Wang Dong: The Body as Medium

How else can photography portray ‘Nude’ after erotic websites have become synonymous with the term ‘Nude’?

Even today, when modernisation is generally complete, nude art photography is more likely to fall into a rut than any other subject matter, and attract criticism, not only because of the cognitive contradictions caused by differences in cultural awareness but also the evolution of the human body from an object of expression to a symbol in the development of Chinese and Western art. From the nineteenth century onwards, with the academic articulation and departure of the body art (Depictions of nudity) from contrived poses of the human body in the academy (in the mid-1930s, many categorised art students’ use of photographs to perceive the ‘material’ of professional anatomy as nude photography). How the body should be perceived and how to respond to this old and parochial subject matter seemed hard to be isolated from eroticism.

Until the awakening of performance art in the 1950s avant-garde experiments used the body as an element and the Viennese activists’ use of bodily secretions such as blood, tears and urine as “weapons”. Nude art was finally interpreted in a way that went beyond its original concept. But from a photographic point of view, how else can we create images through the nude/body? How else can photography portray the ‘nude’, especially after erotic websites have become synonymous with the ‘nude’?

Apart from being a document of performance art and a subject for photography, nude photography is also one of the most common forms of work between performance art, photography and documentation. The bodies covered in cracked clay or wrapped in cloth like mummies are a prophecy of everyday life and death that the artist deals with by way of arrangement, which echoes the words of Genesis: You are dust, and to dust, you will return to dust. Dieter Appelt strives to express what he calls “the extreme grief and sorrow of being human” by imperceptibly stacking the same photograph or adjusting the number of exposures, photographically transforming the “body” into a profoundly raw sculpture. By imperceptibly stacking the same photograph or adjusting the number of exposures, he turns the body into a kind of primitive sculpture with profound meaning.

John Coplans (1920–2003), a former critic, began photographing his own naked body (often in close-up) in 1985, breaking down the conceptual and symbolic boundaries of the body and creating an abstract flat ‘sculpture’ by showing the relentless marks left on it by the passage of time.

However, in Dong’s work the human body is not constructed as an artificial sculpture, but as natural creatures. Dong presenting an abstract theatre concealing the act. The tone of this ‘theatre’ is unapologetically derived from the physiological instincts of human nature. How does the human body function in its creation and how does it eventually become a vehicle (like an oil canvas) for such a post-80s person who grew up in a non-Christian culture?

Dong is a native of the Zhuang ethnic group in Nanning, Guangxi, and he lived with his parents in Nanning until he enrolled in the Central Academy of Drama in China, where he majored in stage design. His father was a set designer for the 86th edition of Journey to the West, and his mother was a costume designer for the CCTV version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin. Wang said he grew up in the theatre, and the dressing box backstage was his bed in his childhood. He made his mind clear since primary school that he wanted to major in stage design at the Central Academy of Drama when he grew up, hoping to become a stage designer just like his parents.

After graduating from university, Dong returned to his hometown and worked as a university teacher for nearly five years, before enrolling in the Boston University School of Drama in his fourth year of practice majoring in scenic design. However, he soon realised the difference between the ideal and reality. Boston University is a very standard American-style traditional school of theatre, with its own set of teaching systems. Dong felt the established rules of American theatre are more fixed than those of European theatre, and the atmosphere does not encourage thinking outside the box. In Dong’s eyes, hand painting and practise in the theatre are the most valuable asset, other aspects of the theatre have constrained his thinking, and he gradually discovered that the artistic expression of theatre could be limited by the opinions of bureaucrats, the cost control of the funding, the friction of the collaborative team, etc., which are not as close to the self-expression of the artist as photography.

