essays: idol hands

Wang Keping and the new Chinese sculpture, ii

Wang Keping was born in 1949 in Hebei, to a family of actors. He graduated from Middle School in Tianjin in 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. He became a Red Guard and was "sent down" to the countryside the following year. He worked as an actor, and a factory worker, over the next six years. Cultural revolution turmoil, and his experiences in Heilongjiang in Manchuria, Kunming in far-south Yunnan, and his home Hebei, were his university.

In 1975 he made his way to Beijing, wrangling a job as a scriptwriter and actor for the Central Broadcasting Station. By 1979, receiving a salary for writing plays that the station would never dare to perform, Wang fell in with a group of artist-activists who would become the Stars.

Wang Keping became a sculptor more or less on the spot. As he tells it, he was looking at an old wooden chair, and saw that he could make it into something. He saw something hidden, trapped, in the object, and saw his role as freeing it. He showed a few first pieces to artist friends, and they refuse to believe that the sculptures were his. "Don't bluff. Who really did these?" is the response he reports.

What explains this sudden discovery of sculpture? It was not surpising that Wang would be looking for a new form of expression. He was seeking a way of making political statements in a society where to do so was impossible, but where a new political understanding was yet to emerge. This was post-Mao Beijing: the old man was gone, the gang of Four disgraced, and no one knew what might happen next.

But why sculpture? For one thing, as an actor and worker, Wang is quite a physical-seeming person, strong, capable. He has the arms and shoulders of a sculptor. Secondly, as he freely admits, he was never trained in art, and didn't know how to draw. And for another thing, nobody else was doing sculpture! This gave him a lot of scope: "I found a medium for myself that is not limited by any rules of outward form, that leaves me totally free to express my feelings." Compare this freedom with the huge institutional weight that any ink painter must confront every time he wets his inkstone. With no school of sculpture, no established tradition, no community, Wang could explore sculpture in the same way he came to it, spontaneously.

Lastly he knew, or at any rate quickly found out, that sculpture would make a great impact.