“History in Black and Red”

Sheng Qi Solo Exhibition

Andrew James Art is proud to announce the first solo exhibition of Sheng Qi in Shanghai.  The exhibition will be at Andrew James Art, 39 Maoming Bei Lu, Shanghai, in a period colonial mansion which retains many original features whilst showcasing contemporary art in the 300 sqm space.  The exhibition runs from the 23rd May – 22nd June, open Tuesday to Sunday 11am-7pm.

Sheng Qi is one of the most prominent artists in Chinese contemporary art, graduating from the Central Academy of Applied Arts in Beijing.  Following the Tiananmen protests Sheng Qi fled China and lived in France before spending 7 years in London where he graduated from the highly respected St Martins School of Art and Design with an MA.

1998 saw Sheng Qi return to his mother land, fresh with ideas and resolute to document the history of China through the medium of art.

This ongoing documentation can be seen in his latest show, the rapid development of city life and the history that predates it.  This series of work “History in Black and Red” has been exhibited widely around the world to critical acclaim.


Sheng Qi: Skinning the Image


In Sheng Qi’s latest series, History in Black and Red, the artist depicts photo-realist images covered with dripping streams of paint. These streams are messy and undermine the gloss, pizzazz and authority of the original newspaper images. On a conceptual level, Sheng Qi’s technique allows a fluid interpretation of what we consider to be the most journalistic and objective of all visual art forms – the photograph.

In China, however, objectivity and propaganda are often conflated. In the past few years, and in direct response to China’s economic rise, the Chinese media landscape has exploded. The country’s new consumer base has had a positive influence on the quality of reporting on the Mainland. Local newsstands in most every major city carry specialized magazines, like Caijing, China’s answer to The Economist. Lifestyle magazines are also on the rise. The best of these include Life Weekly, featuring several articles per issue on a feature topic. Vision, a thick glossy magazine that appeals to China’s emerging creative elites, is also an influential magazine in fashion and the arts.

The gap in quality reporting between China and foreign media is narrowing in every aspect except for one: domestic politics. When it comes to government, Chinese media is still considered to be an outlet to express the policies of the state – not a gadfly that criticizes the state’s policies. Social ills are also examined in the media, but usually the tone is positive and progressive: in other words, the message might be that “yes, there is a problem, but the government is responding. The situation is under control; harmony is possible; the future outlook is positive.”

Sheng Qi’s new paintings offer an alternative to China’s current obsession with progress. In his diptych, entitled Congress, two paintings depict a very recent political event: the 17th CPC National Congress in Beijing. Held at the Great Hall of the People in October of last year, the event became the focus of newspapers and magazines around the country. Beijing streets were decorated with rich red banners displaying in poetic slogans the aims of the Congress. The overriding message was progress; coverage of the event felt scripted at best. Sheng Qi’s Congress however is dripping in paint, suggesting that any answers to progress that the government has for the next few years are messy and uncertain. The optimistic tone of the meeting is in sharp counterpoint to the artist’s skepticism.

The artist’s critical spin on the wheels of progress also finds voice in other works present in the current exhibition. Spaceman depicts a waving Chinese cosmonaut – and the nation has big plans for space travel in the coming decade. But the celebratory energy of a successful moment is deadened here with Sheng’s dirty overlays of dripping paint. The same goes for Lhasa, in which we view a company of PLA soldiers standing in front of the Potala. In Parade, tanks rolling in front of Tiananmen are meant to signify the country’s security. But in Sheng Qi’s paintings, they seem ominous. The tanks on the square are also powerful reminders that the demands of the state, including expectations of national security and confidence, often stand in strict opposition to individual insecurity and doubt. The value of Sheng Qi’s artistic perspective lies in his insistence that doubt is not only good but necessary.


2. Optimism and its discontents


When Sheng Qi was still a high-school student living in Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui province, he put a magazine photograph up on his bedroom wall. The picture showed a Japanese girl smiling. When the artist’s father saw the picture, he was confused. “Why are you hanging up a picture of some foreign girl on the wall,” he asked. “I told my dad, ‘I want to be able to smile like her – naturally. I want to be happy like her.’ My dad said I was insane.” Sheng Qi’s father had good reason to doubt the optimism of the poster. The hardships of the Cultural Revolution had taught most Chinese not to express their emotions, particularly happiness.

