Coming from a generation that grew up after the Cultural Revolution, Li Songsong belonged to a new group of contemporary Chinese artists. In spite of his youth, however, Li is an artist who often looks to the past for inspiration, seeking to understand it in order to situate himself within both a national and international history. The piece on offer, New Building (Lot 1041) exhibits a technique that is extremely characteristic of Li, namely that of photo-collage. Although the artist’s oeuvre is filled with works derived from photography, New Building is of especial importance as the source photograph carries heavy political and social weight. The original photograph captures the initial meeting a group of famous architects had while planning the United Nations Headquarters in the 1940s, a building that was ahead of its time architecturally. Culturally speaking, the meeting was also significant as it brought together famed architects from many different countries, including the likes of the renowned Chinese architect Liang Sicheng, who is pictured in the upper left-hand side. The subtle readjustments that Li has made to the photograph reveal subtle coincidences; the burst of colour he has added to the photograph, moreover, makes for a highly interesting rendition of the original piece, and is rare in its medium, considering how the artist has since moved onto large-scale installation works.

Li was born in 1973, and graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Art’s affiliated secondary school in 1992. Immediately following his graduation, Li trained at the Painting Studio Four of the Central Academy, which was established in 1985. This studio represented a new contemporary artistic life that invigorated China, which was characterised by the ’85 New Wave Art Movement. It was while at this studio that Li developed many of the techniques that would become characteristic of his works. The Painting Studio Four, which was more liberal and focused on creativity than its counterparts at the time would become the background to Li’s expressionistic flare. Rather than just produce mimetic works that sought merely to reproduce life, Li would go on to develop a technique of “re-reading” scenes, borrowing heavily from photography.

By working with photography, many of Li’s works seek to present us with a new concept of “objectivity”. When appreciating his work, especially while simultaneously inspecting the source photograph, Li’s work reveals many different layers of understanding, while at the same time placing his viewers in an active position of reinvestigation. Although many of his photograph-inspired works have elusive backgrounds, one can appreciate them all the more when the inspirational material is laid side by side it.

As aforementioned, the original photograph for New Building is of a meeting involving many architects in discussion about the United Nations Headquarters, taken in the late forties. Pictured in the photograph are celebrated architects such as Le Corbusier, Wallace Harrison, Sven Markelius and Oscar Niemeyer. Along with them is also Liang Sicheng, who, along with his wife Lin Huiyin, was a key player in propagating Chinese culture at the time. Liang, who is considered one of the fathers of modern Chinese architecture, was heavily critical of imitative architecture, and stressed the need to develop a strong national sense of construction and design. With Lin, the couple was heavily involved in the development of the emblem of the People’s Republic of China, and are key figures in contemporary Chinese history.

Considering this, it is extremely curious to note that Li Songsong has chosen this particular photograph to work from. Liang is pictured with other renowned individuals, but rather than propagating ideals on a national level, he is here deeply engaged in a discussion in an international arena. The United Nations Headquarters was also the world’s first building with glass screened walls, and was at the forefront of design developments. It is thus interesting that Li has
taken this event that took place during the Republican Period of China in the early twentieth century. And yet, rather than portray the country, such as in works like The Big Shot’s Afternoon (2002) and Gift (2003), which are both historical images based in China, Li has chosen to depict the country on the cusp of change and development into a modern and global country by showing its involvement overseas.

Li’s use of colour is also significant. In a conversation with Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi, Li mentions that while painting in his signature style of covering several sections to focus, the accidental choices he makes while executing this process in fact give way to unintentional differences. The artist says that “colour is not absolute. The choice of colours is haphazard. The relationships among the tonnes of a photograph are the beginning of this spontaneous journey.” He also enjoys transforming black and white photographs, claiming, “I’ve also tried to turn black and white photographs into colour in my paintings. Through such attempts, I can highlight some accidental differences and conflicts.” The differences that Li has evoked are significant here. Aside from depicting the characters facing different directions from their original counterparts, the artist has also particularly highlighted three of the architects in the front row, namely Liang, Niemeyer and Canadian architect Ernest Cormier.

When compared with other works by Li Songsong, one can see that New Building is truly indicative of the artist’s skill in producing new content, rather than merely copying from a photograph. Through unique reproduction, Li invites us to join him in inspecting the new content before us, while we pass our judgement. The painting is a clear example of the artist’s unique ability in disseminating new information with even the oldest of photography, and is a marriage between the old and the new, revealing the artist as a master in this skill in the world of contemporary Chinese art. 

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