Critical Review
Fang Lijun: Doing what's right for your life

Fang Lijun: Doing what's right for your life

Interview / Chestnut

Fang Lijun's solo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, opens as he turns 60. As "an important symbol of the Chinese cultural scene," the exhibition "Portraits and Porcelain" is both an important creative conclusion and a gift.

Since taking the lead on the world stage in 1993, Fang Lijun has done dozens of solo and group exhibitions internationally over the past 30 years. This exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, which has been in preparation for five years now, is also Fang Lijun's first solo exhibition in a British public institution. As an important witness to Chinese contemporary art, Fang Lijun turned 60 this year.

On October 14, 2023, Fang Lijun's solo exhibition "Portraits and Porcelain" opened at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. The museum is the world's first public museum, which gives the exhibition a different significance. After working in a variety of media, including oil painting, ink, woodblock prints, ceramics, and porcelain, this solo exhibition brings together the artist's iconic works from the late 1970s onward.

Shelagh Vainker serves as the curator of the exhibition. She is an Associate Professor in Chinese Art, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford and Curator of Chinese Art, Ashmolean Museum. As brand support, Luzhou Laojiao·Guojiao 1573 joins hands with Fang Lijun to pay tribute to contemporary Chinese art, while Clouds Intelligence and Triumph Gallery provide exhibition support.

Ceramics and ink, these are the two main focuses of this exhibition. Previous retrospectives focusing on these two media have been shown in cities such as Guangzhou and Macau. This solo exhibition in the UK is based on the mediums, and the way it is laid out is also unique.

Fang Lijun's iconic ink portraits are spread out on a four-meter-high wall, coincidentally aligned with the display in the studio; the ceramics are displayed for the first time in the manner of a museum exhibition of ancient artifacts, with descriptive exhibition labels, works, and manuscripts arranged in an orderly fashion along the glass, booths, and walls, in contrast to the ceramics on display in the China gallery-the Ashmolean has the largest collection of early celadon porcelain outside of China.

Fang Lijun admits that when he first envisioned the exhibition, he did not anticipate that it would be accomplished in such a diverse way. The Ashmolean Museum wanted a more complete review of the artist's creative journey, and in the final presentation, a simple vision was expanded and elongated.

Since 2023, Fang Lijun has done six exhibitions. On the occasion of the artist's 60th year, the exhibition is a most special gift.

Chestnuts has a conversation with Fang Lijun and Shelagh Vainker at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford.

Dialogue - Artist Fang Lijun: Doing what is right for your life

Chestnut: You have been preparing for this exhibition for five years, were there any special considerations in terms of the scale, quantity and materials of the works?

Fang Lijun: The curators wanted to show a relatively complete history of an artist, so they chose the most important works from each period on the basis of matching the space. This exhibition includes works in different media, as well as the latest color-glazed ceramic paintings. Although the exhibition space is not large, the content of the works included is very comprehensive.

Chestnut: Since the 1990s, you have frequently held solo exhibitions at home and abroad, what are your expectations and anticipations for this exhibition?

Fang Lijun: I am 60 years old this year, and I have done more than 60 solo exhibitions so far. This exhibition is my first solo exhibition in a public institution in the UK, which is of great significance. On the other hand, this exhibition is also part of my regular work. In my own understanding, this process is like climbing a staircase, step by step, to reach today. I have already done six exhibitions this year, and I will present more in the future.

Chestnut: Since the 1990s, you have frequently held solo exhibitions at home and abroad, what are your expectations and anticipations for this exhibition?

Fang Lijun: I don't have such a feeling, I think it's quite pleasant and relaxing. To be able to find a suitable way of expressing oneself and living in this life is something to celebrate and brag about. I'm doing okay so far, and it looks like it's going to get better. There are possibilities within life and it will have its ups and downs, but I prefer the happy and relaxed side.

Chestnut: When defining an artist, there are often "labels" that we use to recognize the artist. The first thing that strikes me about you is your "openness".

Fang Lijun: Everything should be in its place. For example, the heart, for example, should be placed inside, not outside, should not be thrown out, so can not be nothing to let me pull out my heart, to "throw" it out.

Chestnut: So you "dump" what's going on inside you into your creations?

Fang Lijun: Yes, that's an apt description.

Chestnut: You have always been a particularly driven artist, with an inner force that propels you forward. What exactly is this force?

Fang Lijun: Instead of innovation and power, I prefer to say that if a person enjoys his or her work, he or she will definitely devote more time to it. If one can get pleasure inside his work, he will definitely not stop, which is a very important process.

Chestnut: Your recent works focus more on the people around you, do you still incorporate social concerns and reflections into your works?