Since 2005 the concept of photography as a creative medium has been nurtured in Dong’s mind. The gap between his interest and his dream made him give up scenography and took on the role of a nude photographer. As his photographic language has matured, Dong has gradually brought ‘theatre’ and ‘performance’ into his photography. From his early “Forbidden City-themed photographs” to the gradual transformation of the human body into a symbol, and then the human body is developed into a canvas-like vehicle. The “context” in Wang Dong’s photography has been put aside after several stages of transformation. The medium itself (including properties, texture, symbolism, etc.) becomes the object of attention. Photography began to become an ideology he confronted and expressed. Perhaps sex is one of the primitive instincts that the author expresses and what else can we see besides desire? What are we looking at through a seemingly erotic lens?

The conversation is a way of understanding why artists create what they do and how we can think. In this edition of CA Talk, we interviewed nude photographer Wang Dong in his studio in Xuhui District. The studio is set up like a theatre — a loft space divided into different ‘scenes’: underneath the ground, floor loft is a theatre-like dressing room; in the clockwise direction is a backstage dressing room. In the reception area, two heavy wooden easels hold his recent sketches; and in the open ‘studio’ opposite the sofa, a small snake is coiled in a seemingly insignificant glass box……

The making of an experience

CA: Are you a native of Nanning Zhuang?

Wang Dao: Yes

CA: Is there a specific way of thinking about the “body” or the “person” in the Zhuang culture? I mean, where does this ‘experience’ come from?

Dong: No, I don’t even think that my behaviour and values are influenced by local culture, and if they are, it’s just by chance. If I had to find a source of experience, it would be my parents’ influence — my father was a stage designer and a painter, my mother was a costume designer and formerly a dancer, so when I was a child I could often see paintings of the human body in my houses, such as the classic masterpieces or my parents’ sketches of the human body, and so on. That was the origin of my visual experience, I think. Maybe I was “told” that it was art before I could remember or even know what was right or wrong.

CA: It was your parents’ dream to study stage design, but why did you end up as a photographer?

Dong: Theatre has too many constraints, and it’s very difficult to get approval, whether in terms of expression, presentation or content. But also because of the theatre background, it is easier to do photography, such as directing the movement of the models, creating the atmosphere of the scenes, and even lighting and scenery, which are the same as the work of a theatre director.]

CA: What do you think of theatre as a form of expression?

The atmosphere of the scene and the mood change during the performance, the reactions of the actors and the audience, etc., are all highly episodic, so the energy of theatre is very powerful and can instantly summon the energy of the audience, which is the main reason why it is so strictly regulated.

CA: So you are consciously adding ‘theatrical’ expression to your photography?

Dong: It’s a subtle influence that comes out naturally in the work, there’s no intention to change or add any experience to it. These experiences don’t need to be deliberately achieved but are gradually internalised in the artist’s behavioural habits as he works year after year, and then flow naturally in his creations.

CA: When did you first start working with the camera?

Dong: When I was studying at the Chinese Theatre, there was a course called “Observation Life Practice”, where I found interesting scenes in life and needed to make models of them on a real scale. Later on, I found photography interesting, and while I was collecting material, I also liked to take pictures, and gradually I got into it. I might mention my father here, who was a famous painter in Guangxi. As he was educated in the Soviet-style of painting when he was young, he valued painting so much that he always thought that a “creation” that could be done by pressing a shutter was not art.

I started painting at the age of ten and, influenced by him, I also thought for a long time that photography was not a creation, but a technical tool, and only later did I come to believe that this was a biased view. He once discussed a question with me: if there was a fire in your house and you could only save one thing at that moment, what would you save? My dad’s answer was not any of his paintings, but a photo album, because it contained his memories. But if you think about it, you will find it ironic that a man who despised photography so much would end up thinking that it was not the paintings that were important, but the photographs, because although they were not works of art in his eyes, they were indeed the bearers of memories.

You could say that my father helped me to establish my early views and my conceptual standards in painting, including his admiration for Soviet-style painting — the combination of modelling and impressionistic painting styles, the emphasis on training in modelling skills, the importance of light and shade and the relationship between warm and cold, etc. -I gradually questioned these ideas as an undergraduate, and they were largely reversed when I came to America.

