A wide horizontal band of highly animated, smiling faces is dramatically punctuated by the still, open-eyed expressions of four children: startled, perhaps frightened, and highlighted in yellow and purple. The five portraits bear striking similarities to the self-portraits that have consistently been at the heart of Li Tianbing's canon. As a result, the central theme expressed in this work is the idea of exclusion; of being separate, alien and removed. Li Tianbing has often referred to the deprivations of his own childhood devoid of toys and playmates; here many of the other children have arms wrapped around each other in a chorus of tangible interaction. By contrast, the yellow and purple figures have their arms straightened prostrate against their tensely stiff bodies.
The older figure at the back casts a pedagogical shadow over the scene and carries the "one-size-fits-all" uniform of the Mao jacket, providing a concrete reminder of the burden of tumultuous history in contemporary China. Representing a distant generation, his expression is tied to Li Tianbing's self-portraits in its blankness and lack of expressivity, though he also wears the aura of tired experience behind his resigned eyes.
Li Tianbing moved to Paris in 1996 and spent six years at the École des Beaux-Arts studying contemporary art and theory. His consequent perspective on China's identity has become pivotal to his work and something he often comments on: "When we are inside or at the foot of a mountain, we can never grasp it in its full dimension. We have to go far away from this mountain to see it properly, and the same goes for culture" (Li Tianbing interviewed by Uli Sigg, kashyahildebrand.org). That the surface of this work appears mildewed and weathered like a worn photograph furthers its conflation of national and personal memory. It stands as an important record of a colossal human experience, which is fast being consigned to history through the agents of tectonic change.
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