The LRCCS Community Spotlight is honored to introduce Artist-in-Residence Wang Qingsong. Wang Laoshi started off as an oil painter, and later went on to become one of the most influential photographers in China. His work is full of humor and profundity, and also serves to document contemporary China. During this interview, Wang Laoshi explains his path to becoming a renowned artist, and some of his insights from that world.
This interview was edited by Erzhan Xu and conducted/translated by Eric Couillard. You can read the original interview in Chinese here.
Couillard: When did you first start to study and practice art? Did you learn it as a child?
Wang Laoshi: No. My family worked in the oil industry, so we were always moving around to different oil fields. My family was never very stationary. As I recall, I only ever had an art teacher for one year when I was little. It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I discovered I liked it. I started to make crude drawings and paintings.
Couillard: So when did you decide you wanted to become an artist?
Wang Laoshi: After I graduated from high school, one of my mom’s colleague’s kids entered a local art school. My mom knew I loved to paint, so she told me about it. At the time I thought, “What? There’s schools just for making art?” After I knew that was an option, I decided to study there. Once I graduated, I went to the art school to formally study how to make art. Actually the school was more like a club from another high school; there were no classes until after the normal school got out. Even though I was taking professional courses, I had no idea where I was going with it. At the time I never dreamed I’d become an artist. I just wanted to continue my hobby. It wasn’t until 1993 that I decided I wanted to pursue art as a career. This was after I graduated from the art school and moved to Beijing.
Couillard: What happened in ’93 that made you decide to move to Beijing and become an artist?
Wang Laoshi: In ’92 the National Art Museum of China in Beijing had a very important exhibit in collaboration with a Japanese art museum. It was a collection of western art ranging from egg tempera, oil, impressionism, and other works from many famous artists throughout history. I went to see it, and though the art wasn’t especially exciting for me, what surprised me was the people who came to see it. So many of them brought notebooks to take notes, write down their reflections, study the composition, even make some sketches of the pieces! This inspired me! I suddenly realized there’s quite a large interest in art, even among older people. So I thought Beijing must be a very cultured place. Where I was living and working at the time, you never saw anything like it. For the most part everyone was all about doing business, earning money. So after that Beijing exhibit, I decided I had to move there. I moved the next year. Looking back, now it doesn’t seem like Beijing was so cultured back then. But the curtain had been raised for me, and I was hooked. So I went for it.
Couillard: So how did you make a living when you first moved there?
Wang Laoshi: When I first moved to Beijing, I was painting a lot. It was almost like writing in a diary. I painted things from my heart, certain feelings and experiences. Personal experiences, I didn’t too much bother with the outside world. I thought art only needed to express oneself. Later I slowly changed. Maybe it was because society was changing. The first one or two years there were difficult. I couldn’t make a living off art. And it was then that housing prices started to rise. I remember one winter, I think it was ’96, it was so cold! I had rented a cheap place, it didn’t have glass windows or a door, just holes in the wall that we covered with some plastic. The pipes were frozen. That winter was almost unbearable! At the time I thought, it’s been about three years, and I still have nothing. I was depressed and thought, “Will it be like this forever? Is this hopeless?” But the depression passed suddenly. After winter, the trees started to bud, the pipes melted and started working again, and I felt full of hope. In the 90s I always felt supported by my hope. Hope is bigger than any difficulty.
Couillard: How did you maintain hope for those three long years?
Wang Laoshi: One was that I saw my friends doing better and better. Another piece was that I had already burned my bridges – there was no turning back. I figured I could take it for 3-5 years. But if went on too long, if I didn’t have any shows or sell anything, maybe that hope would have disappeared. People need hope to persevere. I pushed on until 97 or 98, and around that time my work started to get recognized.
Couillard: When did you make the transition from painting to photography?
Wang Laoshi: 1996
Couillard: Why the change?
Wang Laoshi: When I first got to Beijing I was focused on painting. But I was seeing so many unthinkable changes happen before my eyes – the rent prices were surging, more and more people were flooding the city. I thought society was so different, maybe we were in the midst of a historic transformation, and I had no idea where we were headed. I just knew things would never be the same. So I thought there must be a better way to draw attention to this change.
Couillard: To document it.
Wang Laoshi: Yes, exactly. So I thought, if I want to document this, of course I’ll use art. Photography is the most direct medium. So in 96 I started out, but it wasn’t until 97 that this became my main medium.
Couillard: So when you create your art… would you say you have a goal or purpose? What impact do you want it to bring to the world?
Wang Laoshi: To record and document. China is changing too fast. It just needs to be recorded, I’m not so interested in commentary. Of course I bring my own views to the things I choose to photograph – I’m not just taking pictures at random. I’ve always thought of myself as a reporter.
Couillard: By recording and documenting all this, what do you hope will happen?
Wang Laoshi: I hope that my work will serve as an illustration to sociology. I hope people researching contemporary Chinese society can use my work to learn about the times or use them as photos in textbooks. Actually my photography is like a compressed history, it takes large issues and compresses them into one photo. In one photo, you can find many stories being told, many layers. So they cover a lot of territory in a very limited space.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews.