Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2008
Li’s style is distinct. Usually working from photographic sources, he breaks down the image into sections, working on them intensely and individually, before bringing them together to form a cohesive whole. His treatment of oil paint is liberal, scraping it onto the ground in thick viscous daubs before adding details of high ridged impasto and scooped out modelled hollows. The result hovers between abstraction and figuration: holistically approximating a comprehensible image, but also legible as sixteen smaller compositions, with their own palettes, forms, and styles of depiction.
Li’s style owes an acknowledged debt to Gerhard Richter. The present work appears to take influence not only from the photorealist paintings, in the softly blurred translucency of the details, but also from the Abstrakte Bilder in the squeegeed pulls of oleaginous oils. However, this style is more than an academic fusion of Western influence with Eastern subject matter; it is loaded with meaning. Li’s work seeks to create the most truthful image possible: in disassembling his source image to the extent that its forms are meaningless, he can execute them objectively, and combine them to form a truthful whole. This methodology directly confronts and contradicts the history of state involvement with Chinese media, which has resulted in persistent censure, and the widespread proliferation of doctored propaganda. Ai Weiwei uses a metaphor for the aftermath of Mao Zedong that might also explain Li’s obsessive fragmentation of his works: “The dictatorship of the proletariat was a great grey canvas where history was suddenly and arbitrarily shattered into thousands of fragments. Truth exists only in these fragments” (Ai Weiwei quoted in: Lorenzo Sassoli de Bianchi, Ed., From Heaven to Earth: Chinese Contemporary Painting, Bologna 2008, p. 86).
In the present work, Li directly challenges the Chinese nuclear programme: a controversial topic that has long been the subject of propaganda and media control. Out of the hazy patchwork of oil panels emerges the muffled semblance of a nuclear warhead, diffusely delineated but clearly identifiable through the orange cap and distinctive diagonal threading down the barrel. Nuclear weapons are the subject of much consternation amongst Chinese dissidents. Not only are they the subject of huge funding in a country where many millions still live in extreme poverty, but they are also entirely covert – the strength, depth and quantity of China’s nuclear might is a state secret of the highest protection. Thus through this work, Li bravely offers a glimpse behind the curtain; his cluster of white coated faceless figures crowding around the body of the rocket takes on a sinister and menacing mood. However, it is crucial to note that the artist does not present a partisan argument filled with rhetoric and melodrama. He is not fighting propaganda with propaganda, fire with fire. Instead, he presents his image as objectively as possible, attempting finally to convey the truth to the contemporary viewer.
In the context of nuclear weaponry, the title of this work, lifted from a famous song in Disney’s Snow White, takes on a sense of nervous foreboding. The reapplication of this phrase, originally used to caption such an innocent childlike tune, suffuses the work with a subversive sense of cryptic threat. Li is an artist seeking to understand his cultural heritage. In a video before his prominent exhibition at Pace London in 2010, he said “the way I approach my work is based on discover, disregard, and rediscovery” (Li Songsong quoted in: London, Pace Gallery, Pace London presents Li Songsong, We Have Betrayed the Revolution, 2013, online resource). Someday My Prince Will Come is an exemplar of that approach – a conscious disassembly of a previously presented picture, which can then be reconstituted to form a comprehensible, cohesive and coherent image of a subject that has long been kept secret. Li’s work is not the product of fervent revolutionary vitriol. Instead the present work appears as a calculated, almost elegiac piece, created by an artist caught in the aftermath of massive socio-political change.
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