CA: What were some of the ideas and habits that were overturned by your study experience in the US?

Dong: Art is not ‘trained’ to create. A graduate of a Chinese art school can be a good artist in a company, but it is very difficult to be an independent artist, not only because of the difference in talent, but also because of the soil, and the inherent thinking that is formed in a particular soil, which is a very big limitation to being an artist.

CA: I am curious, you have been imbibed by your father’s painting thinking for many years, and you have also followed the conventional art education mechanism in China, and even worked as a university teacher for five years, yet there is hardly any logic of early painting thinking in your final creations, how did you completely abandon these established thinking and habits? I always think it’s impossible for a person to completely strip away his or her own experience.

Dong: It is not completely abandoned, but because of the change in thinking, there is a change in the way of working and the method of creation, which is not as difficult as one might think, it is just one more way. A simple example is that in the past, when we studied painting, whether as students or later as teachers, we would ask our students to paint still life in a routine manner. However, in the US, no one would require the model to stay still, and the model would change her movements in 5 minutes. Students needed to learn to capture the qualities and dynamics of the figure in a very short period, so they had to give up detailing and being thorough.

Borrowing & Transformation

CA: When did the female body become a central element in your work?

Dong: When I started using the logo WANIMAL, W is the initials of “Wang” and ANIMAL is “animal”, which also means animal sex, lust, animal, etc., so I used it to mean “move”. “I started using this ID in 2009. I started using this ID in 2009 and have been shooting nudes since then.

CA: I don’t think it was clear from the beginning that you wanted to express yourself through the female body as a theme.

Dong: It’s instinctive to like beautiful women. I first started taking pictures of beautiful women in 2005, but at that time, many of the pictures were just sugar water pictures of beautiful women wearing sexy clothes and posing in a variety of ways. I soon realised that such photographs could not exist as works of art, but I could not find any other way until I saw the work of a very interesting person in the photography circle — Mr Chen Nong — on the display wall of a coffee shop. The effect was very similar to that of Jan Saudek. The effect was very much like Jan Saudek’s photography. So I approached him and asked him to take a picture of my girlfriend (who is now my wife) with this feeling. I don’t know if he refused or encouraged me, but it was almost as if his words changed me — he said to me: why don’t you do it yourself. And so it was that my first nudes were taken of my wife, the year was 2005 and I was in my second year of undergraduate studies.

CA: Since the beginning, has it been easy to find nudes?

Dong: The Body as Medium

How else can photography portray ‘Nude’ after erotic websites have become synonymous with the term ‘Nude’?

Even today, when modernisation is generally complete, nude art photography is more likely to fall into a rut than any other subject matter, and to attract criticism, not only because of the cognitive contradictions caused by differences in cultural awareness but also because of the evolution of the human body from an object of expression to a symbol in the development of Chinese and Western art. From the nineteenth century onwards, with the academic articulation and departure of the body art (Depictions of nudity) from the contrived poses of the human body in the academy (in the mid-1930s, many categorised art students’ use of photographs to perceive the ‘material’ of professional anatomy as nude photography), it was difficult to imagine how the body should be perceived. It was difficult to imagine how to respond to this old and parochial subject matter, and it seemed that no response could escape the filter of eroticism.

Of course, I think my wife has a lot to do with the fact that I have been creating nudes since 2005 — she is a professional in Chinese dance and has a very professional concept of body perception and awareness, she was my first model, and later she introduced her friend who was a model for a car show with her to modelling as well.

CA: Did you ever think about using your body as an element or a symbol to express yourself at that time?

Dong: No.

CA: What about now?

Dong: Now I am aware of this and have the tendency to do so. Especially in the current environment, it has become difficult to use the body as a symbol, so it is more meaningful to symbolize this element because it is valuable only when it is difficult.

CA: What do you mean by “the general environment”?

