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The Warning of Life Impressions on Wu Mingzhong's art work

 

The Warning of Life
Impressions on Wu Mingzhong's art work
Wang Duanting

  French thinker Blaise Pascal's writing (1623-1662) in the < Pensées >: "Man is only a reed, is nature's most fragile thing, but the reed can think." however, the recognition of fragility apparently is not human's leading idea and especially not in the Western, the Westerner with "humanist" worldview is always willing to flaunt the mightiness of humanity as a superior power. In ancient Greek, the great tragedy writer Sophoclēs, (496-406 BC) said: "even the great power in nature, that less than the power of people." Although the fragility is the objective attribute of human life, people always slide over and cover it up intentionally or unintentionally, we may even desire to conquer the fragility of human. Survey human's art history, we can see the countless masterpieces that extol human's greatness and toughness, Helacles in ancient Greek myth is also a favorite subject of Western artists, we barely find any artwork that indicates human's fragility. The Western modernism and post-modernism art excavate shortcomings of human nature in depth, no one has clearly demonstrated the fragility of life yet. Therefore, as Wu Mingzhong commits himself to convey the fragility of life through painting, he has undoubtedly revealed the new latitude of humanity and opened up a new field of art.

  Wu Mingzhong is not the philosopher, but he has realized the fragility of life from the contemporary world and real-life experience. In order to deliver such a sense of fragility, on canvas the artist has created the transparent glass portrait that contains the red wine. Such a singular and unique art image looks like a erupting inspiration or a random outcome, but the accomplishment comes from his deliberation and repeated exploration; the glass portrait is transparent, but the meaning of these images may not be totally seen; the transparent glass portrait also contains a richer and intricate meaning of art history besides the warning of life fragility.

  The first group of mature works by Wu Mingzhong had finished in the late 90's of 20th century, the time in China's art scene, Political Pop, Cynical Realism and gaudy Art were very popular, he followed the trend of the times and demonstrated his active position in contemporary art by a group of Pop Art works. I classify this group works to Pop Art, since Wu Mingzhong had adopted the image appropriation practice that has been commonly used in Pop Art, but the work in fact has the essential distinction to the Political Pop Art of the time, the images Wu Mingzhong had appropriated in works were not the symbols of political leaders, but famous images with bar codes in Western art history, he has also adopted the form of triptych, and in the way of juxtaposition to portray a yawning face. Therefore, this type of work has the character of new impressionism besides the trait of pop art. As Wu Mingzhong said, these works expressed the perplexity towards consumer society. In my view, the true meaning of these works is tending to go beyond the nation's political, concerning about the living condition of mankind, to subvert the political pop in China's contemporary art.

  Since 2000, Wu Mingzhong created a sort of oval head portrait, that is a body with highly realistic limbs and clothing, but the head is simplified into an egg-shaped. Wu Minzhong has noticed such a phenomenon in reality, that is, in official and diplomatic occasions, various people, especially the politician's expression and facial features are not people's concern, more important is their identity, moreover, their gesture and action often represent the role of character, it is better to incarnate an event's nature, process and result , although these movements are usually formulated, they have a conventional and clear symbolic meaning. Based on such characters, Wu Mingzhong created a series works of realistic subjects entitled <meeting>, <negotiation>, <vote> and <oath> and so on. Although we cannot see the characters appearance in these works, they shook hands and applauded, raised their hands and toasted, their movements have already narrated the characters and the story clearly. The material of these works mainly came from the mass media, the choice of theme once again broke through the narrow-minded nationalism, showing that the artist's keen and broad cosmopolitism vision.

  In 2002, a new page had opened in Wu Mingzhong's art history, the new image suddenly had appeared on canvas that people have never seen – the transparent glass portrait that contains XO whiskey, through the portrait, the artist hoped to express the fragility of life that he realized from personal experience, the toughest thing in the world is actually fragile. More than a sigh, Wu Mingzhong was eager to express such fragility in his painting, that impulse was the motif to turn the fragility into a visual image. As symbolist said, "any kind of concept, it can be conveyed by a visual image". However, what kind of thing can express the fragility that is abstract sense and psychological feeling? Artist started his hard search and experiments, finally, the glass appeared in his painting. Since then, a new art world suddenly opened up to him.

