Enveloped in abstraction: Li Songsong’s Pace Beijing solo exhibition

Rising Chinese artist Li Songsong forgoes historic images for a large-scale, abstract installation.

Best known for his expressionistic painting style and historical scenes of modern China, contemporary artist Li Songsong decided to use a new visual language in his show at Pace Beijing, which ran from 22 September to 20 October 2012. Art Radar interviews Li to find out more.

Interior view of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

For the exhibition, titled “Li Songsong“, the artist’s second solo show at Pace Beijing, Li created a single large-scale installation piece. The work, entitled The One, comprises a tunnel constructed of 91 large aluminium pieces in a variety of shapes that are covered in different hues of oil paint.

Unlike much of his previous work, the paintings are abstract. The artist has not provided any explanation of the work to the audience, a move that puts the burden of interpretation on the viewer. According to the press release, “There is a lack of iconography and an absence of figuration with which viewers must grapple to construct their own experiential meaning.”

In his previous work, Li used images taken from old photographs, books and magazines. Although he renders these historical images in a more painterly style, many of them have a distinct Chinese subject matter. The One marks a departure from much of Li Songsong’s previous work in that it does not contain any literal references to China. However, stylistically the work retains what the press release refers to as his “signature impasto oil on aluminium medium”.

Exterior view of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

Art Radar was at the exhibition and landed a quick interview with the artist. Read on to find out why he has changed mediums and what he thinks about being an artist in China.

What reaction do you hope to elicit from your audience with this new work?

I am not looking for a particular reaction from the audience. I just want them to walk through this tunnel and have their own individual interpretation of this work.

Component piece of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

How is putting together an installation different from creating a painting? How has the change in medium affected your working practice?

First, I had to design the whole tunnel, which contains many separate pieces, and then I had to figure out how to put all the pieces together. Once all the pieces were ready, we moved them to my studio. It is just like painting, except that it is no longer on a flat surface but on different shaped pieces. Some decisions become more simple, for example which colour to use, how to use the brush, how to move the brush, how to work. It is a bit like exercising.

Component piece of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

Component piece of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

Component piece of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

Is doing an installation more physically demanding or more difficult?

No, it isn’t. It’s just different.

In the past many of your paintings were taken from well-known images in history. Now you give your audience almost no reference point whatsoever. Is that an intentional departure from your past practice? If it is, why?

Maybe if you always eat Western food you prefer to try something else, something different. Maybe this time I want to do the basic story, the basic event…. It looks like a table without legs, but it is in fact still a table.

Component piece of Li Songsong, 'The One', 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Photograph by Wang Xiang, courtesy Pace Beijing.

An international audience might have certain expectations of a Chinese artist, anticipating the artist to make reference to China or Chinese objects. What is your take on this?

I don’t know. I never think about what looks Chinese. I am first and foremost an artist. I don’t look at what the international art scene concerns itself with or what other artists do. The question I am concerned with is whether it is good art or not good art.

What is next for Li Songsong?

I don’t know yet. I never know what is next. When I start the next project, then I will know.

Interior view of Li Songsong, 'The One' (night view), 2012, aluminium, steel, LED, and oil paints, 320 x 290 x 2400 cm. Image by Art Radar (Nooshfar Afnan).

Concurrent to the exhibition in Beijing, Li’s work is also on display at the Bergen Art Museum in Norway. The Chinese group exhibition “Real Life Stories“, running from 4 October 2012 to 3 February 2013, features work from ten leading Chinese contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing and Song Dong.

Li Songsong was born in 1973 in Beijing, China. He received his B.F.A in oil painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1996. The artist currently lives and works in Beijing, and has participated in a number of group exhibitions around North America, Europe and Asia over the last decade.

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, abstract art, installation art, art in Beijing, picture feasts

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