Dong: The social and public opinion environment has a demonising perception of the subject matter and style of “nude photography”, but, in any domestic or international photography textbook, nude photography is included in the category of photography, and is on the same level as landscape photography, humanities photography, sports photography, commercial photography and fashion photography. It is the same category as landscape, humanities, sports, commercial and fashion photography. Last year I was detained for three months for the content of my book, which was judged to be pornographic by the relevant authorities. Even though I explained why the photographs were not erotic, the number of photographs was only slightly reduced after the second judgement, and the criteria for judging “pornographic or not” were still the same: “whether or not the photographs were explicit”. “. But if such a criterion is applied, then many of the most famous paintings and sculptures in the history of art would be erotic and obscene. I am willing to obey the law, but I don’t think I am creating pornography, my self-reflection is that some of my works don’t comply with the current laws and regulations and don’t seem very ‘artistic’.

CA: You were first boycotted by public opinion and even named in the news broadcast because of the Forbidden City beauty pictures?

Dong: More or less. I was still studying in Boston at the time, and Men’s Wear asked me to do a column for them, so I thought that since I was in Beijing, I would do a photoshoot in the Forbidden City — I was working on a series that was trying to combine the human body with famous historical buildings around the world. I didn’t have any particular idea of what I wanted to do, I just wanted to see how it would work from a scenography point of view. I went back to the States after that shoot and only later did I see the news and find out that the story had festered.

CA: Did the relatively large scale work you did have nothing to do with your youthfulness?

Dong: It is somewhat related. Being young and in good health, I thought people who didn’t like large scale should go to the hospital for a physical examination. In addition, the mainstream view of art at the time was so crushing to public perception that it created a concept that the only way to create what the general audience would consider “big scale” was to create a buzz and get more applause. This has led to the notion that the only way to create what is considered ‘large scale’ by the average viewer is to create buzz and gain more applause. Art is not created for the sake of eye candy, and it is not criticised for the sake of criticism. Later on, after the prison sentence, I was able to open up some ideas in my work.

CA: What ideas have been opened up?

Dong: Powerful expression doesn’t necessarily mean tearing everything apart. Nakedness can strike at the heart and produce a shocking effect.

CA: You said earlier that for you now, the female body is already an elemental symbol. What do you think of this symbol?

Dong: She means the reproduction of human beings, which is a human instinct and a genetic instinct. Although human society has developed rituals and shame over thousands of years of history, human beings, like other living things in nature, are natural creatures, and clothes, accessories and so on, are industrial products that arose from the knowledge of rituals and shame. I think that a clothed human being in nature is as out of place as a plastic bag or a Coke bottle in a forest that is rich in natural life. In this way, clothing is the equivalent of a plastic bag or a Coke bottle for nude photography or, to a lesser extent, body art. I’m always looking for something more essential, so I like the bones, the limbs, the organs and other elements of the human body because they are more essential.

CA: I think it has something to do with your perspective as a male, right?

Dong: Physical intuition is the basis, so I like to photograph beautiful women, which is the starting point of the male perspective you mentioned, but it is not the fundamental reason. You can understand that an artist prefers to paint with oil paint rather than ink, just because he likes the texture of oil paint more.

CA: Do you use this ‘medium’ as a vehicle to construct a theatre/situation by adding another complementary object or scene?

Dong: You could say that, but often it’s not done deliberately. Often it is an inspiration that triggers me to construct a scene, rather than me putting the scene into the photography and then enhancing the situation. For example, the snake you just saw was inspired by a friend I know from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who studies insects and amphibians, and one day he said he would give me a snake. The snake was treated as a secondary object.

I had a theme this year called ‘Body for Body’, I wanted to do a bridal shoot, inspired by some of my ‘lost love’ models. I thought, maybe it’s because of the industry, maybe it’s because of the change in the objective environment and attitude of young people towards love, marriage and reality. Now that there are more choices, it is not so easy to enter into marriage. This series will also use the body as a vehicle and will present two corresponding works, one with the bride dressed up, and one with the body half-naked or completely undressed, to express the values and awareness of contemporary women’s self-ownership of marriage and the body. The series is still in the making.

