Li Songsong grew up in a world without Mao. With the Cultural Revolution behind him, he came from a generation of artists who did not have to experience the turbulent times the country had to undergo first-hand. And yet, his works, in particular those completed between the years 2001 to 2004, capture the pathos of the aforementioned time period, as he delves into old photographs and ancient video clips out of choice, with the self-proclaimed intention to understand his birth and identity. Li’s paintings from this three year gap are filled with images that reflect on the state of affairs in China, sometimes even borrowing from foreign photography. The current piece on offer, Wish for Long Life No.2 (Lot 1047) is especially unique, considering it is a more detailed small-scale replica of a larger work also completed in 2003, Wish for Longevity. This exceptional act of reproduction exemplifies the level of preoccupation the artist reserved for the work, obviously lingering over its meaning and the values it held. In many ways, it is also more arresting than its counterpart piece, as it displays Li’s three-dimensional technique of painting, rather than only his method of gradual unveiling. Wish for Long Life No.2 also represents a slim window of paintings done by the artist, before he moved on to experiment mainly with large-scale installation works. Moreover, this work exudes an air of universality that is characteristic of his pieces, as if we too are privy to the intimate scene of the painting.

Li was born in 1973, and graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Art’s affiliated secondary school in 1992. Immediately upon graduation, he began training at the Painting Studio Four of the Central Academy. The studio, which was established in 1985, represented the new contemporary artistic life that swept through China, as can be seen through the renowned ’85 New Wave Art Movement that sprung up in the same year. Taking this new movement in its stride, Painting Studio Four embraced the promotion of modern art. It was while working at this studio—which was relatively liberal and more creativity-focused than its three counterparts—that the artist developed and established his artistic methods. Above all else, Li was interested in the act of painting itself, and painted with an Expressionistic flare. His paintings sought to be more than merely derivative works; instead, Li would later on develop a technique of “rereading”, which would borrow heavily from photography.

Li is an artist who has successfully married the techniques of photography and art. While pouring over old photography, he breathes new life and meaning into the documentations; adding or omitting details sporadically in order to evince certain meanings. This method of reimagining history seeks to disrupt our concept of “objectivity”, encouraging his viewers to insert themselves into the replications and ask questions. Li’s style is a mixture of collage and creating “three dimensional” paintings, as he seeks to build paint upon paint in order to create a tangible aspect to his works. The raw, organic nature to his works is thanks to Li’s method of amassing material, usually relying on luck and chance. Early paintings such as Beijing Candy (1997) and Digging (1999), which were completed soon after his graduation, relay everyday intimate objects and scenes that he happens upon accidentally. Much in the same way, Wish for Long Life No.2 is the culmination of a coincidental finding.

The image depicts a family scene of celebration, and judging from the work’s title, the group is presumably toasting to someone’s birthday and health. The work, which is separated into two panels, is inhabited by seven figures facing one another. Some are holding what resemble glasses, while two out of the group face each other empty-handed. The clever twist to the work is that these characters, let alone the reason for the festivities, can evoke anyone the audience chooses. The blank faces allow the viewer to insert themselves into the narrative of the painting, as well as their own interpretations of the figures themselves. The persons in the piece can simultaneously be key characters such as Kim Jong-Il in the left panel, or perhaps even Mao in the right panel; but the beauty of the piece also lies in the fact that they could simultaneously be reminiscent of one’s uncle or grandfather. The experience is one that is fully immersive, emphasising a sense of collective memory.

Aside from this, the blank faces are also deeply symbolic of a turbulent period in the artist’s life. Li describes the years between 2001 and 2004 as a time of struggle. In a dialogue with Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi, Li claimed that painting during this time was “more a kind of escape. I could be less disturbed by reality or let’s say I wouldn’t be disturbed when I was working. My work completely belongs to myself, like a game. Once I’ve made the rules, I would finish what I need to do.”1 This process of creation also evoked escapism in its execution, as it involved a method of concealing the image, where Li would completely forget the original source—“Once I feel compelled to use this (image) to make something, I would try to forget all about the image. I try to break it up bit by bit.”2 This unique technique can be seen in Wish for Long Life No.2, as the artist simultaneously conjures up the feelings of familiarity and distance. We are plunged into the sense of escapism that Li was in pursuit of. The Chinese title renders the painting especially poignant, coming from a line of the famous Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi’s poem of the same name. The particular line reads, “In life there are moments of sorrow or joy, of togetherness or distance; just as the moon has its moments of dimness and light, as it waxes and wanes; and yet these imperfections have been going on since the dawn of time; may we be blessed with longevity; and though we are thousands of miles apart, may we share the beauty of this moon together.”

When compared with other works of Li Songsong, Wish for Long Life No.2 emits a poignancy that is rare and particularly heartrending. It allows us to feel the same sense of escapism and sadness that was characteristic of the artist’s few years of personal struggle. The period was also significant because of the heightened moments of exploration Li reserved for his photography-inspired works. As is clear with the present piece, which is an in-depth study of another larger work, one can see the artist’s particular fascination and preoccupation with this scene of familiarity; as if he is inviting his audience to take part in a moment of reminiscing, too. 

1 Li Songsong, “Li Songsong in Conversation with Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi,” 2004
2 Refer to 1 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG