Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller

Buried Alive

Digging deeper into Wang Qingsong’s Archaeologist

A highlight of the exhibition “Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide” at the International Center of Photography (ICP) is the grisly staged work Archaeologist. In it, a young man in a pristine white tank top—surrounded by 30 muddied nude bodies in the center of a 9×24-foot pit—examines one of his “discoveries” with a magnifying glass. The chilling scene is illuminated by ethereal moonlight.

6 Wang Qingsong; Archaeologist, 2004; chromogenic print; © Wang Qingsong; Courtesy the artist

The work is particularly disturbing from an archaeological point of view: its title seems off. While archaeologists do find human remains at dig sites, their job is to study the material remains. Shouldn’t it be called Forensic Anthropologist? Also, the “archaeologist” is poring over fleshy corpses, not decomposing skeletons, and he’s working alone in the dead of night, more like a looter or tomb robber than an archaeologist.

Christopher Phillips, curator of the exhibition, helped me to understand the work from the artist’s point of view. Wang Qingsong, he points out, has long been an admirer of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer of the early 20th century. “When I first saw the work Archaeologist, I immediately thought that this was a continuation of the three or four works that Wang Qingsong has made that allude sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly to him,” says Phillips.

Lu Xun had started out as a young man training to be a doctor in Japan, but after contemplating what he thought was the “sad spectacle” of his country’s decline in the past 100 years, he instead become an essayist and a social critic. “He wrote in correspondence and repeated in many essays after that point that he had decided to switch from being a doctor who diagnoses individuals to more of a social analyst who diagnoses what he saw as the dire condition of his country,” says Phillips. “Wang Qingsong has said in interviews that Archaeologist grew out of his own feeling as he looked around China today and saw almost everyone in the country completely obsessed with material goods and making money.”

Fittingly, the central figure in the scene is the artist himself. “For my personal perspective, I sometimes think present-day human beings are deadened in mind and soul,” Wang Qingsong writes of the work on his website, “and their remains need to be reexamined in order to understand the reasons for their early demise, as a means of better understanding how we arrived at this moment of desire-obsessed contemporary society.” Perhaps the work’s title is just fine, then, and this eerie dig site should be devoid of artifacts.

This photo reminds me of the famous discoveries at Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi Province. There, some 8,000 lifelike terracotta warriors were interred more than 2,200 years ago in the elaborate tomb complex of Qin Shihuangdi, China’s first emperor—but they weren’t alone.

The magnificent phantom army guarded the ruler’s final resting place, which literally re-created the entire universe. According to the first-century B.C. historian Sima Qian, pearls twinkled on the ceiling in the light of whale-oil-filled lamps and mechanically powered mercury flowed through the tomb itself (not yet excavated), symbolizing great waters such as the Yangzi and Yellow rivers. But to the southwest of the lavish mausoleum, archaeologists have found mass graves containing more than 100 skeletons piled atop each other, some looking as though they had been struggling at the time of death, suggesting they were buried alive. These poor souls are believed to have been the laborers who built the tomb and were killed during or after the completion of the construction work.

Even though Archaeologist is not actually about archaeology, I can’t help but notice that one of the “finds”—on the far left of Wang Qingsong’s photo—appears to have one open eye.

Wang Qingsong: When Worlds Collide,” featuring 15 large-scale color photographs and a selection of recent videos, is on view at ICP through May 8.

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