CA: You have a series called “Skeletons”, in which I see something related to the concept of life and death.

Dong: It’s a bit of a reflection on the concept of life and death, that series is related to the death of my father. My father passed away from cancer. Before he passed away, I talked to him about whether he would donate his body after he died and he was very much in favour of it. So after his death, I approached the Red Cross and donated his body to the medical university for an autopsy. During the autopsy, I found that the cancer cells had infiltrated his bones, so I was inspired to make a set of works using skeletal bones, forming a correspondence between an already incomplete skeleton and a complete human body. Have you ever thought about the fact that the skin of a human being is also a “garment” and underneath it is all bones?

CA: Would you consider the human body to be a perfectly constructed machine?

Dong: The human body is not perfect, but imperfection still has a strong attraction for me. Many people ask me whether I like big or small breasts, and I say I like both big and small, it depends on the shape.

“Intuition” to “language”

CA: After talking for so long, I think the way you work is triggered by a certain inspiration to create a corresponding subject matter, but it is still clear what you are interested in (or what the topic is), it may not seem like there is a pattern, but there is an inner thread of relationship running through it. But what I want to ask is, even if you don’t consciously dig deeper into one point, have you considered extending it horizontally?

Dong: I think many artists work intuitively, thinking about why they made something after they have made it, and then adding some interpretation to it. I don’t go to such trouble, creation is a very intuitive thing, it’s a feeling of “this is how I want to shoot, this is how I want to shoot, it’s awesome”, how you want to interpret it is your business. I think what is good is good, it doesn’t matter if you dig deeper or extend it horizontally, it’s not necessarily good art if you dig deeper.

CA: If you were to divide your work from 2009 to the present, could you divide it into series?

Dong: The earliest black and white photography can be considered a series. From my profession, the series where the human body is placed in a large architectural scene, this series includes what you call “The Beauty of the Forbidden City”, and then there is a series that directly presents the human body itself, followed with series that combine the human body with animals. I don’t classify my work structurally or scientifically but in terms of subject matter and elements.

CA: You don’t seem to think that the use of ‘theatre’ should be taken seriously in your work? Do you think it’s a natural part of your work?

Dong: For me, yes, I come from a theatre background and it will definitely be reflected in my work, whether I intentionally add or build a theatre to present it or not, that theatricality will be there. Besides, photography itself is performance art, the English word for performance art is “performance”, which is essentially acting. The model is responding to the photographer’s demands, descriptions, themes and so on, under the camera, and this is a kind of ‘performance’. The difference is that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I build the descriptions and the movement of the model on an instinct of theatrical thinking.

CA: How did the creation of NFT art begin?

Dong: Because Beeple’s overpriced digital work at Christie’s brought the art world’s attention to NFT, and I naturally became interested in it as well. Then a friend in digital finance suggested I could give it a try, and as I’m not averse to new things. I browse through many websites, articles, and realised I didn’t need to do any NFT, it was just a tool. But I also liked what my friend said about the concept of “leek cutting” in the financial world, and I thought it was interesting to respond to that. So I went to a vegetable greenhouse on the outskirts of Shanghai — a shed dedicated to growing leeks — and got a model to cut the leeks there, completely naked, wearing a transparent mackintosh and holding a scythe in his hand, with a handful of leeks in the pocket of the transparent mackintosh. This set of four images was uploaded and sold immediately.

CA: What do you think the future of NFT art will become?

Dong: I can’t make a judgement. Just like the series “Chives” that I just mentioned, leeks are meant to be cut no matter how good or bad they grow. For me, the idea of NFT taking a piece of work and adding a public chain to it and turning it into an eternal existence is quite interesting.