Wen Fang’s Birthday Present

Wen Fang: cup in one hand, world in the other

Not for her, in fact, but from her. Paris-Beijing’s latest exhibition is Wen Fang’s gift to the world as it turns a year older, an installation/almanac of China in 2008. It’s the thought that counts: Wen Fang has departed from the contemporary art dynamic of “just try and guess what I was thinking”, and delivered on the modern artists’ ostensible compact with the rest of us, to take visual cues lurking in the public subconscious and rearrange them for new meaning.

The themes we hear about until we can’t listen, reckless economy and environmental degradation, the people we ignore to stay fat and happy, migrant workers and orphans, Wen Fang filters through a profoundly symbolic eye into fresh, unforgettable contexts.

Terracotta Figures of Civilian Workers in the Republic of China

A cynic might dismiss the migrant worker as too easy a subject, cheap material not only for today’s Chinese capitalist but also a tired sonata of plucked heartstrings. Economically, these guys in their flimsy plastic helmets are as dispensable as the laborers who made Lord Qin’s terracotta army. Look at the images on those bricks, though – they’re smiling, with real joy only people who know real pain can express. Now who’s more human, and who dwells on the fringes of 21st century reality?


But Chinese chafe when you bring up their poor, the way Yanks chafe when you bring up their wars for peace, so on to Wen Fang’s re-interpretation of China’s greatest achievement in modern communication, the CC – wait; why on earth would she give it a Japanese name?

For those who like their movies the way they like their love, exciting and new, Rashomon is a film that proves facts are flimsy things at best, second only to emotions for propping up our house-of-card convictions. Think sponsored-fact broadcasting gives you a grasp of what’s really going on? Then Rupert Murdoch is cackling evilly in a penthouse somewhere.

To Keep On Living

Sorry, Han pengyoumen, back to the rural Third Estate. Foreigners can’t help gawking – those orphan eyes speak a universal language. These are the Children of Madaifu, in northwest China. Some of them wear flip-flops in the winter, some can barely look you in the eye, but thanks to the French organization that works with them, they all have a shot at a better tomorrow. To Keep on Living shows us the important stuff transcends borders.

The Six Realms of Existence in Beijing

Six is a human number, not just to cabalists, Christians, and Gnostics, but to Tibetan Buddhists as well, who frequently portray the six phases of life necessary to reach Nirvana on ritualistic Thangkas. Wen Fang’s Thangkas reflect the all-too-human illusion that the phases correspond to material wealth, when in fact we’re all stuck in the third, only the most spiritually pure escaping.

The Stairs of Our Generation

If we hadn’t shown you, you’d know Wen Fang was a woman by her tendency to size people up by their footwear. The ladies have a point: a guy in crocs isn’t very likely to sweep them off their feet. Prostitutes, mayors, celebrities, and other mouths for hire all have their feet on Wen Fang’s stairway where, like life itself, “The feet on top time and again fall to the bottom.”


More than just an age-old game from Chinese culture, mahjong is Chinese culture. Its many tiles have no intrinsic value, but are recruited to build a Great Wall, fortunes rising and falling by which way the wind blows, whether one’s color is red or green. Wen Fang has personalized her mahjong set: wealth, food, and lust make suit, and cultural icons change luck. Like any mahjong game, though, and like life in China, winning depends totally on one’s relationship to the other players.


Wen Fang was on a bus home to the outskirts of Beijing on a typically gloomy day when she passed through an even gloomier migrant village. The air stank of feculence, and putrid, garbage-laden water coursed through a massive drainage ditch that fronted the shabby dwellings. A mongrel sniffed and recoiled from the water twice before plaintively lapping some up. These are the scenes most of us try to push out of our minds; Wen Fang was moved to document the filthy ditch, spurred by an old expression for times that can’t get worse, “knives raining down from the sky”.


It may be tough for an artist to admit, but the most beautiful man-made objects are those left to long-neglect and nature. Wen Fang’s discovered sections of old hutong wall are more splendid than the Forbidden City, more ornate than the richest brocade, and more fantastic than Journey to the West.

Wen Fang’s Birthday Present, on display at the Paris-Beijing Gallery until Jan.27 2010

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4 Responses to Wen Fang’s Birthday Present

  1. My favorites are “rain,” “walls,” and the murals at the end. Beautiful!

  2. great article.. as usual..

  3. Anonymous says:

    I enjoy your articles very much and eagerly await each new instalment. Thank you.

  4. Wen Fang adds a human touch by having pictures on the furnitures and displays. It brings life out of non living things.

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