Critical Review
Fang Lijun: Not bound by rules, I get the world

Fang Lijun: Not bound by rules, I get the world

Interview / Phoenix

Fang Lijun's latest solo exhibition, "Fang Lijun: Portraits and Porcelain," was officially opened on October 15 at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. Curated by Shelagh Vainker, Curator of Chinese Art, Ashmolean Museum and Associate Professor in Chinese Art, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford, this solo exhibition, which has been in preparation for nearly five years, is the first solo exhibition of Fang Lijun's work to be held in a public institution in the United Kingdom.

The exhibition presents more than 100 works by the artist, covering Fang Lijun's creative work from 1977 to the present, including drawings, oil paintings, ink paintings, woodcut prints, ceramic sculptures, and porcelain panels. The curators have attempted to present a relatively complete picture of Fang Lijun by taking the various forms of expression of "faces" and "portraits" at different times as a clue.

Perhaps from the moment Fang Lijun decided to protest against the school's rules by "shaving his head," his life had already begun to tilt toward the back of the rules.

Fang Lijun spent his teenage years in his hometown in Hebei in the 1980s, a time when public statements were not even allowed, when people were full of skepticism about the rules but struggled to find the right way to express themselves; protests that were too loud would be extinguished, and criticisms that were too softly voiced would be obliterated. Between loud confrontations and weak obedience, the "baldness" seemed to be a kind of hidden rebellion, which helped Fang Lijun to find the most appropriate measure of self-expression.

It was in 1988 that the figure of the "bald man" first appeared in Fang Lijun's work. At first, the identities of these "bald" figures were well documented, either by the artist himself or by farmers living in nearby villages.

However, as can be seen in his series of works from the early 1990s, there has been a marked change in the bald heads in the images; they have been removed from their specific contexts, and their differences have been greatly weakened, with the figures repeatedly and idly hovering in front of the image, displaying an expression of self-congratulation, yawning, or laughter. In these works, which came to be known as "Cynical Realism," Fang Lijun established himself as one of the most iconic symbols of his art.

Fang Lijun's self-deprecating image of a bald head is a way out of the heavy pressure of rules and regulations, while at the same time his paintings are a true representation of his experience as a human being in the 1990s, and the state of existence of the individual in society. The recurring bald head corresponds to the collective whose individuality has been eroded, and the "skinhead" is not only the artist's introspection, but also a reflection of all people's lives.

However, if one considers the "skinny bald head" as the artist's only expression, one is bound to fall into a trap. Fang Lijun's portrait series in recent years have completely omitted elements unrelated to the "face," enlarging the conceptualized "person" into a concrete "image," and focusing on the five senses and facial expressions of the characters. and facial expressions. The subjects depicted are usually Fang Lijun's close friends or relatives, a far cry from his earlier "skinhead" images.

Curator Shelagh Vainker argues that we should not see the anonymous figures in Fang Lijun's early works and his current ink portraits as a challenge from the artist's mature ego to his younger self, but rather as possible slices of the artist's creations at several different points in time.

Fang Lijun's portrait creation can be traced back to his art training at the Hebei Light Industry School. The textbook model of sketching was soon abandoned, and Fang turned to his own creative expression; between 2000 and 2003, Fang produced a series of 36 standardized portraits, a series that can be seen as a transitional point in the artist's portraiture. Each of these portraits features a single face painted in monochrome, with an expression of anxiety or distortion similar to that of the "skinheads," but distinctly different from each other, and seemingly representative of people the artist has known or at least encountered.

Fang Lijun's series of portraits of friends and colleagues, which he began creating in 2015, is even more obviously directional, as he chooses to use ink painting instead of oil painting and printmaking, capturing the personality of the faces in an extremely exaggerated, cartoon-like expression, which Fang Lijun intends to express in terms of the character of the person, and through the portrayal of the "face," conveys the relationship between the person he is portraying and the person he is painting. Fang Lijun's intention is to express the character of his characters, and to convey his relationship with the people he paints through his "faces. These are the three iterations of Fang Lijun's "Faces". 

It can be said that in Fang Lijun's case, the "relationship" between the self and the other is the main theme throughout, and the variation of the theme depends on the state of the self.

Fang Lijun: "This is very much like when you anchor in that place and the wind is blowing south, or north, or east, or it doesn't matter how deep or shallow this water is."

The core of all this is still "human beings", and no theme or medium is more important than the ideas he conveys through these objects. This point can also be used to explain Fang Lijun's experiments with ceramics over the past decade.

Fang Lijun has a long history with ceramics, having grown up in Handan, one of China's major ceramic centers, and has been involved with ceramics since he was a child. During his junior high school years, Fang majored in ceramic art at the Hebei Light Industry School. It was there that he received his early artistic training, learning the art of decorative ceramics, as well as the craft of porcelain making. Porcelain making has been a tradition in China for at least two millennia, and from ancient times to the present, people have gradually developed a set of extremely high standards for making porcelain, based on their imagination of the perfection of the result. 2012, Fang Lijun made porcelain with a friend during a trip to Jingdezhen, during which he realized that people used to conceal the materiality of ceramic materials, and denied the infinite possibilities of ceramics in order to pursue the one-in-a-million perfections, The expression of ceramics has been rejected for the pursuit of that one millionth perfection.

Along this direction, Fang Lijun began to explore the tipping point of porcelain making. He wrote the key words "light, thin, empty, transparent, leaky, fragile, and exquisite" for ceramics on paper, in order to break people's preconceived notions of ceramics and to open up the enormous space behind ceramics. In repeated experiments, porcelain making is pushed to the tipping point of extreme fragility, existence and collapse, and once success is achieved, it means the labor is nullified, and then back to square one. Fang Lijun hopes that there will be work in which the artist can step back a bit and let the material or substance speak for itself, and that after liberating the material, the incidental effects of the work will always be unexpected.

Fang Lijun: "What can I get if I don't do things according to this sole standard? It turns out that if I don't want this standard, I get the whole world."

Fang Lijun's words actually speak to the essence of his art. Today, with more freedom of expression, he still maintains independent and sober thinking, focuses on the state of human existence, walks on the backside of the rules, breaks the standards, deconstructs the authority, and then explores more possibilities outside of the intrinsic perceptions, and continues to go back and forth in the process of seeking the new and unknown.

Talking about his life today, Fang Lijun feels very grateful that there is still a lot to experience and create here. At the age of sixty, Fang Lijun hasn't stopped, and this tireless artist, he enjoys himself to this day.

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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