On many different spectrums, 2008 was truly an astonishing year for Fang Lijun. Having participated in many exhibitions in that year, from the “Cina XXI Secolo” in Rome earlier in the year, to “Avant-Garde China: Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art” in Osaka, and “Chinese Painting: Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and Feng Mengbo” at the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague, Czech Republic, the artist has reached an unprecedented height in his artistic career that has arguably surpassed the recognition he received in early 1990s in the Cynical Realism movement. Many would agree that the works created by Fang during the 2000s have gradually manifested from the sole focus of self to the greater collective, and finally, to humanity, breaking through the pre-existing cultural barrier in his early works. In the same year, in an interview with Dr. Beate Reifenscheid, Director of Ludwig Museum Koblenz, Fang Lijun also explained the significance of human relationships within his practice, “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.”1 Thus, new symbols, such as children, animals, and insects, began to appear on the canvas surface, all paving the path for the artist’s quest on the meaning of humanity and life. 2008 Spring (Lot 1031) is a representative work from 2008 that features an extremely rare appearance of a Mao Zedong image, suggesting Fang’s reflection on the eventful year not only for himself, but also for his own nation, bridging a subtle thread that expresses his anticipation on the future.

In the work, we witness a group of baldheaded children on a small boat riding towards an increasingly nebulous horizon line. Hovering above their tiny heads is the godly presence of Mao, brimming brightly along with the sun behind. Situating between the head and the children are flying butterflies, bees, dragonflies, and other insects. Aesthetically, the work can be divided into two parts: the yellow sunray above and the blue ocean water below. Together they would create a crucial visual dialogue between Chairman Mao and the group of baldheaded children. The relationship between human, insect, and animal is greatly explored in the work, as seen in the proximate position between the children and the butterflies. Scholars have paid close attention to the similarities between children and animal, citing their innocent nature unpolluted by politics and history, as well as bearing a sense of unrestricted freedom. It is increasingly difficult to find political symbols in the later works by Fang Lijun since 2000s. Thus, it is important to understand the significance of the Mao motif in the lot on offer. Conspicuously representing the Chinese nation, the fading facial features and the faint smile seem to suggest a warm invitation for the children. The ray of sunlight behind the figure would also evoke the composition of Western religious paintings, signifying the notion of hope and glory. Given the year of the work, it is reasonable to suggest a parallel with the different milestones achieved by China during that period, most particularly with the hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, grounding the nation’s position on the world stage.

On many different levels, the work also bears a hint of Fang’s past works, making it a distinguished piece to showcase the many different aesthetics transitions within Fang’s artistic practice. The exuberant rendering of the sunlight fundamentally references the Sunlight series from 1997. Instead of dominating the entire composition as the previous works, the sunlight in this work has taken on a more controlled position, denoting a clear break from the water in the lower half of the painting, and illustrating a more refined painting approach by the artist. At the same time, the baldheaded figures and the water inevitably induce the image of Fang’s early swimmer theme in early 1990s. However, the lone baldheaded swimmer floating aimlessly in the ocean is now replaced with the collective image of baldheaded children on a boat moving toward one single direction, clearly reinforcing the artist’s later concern with the ideal of humanity.

Among Fang’s works in the 2000s, the exploration of the essence of life and common dream is heavily expressed through the motifs of sun, children, and insects. However, some works have certainly taken on greater significance than the others, such is the case with 2008 Spring. Incorporating all of the above elements, the work further stands apart from other works produced in the same year for the unusual appearance of the yellow sky and Mao Zedong portrait. The rare dualistic composition and perspective of the work also exemplifies the artist’s unique approach in rendering an ethereal exchange between the three main motifs, namely human, children, and insects, echoing back to the artist’s foremost interest in the abstract relationships between human and other
entities, and in another word: life. 

1 Fang Lijun, Culture and Art Publishing House, 2010, p. 669 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG