Galerie Urs Meile Beijing - Lucerne, 2007-10-27 - 2007-12-22
A dusty side road leads us to Li Dafang’s studio in Beijing’s Tongzhou district. While such areas are still characteristic for the outskirts of the Chinese capital today, they might well be doomed for demolition by tomorrow.
There are small brick buildings that mostly serve as workshops or warehouses, between them piles of timber and other building materials. The rather neglected tar road is lined with, and spotted by, dry grass tussocks. The trees here reveal that Beijing is located in immediate vicinity of the desert: they are gray and stunted but they prove their tough will to survive every day. Despite the rather dreary landscape one feels an atmosphere of confident relaxedness that slows down the pulse rate. Once one has escaped the busily churning masses of the Beijing business quarters, it is easily understandable why an artist like Li Dafang would choose this as his place to live and work. His large-format oil-on-canvas paintings tell stories that happen between the times, between the Here and Now of his own current reality and the images and word sequences lodged in his memory. Li Dafang calls his attitude towards life a continuous soliloquy. Whatever he sees becomes part of a plot all of a sudden, mutating into language that conjures up images in turn.
“I cannot always say what was there first—the story in words or the story in images. In my current paintings, I am placing particular emphasis on the stories I heard when I was a child and the novels, poems or plays I read in my youth. The memory of my reading them recalled the images of that time very vividly; often these are trivial occurrences that suddenly come back to mind, acquiring their value only in hindsight. When the subject for a painting has emerged and the decision for the conceptual implementation has been taken, I work with all the coolness and distance of an abstract painter. Painting is my mode of communication with the world.”
Visual Narrative Strategies
Telling stories in the medium of painting, this was the basic intention that has shaped Li Dafang’s artistic approach from the very beginning. The title of his work Promiscuity Writing (2000, 220 x 300 cm) is quite an unmistakable hint at the artist’s self-definition as an author. “My works are painted novels”, says Li Dafang. “If I didn’t paint, I’d be a writer.” He visualizes his identification with the figures shown in Promiscuity Writing by bestowing his features upon the male as well as the female protagonists. With the composition of his paintings being reminiscent of a stage and also because of the way in which Li Dafang slips the head of his painted alter ego over other characters like a mask, the dividing line between the visual and the performing arts becomes unclear, an overlapping of genres that is quite deliberate. About the function of his titles, Li Dafang says, “It is like in a stage play. The title of a painting gives the viewers some specific idea of what’s in store for them. For instance, when I call one of my pieces Kill the Wife (2005, 110 x 300 cm), showing a man on a dismal vacant lot who is busy with his hands in the ground, the viewer immediately associates what the title suggests. Without the title, there would be infinite possibilities for interpreting that scene, it’d be almost arbitrary.”
Until 2005, Li Dafang experiments with various formal strategies of narration, creating series of paintings or showing different scenes of an action in one and the same picture. The difference between painting and text that is specific to the medium is also made use of. While in words, there can only be successive narration, the visual dimension allows to present several places, or points in time, simultaneously. In Wall (2000, 200 x 450 cm), Li Dafang divides the canvas in three triptych-like parallel panels for this purpose, in Town (2004, 300 x 300 cm), he uses three panels on top of each other. Those years also saw a stylistic change in his work, from an expressive palette of bright colors used for aggressive brushstrokes toward the grayish-bluish fogginess dominating the entire canvas which is so characteristic for his more recent paintings. An essential element of Li Dafang’s work is the size of his paintings because only in the formats he chooses—the scenario of devastation of The Rope Is My Home (2005), for instance, spans over an area of 200 x 900 cm—can the viewer enjoy that freely rambling gaze, that wandering of the eyes through the image landscape.
What is striking from 2002 onward is the repeated use of script as the subject of his paintings. Thus Ms. Lin Hong (2002) shows a young woman with lowered eyes and a stamp on the left-hand side of her face, at close range and in vibrant colors. The narrative dimension of the painting is further emphasized by Li Dafang by the dialogue excerpt written in English and in red letters on the woman’s clothing. And the image/text reference is just as concrete for the series Except Remembering Xiaoshan Again (2002, each 120 x 150 cm), where in four pictures a story is told with Chinese subtitles—bringing to mind a cartoon sequence. In the years 2003 and 2004 we also find many works in which the artist writes whole passages of text with his brush onto the canvas. In the series Trains (2004), Li Dafang even devised two of the four paintings (130 x 150 cm, 180 x 250 cm, 110 x 130 cm, 130 x 170 cm) entirely as carriers of script, each half Chinese, half English. The hazy painting technique used both for the figures and the location in the associated figural panels evokes the thought that we are watching mere imaginations which come up to someone’s inner eye while reading the words. However, the artist rejects any explicit material reference between image and text.
“With both media (image and text), I am giving way to a particular atmosphere. However, this is not a clear-cut relation of scenery and comment. My works are like a look inside something, not outside from within. And still I’d like to show something that the viewer can atmospherically relate to, not just a merely virtual model—that would seem too weak, and to individualistic, to me.”
Stepping Back Through Fogginess
After 2005, the conceptual tightrope act between fictionality and reality becomes the determining esthetic premise for Li Dafang’s work. The artist now refrains from directly using script in his paintings. While before intense colors prevailed, they give way now to misty grays, blues and browns, reinforcing the impression of the illusionary. Some of his earlier works showed people from a somewhat portrait-like, close-up perspective, or allowed the viewer to look straight into a scene; but this painting concept has increasingly changed to that of an observer status, maintaining a discreet distance. The type of action shown in the paintings has been modified as well. Instead of threatening or even overtly violent scenes from everyday life, now mysterious arrangements are being displayed. For instance, in the diptych of Second Uncle (2007, 2 x 300 x 150 cm), what is the almost undressed young man doing on that deserted factory shopfloor? Not only the oddness of the setting and its strange atmosphere and lighting make the whole scenario reminiscent of a dream state; it is also the disproportionateness and incongruity between the space and the person in it which indicates quite evidently that in this painting we are moving within the realm of imagination.
“In my more recent works, two dimensions come together: the factual reality of life and the images in my memory. Often it is the shadows of things past which dominate our own inner dialogue while we move through a certain place. Images that we remember become an integral part of the present, of the ordinary. Both become visible to the same extent.”
Already Strange Dialogue (2005, 150 x 300 cm) showed the composition pattern that was to be found frequently in Li Dafang’s later works: in a space that is otherwise deserted, we observe the protagonists of the painting from some distance. That these are imaginary characters is indicated by the fact that the artist shows them in faded colors and almost without any relation to their environment. In “Strange Dialogue”, these are two men standing on the banks of a canal, seemingly engrossed in conversation. The perspective places the viewer across on the other side. Our curiosity is aroused by the two persons’ attire: while one is wearing common street clothes, the other is dressed in traditional Chinese costume. To emphasize the impossibility of catching even a few fragments of what they say, Li Dafang has a huge waste-pipe draining into the canal from which—and here the painting achieves an almost audiovisual quality—a torrential surge of water gushes out right in front of the two men. The question “What’s happening here?” is a key to Li Dafang’s way of painting.
His pieces from 2006 come across as if seen through a gray fog. A murky atmosphere is cast over Tearing off the Robe (2006, 300 x 640 cm), for instance: we see a dense wood before us that takes up the totality of the painting’s foreground. Li Dafang has shaped the gnarly tree trunks and the delicate foliage with utmost precision. In the foreground and slightly off to the left of the center, we recognize the figure of a man that is so tiny he can hardly be identified, and between his right arm and the forest ground there is a small white spot. Standing in front of the painting, one experiences the strong urge to blink one’s eyes as if the scene could be made out more clearly that way. However, it remains in remote distance although it happens right in front of our eyes. Only when reading the title we understand what goes on here: someone tears off a robe-like garment. The Chinese sign for this type of robe has a more concrete meaning: it refers to the costume of classical Chinese intellectuals who also included the masters of traditional landscape painting. Now Li Dafang’s nature scene with its unbroken line of trees sprouting up from the lower edge of the picture, leaving hardly any views of the background, amounts to a major violation of the principle in Chinese landscape painting according to which unpainted white areas constitute the very foundation of the meditative effect of any picture. Considering this irregularity, the painting might unfold a commentary on traditional esthetic conventions which it transcends both in form and content. When asked about this, the artist refrains from making hasty interpretations. “In this painting, I worked in a very intuitive way, I cannot really explain it myself. It’s like a dim memory of something. What’s important to me is the atmosphere, this steamy, misty light.”
Literature as an Agent of Retrospection
Of the paintings made in 2007, almost every single one is set in an industrial ambience marked by decay. Factory workshops with heavy machinery and equipment, piles of assorted materials and labyrinthine mazes of pipes and cables determine the backdrop against which Li Dafang has his protagonists acting. For the most part, they are eccentric loners, performing activities that are just as eccentric. A recurring motif is someone digging holes or burying things. Often the protagonists themselves climb from these very holes or disappear into them.
“These industrial landscapes are vague recollections from my childhood and youth in Shenyang. My father was originally a writer and worked as a newspaper editor but during the Cultural Revolution my parents were sent off to work in a factory. As a child you don’t understand anything about the operating mechanisms of such machines, and precisely this lent a certain magic to them for me. I was simply fascinated by their size, their shapes and sounds and smells. Even today I enjoy the morbid charm of decay that such ancient workshops and factory buildings exude. Though of course I am well aware that this esthetic interest is a luxury people like me indulge in who never had to work in extreme conditions like this.”
In several paintings which look back at these times, the reading matter of the artist as a child and young man becomes a medium of memory. Thus the title of Bai Ye Bai (2007, 190 x 270 cm) means “Bright Night Bright” which is an unmistakable allusion to the novel White Nights (1848) by Fyodor Dostoevsky. However, the scene shown has no discernible connection to Dostoevsky’s love story. In a factory shop entirely lit in blue we see two rather unkempt male figures in a hostile setting. By painting them too small in proportion to their environment and with blurred contours, Li Dafang marks them as visionary apparitions.
In conversation, the artist emphasizes more than once that he did not paint this picture as a direct reference to Dostoevsky’s novel but rather that his memory of it and of the feelings in his youth when he read it are inexorably linked with each other. “I am not so much concerned with the concrete plot of the novel but with its characters that are so typical for Dostoevsky: people who live more in their own mental parallel universe than in the real world. They take each day as it comes, having no hopes, no goals.” While “bright night” is already an oxymoron, the artist adds force to this literary finesse by the reduplication of “bai” (bright). “With memories it’s like with a lot of other things in life—they are often full of inconsistencies, eluding the obvious and the logical, but still they are part of our existence.”
A particular play on words is staged by Li Dafang in the title Ai Wei Te (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) or (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Although created in 2006, this painting (sized 190 x 400 cm) can thematically be counted among those of the following year. While “wei te” is nothing but the phonetic transcription of the name “Werther”, Li Dafang adds a doleful “ai” to the name. Already in the 1920s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel and its soulful protagonist stirred the emotions of Chinese intellectuals. In a political context, Werther became a cult book among the May Fourth Movement (1919). Even today the hero’s radical individualism inspires just as much fascination as the enthusiastic portrayal of love that runs throughout the whole novel.
In Li Dafang’s Ai Wei Te the two figures in the right-hand foreground are again located in an industrial setting although this one seems to be still in use—a storage area of carefully piled steel pipes. The young man and the girl look entirely out of place as they stand there on a low wall holding hands and gazing into a nonexistent distance. It’s hard to imagine a more unromantic panorama. Where in Goethe’s Werther it was social conventions which prevented the lovers from uniting, Li Dafang visualizes the feeling of hopelessness by the cold and technoid gloom of this place where the couple has landed for unfathomable reasons. What strikes us is the extremely low color intensity that Li Dafang uses both for the backdrop of the scenery and for the shadowy suggestion of a squatting figure on the left in the painting’s middle ground. Like in a dream vision that is still in your mind the next morning, the protagonists step out of a landscape which to the dreamer seems quite familiar in its atmosphere but is in fact nonetheless impossible to pin down.
In the demolition scenario of Little Snow (2007, 190 x 350 cm), Li Dafang mirrors a classic of Chinese prose: Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as Water Margin, which is just as popular as The Dream of the Red Chamber or the Journey to the West. There’s no child that doesn’t know the heroic feats of the outlaws of Mount Liang which have been orally handed down from the 12th century. Just like the Robin Hood character in the West, bandit commander Song Jiang and his colorful gang of rebels, all with fanciful names, are not mainly fighting for their own advantage. The resistance of these comically portrayed swashbucklers is instead directed against an elite of corrupt officials.
In Little Snow, Li Dafang goes back into his childhood days. He indicates the source of his literary inspiration by means of the title: in one of the most famous scenes of the rather rambunctious action, gang warrior Lin Chong smites two hired killers in the middle of a snowstorm by means of his Kung fu mastery and then lets a temple go up in flames.
However, what we see in Li Dafang’s painting is an image of destruction of the kind which today is a commonplace spectacle in China’s big cities. On a building that has been torn down to the first floor, the rubble is piling up high, concrete pillars rise up in the air or have been broken off. The pieces of the front wall, once faced with white tiles, but also the lifeless shrubbery crowding into the picture from the lower edge, bring to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (1824, The Sea of Ice, also known as The Wreck of the Hope). In the midst of this landscape of demolition, Li Dafang places one clearly visible male figure and suggests two more by sketching them with broad dark brushstrokes. While the first one appears quite realistic, standing with his back to the viewer on a pile of rubble in the right-hand third of the painting, the other two shadowy shapes are located in lofty heights as if they are about to make a getaway. The artist further exacerbates this tremendously irritating constellation of place and plot by having a fine dusting of snowfall over the entire scene, conveying a particular charm to it. As if through a curtain made of the tiniest white specks, the viewer follows the stage-like presentation.
Li Dafang is an artist pushing the boundaries. His paintings work by blending various time levels and spaces, by intertwining reality with literature where—reminiscent of Proust’s madeleine effect—either slivers of contemporary reality become a trigger of (especially) literary memories or, vice versa, the (re‑)reading of a text gives rise to a journey to the places of the personal past.
Translation: Werner Richter