Every so often, renowned sculptor Wang Keping goes out into the woods around Paris in search of tree stumps. The artist, who sculpts abstract figures out of wood, finds the material himself on these early morning forest wanderings. Sometimes he will scour trash deposits; sometimes he will come across a suitable stump as he weaves through trees in the French countryside. It’s an adventure he repeats time and again, but not one that is always fun. The process is tiring, frustrating and solitary, much like the process of making his art.
The strange, sensual shapes he crafts out of his stumps take extraordinarily long to make; just treating the wood takes month. The later stage involves shaping and smoothing down the structure in a way that retains its cracks and circles. It is equally exhausting. Despite the time and energy that goes into sourcing and making his art, however, it is the life, energy and soul Wang puts into his work that make them so singular and powerful. And it is the devotion he has to producing art that is thoroughly unique and authentic that keeps him labouring away on works that takes years to make. He expects his sculptures to stand the test of time in ways he believes many products of the fast and commercial contemporary art world won’t, likening himself to Van Gogh in the sense of having near-maniacal, indefatigable faith in his aberrative art.
Producing art has always been arduous for Wang, especially after he started making his wooden sculptures in China, where it is hard to find tree stumps. Born in 1949, he started making his art in 1978, at a time when goods and materials were rationed out by the government and could not be exchanged for money, owing to a paltry supply of resources that followed the Cultural Revolution. Wang used to pop by a local mill where trees were being chopped down into splinters that would help light coal fires, and stealthily take stumps that had the big, awkward knots from branches that made them difficult to chop. Workers would be pleased to watch him run off with these unwieldy stumps, because wasting wood attracted the ire of line managers insisting they chop down everything. Wang loves these troublesome castoffs, out of which he now crafts sturdy, surreal forms. Stumps with knots are the strongest, he says, and the way branches grow out of them reminds him of desirable figures – among them, birds.
Wang has touched down in Hong Kong for the opening of his latest exhibition, which brings together a series of sculptures inspired by birds. This will be the first time they will be brought together in Hong Kong, reuniting some of the fifty forms he’s crafted along a theme that brings him joy. “It’s a great feeling to see all my birds together here,” he says, surrounded by dark, ethereal sculptures that use branches to suggest beaks, tails and, at times, more erotic shapes. Seeing Wang interact with his sculptures is especially interesting. He touches them with a tenderness and an intimacy that brings these objects of desire to life. His favourite sculpture is shiny, with a twisted neck. Why? Because young women are drawn to it, and like to touch it, he says. These personal and apolitical work show the long way the Paris-based artist has come since the days he first made his name as a defiant artist rebelling against the censorial communist regime.
Wang burst into the art world with a now celebrated wooden sculpture called “Silence” that depicted a face with a large plug in its mouth. Vaguely resembling the bluntness of some African sculptures, it remains a thoroughly unique and powerful visage – and one that was produced by an entirely self-taught sculptor in a country with no free artistic expression. Wang was a leading member of China’s first contemporary art movement, the rebellious Xing Xing group. The name, meaning “stars,” came out of a pledge by the artists to illuminate the darkness of censorial China. The 23-strong group of renegade artists, which included Ma Desheng, Hang Rui and Ai Weiwei, courted notoriety by holding their own illicit exhibit outside the gates of the National Art Museum of China after their works were denied official exhibition space. That exhibit was quickly shut down by the police. In a bold, retaliative gesture, the Stars organised a protest march on the October 1st, the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. A year later, they were invited to show their work at the National Art Museum in which Wang displayed “Silence” alongside a radical piece that parodied Mao by turning him into a Buddha figure.
