Capturing Contemplation: Contemporary Sculptor Wang Shaojun
Wang Shaojun is a Chinese sculptural artist based in Beijing, China. Born in 1958, he is now a professor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China’s most prestigious and well-known art university, and an artist. He began working in sculpture in 1980. His most recent show Wang Shaojun: Internal Uniformity at the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Center in Latvia opened in February and closed in April. It was created in partnership between Pashmin Art Consortia and the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Center. The exhibition showcased his figurative sculptural work and highlighted his unique style. His figures are cast in bronze, continuing the ancient practice of creating Chinese sculpture in this medium. They all portray a man in a green, blue, or gray tang suit with no shoes on. This character does not change much within the series, but there are slight variations with facial hair or glasses. Sometimes the man will appear with a small animal or against a backdrop of trees, mountains, or sky. Sometimes the portrait sculpture is simply a bust, and sometimes the full figure sculpture is larger than life.
When looking at his work, viewers are immediately drawn in by the playful, dream-like state that these figures inhabit. They appear both very earthly and ordinary and at the same time ethereal or with their heads quite literally “in the clouds.” This duality establishes the connection between the corporeal body and an intellectual, higher state of being. Oftentimes, Wang Shaojun’s portrait sculptures are seen looking up as if contemplating something beyond the world we inhabit. They are almost surreal, especially in terms of size and proportion of the figures or their surroundings and what they’re portrayed doing. They are all dreamy and otherworldly, and yet, the viewer can recognize their self within the sculpture. Everyone has assumed the pose of Shaojun’s Surmise: both elbows on the table surface in front of the torso, leaning forward with the chin resting on the palm of the hand and staring off into the distance. We all can immediately recognize the signature pose of daydreaming or contemplation--all of Shaojun’s portrait sculptures show the subject very deep in thought and concentration, even if they’re shown engaged in an activity.
Drawing on this connection between the corporeal and a higher state of being, each sculpture is essentially uniform, but each also shows unique aspects of Wang Shaojun’s subject’s mentality. On the outside, they all wear the same tang suit in varying colors or sometimes appear with small animals and have vaguely the same facial features, but on the hypothetical “inside” of these characters, it is obvious they inhabit a higher state of being mentally of which its complexity can only be imagined by the viewer. Wang Shaojun’s art highlights his unique skill in creating portrait and figurative sculpture: capturing the uniformity on the outside while suggesting a dramatic and vast intellectual and contemplative space, internally. This is done solely through the expression and posture of the figures he creates.
Contemporary Chinese artists like Wang Shaojun have worked to create their own identity within contemporary art. Within the global art world, the discourse regarding Chinese contemporary art is still somewhat problematic. Upon visiting a museum, visitors usually only still see jades, porcelains, scrolls, and other artifacts and art from Ancient and Imperial China that were taken by colonial powers during the 19th and 20th centuries. The curation at this time portrayed Chinese art as primitive or “other”, and this mentality still persists to some degree. Western art is still seen as dominant, and some art critics still view Asian art through a Western museological lens, subject to Western curation and values. Chinese contemporary art needs to be interpreted within its own context. Just last year, an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art titled Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World was meant to challenge American assumptions on contemporary Chinese art, but it only highlighted the fact that Orientalist beliefs still exist after visitors protested that the work on display did not consider the history of China.
Chinese art has arguably the oldest and most continuous art tradition in the world. The sensitivity towards and continuation of the cultural tradition of Chinese art throughout history is almost never lacking in comparison to the Western tradition, where there was a critical resurgence and return to classical styles during the Renaissance. However, there still have been political and cultural changes that have influenced art in China. In terms of the evolution of figurative sculpture specifically, Chinese ritual bronzes have had a lasting legacy and influence over Chinese culture, and contemporary artists still pay homage to this ancient medium. Beginning around 1500 BCE, these bronzes originally avoided depiction of the human figure, until the more recently discovered Terracotta Army in Lintong County, outside of Xi’an, Shaanxi in China that dates to around 210 BCE during the Qin Dynasty.
With the arrival of Buddhism and after a political transition within the Tang Dynasty, sculpture became more lifelike and full of expression. During this time, however, foreign relationships were soured, and foreign religions were outlawed. This forced Buddhists to hide their faith and possessions, consequently affecting the development of the religion and its art in China. Figurative sculpture since this time has predominantly been religious in theme. One of the next modern major political and cultural shifts that affected the Chinese art world was The New China Art period from 1912 to 1949 that included the Chinese Civil War and other political events. Chinese culture and art experienced upheaval, but despite this, Chinese modern art also experienced some important developments during this tumultuous period.
Throughout Chinese art history, political movements and cultural events are inextricably linked with the art, as with any culture around the world. It was most restricted after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. During this time, the government took control over artistic policy, and art was treated an agent of ideology. Artists were severely punished if they were not compliant with these new policies and sent to do hard labor on farms. In 1979 the Chinese government announced its “open policy” to the West, and since then contemporary Chinese art has undergone significant change to both its aesthetics and ideologies. Contemporary Chinese artists differentiate themselves from the widely recognized Western art and have established their own identity within contemporary art.