WANG GUOFENGWho is He? What Did He Say?, 2013, photograph printed on Canson paper, 140 × 203 cm, Copyright the artist, Courtesy De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong.


Wang Guofeng

de Sarthe Gallery
China Hong Kong

Who are they? What happened here? The bold type that stretches across 16 large black-and-white photographs reads like questions from a crime investigation scene. Though blurred, certain iconic political structures and figures, such as Tiananmen Square and Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, are easily made out—the most topical of the bunch, whistleblower Edward Snowden, is betrayed by the strange emphasis on the stubble on his chin.

Currently on view at De Sarthe Gallery, “News” is Chinese artist Wang Guofeng’s solo debut in Hong Kong. Known for his saturated and minutely detailed images of socialist architecture in China and the former Soviet Union, the works displayed here deviate significantly from the artist’s previous documentary aesthetic. International media clippings have been blown up and printed on textured paper, then rendered even more indistinct with the aid of computer-generated special effects. The selection, application, reproduction and modification of these images forges, according to curator Huang Du, “a new kind of real form.” Like his previous works, which seek to locate a human pulse within the austere landscapes of socialism, in “News” Wang attempts to carve out a subjective space within the nebulous global media circuit. 

WANG GUOFENG, Is This a True Story, 2013, photograph printed on Canson paper, 140 × 203 cm, Copyright the artist, Courtesy De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong.

How Far is it Between You and the Truth?
 (all works 2013), a red and white neon sign placed prominently at the gallery’s entrance, voices the crux of the exhibition, which relates to what images are intended to say and their susceptibility to interpretation. The questions spelled out across each of the 16 works in the show urge the viewer to reconsider the multiple meanings contained within each photograph and to refuse their propagandization in news reports. The problem is that the text appended to the image by Wang itself seems to preclude such reflection.

It is true that “no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning” as the curator, quoting Susan Sontag, proclaims. But, Wang’s bold sans serif words are imposing, reproducing the authoritative tone that newspaper headlines lend their supporting images by directing the flow of thought in one particular direction. The pictures themselves, transposed to the gallery setting, are already presumed to be art—hence regarded with the attending set of viewing conventions, that is, ideally, with more criticality or at least marked ambiguity—and therefore the questions seem slightly redundant.

WANG GUOFENGWho is He? Whom is He Waving at?, 2013, photograph printed on Canson paper, 140 × 203 cm, Copyright the artist, Courtesy De Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong.

Another detail of the exhibition that stands out is Wang’s selective blurring of the images’ surfaces. In What Happened Here? What is He Doing?, for example, a fully decked-out G.I. stands leaning against a pillar. While Wang’s manipulation has simplified the soldier’s visage to cartoonesque proportions, the details of the weapon he holds are more pronounced. This ebbing fog may illustrate, as Wang himself puts it, the “collective (sub) conscious” of a public which is granted only superficial knowledge of current events, or emphasize how one’s focus is subliminally curbed. In any case trying to discern whether these irregularities are random or intentional is perplexing.

In the video component of the show, the artist himself reiterates the questions once more, against a backdrop of pitch black. His emphatic hand gestures and meaningful gaze seem to make further demands that the viewer assume his or her own decisive role.

Wang’s work reflects the anxiety of an artist suspended between China’s dual ideologies of socialism and capitalism. Stemming from this contradiction,  he seeks to refuse the authority granted to images and increase the public’s “media literacy.” But the works in “News” appear glossed with the artist’s own sloganeering. A more effective approach might be to offer alternative readings of a more precise nature, to illustrate the types of information a more inquisitive eye can reveal.  As it stands, the images run the risk of being subsumed, along with all others, into the rapid tides of consumption.

“News” is on view at De Sarthe Gallery through December 21, 2013. 

Ming Lin is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.