Wang Qingsong’s 138-foot long mural titled The History of Monuments is an elaborate photo frieze. Part performance, part art Qingsong’s clever appropriation of the bas relief look using live models covered in mud history is part of this Chinese artist’s ongoing challenge to the orthodoxy of classicism in art — both Asian and Western. Born in 1966 in Heillongjiang Province, Qingsong originally worked as a painter before switching to photography in in 1996, a medium better suited to the rapid fire change in China. As cultural signposts — with religious, political or historical associations — the bas-relief has a long history of power association with the public.

Sited in a beautiful church space in Arles, France, The History of Monuments extends around three walls of the Eglise des Trinitaires, and is presented as part of this year’s Rencontre d’Arles photo festival. The video presented with the show shows the performance aspect of Qingsong’s art as two hundred live ”actor/models” are covered in tons of mud by assistants, stages are set up by craftsmen, and there are the lighting experts. The models are then set into cut outs in the mural construction to be photographed. Old and young in all states of life, and in all shapes and sizes assume classical poses….

As a work of art Qingsong’s latest project recalls classical Chinese paintings, and classical bas-relief public and church bronzes from Europe. There is a distant rapport here with Spencer Tunick’s, whose on site happenings all over the world present nude volunteers en masse. Like Qingsong’s Spencer Tunick’s are  recorded with a camera, then exhibited. In Qingsong’s mural we see what look like sage like older figures, lovers embracing, a panoply of figures and potentially enlightening imagery.

The effect of seeing this Monument as live theatre of a kind, brings the theme to life with a playful naturalism, and challenges notions of historicity. Qingsong also questions what the role of the artist has in creating, or endorsing history as a stereotype that fulfils the needs of the powers that be. For Qingsong The History of Monuments is a mural/relief that instigates a critical discourse on change in Chinese society with its overload of generalized metaphors for history. The History of Monuments is quite different from the photo-works that fuse western commercial cues and signs with Maoist propaganda techniques seen in Quingsong’s recent International Center of Photography show in New York. The present show is supported by BMW, with prints produced by Picto in Paris.  However Qingsong uses tradition yet again as a foil for an inoffensive critique of Chinese society.

What Qingsong has achieved is a major work of art that reflects on China’s changing role as a world power. How will China handle the responsibility of presenting an art that communicates something beyond simple popular art, and that initiates new values and goals for Chinese society? How can Chinese art enter into an international dialogue? Other fascinating shows at the Rencontre d’Arles  include Graciela Iturbide’s photos of Frida Kahlo’s bathroom in Mexico, only recently opened in 2006, that form the basis of a photo essay, and the Mexican Suitcase, recently printed photos by Robert Capa and Chris Marker’s photos of Korea taken in 1957. 

Arles, France Eglise des Trinitaires