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Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E4): Peggy Wang on Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism, 2.4.21

Recap: Pieces of China (S3, E4): Peggy Wang on Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism, 2.4.21

Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

Season 3, Episode 4 takes a look at Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series, which juxtaposes revolutionary images with the Coca Cola and other western commercial logos. The series has become an iconic representation of China’s contemporary art movement and been described again and again as a form of subtle political protest. But what did Wang really mean? Do we oversimplify Chinese art? Peggy Wang, author of the new published The Future History of Contemporary Chinese Art, examines China’s most famous “political pop” and challenges the way the art world views Chinese art in this episode from February 4, 2021.

Peggy Wang is associate professor of art history and Asian studies at Bowdoin College. Her research explores how meanings and histories are constructed in light of cultural globalization. Her new book, The Future History of Contemporary Chinese Art, which focuses on methods of interpretation and narratives of agency, speaks to Wang’s inquiries into what it means for histories of contemporary art—and Art History more generally—to be inclusive.

Selected Quotes from Pieces of China, Season 3, Episode 4:

Dinda Elliot: Before we jump into Wang Guangyi’s work, tell us a little bit about the idea behind this book “The Future History of Contemporary Chinese Art.” What are you trying to rectify? What is the point you are trying to make with this book?

Peggy Wang: I used the term “future history” for a couple reasons. One is that I’m really cognizant of how we interpret artworks – artworks in the past and artworks I look at particularly in the late 80’s and early 90’s – and say if we continue to evaluate and interpret according to specific ways of thinking, particularly modes we might think of with contemporary Chinese art, how will future histories be written? How will generations of art historians and artists be treated? If we use only very limited frames and interpretations, that’s going to continue to perpetuate these very narrow views going forward.

DE: Tell us a little about what you noticed about the books that your students typically were reading and the limitations of those books.

PW: The introductory level books…have one chapter on, say, 16th century Italian art. And then it would have another chapter that was China and Korea after 1355. When students see this, they see this incredible imbalance in treatment. One chapter is giving great nuance and saying this is very significant; the other one is saying China and Korea, they can go together, it’s ok if we miss entire swaths of time periods. Modern China – 20th century China – only gets one paragraph.

DE: It’s incredible how Eurocentric our perspectives on art history have been here in the West. Tell us a little about why you chose to talk about Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism series.

PW: One of the reasons I picked it is because it is so famous. Because it is wrapped up in the rise of contemporary Chinese art outside PRC and how the West perceives it.

It seemed to Western audiences to really fit into a narrative that they had about China at that time. And that narrative is about this idea that [Wang] is riffing off of Andy Warhol. This echoes the reviews that we see of his work in the early 90’s that say well, it seems like Chinese artists are only just discovering pop, so to Western audiences it will look familiar because it’s kind of like a déjà vu. This perpetuates a very harmful view, where artists outside of the West are always derivative, always catching up, very belated compared to a more progressive, original, advanced West.

DE: Just to set the stage for a second here, that was not long after the Cultural Revolution, all these Western images were very new in China. It was 1990, just a year after the student movement in Beijing – all of that stuff is a cultural context that is valuable to look at.

PW: Great Criticism comes in at this decisive moment, where he’s thinking what kind of art do I want to do? What kind of art history do I want to turn to? Great Criticism is this time where he’s not just setting up these symbols of capitalism and socialism and putting them in ideological antagonism. That kind of reading is also very popularly only thinking of artists as political dissidents – a very common trope. These artists must be critiquing China or at least poking fun at China. It also comes out when we only look at the works in terms of symbols – it must be this clash of symbols together. But once we start to think about what he is doing visually, what he is thinking in terms of the art historical resources, we have a broader picture.

DE: You interviewed at great length all of the artists that are in your book… What would Wang Guangyi have to say about the way Western audiences interpret his work?

PW: He tends to have a bit of a hands-off approach and say people can have different interpretations, I can’t control that, he will say I’m not trying to critique China though.

PW: What happens in these interviews that’s really interesting is when you start asking about process. When you start asking about how they made the work, not just about how they are picking this symbol or that symbol, they perk up because they are artists. They are creators. They are making these decisions and they see that you are asking about their deep ideas about art. They want to be treated like artists, and not just tokens or knee-jerk political dissidents, and say I have thought deeply about it as part of my trajectory thinking about art, art history, and my own interventions in place within it.

Full Video of Pieces of China with Peggy Wang

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