Beijing is China's political and cultural centre. Wang Zi is a Beijing native, born and raised. He knows every alley, every wall, every great transition in the urban environment, all the new in places, all the big events, and therefore has a special fondness for Beijing inhabitants and the changes in their lives and customs. He reflects on problems, is engaged in the great debates in politics and culture and has his own views. In meetings and conversations with him, it occurred to me that I had a flawed understanding of the gap between my 1970s generation and the young 1980s generation that Wang Zi belongs to, never having experienced the harsh and meagre existence that marked our childhood.
I don't care at all how others see me; it would be best if I weren't viewed as an 'artist'. How others see me must not affect my life. – Wang Zi
Wang Zi is frank, straightforwardly answering questions about his latest love affair, and speaking openly about his personal thoughts and indecision when it comes to sex and love. The new generation has no need to dissemble. This permeates his work from 2005 onwards. Like he himself, his pieces are down-to-earth, succinct, unaffected. They seek what is visually appealing.
In this exhibition, we have chosen to display four works from his 2009 series Good Morning Comrade. The theme is the tension between the individual and the collective, the break between what lies inside and what lies outside the mainstream. The original inspiration came from the October 2009 TV news, showing the military parades in Beijing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the People's Republic. So many people in ranks, taking the exact same number of steps, with the same facial expression, their gazes all pointing the same way. The difference between individuals dissipates in the disciplined, well-coordinated common movements. President Hu Jintao used the phrase "Good morning comrades" to greet the parading soldiers. But "comrade", or tongzhi (literally: same will), is a word that has often been used to describe homosexuals since the 90s. Other sources of inspiration for Wang Zi's work include an illustrated magazine article about the recreation of inmates in a prison, in which they too have to follow a precisely determined set of movements, and group gymnastics for the staff of some restaurant chains, as many tourists have no doubt noticed.
In these pieces, the artist uses himself as the multiple "I". (His artistic pseudonym means "prince"). He turns into marines, migrant workers, Tibetan monks, table tennis players, docile inmates… All the individual "I"s are making the same collective movements in step, except for the "I" kissing "me". It becomes the viewer's visual entertainment to find the "I" that is different. Wang Zi has a specific purpose in using his own portrait image: all the individuals are an "I"; the "I"s kissing each other are different when it comes to sexual identity, but not fundamentally as people.
Wang Zi graduated from Tsinghua University in 2004, and has since held many exhibitions in China, the USA and Europe. I asked him if he has had trouble exhibiting pieces bearing homosexual themes. "Yes, I have. In 2009, I had an exhibition in a gallery in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing. Then, the works that you will be exhibiting in Stockholm were taken down before the opening. It is said that Public Security objected to the theme. Another time, I was exhibiting in Taiwan, and then customs wouldn't let the pieces through. They gave no reason, but I guess it had to do with homosexuality and the marine soldier motif. But at many other exhibitions, there's been no trouble whatsoever. China is a very special society, it has no rule of law, I never know what rules apply. When I did Good Morning Comrade, I was younger; now I keep a lower profile. Now I don't use homosexuality as a theme in my work."
I asked: "You're a young artist, but you've already attracted attention both in China and abroad. Are you worried about being viewed as a 'gay artist' and not as an 'artist'? Wang Zi replied: "I don't care at all how others see me; it would be best if I weren't viewed as an 'artist'. How others see me must not affect my life." I pressed on: "But your sexual identity is an important part of your identity. Isn't it a great pity to let pressure from the society around you get in the way of depicting a part of your inner self with your expressive visual language?" Wang Zi replied:
"Living in China that way is something we're already used to. Sexual identity isn't the be-all and end-all of someone's life and personality, or identity, as you put it. I just want to do what I want freely and happily, living a normal person's normal life.
Si Han, Curator
Wang Zi 王子
1983: born in Beijing
2004: graduated from the Academy of Arts & Design, Tsinghua University
Lives and works in Beijing