Is Fang Lijun a Humanist ?
This essay, a comment on Karen Smith’s essay, “Fang Lijun : A Humanist in an Inhuman World ” is written in conjunction with Fang Lijun’s second solo exhibition at CP Foundation, Jakarta, Indonesia, March 2012.
Despite having to achieve it through art markets, Fang Lijun finally receives recognition within the global art world. A number of texts genuinely attempt to understand the idea behind his expressions. These texts show that his works are no longer seen as a mere commodity in the global art world.
These texts do not stop at recording Fang Lijun’s latest developments. As it is only fairly recently that Fang Lijun receives this recognition, they tend to delve deep into old stories, from a time of his first emergence, when he attracts global attention with his works, related to the great change happening in Eighties China, and the Tiananmen Square incident, Beijing, in 1989.
To introduce Fang Lijun to the art world in New York, Karen Smith wrote,
Fang Lijun is one of a small group of iconic Chinese contemporary painters to emerge in the 1990s (the first wave of Chinas ‘new’ artists in the post-Mao era to achieve an international reputation). The first public showing of his work — drawings made in 1988 whilst studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (1986-1989) — took place in Beijing in February 1989, as part of the China/Avant Garde [sic] exhibition. The drawings drew much attention, winning Fang Lijun’s distinctive vision an early taste of critical acclaim. In the coming years, this vision would become a powerful voice in “Chinese contemporary art”, both within China and abroad.
Interview with Fang Lijun
BR: People have been familiar with your work in Germany for about ten years now. Although there are coherent themes in it, you have consistently created new paintings and series over the years. Your interest in water and air often finds humans placed in those elements. Is this a conscious strategy, if you will, that you follow in your paintings. Is it something you would like to develop in the future?
FLJ: I don’t think I would call it a strategy. What I want to do is represent life through art.
BR: Is that all? Naturally, the paintings are there to look nice. But you put people in the air or in the water, or sleeping children in soap bubbles, for example. There must be something behind that. I can imagine that air holds a different meaning for people in China than in Europe. I guess people are always trying to find out what is behind your paintings. Sometimes they depict expansive landscapes with only one small figure in it, and sometimes you put people in the clouds and in the sky floating above the ground. Could you tell us more about these elements?
FLJ: These elements could be interpreted in different ways. Every human being, including artists, is always trying to identify himself or herself. But either physically speaking or spiritually speaking, one’s identity is often molded by the forces or society. Physically, we don’t have the option of choosing whether we want to be horn as human beings, or how we look in our own skin. Mentally, for example, a kid who grows up in a Palestinian family may naturally see Israel as an adversary, and vice versa. So people’s attitudes are also influenced by their environments. I put people in places like the sky because they represent the real situation of humans living in various states of delusion. These images don’t just represent me or Chinese people, but everybody around the world.
BR: Yes, that comes through Everyone in the paintings seems to be shrugging with hundreds of others. Looking at their faces, we try to figure out which one is mole appealing or interesting. People ale sometimes in a crowd or they are alone, but all of them seem to be fighting for survival. Even the little baby in the bubble is struggling. So all of your paintings depict survival situations. It looks very Chinese, but you are right, it belongs to all human beings.
FLJ: What I am interested in is using art to depict the various kinds of relationships between people. Traditionally, painters are interested in concrete scenes like twilight, the corner of a room, a portrait or a landscape. But in my opinion, for humans the most important thing is not the concrete surroundings but their abstract relationships with others. That tends to be the focus of my art.
BR: Your paintings also express another feeling, that of fear. At first glance the works appear very nice. Some of the people look comfortable, swimming in water for example, but then you have kids sleeping in a bubble surrounded by flies. I remember when I had young children I didn’t like them to be touched by anyone, especially not by flies. But you put babies among flies, which is scary. You also create other images involving fear. So what is the meaning behind these?
FLJ: As I said, I’m interested in the real relationships humans have and their feelings in those relationships. Well, fear is one of those feelings. The butterflies and flowers represent beauty while in reality flies and insects represent things that terrify us. We can be good students or hard workers in order to make money and gain respect, but in the end we are consumed and influenced by all these matters and complex interactions.
BR: Very interesting. I have heard from biologists and physicists that ultimately insects will survive but not human beings. So what about the water? I understand it can represent freedom. But it’s not always a peaceful place in your paintings. Sometimes it represents catastrophe or floods.
FLJ: Water in its different states relates directly to our lives indifferent situations.
BR: Let’s talk a little about your career. You achieved fame very early on. Do you feel that art in China is changing nowadays, and what about life for Chinese artists?
FLJ: Changes ill the artistic environment for me mean about as much as a change of clothes. It seems we Chinese artists are often changing clothes, expressing different colors and styles, but our inner spirits stay the satire.
BR: In Europe, we are astonished by what’s happening in China. Everything seems full on. Not only the economy is going strong, but Chinese contemporary art is also very popular among museums and collectors here, and works are fetching strikingly high prices at auction.
But I notice that these are only changes for a few artists. What is happening in general for other artists? Have there been improvements in the conditions for art and artists? Has it become easier to be a collector? Have relations with curators changed over the last ten to fifteen years?
FLJ: Yes, l think so. But I don’t think it’s possible really to generalize about the whole situation. Human nature doesn’t change. We all dream of being unique and improving and maybe even being better than others.
BR: I have this feeling, though, that intellectual debates and competition among artists in China might be a bit fiercer than in Europe. You have to be successful on the open market by selling your paintings. Maybe some artists focus more on the art market than on the quality of the art they sell. The same happens in Germany. Young artists follow t heir own dreams and values at the beginning of careers. And if they achieve success at a young age, some of them just want to continue with what made them successful rather than looking for new directions and potentially risking theft fame.
I believe you are not self-restricted and you lend Io do what you want. But some Europeans think maybe young Chinese artists are trying hard to change the direction of the market. Do you feel it’s a critical situation for Chinese art right now?
FLJ: Again, 1 can only talk about individual cases rather than the overall scene. Different people have different interests and concerns, including different interpretations of success. If an artist is concerned mostly about money, then of course he will play to the market. Some others insist on artistic explorations based on different values. So it’s difficult to generalize about Chinese artists on a standpoint like that.
BR: I see in the corner there a painting probably from the West, and over there a landscape painting with one tiny figure that seems more Chinese. Obviously you have a vast array of influences and a lot of resources at your disposal. Can you name any particular artists that you consider your main influences or do you see yourself as totally free?
FLJ: We are lucky to live ill this era, where we have the option of freedom. Going back one hundred years, it wasn’t possible for us Chinese to appreciate art from the West, nor was it really possible for outsiders to see and admire traditional Chinese art. I am open to accept all influences.
BR: OK, so you don’t have any specific people from a certain country, in Europe for example, or a particular style, such as the traditional Chinese masters, that would be your favourites?
FLJ: Regarding the influence of Chinese art, which exists as naturally as the blood in my body, I don’t perceive it all that clearly, but it is my main source of artistic nourishment, so to speak. As for Western art, it almost always strikes me as alien, but there are of course many artists I admire like Van Gogh, Gauguin and many contemporary artists.
BR: In Europe, artists also have to study the history of art and know the different types of painting, from Velázquez to Van Gogh to Picasso. But they are not allowed to copy a painting of a master. In China the education system is different, and students are even encouraged to copy the masters.
The depictions of babies in your paintings remind me a little of Jorg Immendorff, who is famous for images of fat babies. Immendorff was a big fan of Mao. In his paintings, there is a close relationship between Mao, Buddhism and babies. Since Jorg Immendorff has often been exhibited in China, is he one of your influences?
FLJ: I am familiar with his work, but there are no direct connections between his art and mine.
BR: You produce a variety of art using different mediums like painting, wood carvings, sculpture, etc. Which mediums do you like the most? Is oil painting always your favorite format or would you like to be active in all fields?
FLJ: The medium is not the most important thing for me. I would like to express my freedom in different ways.
