The series Some Days is an ongoing body of work that has brought international attention and acclaim to Beijing-based artist Wang Ningde. The core of this series is based on the artist’s memories of childhood and family, interpreted and abstracted to read at a level of collective consciousness. While memory may be a common, overarching theme in photography, Wang Ningde’s photographs are exceptional. They are immediately appealing, intriguing, and deceivingly simple. They are mysterious without being abstruse and most remarkably they transcend nationality though they are undoubtedly of and about life in China.
Wang Ningde was born in 1972 in Liaoning province and graduated from the photography department of the Lu Xun Academy of Art in 1995. After graduating he moved south to Guangzhou where he worked for a decade as a photojournalist. During that time, Guangzhou experienced an explosive economic and cultural transformation. Wang, and the artists of his generation, had unprecedented access to art and culture from outside of China and they responded with some of the most exciting contemporary art in recent history. Wang began the Some Days series in the midst of this creative energy and his work must be considered within the context of his time, but Some Days is above all a personal body of work. Wang is more interested in an intimate exploration of personal themes than in engaging directly with the trends of the art world or pop culture.
Wang eventually returned north, to live in Beijing. “I suddenly found I had no connection with Guangzhou when I left my job there,” he explains. “Many artists don’t live in real life. So I can be in the north or south of China, it makes no difference for me either way.” Some Days exists in its own world, one in sharp contrast with the fast paced frenetic tone of contemporary Chinese life. Every photograph in the series is a meticulously constructed, succinct tableau vivant, employing no more than several characters within a minimalist setting. Action, if any at all, is reduced to staid poses and studied gestures. Environments are simplified to their essential elements. The photographs are unified stylistically by a dreamlike mood in which subjects are almost always shown with eyes closed or faces turned away from the viewer. At times this artifice blends organically with the circumstance: a man lying in bed or a boy relaxing at the edge of a pool. In other photographs the effect is more jarring, and clearly metaphorical; one doesn’t expect an entire family or group of school children to pose with eyes closed for a portrait. Yet there is an internal logic to Some Days, and all of the characters are at ease within their singular closed universe.
Though the works shown here are all dated 2009, Some Days has been a work in progress since 2003. Over time certain characters and settings appear and reappear, suggesting a family of sorts, but without a clearly defined relationship among its members. As the series has evolved over the years, subtle changes evidence the maturing of Wang’s ideas. In the most recent photographs, subjects engage less directly with the camera than they have previously. Rather than posing and closing their eyes, they turn their backs toward the camera with a body language that is cautious and self-conscious. Solitary figures appear lost in themselves or in a resigned emotional emptiness. Small groupings of people coexist in a shared silence that does not feel warm or understanding. Figures scarcely interact and when they do, their actions suggest a mournful connection, a ghostlike sense of companionship. Their equally vague environments have also shifted over the years. Early photographs were staged in what looked like real places such as trains, forests, schoolyards, and pools. These have given way to simplified interiors with stiffly placed props, landscapes that are carefully reduced to lines and shapes. The movement towards greater simplicity accentuates the dreamscape atmosphere by emulating the pared down vision of memory. As the selective focus of memory rewrites the past, events are reduced to their psychological impact. Details are lost and the focus of the imagery is directed by its significance.
The central, recurring character in Some Days is a middle-aged man dressed in Sun Yat-sen’s uniform or “Mao Suit”. We find him alone or twinned with his alter ego, often contemplating the natural world but always drawn into himself. The peculiar use of make- up enhances his lack of expression and further generalizes his features. The style of his make-up is reminiscent of traditional make up used in Chinese theatre and opera, both of which were co-opted by the communists, and provides another layer of visual association. He is a lugubrious protagonist, moving through various settings as if in a trance, acting as a stand in for any of numerous male roles: the common man, the communist, the father, the brother, the laborer, the wanderer, and any persona that may be projected upon him.
Wang’s leading man brings to mind the Mao-suited star of Tseng Kwong Chi’s East Meets West photo- graphs of the 1980s. Tseng played the leading role in this series, part performance art and part self-portrait, of a pseudo communist official photographing him- self in front of famous international landmarks. He used the same deadpan expressions as we see in Wang’s male characters. He wears sunglasses in most images, creating a similar disconnect with the viewer as Wang’s subjects do by closing their eyes. But the differences between these two bodies of work are as telling as the similarities. Tseng Kwong Chi’s work has political implications, and clearly addresses a Western audience. He produced his photographs at a time when the West had very little contact with China and he exploits the Western viewer’s naiveté and unfamiliarity to humorous affect. Some Days addresses our contemporary audience, in a time when East and West have become so intertwined as to be co-dependent. Wang is not working with a cultural divide in mind; Some Days is intended for a Chinese audience as well as a Western audience. Wang believes that he and Tseng Kwong Chi use the Sun Yat-sen uniforms with totally different intent, and emphasizes that his work is based on memories of life within China, the ever-present political pressure, and the characters of a now outdated era. While Tseng Kwong Chi used the Mao suit to signify the “other”, Wang uses it for its familiarity. He sees the uniform as a sign of authority, especially of the father, and the code of filial piety that runs deep in Chinese culture.
Wang Ningde exercises complete control over every aspect of his imagery. He begins with a sketch and then finds models, most often on the street or marketplace, who look the part he has already pictured in his mind’s eye. He directs his models in precisely the poses he pre-visualizes. Unlike many staged photographs in contemporary art, Some Days does not incorporate performance art; the meaning of Wang’s images does not stem from the process of their creation. They are illustrations of an idea. Wang uses the camera as a means of rendering, not recording. His settings are always stark and nondescript. His interiors are as bare as dollhouses; landscapes are reduced to line and form. In front of this carefully delineated backdrop Wang allows his narrative to unfold.
The subjects who populate Some Days are intentionally as anonymous as their surroundings. The mood throughout Some Days is melancholic and introspective, but the personalities of the subjects themselves are impossible to read. While photography excels at capturing the likeness of real people, Wang cleverly avoids any semblance of true portraiture. Despite the straightforward clarity of his style, his subjects are perfectly impenetrable. The real people who once stood in front of Wang’s camera are transformed into representations. Personality and individuality are stripped away from the real person and the real moment in time when the photograph was made. What remains is an afterimage, the distilled essence of a moment, seen with the acute subjectivity of a world recreated from the inside out.
Wang bridges the gap between inner and outer worlds with the use of familiar archetypes. The Some Days photographs cannot be explained literally but they seem to be laden with meaning just beyond the edge of comprehension. They engage the viewer in a purely visual way that is not difficult to understand, but is ultimately inscrutable. In one photograph we share, but cannot truly know, a contemplative moment with a man facing a vast, frozen landscape. In another we enter a room on the shoulder of a young boy and encounter a sleeping, or dead, soldier, or father, and like the boy we are left searching for answers, or an explanation of what is in front of us. In several photographs a woman appears, either seated dutifully or following in the path set by her man, and the implications of her social status ring clear though her situation is enigmatic. In image after image, Wang leads the viewer on a journey through a landscape impregnated with emotions but restrained within a peaceful aesthetic veneer that encourages meditative consideration.
Some Days is not Wang Ningde’s only work in progress. He simultaneously develops threads that spin off from Some Days into separate, smaller series. Within these tangential projects he explores ideas outside the parameters he has defined in Some Days. In 2007 EYEMAZING published a selection of Wang’s Playground series. Playground introduces Wang’s Mao-suited man in a world of bright color where he performs simplistic actions based on children’s play. More recently, in the spring of 2010, Wang completed an installation titled Let There Be Light at the Xin Dong Cheng Space for Contemporary Art in Beijing. In the installation countless faces are projected in strips across the gallery walls. As in Some Days, the faces shown all have their eyes closed, but the overall effect of the installation takes the viewer in an entirely new direction. The most striking development in Let There Be Light is the element of realism, elevated by the installation to a spiritual experience of mass society. While every effort is made in Some Days to create an artificial representation of the world, Let There Be Light captures the energy of real people and the inter-connectedness of humanity.
As the dialogue of contemporary art is increasingly internationalized, traditions of art from previously distinct histories are coming together to form a new platform for artistic ideas. The challenge for artists participating at this level is to create art that is incisive but still comprehensible to a broader cultural audience. Wang Ningde, and many of his Chinese contemporaries, are leading the way with a visual language that is uniquely Chinese while being legible, intriguing, and challenging to their foreign contemporaries. Part of the reason that Wang Ningde’s work resonates so effectively is because it stems from his with his own life and fundamental, psychological issues which transcend cultural diversity. He also taps into aspects of Chinese culture that run much deeper than current obsessions with all that is new and du jour. His Mao-suited everyman indicates that, despite China’s great “opening” of recent years, the influence of communism is still a strong cultural force both politically and in the psyche of the Chinese people. One hopes that Wang Ningde will continue telling the story of Some Days for many years to come and in doing so leave behind a fascinating allegory of his era for future generations to unravel.
EYEMAZING 2010 Winter Issue