“Water is very close to my understanding of human nature. Water is liquid, not rule-bound. When you look at it, it changes. Sometimes you think it is very beautiful, very comfortable, but sometimes you think it is terrifying.”
Lao Li is Swimming presents a comical, absurdist yet ultimately affectionate portrait of Li Xianting – one of the most influential art critics of Chinese contemporary art and champion of Cynical Realism and Political Pop in the 1990s. Featuring the critic Li as depicted by Fang Lijun, an artist at the very forefront of Cynical Realism, Swimming Lao Li stands as a respectful and tender tribute by artist to critic and close friend. Imbued with rich personal significance, the present work was created as a gift of gratitude from Fang to Li, who was a major backer of Fang’s aesthetic pursuits from the early stages of the artist’s career. After completing the painting, Fang presented the work to Li, who was undergoing a personal financial crisis at the time; the painting was subsequently purchased from Li by the present owner as an act of support and encouragement. Replete with Fang Lijun’s most iconic motifs, and hailing from the artist’s best-known corpus of Swimming paintings, the present Lao Li is Swimming is one of the earlier examples from the series that exhibits vivid colour, the flower motif, and also a skewed sideways perspective; earlier works from the Swimming series featured boundless all-over flat perspectives that displayed no horizon line. In current published literature, there are only two other works by Fang Lijun featuring Li Xianting, with both being monochrome, smaller in size and composed with an all-over perspective. Most importantly, by encapsulating micro and macro narratives within its imagery and symbolism, the present work manifests as a metaphorical time capsule; in it we witness the writing of both personal and collective art and social history.
After graduating from the printmaking department of the Central Academy of Fine Art in 1988, Fang Lijun was amongst the first contemporary Chinese artists to receive academic recognition in the early 1990s. Two major trademarks swiftly developed – that of bald heads and oceans. The latter motif, featuring swimmers in surging waves of azure blue, stems from the late 1990s onwards and constitutes a core part of not only Fang Lijun’s oeuvre but his psyche. Specifically, as explained by Johnson Chang, Fang Lijun’s paintings treat water as a timeless, directionless threat to one’s survival. While critics have attributed the swimmer motif to the historic-political 1966 event of Mao Zedong swimming across the Yangtze in Wuhan, for Fang, it embodies a much deeper perspective. In many different interviews, Fang has mentioned the similarities between water and human existence. “I believe that human nature is not bound by standards and rules, contrary to our past proclamations about its goodness or evilness. I would like to convey and provoke debate about this understanding through painting. Human nature is the same as a leather ball: kick it and you cannot predict where it will roll. Water is very close to my understanding of human nature. Water is liquid, not rule-bound. When you look at it, it changes. Sometimes you think it is very beautiful, very comfortable, but sometimes you think it is terrifying”. The ambivalent relationship between the two especially captivates the artist: “Water is uncertain, like human feelings. Sometimes it is comforting, sometimes scary. You can’t live without water and need water, but too much water will drown you”.
In the early 1990s, Li Xianting coined the term “bald rascals”, referring to Fang Lijun’s trademark self-mocking bald figures, and shortly afterwards named Fang Lijun as the primary proponent of Cynical Realism. In a conversation with Li Xianting, Fang Lijun explicitly differentiated his swimming paintings from David Hockney’s swimming pool works, stating that unlike Hockney’s elaborately set pools, his own tableaux of indeterminate waters are stripped of time and context, depicting not scenes of leisure but portraits of human existence. An anecdote between Fang Lijun and Li Xianting elucidates such a claim. The critic has stated that, when encountering Fang’s Swimming paintings, he is inadvertently led to recall his experience swimming in the River Rhine in Germany. Whereas a rush of adrenaline prompted him to boldly swim across the river, Li soon found the gushing water so fierce and overwhelming that he felt like he was drowning. Upon finally reaching the shore of the opposite bank, Li looked back and was chilled to see an international freighter ploughing through the very waters he had just swum through. For Fang, this incident illustrates how man’s interaction with formless, malleable water alludes simultaneously to the boundless ambition of man as well as the terrifying unpredictability and precarity of human existence. Regarding his own interactions with water, Fang confesses that it took him almost twenty years to learn how to swim, having been traumatized by a near-drowning experience when he first attempted to learn during primary school. Fang’s feeling of ‘powerlessness’ in the face of the threat of waters furthermore encapsulates the mentality of the Chinese generation after the political turmoil of 1989: the torn, unmoored and drifting state of his society is projected onto his swimmers that float, unrestrained by gravity, in undefined expanses of water like balloons and clouds in the sky.
As a mature painting from the series, Lao Li is Swimming presents a sophisticated composition of a tilted horizon line conjoining sky and sea. Instead of his usual bald protagonists, Fang here depicts his respected close friend Li Xianting. The figure is rendered in vivid flesh hues in a solid outlines – a departure from earlier works in which the bodies are almost camouflaged, at the brink of dissolving into the water. As a closing touch, the placement of the incongruous blue rose at Li Xianting’s lips offers a final clue on Fang Lijun’s outlook on life and human nature. While the artist has persistently refused to clarify on the symbolic meaning of his vibrant flowers that populate his works, he once wrote in 1995: “Human nature is likened to a piece of land where flowers and poisonous grass coexist and grow. Man, however, only wishes to see flowers and have therefore paid a high painful price for their negligence of the potential evil in human nature. We have to face the fact and weed out hatred like farmers weed out the grass” (the artist quoted in Hovdenakle, “Fang Lijun and His Art”, in Chinese Artists of Today: Fang Lijun, 2006, p.111). Harnessing the artist’s most recognizable iconography, Lao Li is Swimming is an exceptional testament to Fang’s exploration in the survival of humanity under the grand flux of time.