BR: Finally, a question about the future. If you had a wish or a dream for your art that you would like to bring to fruition, what would it be?
FLJ: Traditionally, in our culture the highest goal is the “harmony of people and nature”. I dream of achieving the same in my work, harmony of art and self.
BR: That is certainly a difficult task, right?
FLJ: Actually, I think it’s achievable. Different people are affected differently by different illnesses, for example. Art is the same. Although others could produce similar images and forms, or even copy my art, it remains totally specific to my personal spirit and thoughts.
BR: Well, that is also why we like you so much.
by Stephanie Buhmann
Woodcuts Thomas Erben Gallery February 2004
Considered one of the leading figures in China’s contemporary art scene, Beijing based Fang Lijun returns to New York with a vigorous group of large-scale woodcut prints. Since the early 1990s, Lijun has been associated with Cynical Realism, an art movement that developed in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 when thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators— most of them students— were brutally killed by the government’s military. While the 1980s had been characterized by the avant-garde community’s enthusiastic belief that the artists would be able to contribute to the regeneration of Chinese culture, the events of 1989 immediately destroyed these hopes. With the Cynical Realists a whole generation of Chinese artists, who had grown up during the Cultural Revolution and witnessed its subsequent downfall, began to express their disillusionment.
Losing faith in communal progress, Lijun and his peers turned towards a more personal and emotionally detached viewpoint that allowed for an ironic examination of China’s quickly changing society.
In a rigorous statement that was published in a 1992 article by the Chinese art critic Li Xianting, Lijun brought the Cynical Realists’ emotional stance to the fore: “A fool is someone still trusting after being taken in a hundred times. We’d rather be lost, bored, crisis-ridden misguided punks than be cheated. Don’t even consider trying the old methods on us, we’ll riddle your dogma with holes, then discard it in a rubbish heap.” Almost a decade later, Lijun’s compositions continue to show traces of the former anguish, but increasingly utilize an imagery that is as symbolic as it is universally applicable. Considering China’s consistently developing adaptation of Western capitalism and its values, it is not surprising that nowadays, Lijun creates metaphors for society in general rather than pointing at his country alone.
In “2001.11.22” (2001) three bald headed figures are set against a plain background. With their faces transformed into anger-ridden masks, two men are shouting at the audience, while the third one, standing in the background, looks away with aloof indifference. Depicted from below, they become a threatening, oversized front that forces the viewer into the role of the outcast. In this atmosphere tinged with unease and suspense, any sudden outburst of aggression seems possible. Generating a sense of timelessness, the monochromatic palette of grays enhances the overall graphic clarity in which every contour, edge, and shadow is chiseled out dramatically.
The idea of opposition is portrayed more picturesquely in “2001.13.24” (2001). With a few energetic lines that bring the emotional vigor of German Expressionist woodcuts to mind, Lijun succeeds in capturing the characteristic motions of water. Out of the fluid masses, two arms are raised towards the sky, belonging to an almost entirely drowned individual, who is fighting for his life. Searching for something to cling to, the hands are transformed into claws that engage in a gesture of panic as well as hatred. As a mocking contrast to the emotional horror experienced by the victim, large flowers are falling from the sky and color the scene with superficial beauty. Underneath this ornamental cover, the determined struggle of a lonely figure against an overpowering medium is as obviously doomed to fail as an individual’s attempt to go against the rest of society. For Lijun the metaphorical dilemma is that there is no natural resolution; neither floating with nor swimming against the stream is a satisfactory option. The reason is revealed in “Untitled” (2002/2003), in which Lijun’s portrays society as a homogeneous group of men in which individuality is superceded by a boring blend of mediocrity.
Suspended from seven gigantic Chinese silk scrolls, the multi-paneled work shows an infinite mass of heads. Lacking any distinguishable characteristics, the figures transform into clones whose physical presence would evaporate if they were singled out of the group. In opposition to the energetic palette, ranging from oranges and reds to bright yellow, the vibrant human cluster has been rigidly frozen. Gazing into the sky, they remain silent, passively waiting in unison— but for what? Instructions? Changes? Orders ?