Li Songsong’s painted canvases stem from memories of a world beyond him. Born in 1973, Li grew up in a world without Mao, and while he did not experience the Cultural Revolution first hand, his works nonetheless find inspiration from this period, and are powerful and intriguing reinterpretations of their source materials. During 2001 to 2004, Li produced a select set of works that scrutinised the aforementioned time period, delving into old photographs and ancient video clips, with a self-proclaimed intention to learn of his birth and identity. These works—representative of a time frame spanning a mere three years—depicted a wide range of scenes; from the state of affairs in China, to foreign developments. Among these was the present 2003 work, Wish for Longevity (Lot 822), a piece that exudes an air of universality that is characteristic of Li’s works. Along with the rest of the 2001 to 2004 pieces, Wish for Longevity no doubt represents a slim window of paintings done by the artist, before he moved on to experiment mainly with 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 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 Li 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 “re-reading”, which would borrow heavily from photography.
Li is an artist who has successfully married the techniques of photography and art. Drawing from influences such as Gerhard Richter, Li Songsong is a contemporary Chinese artist who has at times even been considered a counterpart to the likes of Jasper Johns. Perhaps unlike Johns however, Li’s technique involves a certain amount of active involvement; of active contemplation. 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. As he mentions, “No matter how you paint, it’s impossible to obscure the historical reality with concrete facts. But maybe my paintings can raise questions about our way of looking at things.”1 This 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 Longevity is the accumulation of a multitude of circumstantial discoveries.
The image depicts a family scene of celebration, and judging from the work’s title, as well as the contents of the piece, the group is toasting to someone’s birthday and health. The work, which is separated into two panels, is inhabited by ten figures facing one another from two sides of a room. Some are holding glasses, others are empty-handed; some are standing, others seated. A central figure raises a glass and commands the attention of the rest of his guests. 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.
As well as being a collective, immersive artwork, Wish for Longevity is simultaneously a deeply private and contemplative piece of art, where the artist has freed himself to chance. Li developed a unique method of covering up his source photograph, and reproducing just the individual strip he saw. “When I painted it, I divided it into strips from the top and painted one at a time,” Li claimed. “Every individual strip was distinctively different from one another. I was only responsible for each single strip at one time. In this process, I tried not to think about the entire painting.”2 In this way, Wish for Longevity is a concrete instance of serendipity, a work that is the culmination of a gradual unveiling; of trust in an art form. In many ways, it is also a piece of art composed of smaller fragments of art, as the strips can be read as pieces in their own right.
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.”3 This unique technique can be seen in Wish for Longevity, 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 also adds a certain beauty to the work, 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 Longevity emits a proximity and intimacy that is rare and particularly heartrending. It allows us to feel the same sense of escapism and perhaps even sadness that was characteristic of the artist’s few years of personal struggle between 2001 and 2004. 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, 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
3 Refer to 1
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