MagazinesPost Magazine

My life: Wu Qiang

The Shenzhen-based contemporary artist tells Thomas Bird about his long march from obscurity in Sichuan to his own exhibitions in France

 

RED DAWN I was born in 1967 in Zigong, Sichuan province. That was just after the Cultural Revolution began. I can recall red flags and mass movements. It was dazzling but the more intense things got, the poorer people became. You had to quote Chairman Mao even when you went to buy food. For example, if you wanted a turnip, you'd first say, "Mao Zedong thought for 10,000 years," and then you could pay for it. Food became scarce and people ate anything. I had an aunt who would fry up cockroaches because there was no meat. Of course, we added Sichuan peppercorns and chilli peppers for flavour. I was nine years old when Mao died. Everyone was outside crying in unison. I thought it was funny and started to laugh. A policeman hit me and said, "Chairman Mao has died and you laugh?" But I wasn't sure what it all had to do with me. Those times were like North Korea is today. I think Pyongyang must have studied China.

DOTS AND DIY The older brother of a friend of mine used to draw. He mostly drew pictures of Mao and other socialist images. He gave me a join-the-dots Mao portrait when I was six years old. I soon abandoned the dots and started drawing freehand. In primary school we had an art teacher, but he couldn't really paint. Zigong was a poor place and education was very backward. The best learning you could do was by yourself. When I was eight years old, I'd saved up enough from my Spring Festival lucky money to buy a foreign art book. I learnt about light and perspective from it. In middle school, I spent my whole time painting and drawing because there was nothing else to do. The art teacher threw me out of his class because I contested his ability.

A STRANGE YOUNG MAN I left school when I was 17. I'd neglected my studies because I'd spent all my time drawing. Anyway, I didn't expect to go to university because we were poor and my family had no connections. My father had retired due to health reasons, so our work unit got me a job in the factory he'd worked in. I was the lowest level manual worker, doing the same repetitive job every day. I stayed there for two years. During this time, Xinhua Bookstore became my haven and I spent all my free money and time on reading. After that, I managed to get a better job as a designer. I even had an exhibition in 1989 in a local gallery. But I began to feel that living in China's interior was restrictive. People thought I was strange and my family used to give me a hard time. "Why are you always drawing?" they'd complain.

HEADING EAST In 1990, I came to Shenzhen with a friend. For our generation it was a place where anyone could follow his or her dreams. I lived for free for almost five years in Shenzhen university dormitories; the security guards must have thought I was a student there. I did various odd jobs, including working as a chef and drawing in a Japanese animation company. The early years were tough and we sometimes ate old apple cores to survive. But I didn't want to go home and admit defeat.

ROCK 'N' ROLL After reform there were a lot of Western influences in China, especially music. We could get cassettes of bands like The Police, Aerosmith and Nirvana that had been rejected abroad as faulty. (Domestic rock artists) Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty were influential, too. Bands started forming in Shenzhen. I discovered I had a good voice and could write songs, even though my guitar ability was limited. I had feeling. I believe that my music is related to my painting - a need to express myself. I earned money in the late-90s and early 2000s primarily as a rock singer in bars and clubs.

ART SELLS In 2004, my art finally started selling. Art collectors liked my calligraphy and mountain-water ink painting and I found I could make a living from it. But people couldn't understand my more abstract work. I'd spent over 10 years studying the masters from the East and the West. I really liked Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement. I taught myself all about Andy Warhol and pop art, and British painter Francis Bacon has been a big influence as well. I tried to combine their influences in my more abstract work. I paint on the floor like Jackson Pollock but use ink instead of paint. I try to use art as a tool to say something about society. That's what Ai Weiwei and Yue Minjun have done. You can see this in my painting Foetus of the Buddha (currently on display at the Salon des Realites Nouvelles, in Paris, France), which depicts the Buddha as a human born of woman, not a god. You can hear it in songs I've written as well, like My Father isn't Li Gang (in reference to a drunk driver in Hebei province who, after knocking down two pedestrians - one of them fatally - believed that shouting out the name of his powerful father would give him immunity) and Three Meals a Day, which talk about corruption and food safety in China.

HEADING TO THE HILLS A few years ago I moved with my wife, A'Lan, and first son, Wu Liao, to Wutong village (at the foot of Wutong Mountain, a national park) because the environment is pleasant and the cost of living low. I stopped performing in bands and began to live solely from my painting. I met (French curator) Mathias Daccord in the village. He liked my art. Daccord and fellow curator Pierre Picard organised a residency at (Centre Intermondes) in La Rochelle, France, last spring. I taught classes on Chinese traditional art there and held an exhibition. Daccord and Picard are also curating "Decouvértes" in Deyang, Sichuan (which runs until Friday). It's going to be great to go back home and have my art on display there. Maybe people will understand why I was always drawing.

 

 

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or