That period of relative openness was short-lived. A political chill followed, which spurred Wang to leave with his French wife, Catherine Dezaly, in 1984. Since then, he has remained in his adopted country, continuing his pursuit of unique, bold sculptures, but moving away from his focus on freedom of expression in China. When asked what motivates him to work now that he is no longer resisting censorship, he says the impulse to retaliate against the status quo remains. “I’ve always been a rebellious artist,” he says. “I used to rebel against dictatorship. Now I rebel against contemporary art. My motivation has remained unchanged.” Part of what he finds dispiriting about today’s Chinese art world is its increasing commercial bent. “People used to make art because it felt forbidden,” he says somewhat nostalgically.
Ever an agitator, Wang’s creative process and vision buck contemporary trends. Critics describe his forms as both anachronistic and lyrical in the sense that they arise out of a pursuit of evoking essences that speak to a visual language crafted by modernists — especially sculptor Brâncuși — rather than using complex, hyper-intellectualised systems of signification as is the present zeitgeist. The intense patience and labour required is also rather anomalous; Wang sometimes waits months or even years for his logs to sit, which gives them their innate features and textures. The process of carving, firing, burnishing and glazing his wooden stumps is also all the more arduous given that he refuses to delegate any tasks, making him an outlier in the contemporary art world.
Wang is particularly scathing in his assessment of China’s art scene. He is particularly resistant to the idea of being associated with the current movement, having said time and again, “I am a Chinese artist, but I don’t do Chinese art and I don’t do Chinese contemporary art.” Wang thinks of himself as existing in a league of his own, while pitting himself among the likes of Picasso and Van Gogh along terms of having produced thoroughly unique and enduring work that will stand the test of time – unlike much of what is produced today to feed an ever hungry art market to the detriment of personal vision and authenticity, he claims. “Nobody can do what I do because it’s so hard – it’s such hard work,” he says. “I work and I sleep, that’s what I do.” And for Wang, the best antidote against imitators is to be inimitable. “People have tried to copy me but they can’t. Nobody can.”
Critics have likened Wang’s forms to the sculptures of Henry Moore, who also worked with fierce involvement in his chosen material. Like Wang, Moore worked on wood and stone, believing these materials possessed a unique vitality and life. The sculpture’s role was to bring out those natural properties, he argued. Wang speaks of his process in similar terms, describing it as a dialogue between himself and the wood, an idea that also ties in with erotic undercurrent that runs throughout his work.
As a young man trying to get closer to women, he made his first sculpture as an object to sell in exchange for an illicit cassette player through which he could gain access into the provocative world of Western music. “In my head I thought to get the cassette would mean dancing, and dancing would mean getting closer to women,” he says. “In China we were very lonely.” Desire was prohibited in Mao-era China, deemed an immoral distraction from the proletariat cause. The quest to find ways around China’s sexual taboos continues to find expression in Wang’s work.
Wang’s art comes from that strange, funny and primal place where the libido and creative expression feed off each other, which might be why he feels an affinity with Picasso. But what makes his forms particularly interesting is their curious androgynous power and tender resonance. Picasso once said he saw women as “machines of suffering,” and idolised and debased his muses with equal voracity. His overtly patriarchal desire for them often came from a sadistic place, or at least that Judeo-Christian place that defined women as either Madonna figures or whores. As several feminist critics have noted, among them Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Picasso eviscerated his women, an impulse that speaks to a long art history in which the role of muse was a rather unpleasant, and destabilising one for both the women who have occupied it, as for the women who observe it.
Wang’s sculptures, especially his birds, feel quite different. There is no violence, no aggression nor is there a pursuit of perfection or idolatry. It is as if these birds — at once feminine and phallic — serve as conduits of desire, bridging the gulf between men and women imposed on by the unnatural structures and peculiarities of modern civilisation. Finding ways around the taboos of repressive China, which restricted even the most natural of expressions — that of intimacy between two lovers — expresses itself as much now as it did when Wang first started sculpting with the hope to get closer to women. As such, sexual politics plays a deep a role in the work of the artist entering his autumn years as it did when he first sought to unmuffle desire.
Wang Keping’s works can be seen at 10 Chancellery Lane Gallery until June 4, 2017