essays: idol hands

Wang Keping and the new Chinese sculpture, i

According to a friend who works as a producer at Singapore's national broadcaster, you should never touch the mannequins in department stores. She gets this from her scriptwriter colleagues, Hong Kongers well versed in such lore, who said that gui -- spirits, ghosts-- tend to take up residence in figures of the human form. She told me this as I had my arm around the fibreglass Colonel Sanders in front of the Bukit Timah KFC. I looked from my friend to the Colonel, and, you guessed it, he was looking back.

The Colonel's cool gaze -- and this idea that sculptures of the human form had the ability to attract spirits -- made me think of work by a Chinese artist I had seen some months earlier in Paris. The sculptures were by Wang Keping, one of the original Stars, a group of dissident artists who rocked China's establishment in 1979. Many of the Stars group have left China, and Wang now lives with his French wife and little daughter in a suburb of Paris.

Wang Keping's sculpture is very interesting, and I think important in many ways, not least because he is working in an entirely open field: there is really no such thing as Chinese sculpture. Taiwan's Ju Ming, Wang Keping, and a few others in this generation, and a few exceptions through the ages, but other than that "Chinese sculpture" is an oxymoron on par with "military intelligence".

There is very little sculpture, especially of the human figure. Let me review the high points in the history of this form: funerary monuments of animals, mythical and real, from pre-Han times, peaking in the Tang, surviving today as those plump "dogs of Fo" in front of the most ostentatious houses; the famous terracotta warriors; Sui and Tang Dynasty Buddhist sculpture, very graceful, but very much a Central Asian import; the Tang ceramic horses and figures (probably made by Central Asians anyway); the 'found sculpture' of the literati, who plucked beautiful, bizarre objects -- pieces of jade, stones, weirdly-shaped roots of trees -- out of their natural settings to be admired and contemplated in the studio; and, most recently, soapstone sculptures of the young Mao Zedong (or one or two other key Communist heros), exemplary idealized figures to motivate the masses, if not made, then inspired by, that new Central Asian power, the Russians.

And that is about it. While not denying that some of the Tang pieces can be very fine indeed, it has to be admitted that on the world scale of achievement of sheer plastic effect, China ranks far behind Africa, Europe, India, Indonesia and maybe even behind the monumental work of Latin America. You have to think about this if you want to assess the work of Wang Keping.

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