The revealing new survey of photographs and videos by the Beijing-based photographer Wang Qingsong, which has just opened at the International Center of Photography in Midtown Manhattan, contains a 15 photos, many of them mural-sized, and three recent videos. One photograph, titled Blood of the World, perhaps the artist's most ambitious work, is missing from the show, but not because the curator, Christopher Phillips, thought it didn't belong. Rather, that photograph was destroyed by Chinese authorities shortly after it was made in 2006, when Wang was called in for three days of interrogation and was forced to turn over his negatives.
Wang Qingsong, whose photographs are a mix of Western and Chinese cultural icons, works on the grand scale of a movie director, setting up elaborate scenarios with dozens of models in order to take a single picture (he is often compared to Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall). Blood of the World was to be a monumental work, packed with reenactments of scenes of battle from famous paintings in western art history and infamous news photographs, from Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People to Eddie Adams' famous Vietnam-era Execution of a Vietcong Prisoner.
To make Blood of the World, Wang spent six months designing a set that took a month to build: 3,000 feet of mud and dirt, with towering hills and deep foxholes in front of a painted backdrop of a smoky sky. On the day of the shoot, he added several horses, two tanks, a truck, animal carcasses and 200 actors, many of them naked and smeared with paint to play the part of cadavers in the battle scene.
On an extremely cold day in November 2006, Wang Qingsong took his place atop a 50-foot-tall scaffold overlooking the set, which occupied an unheated hangar in the middle of an agricultural development about an hour outside of Beijing. Like a very calm general, he passed orders to his crew who then moved the extras into place. Everyone, especially those asked to disrobe, was freezing. The scene took more than four hours to set up.
The shoot was supposed to be top secret. In China it is illegal for more than 20 people to gather together without a permit. Nudity is also illegal, even if in no way pornographic. I was there that day, as was Matthew Collings and a BBC crew, who were covering the event for the British TV program This Is Civilization. The impressive proceedings would cost a small fortune if undertaken in London or Los Angeles. Wang's $50,000 budget was enormous by Beijing standards.
By the next day, Wang Qingsong knew that the project was in trouble. A Chinese reporter had shown up at the end of the day, and filed a story for the local paper asserting -- incredibly -- that an open-air orgy had taken place out by the highway from Beijing. China's former president Jiang Zemin read the account and ordered the mayor of Beijing to investigate.
Wang was called in for questioning and asked to prove that he was an artist, not a pornographer, a task that was made more difficult by the fact that much of the praise of his work is printed in English in western publications. He was eventually let go, but not before he surrendered his negatives for Blood of the World.
Some footage from the set of Blood of the World is available at the ICP in a short documentary video made by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, who had accompanied me to China. But Wang Qingsong’s photograph, a powerful commentary on the pervasiveness of a universal obsession with war, was never printed and must be presumed to be lost.
Wang had regularly made edgy works featuring mass nudity -- Yaochi Fiesta (2005) and Dormitory (2005), two such photos, are both in the ICP exhibition -- but now the artist no longer uses naked models. Still, as is proven by recent videos like Iron Man and 123456 Chops, he is still testing the limits of what an artist can get away with in China.
"Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide," Jan. 21-May 8, 2011, at the International Center of Photography, 1114 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10036
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).