Exciting work by Wang Keping to go on show in London

Regular readers of this site (yes, there are regular readers – more than a quarter of a million of you!) may recall our review of Sylvia Vetta’s documentary-style novel about the Star Group which shook the Chinese art scene to its foundations in 1979. http://chineseart.co.uk/book-review/published-today-an-atmospheric-novel-of-the-days-of-mao-and-the-star-group-of-artists/. Arguably the most important member of this group was sculptor Wang Keping and we were excited to see that Michael Goedhuis will be displaying one of his truly outstanding works in London October 5-9. 

Wang Keping was born in Beijing, China in 1949. In 1979 he co-founded The Stars (Xing Xing), an experimental artists’ collective that was born out of the atmosphere of open political activism during the “Beijing Spring.” He moved to Paris in 1984 where he began to explore the human form with a natural intuition of space and balance.

A self-taught artist, Wang Keping is known for his rounded, stylized wood sculptures, most of which are abstractions of the female body. After carving the figures out of single blocks of beech, ash, wild cherry, maple or oak, he lightly burns and then polishes the surface of each one to produce a smooth, lustrous effect. Wang Keping has exhibited widely throughout Europe, Asia and the United States, and his work has been collected by many notable institutions such as the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

Specialist Chinese dealer and enthusiast Michael Goedhuis has told us about his relationship with Keping, ‘Wang Keping and I became friends in the 1990s when I visited his studio in Paris. I had been aware of his significance for the avant-garde movement in China since the 1980s, and his role in co-founding The Stars (Xing Xing) group in 1979, during the time of the Beijing ‘Spring’.

‘We believe that he is the most important sculptor of Chinese origin working in the world today, not just for his critical contribution to the evolution of the Chinese avant-garde, but also for his creativity as an international sculptor. ‘Most of his work, as in Standing (2005), the sculpture illustrated, deals with the poignancy of the blend of vulnerability and resilience embodied in the female form. His love of the different personalities of different woods is a dominant feature of his work, and the carving of different trees – beech, ash, wild cherry, maple and oak – transmits nuances of interpretation. This particular work is of great beauty because of its sculptural form and also its luminous patination, which derives from his treatment of the surface of the wood.


‘Wang Keping has attracted a substantial international following and has been acquired by numerous museums throughout the world. I introduced him to Burghley House, the great Elizabethan stately home of the Marquess of Exeter in Stanford in the 1990s, where he carved three enormous sculptures from fully grown trees in the sculpture park. It was a bitterly cold January, and he orchestrated the sculptures from the ground through instructing the woodman who was using an electric saw to scythe through the branches and the trunk in order to create the sculptural figures. ‘

You can see the sculpture Standing on display at PAD London in Berkeley Square between October 5 and 9.

Published today, an atmospheric fictional account of the days of Mao and the Stars Art Movement

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Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Claret Press www.claretpress.com Paperback £7.99

I suppose I did not find this an easy read. This is a story which starts in that most turbulent time in 20th century China during the days of the excesses of the Red Guards and The Gang of Four, all presided over by Mao Tse Tung at his most ruthless and insouciant. Many of these passages are intensely disturbing to the reader: a mark of the success of the author, Sylvia Vetta, in taking us back to this traumatic time of fear and loathing. As the book moves on to the late 1970s and the short-lived The Stars Art Movement, there is time for some humour amongst the repression of the artists and their supporters. For a while, optimism flourishes.

At one level it is a bitter critique of the political process in China, at another a reminder of the tortuous development of the artistic process in a country which had long repressed individualism. At yet another, it is the story of the young and sensitive Xiaodong (trs. ‘Little Winter’), her loss of innocence and her painful rites of passage. The schoolgirl Xiadong recounts, ‘I went on the rampage. At the back of an old temple were niches filled with little statues of Buddha. Over excited, we smashed the heads off. It didn’t feel right but my friends were screaming with excitement . . . Our holy places were where Chairman Mao had walked, lived or swam . . .’.

Seen through the eyes of a young girl born to be an artist, there is a constant disturbing ring of authenticity about this book. Much of that, I giuess, can be traced back to the genesis of this book when Sylvia Vetta met Qu Leilei, himself one of the Stars, and a series of long interviews resulted.

Brushstrokes in Time066

The climax of this book comes as The Stars display their paintings, woodcuts and sculptures outside the National Gallery in 1979 in an act of impetuous boldness. That, of course, actually did happen. But we have to remember this is a novel and not a factual account. Perhaps because it is so skilfully executed by Sylvia Vetta, I had considerable difficulty in seeing this book just as a novel: the suspension of disbelief is challenging as we meet the various real participants in the Star Art Movement, including the now internationally renowned Ai Weiwei. When the author writes of the actions of the fictional characters like Ai Weiwei, Qu Leilei, Ma Desheng, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Bo Yun and Wang Keping, who were actual participants in the Movement, I found myself saying, ‘Did Ai Weiwei really do that?’, ‘Is this drawn from fact, or is it simply fiction?’ Of course, it is a bit of both.

This is a problem with this book, the problem of the invisible coalescing of fact and fiction. For me that raises more questions than answers. Perhaps I am being over critical. It should certainly be on the ‘must read’ list of anyone interested in the politics and the art of 20th century China. The Stars were crucial in provoking change in China: not just in art but in politics and consciousness. What about another book, drawing upon your excellent sources, Sylvia: the real story of The Stars Art Movement?

Paul Harris