  According to the record in <Historia naturalis> by ancient Roman writer Pliny the Elder / Gaius Plinius Secundus ,(23-79), the glass was invented in 3500 BC by the Phoenician, It is the quartz sand and sodium carbonate melts at high temperature, cooling to form compounds. In Western eyes, the glass is the most beautiful gift from God. Wu Mingzhong picks such a hard, brittle and magical material that is very contradictive, yet it is closely relevant to indicate the fragility of human beings, the seemingly tough but fragile indeed. After the experiments, finally Wu Mingzhong successfully produced his first painting of glass portrait, entitled <Hey hey!>, the painting depicts the renowned bald Italian referee Pierluigi Collina. As if the Italian has been bewitched, the flesh and blood became a glasswork, and the glass body was filled with the jacinth XO whiskey. Wu Mingzhong has found out in the experiments that the visual stimulation is very weak to the audience if draw a colorless and transparent glass portrait on canvas, therefore, he added XO Whiskey to the glass portrait when he created the painting, the liquid not only strengthened the quality of glass, but also enhanced the painting's hue and visual impact. Since the feasible solution he has found, the artist produced a large number of works include <Friend, Handle with Care!>, <Hey, Careful!>, <Shoot it!> and <how long does love last?>. These glass portraits have head, bust as standing portrait; single portrait and group portraits; static posture and moving form. Many heads and busts have a high-foot glass pedestal, and the thin pillar looks so fragile, and the portrait on the pedestal is about to fall and smash to pieces. Although the flesh turns into glass, this sort of highly realistic portraits, their appearances and expressions of each character played as usual, and even the lifelike sweat drops.

  Started in 2005, Wu Mingzhong was stuck on the fluorescent pink of propylene, at the same time, he had also replaced the liquid in glass container by red wine, the wine is more eye-catching with the paint of fluorescent pink, solid red and dark red, and the background in painting is off-white to highlight the main image. Chromatics and visual psychology tell us that red has the longest light wave, the strongest penetrating power and the highest degree of sensibility, it is reminiscent of the sun, fire and blood and other things,red brings people the psychological reaction of joy, excitement and agitation. Red is a symbol of celebration and hope, also represents violence and danger. Red has undoubtedly symbolic meaning of danger, warning and prohibition in Wu Mingzhong's works. Although the glass portrait paintings are monochrome in form, the works have great visual impact with unique language, singular image and striking red, extremely impressive.

  Basically, the material in Wu Mingzhong's paintings come from the mass media, such as newspapers, magazines and internet, he has translated these pictures into the glass portraits with imagination. In fact, Wu Mingzhong has depicted a sort of fictitious glasswork to create a surreal illusion. A whiskey bottle becomes his loyal model because there is no real glass man at all. The truth is, Wu Mingzhong has transformed the whiskey bottle into all glass portraits in works.

  Because Wu Mingzhong's glass portrait painting is so novel, so unique that the critic has always been difficult to classify. His works have obvious symbolism features on the stylistic view, the artistic language he used in line with the definition of symbolism, that is, "imply some kind of abstract unperceptive human emotion or concept with specific objects that people can perceive". In Western traditional symbolism painting, the artists often take advantage of some particular props to express specific meanings beyond the characters, for example, dove signifies the peace, rose means love, Lily indicates the purity, skeleton implies the death. Some symbolic meanings of objects or props in Western symbolism painting have been recognized in the world, and some objects can only be acknowledged in a specific cultural context. For instance, in  Christian culture, red wine symbolizes the blood of Christ, bread stands for the body of Christ, people are not familiar with such symbolic significance for those are not Christian. Wu Mingzhong creates glass portrait to symbolize the fragility of human beings, the fragility of glass is well known; the glass graphic on the package means "Fragile Items, Handle with Care" that is a universal logo. Red stands for danger and warning, as well as the traffic light. However, the material in traditional symbolism paintings were based on the literary works, while Wu Mingzhong's entire glass portraits come from the real people in the world, because of that the works have posed the consuming spirit of realism. Accordingly, if I have to paste a style label on painting of Wu Mingzhong, I would like to label it the "symbolic realism".

  Although Wu Mingzhong's glass portrait has been finished on canvas, it has obvious features of conceptualism, we might even say that, his work is a combination of oil painting and conceptualism, and the integration is a common feature of China contemporary art as well. Wu Mingzhong's works both have the realism spirit towards living concern, and the fictitious surrealism trait; as well as the symbolic technique of symbolism and image appropriation tactic of Pop Art. Wu Mingzhong also said: "I had achieved myself when I produced the glass portraits painting, my experience, concept and skills, I had employed all the knowledge and ideas in practice." In my opinion, his superb skill on realistic depiction is the key to be successful, the pure brushwork makes the glass portraits painting very unique. Wu Mingzhong's painting sends us a message that "painting will not come to an end", it has great vitality and boundless possibilities.

  In 2008, Wu Mingzhong has expanded his art creation to the installation art and digital video art. In the 7th Shanghai Biennale, he has shown his triple artwork < International Hotel 501> that included oil painting, installation and video art, in which the video work was the audience watched the crowd and buildings in Shanghai People's Square through the swaying red wine, it brought people a sort of magnificent and fantastic feeling, that was really wonderful. In the 3rd International Biennial of Contemporary Art, Sevilla, Spain, Wu Mingzhong has presented his video work <Metropolis>, which was to see the distorted and flashy material world through a red wine glass.

  Wu Mingzhong's glass portrait is novel and the style is unique, however, it's significance does not define on the level of stylistic, In other words, we will  miss the importance of these works, if we just observe the works from the perspective of stylistic. Therefore, I prefer to observe his works from the perspective of painting's connotation and the evolution of Chinese contemporary art.

  We know that humanity is in pursuit of toughness and greatness, is also the driving force for the development of human civilization, in a sense, the history of human civilization is the effort to conquer the nature and becoming powerful, especially in the era of industrial civilization, human beings created an unprecedented material world. Some people say that, people have never lived in such a noble era before. Ironically, the humankind became more and more fragile when we created massive material; in the industrial era, human was losing the spirit and sponging on the material, it resulted in the human beings had been materialized. We found that more and more characters appeared in Wu Mingzhong's glass portraits with time went by, in addition to the unknown people, there are the heads of state, the world stars, business giants, celebrities and public idols , he even fabricated the classic works in the world's art history. In many works, Wu Mingzhong has arranged the characters and grand scenes in the box, intended to satirize the people in danger but have no awareness, or a reminder of the optimist. In fact, Wu Mingzhong has disclosed the fragility of human life, as well as the human's connection and the fragility of natural environment. Wu Mingzhong believes that, except the eternal time, nothing is unbreakable and unchangeable, such as Life, love, friendship, power, politics, civilization, faith and spirit. At this point, he seems to reach the Buddhist realm "walk out from the illusions", but in reality, Wu Mingzhong is not a pessimist, he is more rational and conscious than ordinary people, his work brings us the philosophy and warning rather than the fear and despair.

  The glass portrait is a specific product in the era of globalization and information, and being contemporary and international. We must recognize that, the transparent glass portrait is the exploration and suspicion of human nature, the fragility is universalism for human. Regardless of the nationality and race, regardless of men, women or children, the fragility is people's common feeling in today's world. Wu Mingzhong says: "In my opinion, Chinese artists do not need to stress their national identity or symbols, we should demonstrate our personality, there is no need to claim our flowing national blood, the artists should have an international mind and personal perspective." All characters are glass appearance in the works, suggesting another meaning, people are simple and homogeneous, not only the physical structure of each person, but also the demand and desire. In short, the glass portrait is the portrayal of fragility, materialization and homogenization in industrial civilization. These works are satire to humanity, warning of life.

  Wu Mingzhong's painting means that, China's contemporary art has come out of the imitation of Western art in the 21st century, exceeding the narrow sociological valuation and national consciousness; Chinese contemporary artists are capable to create art as equal as the Western artists, and spontaneously are able to consider and probe into the world with artists around globe, to solve the issues confronting the humankind.

Wang Duanting
Researcher at Chinese Art Research
August 2008, Beijing

 

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