UMMA interview with Wang Qingsong

Wang Qingsong,  The Bloodstained Shirt

Wang Qingsong, The Bloodstained Shirt

From February 2nd until May 26, Wang Qingsong’s work The Bloodstained Shirt will be on display at UMMA’s Irving Stenn, Jr. Family Gallery. To learn more about Wang’s work, Dr. Natsu Oyober, Curator of Asian Art at UMMA, sat down with Wang for an interview. In this interview, Wang discusses why Detroit? And other background information on the creation of his newest work.

Interview conducted by UMMA staff, transcribed and translated by Zhang Fang and Wang Gerui, and edited by Eric Couillard. Click here to read the original interview in Chinese: 中文版

UMMA: Please tell us about your choice of Highland Park and the location; my understanding is that your original idea was to shoot in Beijing - what made you interested in Detroit?

WQS: The original idea was to choose the metro area of Greater Detroit. For Chinese people, Detroit seems quite big and impressive, representing the production industry and its glory in US history. I traveled to the downtown area and surrounding locations a couple of times in 2017. I just wanted to find a building that was comparatively far-out and dilapidated. This Highland Park location was perfect for that. So it was decided to be the shooting location.

UMMA: What does the piece say about Detroit and Highland Park? What does the piece say about China? And who is it speaking to?

WQS: Since 1997, I have been thinking about making this photo. I did check upon locations in Beijing. I had been considering this work. I also looked for locations in Beijing. As the time changed, I decided to find another locale instead of Beijing which might be more interesting. Detroit metro-area seemed to be more appropriate to tell the story between the U.S. and China.

UMMA:: Why did you choose Highland Park to represent Detroit? Does it give a good impression of the city of Detroit?

WQS: Firstly, this scenario in Highland Park was much like the scene in the original drawing of “Blood-stained Shirt.*” Physically it has such different structures and varieties. Some locations are at higher and lower places, some far some close. These are all good things for taking this photograph. I chose this location mostly because of the scenario necessity rather than the real location. Here by chance they overlapped.

*Editor’s note - Wang’s photograph is based off a drawing by a Chinese artist in the 1950s, also called “The Bloodstained Shirt” - keep reading for details

UMMA: What parallels do you see between the two cities, Beijing and Detroit area?

WQS: Detroit was quite similar to Beijing, experiencing drastic development and fast tempo. It was much like Beijing. Now Greater Detroit Area endures a slow recovery. It is reactivated with something in the making with urban movement. For example, the first day we saw an old factory where we planned to shoot which was fenced up a few months later. I believe this location will not be replaced by a new factory or a new building. In the future, this location might disappear or a new building might appear here. We cannot imagine what Beijing will be like in the future. Probably Beijing might go into decay after aggressive development, like Detroit. All these are unexpected. The whole world is like this. From the early industrial revolution onwards, many countries and cities result in decay, up to this current made-in-China epoch transgression. I think this is a process. The idea of made in China is obsolete. Factories are moving towards south-east Asia, even far out to South America. I estimate such an unpredictable future cannot be clear-cut.

UMMA: Why did you like/choose this specific site

WQS: The pursuit for the right location was complicated. We looked at factories in some locations which were much bigger and dilapidated. But their structures were not that ideal. Also, Detroit metro-area is recovering slowly but surely. Some of the locations we scouted might have been demolished. Finally Highland Park was discovered, not only because of its immensity, but also its similarity of location outlook and structure to the drawing “Blood-stained Shirt”. Moreover, it did not seem to be demolished within a short time. Its outlook was quite similar to the one requested for my photo shoot. We wanted to find something interesting but also similar to the scene.

As for the actors, we wanted to find people related to Detroit area. We needed a lot of support in looking for the people. Luckily, the University of Michigan (U-M) helped out which made it possible. After some selections, we had people from U-M, local people provided by Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe, bypassing people during the shoot, as well as my own children and some friends.

UMMA: What would an equivalent photo look like with the locations reversed?

WQS: I had found some locations similar to this one in Beijing. One had fake mountains behind. It had an archway too. Here people shot “Dream of Red Mansion”. That location was much closer to the scenario in the original drawing. Also in choosing actors, if shot in Beijing, I might look for more actors who looked like typical Chinese farmers and the costumes of more of Chinese traditional style around Land Reform period. I would consider more proximity to the original drawing. However, shooting in Highland Park, I needed to adjust the costumes and actors.

