signed in Chinese, titled and dated 1993, framed
Note: This is one of the six works specially created for Venice Biennale, 1993
Art Life, February Issue, Yishujie Magazine Publishing House, Hefei, China, January, 1997, p. 50
Fang Lijun, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Changsha, China, 2001, p. 101
Liu Chun, A History of Chinese Oil Paintings, China Youth Publishing House, Beijing, China, 2005, p. 367
Chinese Artists of Today: Fang Lijun, Hebei Education Press, Shijiazhuang, China, 2006, pp. 251, 411
Live Like a Wild Dog: 1963-2008 Archival Documentation of Fang Lijun, Vision Art, Taipei, Taiwan, 2009, p. 223
Endlessness of Life: 25 Years of Retrospect of Fang Lijun, Artist Publishing Co., Taipei, Taiwan, 2009, p. 50
Lü Peng ed., Fang Lijun: Thread of Time, Culture And Art Publishing House, Beijing, China, December, 2009, p. 206
Fang Lijun, Culture And Art Publishing House, Beijing, China, 2010, p. 251
Lü Peng and Liu Chun ed., Catalogue of Works of Fang Lijun, Culture And Art Publishing House, Beijing, China, April, 2011, p. 325
1993 No.4 : A Turning Point
In China, the year 1993 could not have been more ordinary. The national policy on economic development was well underway. The economic system was growing steadily. With the onset of commercialization, the humanistic ferver of the 1980's was gradually disappearing. These factors laid the foundation of Chinese mentality and society of the 1990's as a whole. But for Fang Lijun, 1993 was not a tranquil time. At the end of January, he participated in the exhibition "China's New Art, Post-1989," organized by Li Xianting and Johnson Chang in Hong Kong. In retrospect, this exhibition was undeniably the crucial foundation in contemporary Chinese art's emergence on the international stage. In addition, Li Xianting's definition of the two dominant trends of Cynical Realism and Political Pop was borne out by the two respective sections of this exhibition and thereby acquired critical currency. The two trends were believed to manifest directly the ideologies of contemporary Chinese and to reflect artists' self-conscious exploration of contemporary artistic language. The participants in this exhibition also formed the basis of the roster in the special thematic exhibition "Passage to the East" in the 1993 Venice Biennale.
In fact, the Venice Biennale's influence was felt already at the end of 1992. In October, the director Achille Bonito Oliva first visited China and met Li Xianting for a discussion. Oliva only had a rudimentary grasp of contemporary Chinese art, but as the director he had absolute decision-making power. For him, works that would be received in the West were those that incited strong responses to the issue of ideology in China in the viewer regardless of the viewer's understanding of Chinese culture. But such a standard would inevitably lead to a lopsided representation of contemporary Chinese art. With such a consideration in mind, Li Xianting showed Oliva lantern slides of the works in "China's New Art, Post-1989" one by one. On that basis they decided on the final roster of participating artists.
For Chinese artists of the time, such a large-scale exhibition was an invaluable opportunity to receive international critical evaluation. To whom would Oliva throw the olive branch? This question brought a vague feeling of divine blessing. Fang Lijun's 1993 No. 4 (Lot 816) was created under these circumstances, which must have worked their way somehow into his creative process. Yet when Fang Lijun was painting 1993 No. 4 he definitely could not envision how drastically the year 1993 would transform his entire life and artistic career. 1993 No. 4 was one of the 6 works in a series that Fang created for the Venice Biennale, but because of limited space, only one was exhibited in the end. 1993 No. 4 was not exhibited. It is worth noting that two or three works in this series were lost during their return from the event. 1993 No. 4 is a rare survival.
When Fang began created the "shaved heads" series in 1988, "I noticed that although a shaved head on its own is very striking, its individuality disappears in a group of shaved heads. I found the idea very compelling that an individual person's feeling of being omitted and ignored in society is especially strong in our culture." Before 1993 No. 4, Fang Lijun's figures with shaved heads had already garned much attention within China. Fang himself always kept his head shaved, and his works were related to his life. The shaved heads' suggestions of boredom and mischief and the paintings' ambiguous mood were already far apart from the humanistic passion of the 1980's art work. The backgrounds of azure skies and deep-blue seas made the paintings even more absurd, making the viewer aware of the darker sides of life. Li Xianting characterized the ennui and sarcastic anti-sociability in this paintings as a "mischievous" Cynical Realism, which he saw as a "product of existential feelings."
The most striking difference between 1993 No. 4 and Fang's earlier paintings of figures with shaved heads was the emergence of a gaudy aesthetic. For Li Xianting, "This was perhaps stimulated by the colors of the Chinese environment. Early on he noticed the explosion of consumer culture, especially the increasing gaudiness of Chinese urban environments. He more than once lamented the profusion of vulgar colors in China. I remember clearly how he looked when he talked about the vulgarization of Suzhou's understated literati gardens. I think what I saw was a kind of anger, but the expression was a helplessness mixed with cynical humor. It was a feeling of 'If I can't change the situation, why bother?' The turn towards gaudiness in his colors came from his mischievous character. He used gaudiness to amplify the mockery and self-mockery."
Aside from a brighter, punchier palette, Fang Lijun has also added a large number of flowers in this painting. The shaved head on the left is based on Fang's father and is more of an authority figure than the other bored, disinterested shaved heads. This small touch perhaps reflects the artist's thinking at the time: created expressly for the Venice Biennale, these works were under the control of discursive authority from the start. Fang Lijun's self-portrait appears in an inconspicuous corner, further suggesting his conflicted state of mind. The vulgar, gaudy colors and the mischievous character of 1993 No. 4 cohere in mood with his paintings of the late 80's, but contain seeds of a new direction at the same time.
After the Venice Biennale, the figures with shaved heads had been widely recognized, and the theme expressed fully Fang's mischievous character and consideration of life. Fang's paintings from 1993 signified a departure from the theme of shaved heads, but his meditations on the emptiness of life and on the profusion of consumer culture never ceased. The ever-changing sky in the background of 1993 No. 4 was different from the flat backgrounds of earlier works. Fang Lijun has said that from the late 80's, water and shaved heads had both become the elements he wanted to render in art. But for the young artist, the shaved heads were visually more arresting, and so he first decided to tackle them. In the second half of 1993, Fang Lijun approached a subject that had interested him for a while: water, which is just as unpredicable as the sky but sublter and more spiritual. After 2000, Fang's separate developments of the two subjects of shaved heads and water would coalesce into and culminate in grand pictures that expressed his new feelings towards life in the new century.
The series of works from 1993 earned Fang international renown and solicited new Western perspectives on contemporary Chinese art. It also made him a leading figure among contemporary Chinese artists. The outcome of his works in turned influenced his own life, and Fang Lijun would be intimately connected to various international exhibitions. Thus, for Fang Lijun, the year 1993 and 1993 No. 4 represent a turning point in both his art and life.
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