Hanart TZ Gallery proudly presents Fang Lijun: This All Too Human World, a solo exhibition of recent paintings and prints by celebrated Beijing-based artist Fang Lijun, opening on 3 November 2017. The exhibition will run through 2nd December.
Fang Lijun here turns his razor-sharp critical eye and unflinchingly honest gaze to the anxiety and pain felt by those living in the midst of a transforming society, shaped by rapid and critical change. He seeks to understand and analyse China's social transformation through a new lens, creating visual pictures that at once reflect and predict the types of ideological change engendered by this transformation.
Fang Lijun's iconic bald head appears frequently in these works as a kind of tool of self-analysis, both of society and of the artist himself: here this feature is applied to the different subjects who are inspected, organized and categorized in his pictures. At the same time, boldly imaginative visualizations and bizarre fantasies permeate Fang's world of images. In some works, ambiguous forms appear, variously resembling humans, birds or fish, while others feature neat rows of bald- headed boys, whorls and cloud-like forms, and even children who have sprouted wings and seem to exuberantly take flight. These unreal spaces and fantastical imaginings symbolize a realm of human spiritual idealism, of yearning for freedom and of the fabric of dreams. In Fang's works, the world of human reality is interwoven with the worlds of myth and of children's tales, representing the desire to construct a beautiful new world. Fang Lijun's bold imaginings and critical postulations are expressed with a perfectly tuned overlay of humour and cleverness; yet behind the entertaining narrative of every child's fairy tale there lurks an element of helplessness and pain.
Fang Lijun uses his visual strategy to investigate the pitfalls and crises of contemporary life in our time, both on the macroscopic level of human civilization and on the microscopic level of the self. His investigations into the reality and truth of contemporary existence also are conducted against a background of globalization as he directly addresses the spiritual crisis facing us today.
The new perspective Fang Lijun uses in his re-examination of contemporary reality is founded on his ability to accurately establish his own cultural coordinates, through the critical construction of a strongly personal attitude towards the meaning of life as an artist, and of a concomitant aesthetic system that is uniquely his own.
This All Too Human World - Chang Tsong-Zung
The new works Fang Lijun has produced over the last few years have not only surprised his audiences: They have shocked them. In these paintings, Fang questions exactly what kind of era we are living in today, in the wake of China's intense cycles of social transformation. Is man eat man now the standard rule of the game? Is the overflow of lust and greed the natural condition? In the midst of a dramatically changing society, Fang Lijun opens a window into the world of the human heart. This is a time when human relationships are fluid and uncertain, and social structures are as unstable and erratic as the weather. Under such existential conditions, how is human desire structured and guided? What kind of world view is being created? How should social ideals be now interpreted?
Among the 'post-89' generation, Fang Lijun is the artist most characterized by a strong 'sense of history'. In modern China, the 'sense of history' is rooted in a decidedly Eurocentric framework of thought. (I say 'Eurocentric' because it is a teleological conception derived from 20th-century European political avant-gardism.) This 'sense of history' pertains to the concept of an unprecedented 'historical project' which encompasses societies and indeed entire peoples.
For the sake of 'the future', for the sake of completing this project, all past experience and realistic limitations are cast aside as no more than irritating hindrances. The historical project is constructed on a foundation of idealistic passion, driven by the willingness to self-sacrifice on the part of both its leaders and their followers. In the end, it is a social experiment with no regard for human cost. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the savage picture painted by This All Too Human World is of a society ruled by the law of the jungle. What shocks Fang's audience is that the Darwinian situation exposed in his paintings goes completely against the former ideology that had characterized modern socialist China.
Fang is bearing witness to the change of eras, shifting from the era of the collective with a strong sense of historical mission to that of an individualistic society in which each fears for his/her own survival. Fang's new series of paintings thus comprise a psychological portrait of this historical transition. We see in retrospect that Fang Lijun's artistic sensibility has always been entangled with the relationship between the collective and the individual, which is at the same time both interdependent and antagonistic.
These two social modes are each constructed on its own logic and vision, and they both require a reasonable flexibility within that vision in order to create a society in which life is tolerable. Fang Lijun's shocking artistic imagination creates a kind of moral tale for our time, reflecting and dramatizing the psychological changes in two eras when the common agreed principles of each society start to break apart. A newborn baby is being threatened by staring predators on all sides, its future in peril. A society's vision of the future should always be about building a world for the sake of future generations. Fang Lijun now depicts the 'future' as a newborn baby who is about to be 'gobbled up' by the avariciousness of contemporary life. We now live in an era where production is king, and rampant consumerism is promoted for the sake of the constant recycling of capital. Society today is rapidly consuming the future resources for the next two generations, with no controls. In the imagination of the artist, this 'gobbling of the future' becomes a world of human cannibalism.
Fang Lijun's oeuvre is characterized by two principle sets of imagery. The first, and the most popularly lauded of his paintings, shows a 'grand' landscape among which masses of people are positioned. In these compositions, whether the mood is bright or dark, the vision is always broad and the passion exhilarating; the intention is to describe the mindset of a collective society that is opening up a new era for the people. This is an era lit by the midday sun, made possible by its historical project; this era has its dark, cruel, even monstrous side, but it also has its bright and glorious side. It has joy, idealism, and a brightness whose radiance often also burns. In Fang Lijun's hands, this big landscape encompasses a grand vision that is all-encompassing: heroic figures from every walk of life, beasts of the earth and birds of the air, and even evil monsters and 'bad elements' are all washed clean by the tide of history, all become generic masses with the same collective face. These paintings are dramatic visualizations of a psychology of fantastic idealism.
Fang Lijun's other main type of imagery is represented by hallucinatory images of multitudes. People float in a fluid space, with their faces spinning in a kind of vortex. There is no sense of spatial structure, no sense of backward or forward momentum. These works have the appearance of nightmares, but they also exude a kind of frenzied excitement, like that of a carnival. One thing is crystal clear: Fang Lijun is far removed from a retired, peaceful life. In these new paintings the people are more violent, there is lust, greed, and desperate grasping for power. These hallucinatory images display no depth and no perspective, no history and no memory; there is no vision of the future. This is the world we are living in.
With these two types of visual presentation, Fang Lijun effectively polarizes the two different social modes; and yet there is a strong similarity between the two in the manner in which the artist depicts people and objects. This is not just a question of artistic style, but also an example of how, through the artist's craft, the representation of incompatible visions are being digested and integrated by an individual vision (that of the artist), to accommodate differences and contradictions.
Thus in Fang's images, we find hidden within the collective social mode traces of the selfishness and cruelty of extreme individualism, planting the seeds of the present-day consuming of the 'future'. At the same time, in his depictions of individualistic society, although individual interest is emphasized, we also see people coming together collectively in a protectionist bid to defend themselves from outside interests, and forming cliques which foster immoral forces. On the positive side, we see how individualism also fosters passion, personal imagination, and subtle sensibilities discouraged within the 'big landscape' of collectivism. Individualistic society is also able to encompass heretics of different sorts, who would not be tolerated by monotheistic structures.
Everyone knows that it is impossible to build a society in a man-eat-man world; but at the same time a unified social project also can twist human nature and produce a pack of wolves lacking in personal morals. Therefore both social modes have hidden faults and are guilty of miscalculating human nature, spelling peril for the future─and providing the artist with rich fodder for his imagination. Fang Lijun shows he truly cares about the world, and his abundant creative power comes from genuine curiosity and passion for understanding. He would not lightly condemn humanity's innate lust and will to power, but he also understands the rules and boundaries that make a society possible, and recognizes the perils of surviving in a highly competitive global world. Fang Lijun's art contains narratives that shock us from our complacency; it is fraught with tension but also rich in imagery and passionate visuality. This makes him one of the great artists of our era.
Written in mid-autumn, in the 68th year of the People's Republic of China (Translation by Valerie C. Doran and the Author)
Press release courtesy Hanart TZ Gallery.
Fang Lijun 's immense woodblock print 2016 (2016) encompasses one wall of the artist's solo exhibition at Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong, This All Too Human World (3 November–2 December 2017). The work features, in Fang's bright and graphic signature style, a throng of anonymous, bald-headed figures cluttered across the picture plane....
Fang Lijun's oeuvre has long been intertwined with the narrative of Cynical Realism—a movement fostered by Chinese artists following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, signifying a generation of artists' conflicted responses to the government's stifling of open political and creative expression.