Wang Shikuo, “The Bloodstained Shirt”

Wang Shikuo, “The Bloodstained Shirt”

UMMA: Tell us about the choice of the drawing, “Bloodstained Shirt”

WQS: The drawing “Blood-stained Shirt” was done by Professor Wang Shikuo in 1950s. Originally he did not mean to create a drawing. Instead, it was meant to make a bigger oil work. Once this drawing was finished, he had always wanted to finish the oil work. As he constantly changed sections on the oil work, he just completed a couple of small oil works only. None of them were finalized.

UMMA: How does the Blood-stained Shirt relate to your photograph?

WQS: The reason I wanted to recreate a piece of photography based on this work was to express my tribute to the deep feelings of Chinese people towards land reform, and to represent that scene in the current social setting. There are many interpretations to land reform. To this day, we still face all kinds of problems because of land reform policies and demolition/relocation projects. Moreover, my photo work not only talks about land reform, but also discussed the problems of the manufacturing industry in the world. These issues are mixed up to expose the multidimensional social issues and their connections. So through the original drawing, I want to expose similar issues that China must face and handle after so many years of economic reconstruction and modernization drive. So that was my intention.

UMMA: Is the “landlord” in the photo wearing a jacket of labels because we have become so focused on consumerism - that the major companies have become our landlords?

WQS: In my photo, the robe I put on was made out of many logos I removed from over 1,500 used clothes. In the original drawing, it was an old-fashioned Chinese-style long robe, worn by the landlord. This new robe with world-wide fashion icons and logos can represent this new landlord’s richness as well as different industries and businesses. So this robe has loads of labels symbolic of many ideas and enterprises. You can say he is a big business CEO or a landlord. He represents an image which does not refer to any particular brand. It is a complete whole. Overall, the image of landlord represents conflicts and contradictions.

UMMA: How did your thoughts about the project change/evolve as you worked on it, over these two trips?

WQS: In the course of recreating this work, I was supported intensively by friends like Eric Couillard and John DeRuiter who took me to scout the locations multiple times. Due to constant demolitions and cleaning-up, we needed some backup locations in case they would be demolished. Most of the locations we chose have been cleaned up by now. Maybe these properties and lands were purchased by new owners and turned into new plazas or blocks. Hence locations created constant challenges. Moreover, I had to consider the shooting time. We estimated to take the photo around 3pm in February 2018. So I needed to figure out the direction of the sun for lighting. We also had to consider the direction of the building as well as lighting effect on the building structure and people. So going to the location four or five times helped me to find the best time.

UMMA: Why did you want to include this community in this project. Can you talk about the decision to include a second opportunity for dialogues?

WQS: Actually when I thought of shooting this photo in Detroit metro area, I decided to work with students, volunteers, local community people, including institutions such as U-M, U-M Confucius Institute and Center for Chinese Studies, and etc. Secondly, we wanted to involve the local community to make this work more relevant. We went to the neighborhoods and found two care centers. However, it was really complicated as it involved a lot of legal issues to work with seniors. We had to resolve this local people issue. Then we found Nandi’s Knowledge Cafe across the street from the location. This cafe served as the best comfortable and warm space for the actors. Lucy, the owner of Nandi’s cafe, gave us a lot of welcome and support. We invited her to work as a liaison to connect with the local community so that this work could be more positive, participatory and relevant to the local people. I believe this work will engage with more local people in the community and such communication helps my work to elevate its implications.

UMMA: What does an art project owe to the people and place it is made?

WQS: After this work was completed, we found new discoveries. We gradually had a new sense of feeling and understanding about Detroit. We changed our impressions about Detroit. When I discussed with my Chinese friends about making this piece, they all thought that Detroit was dangerous. People there might pull out a gun if they were not in the good mood. Hence I was really careful when I scouted locations. Whenever someone showed up around us, I was super cautious not to cause any conflicts.

However through working with local people face to face, I realized they are really very nice, friendly and good-tempered people. They were not what we heard, thought, or imagined, like any stories that other photographers experienced in Detroit. I only have fond memories of working with them, their friendship and amenity. They were very cooperative and good-hearted. Think about it! Shooting a photo in such a cold weather in February! Without these local people and their understanding, this work would not have been finished. The weather was really fiercely cold. I could not tolerate the freezing weather. They stood there for more than three hours to help me finish this work. I really appreciate these people’s generosity in helping me and really it changed my overall impression of Detroit and its people. I am very thankful to their contribution. It is an amazing experience! I am so happy that this work was realized there.