Fang Lijun: For me, it's not a question of "will or won't". Some artists try to separate their works from reality as much as possible, which is a very good strategy. This is a very good strategy. However, if I were to make a work that has nothing to do with myself, I would not be able to do it at the moment.

Whether it is focusing on the people around me or society, it is related to my own life. Until now, I am still trying hard, even though I don't know if this is the right direction and what kind of result it will be. But I've always felt that it's a shame to spend your life doing something that has nothing to do with your own life.

Dialogue - Curator Shelagh Vainker: Highly Experimental and Innovative

Chestnut: What is the main line of this exhibition?

Shelagh Vainker: The exhibition focuses on works created by Fang Lijun in recent years, which can prove that an artist who has been famous for a long time and made a name for himself in the art world is still very creative and still working. In terms of medium, the focus is more on ceramics and ink. With this exhibition we hope to introduce Fang Lijun's work to an international audience. Although he is already internationally known, it is rare for the public to see his work in person in the UK and this is an invaluable opportunity to do so.

Chestnut: How do you evaluate Fang Lijun's ceramics?

Shelagh Vainker: In the display case opposite Fang Lijun's ceramic panel paintings, there are ceramics from the Ming and Qing dynasties of ancient China, which demonstrate the innovation and development of ceramic craftsmanship at different stages. In other sections of the Ashmolean, ceramics from the Netherlands, Portugal, England, Japan, and other regions are also displayed, demonstrating the diverse forms that ceramics have taken in different regions over the centuries.

But observing Fang Lijun's work, I think he created an entirely new technique. These porcelain panel paintings are painted with glazes and use special techniques to highlight the linear traces in the work that I have never seen before in ceramics. What looks like a finished work is highly experimental, exploring the properties and limits of the material.

Chestnut: How do you evaluate Fang Lijun's ink works?

Shelagh Vainker: The high degree of experimentation and innovation in ceramics is also reflected in Fang Lijun's ink paintings. In terms of form and medium, these works are indeed completed by traditional ink, but in terms of presentation, they are completely different from the traditional. He adds color to the black-and-white tone, and his painting style has a more free-flowing character, making the qualities of the figures in his paintings stand out even more prominently.

Chestnut: What are the commonalities between Fang Lijun's artistic creations in different media?

Shelagh Vainker:: Fang Lijun uses a wide range of mediums to create his paintings. In the case of the ink portraits and the porcelain portraits, for example, he uses similar images in both mediums, and because of the differences in mediums, they are rendered very differently. However, it is clear that they have similar painting styles.

What I find interesting is that there is clearly a visual connection between the works he creates with different materials and mediums. On top of that, it is amazing to see how he breaks the traditional visual perception by transforming one visual style into multiple mediums.

Fang Lijun
Fang Lijun was born in 1963 in Handan, Hebei, China. He graduated from the Printmaking Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989. On July 1st of the same year, Fang Lijun moved to Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, and later the Yunamingyuan Artists' Village was gradually formed. In 1993, Fang Lijun established his studio in Songzhuang. The Songzhuang Artists' Village has steadily developed for the last two decades. In 2014, Fang Lijun established the Archive of Chinese Contemporary Art. 

Fang Lijun has held solo exhibitions in major art institutions and galleries, including Ludwig Museum Koblenz, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Japan Foundation, Ariana Museum in Geneva, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Turin, The Macao Museum of Art, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Hong Kong Arts Centre, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai Art Museum, Hunan Museum, Beijing Minsheng Art Museum.  His participation includes the Venice Biennale, Sǎo Paulo Biennial, Kwangju Art Biennial, and Shanghai Biennial.  His works are collected by The Museum of Modern Art (USA), Seattle Art Museum (USA), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (USA), Centre de G. Pompidou (France), Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst (Germany), Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam(Holland), The National Gallery of Australia (Australia), Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (Japan), Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (Japan), Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (Japan), National Art Museum of China (China), Shanghai Art Museum (China), Guangdong Art Museum (China), He Xiangning Art Museum (China), Hunan Museum (China), CAFA Art Museum (China).  He is one of the Chinese contemporary artists with the most extensive collection by major art institutions worldwide.

He has published more than 50 personal albums and related publications, including Fang Lijun: Chronicles, Fang Lijun: Criticism, Fang Lijun: Works of Art, FANG LIJUN, Fang Lijun: The Precipice Over the Clouds, Fang Lijun: Espaces Interdits Forbidden Areas, Fang Lijun: Woodcuts, Live Like A Wild Dog, Etc.  Fang Lijun has been invited as a visiting professor and graduate supervisor at more than 20 universities and colleges, including the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Jingdezhen Ceramic University, Xi 'an Academy of Fine Arts, etc.  In 1993, his painting "Series 2, No. 2" appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.
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