But by the time Sheng Qi moved to Beijing and attended college in 1984, the Chinese intellectual community was on the verge of a new optimism. The Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign had just ended, Robert Rauschenberg held an influential solo exhibition at Beijing’s NationalArtGallery in December 1985 and in the latter half of the 1980s, translations of foreign literary classics and ideas were sweeping the capital. The excitement was tangible and Sheng Qi led one of Chinese contemporary art’s earliest performance art groups: Concept 21. Concept 21 gave performances both at BeijingUniversity and on the Great Wall. This initial flowering came to an end in two abrupt shocks.

The first blow came in February 1989 at China Avant-garde, the nation’s first exhibition to focus on the country’s new artistic energy, much of it in opposition to the decades of Soviet-styled socialist realism. The exhibition was closed by authorities after artist Xiao Lu fired gunshots into her own installation. The show was reopened and closed again after the National Gallery received bomb threats. The second blow came in June with students’ protests and deaths in Tiananmen Square. After Tiananmen, Sheng Qi chopped off the pinky on his left hand, buried it in a vase in Beijing and migrated to Europe after selling ten of his works at a wholesale price to a Belgian collector.

The China Avant-garde exhibition and Tiananmen served as a reality check to the young artist, who in 1993, enrolled in London’s St. Martin’s College of Art and Design. While in London, Sheng Qi shifted from Chinese critique to global critique in one of his most notorious performances: “Universal Happy Brand Chicken” (1997). Held near BuckinghamPalace, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the exhibit was an ironic protest of animal cruelty. Sheng Qi licked, caressed and finally urinated on the corpses of several dead chickens. After almost a decade in Europe, the artist felt ready to leave the UK and return to China. ‘As a Chinese artist, I felt that I had nothing to add to what the Young British Artists had already said about the UK. Back in Beijing, I felt I had something to say.’

3. From body to photography to paint


Sheng Qi’s first artistic work back in China was a performance art piece at the BeijingDesignMuseum in 1999 on World AIDS day. But as early as 1995 the artist had already begun working in acrylics and by 2003 he was giving solo painting exhibitions in Beijing. His 2003 solo exhibition at Red Gate Gallery in Beijing utilized Chinese calligraphy to examine disparate cultural impressions of major world figures: Pope John Paul II, George Bush, Jr., and Deng Xiaoping.

In 2004, the artist placed black-and-white photographs of himself and his family inside a color-photograph of his four-fingered hand. The exhibition, entitled Madness and Appropriation, treated specifically Chinese subject matters. Some of the black-and-white photographs placed inside the artist’s hand were taken from Chinese media sources. The propagandistic power of these original media images was reduced when converted from color to black-and-white; the artist’s personal history (his hand) was enforced in full color.

The artist’s current painterly treatment of public events still has a personal edge. Instead of decompressing media images by placing photographs inside a photograph of the hand, Sheng Qi is now altering the photographic image through paint. The result is unsettling because – like the wound of a chopped-off finger – the images are bleeding, dripping. Propagandistic reality is criticized through the filter of a very physical, personal history and personal memory.

The canvas is the aesthetic equivalent of a physical reality, a reminder that optimism often ends in defeat. Sheng Qi’s social and public relevance as an artist is highlighted in his treatment of Beijing’s migrant workers, represented here in works like Missing Girl. The gulf between the masses and the shell-like symbols of the Communist Party are felt in People and The Square. Red Car, in which a group of women greet the camera from the cushioned seats of a large car in front of Tiananmen, serves as an ironic juxtaposition of China’s Maoist idealism and its current capitalist obsessions.

Sheng Qi, aka Mr. Four Fingers, still keeps a close eye on the deformations that have affected Chinese cities in recent years. After 2003 and the SARS epidemic, more Chinese abandoned bicycles for automobiles. Bicycles stands in stark contrast to Traffic Jam. Images from China’s Maoist past are retained in paintings like Sunset, Red Book and an untitled piece in which Chairman Mao is seen holding up his left hand in a peace sign. Mao’s hand recalls the hand of the artist – collective history and personal memory are merged.

The lasting power of Sheng Qi’s work lies in the artist’s ability to merge personal memory and collective history. In History in Black and Red, the canvas becomes a body and its surface is an epidermal membrane freshly ripped off. The smooth, photo-realistic skin of the original image has been peeled away. What we are left with is the deeper image – deeper because now it is being processed on a personal and critical level.  This second hemorrhaging stands in contrast to the smooth, polished images we normally receive of China in the first years of the 21st century.

Stacey Duff, Beijing

December 21, 2007