memory and the past, so that one can successfully move forward
into the future, is a question of immediate and profound urgency.
commenced Some Days in 1999, and it is the only work the artist has produced
since then. The series now consists of thirty five photographs. When I asked
Wang Ningde if this meant each tableaux had been deliberately and precisely
arranged, he answered by recounting for me the first time he saw a picture in a
book of Marcel Duchamp’s famous work, Fountain. Lacking any textual information
regarding the context of the work, he utterly misunderstood the French artist’s
intention. Yet it was still a moment of inspiration for the young artist. Wang
Ningde mentions this as an illustration of the power of art to awaken people
into a contemplation of themselves and the world in which they find themselves.
He says that every time he revisits each of his photographs he finds different
meanings within the images, as if the images have assumed a life of their own.
He does not wish to control his audience by giving them instructions as to the
meaning of each photograph, that would be missing the point. His early
“misunderstanding” of Duchamps’s work was valuable in that it made him think
for himself, and in doing so achieve something that made him move forward as a
Diversity, and individuality, is an attitude of struggle. Wang Ninde is critical of art that is “all trees and no earth." For him, art must have a theoretical foundation. Art is valuable not for the few hours taken to execute the work, but the hours of thought necessary to incubate the ideas behind it. Good art, according to Wang Ningde, is about casting a ray of illumination. He hopes his series, Some Days, will in some way bring about a moment of clarity for the audience, not by providing easy, ready made answers, but by aiding the individual in the processes of thought and imagination, remembrance and understanding. It is only through comprehension of ourselves and our own histories that Wang Ningde believes individual diversity can be guaranteed.