Known for his depictions of rebellious bald-headed figures embodying the unique psychological state of a rising generation in modern China, Fang Lijun created Series 2 No. 10 in 1992, just as the artist was becoming critically renowned in the international art world as a leading figure of China’s new modern art movement. Responding to the trauma resulting from his having grown up during the Cultural Revolution, Fang creates works that engage with a profound sense of disenchantment and disillusionment affecting an entire generation especially following the aftermath of the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the early 1990s, Fang was named by Li Xianting, an art critic and inventor of the term “Cynical Realism,” as a key figure of the movement. (J. Supangkat, ‘China Avant-Garde and Contemporary Art,’ in Fang L.J. and A. Ochs, Fang Lijun: Life Is Now [in conjunction with Fang Lijun's Solo Exhibition at the National Gallery, Jakarta, 10 May - 18 May 2006])Though the style of Cynical Realism has been characterised by a “mix of ennui and rogue humour,” Karen Smith accentuates that what sets Fang’s paintings apart, is his work being rooted in the human condition rather than in politics. (Ben Davidson quoted by K. MacMillan, ‘Fang Lijun: the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar’ Artforum International, November 2007; K. Smith and M. Brouwer, Nine Lives: The Birth Of Avant-Garde Art In New China, 2010) His works created in 1992 in particular attracted global attention, earning him invitations to some of the most prestigious exhibitions including the 1993 and 1999 Venice Biennale and the 1994 São Paulo Biennial. Coming from a series of only eleven works, paintings from Series 2 have been collected by such key institutions as the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, and Fukuoka Art Museum, as well as by major private collectors.
A work never before seen on the market, Series 2 No. 10 is from a series that very infrequently becomes available to potential collectors. Augmenting the rarity and singularity of this work, the present lot provides the only circumstance in which a painting from the much-admired 1992 series highlights the artist’s female acquaintance in the foreground as a keystone figure. Offering a plethora of visual information not present in other works from the series, this dynamic painting showcases the woman as a central figure with her palms pressed together beside her face showing a slightly provocative expression emphasised by her subtle smile and knowing eyes. With her long neck and elegantly reserved composure, she is flanked by two robust men, one laughing and the other smiling demurely, amidst a backdrop of rippling blue water dotted with three bald figures emerging from the ocean gasping for air.
Modelled after the artist himself, imagery of the bald-headed figure whether yawning, grinning, or staring vacantly, have echoed throughout Fang’s works since 1989 as a symbol of popi, a term borrowed from a Chinese folk adage signifying a rogue or punk character. Critic Li Xianting examines Fang’s recurring shaved head motif in relation to Popi as “a solution towards internalised self-salvation,” a sentiment found throughout Chinese history especially during times of political restriction. (Li X.T., ‘The “Shaved Head POPI” Created by Fang Lijun,' in R. Malasch, P. Hovdenakk, and Li X.T., Fang Lijun, Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1998) Swaggering towards the viewer, a bald protagonist flamboyantly flaunts a brightly coloured and patterned swimsuit, fashion not depicted in other 1992 works, instilling not only a stark contrast to the conservative Cultural Revolution era uniforms of the past but also to the subdued blue or grey shirts donned by other characters in the series. Exclaiming cheerfully or beaming inanely, Fang’s bald-headed characters exemplify Fang’s translation of popi’s rebellious mockery into self-mockery, an emblem of personal escape from a system of meaning. The bald people swimming in Series 2 No. 10 furthermore foreshadow Fang’s acclaimed series of woodcuts created beginning in 1995 that re-investigate the imagery of the swimmer coming up for air.
Though the image of the bald man lost on the seashore and avoiding eye contact with the water is a major theme in the 1992 paintings, the present lot is unlike many of its counterparts in that it reveals several figures who actually take the daring leap into the water, an audacious move that also prefigures Fang’s following blue Swimming series. Water first appears in Fang Lijun’s paintings as far back as 1984. However, Fang does not seriously engage with the topic until the 1990s during which the artist looked to the indeterminacy and malleability of the medium as a central theme in his painting. As an artist concerned with portraying humans and humanity in his work, the theme of water becomes a critical lens through which Fang views the boundlessness of human nature. “Water is very close to my understanding of human nature,” Fang asserts, it is “liquid, not rule-bound… uncertain, like human feelings. You can’t live without water… but too much water will drown you.” In the early 1990s, Fang himself was often seen swimming and experimenting with an underwater camera at the pool in the Friendship Hotel, where he lived for a period of time with his wife, and where many other artists convened. In contrast to the confrontational stance of the work created by the ’85 New Wave artists and the general idealism of the 1980s, the oblivious bald-headed figures illustrated in the present lot profoundly describe the bludgeoning sense of helplessness affecting the state of mind of Fang’s generation in China.
The figures swimming in the background of Series 2 No. 10 reference both the artist’s personal interests in the leisure activity and the widely disseminated image of Mao Zedong who on July 16, 1966 took a vigorous and well-reported swim in the Yangtze River near the Wuhan bridge. This highly recognisable image of the Chairman swimming proliferated a statement implying Mao’s fearlessness and robust health—a counterattack against his critics—that also served as a call to China’s younger generation to dive into a political struggle to overthrow Mao’s opponents. (R. H. Solomon, ‘The Chairman’s Historic Swim,’ Time, September 27, 1999) What has consequently resulted from this call to action according to Fang, however, is a spiritually absent world denoted by the tsunami-like background of the present work, where the repetition of bald-headed figures in both the foreground and backdrop depict the stripping of individual identities, Fang’s visual metaphor for the Chinese people.
Series 2 No. 10 illuminates what is categorised as the artist’s “second period” of works (1990-1992), characterised by Fang’s preoccupation with juxtaposing imagery that circulated in China during the 1980s, and became recognisable on a nationwide scale through the controversial River Elegy (Heshang). Imagery within the television series broadcasted the cliché of a bifurcated vision of the old China versus the modern West. In contrast to Fang’s early paintings in which figures never leave the safety of the land or the protection of the Great Wall, Series 2 No. 10 depicts a shift towards a greater sense of openness and experimentation with several figures appearing before a commanding expanse of blue sea. Although Series 2 No. 10 expresses the sense of freedom permeating the works from this period, Fang’s ambiguous narrative and enclosed composition blocking any view of the horizon ultimately captures the anxious mood of a group of people who have been forced by Deng Xiaoping’s Open-Door policy program to look beyond the Great Wall at the vast stretches of an unfamiliar world. Though the foregrounding figures appear joyful, they nevertheless turn away from the ocean while their unsettlingly cropped and enlarged bodies expose the masked apprehensions of exploring the unknown.
Fang Lijun's paintings stand out amongst other works by artists from his generation as he eschews narrative altogether. Though distinctive, Fang is still considered one of the earliest proponents of the Cynical Realist school- having participated in the milestone 1989 exhibition, China/Avant-Garde hosted at the National Art Museum of China, the country’s most important arts venue, even before his graduation from the Department of Printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. In 1993, the artist also participated in the ground-breaking exhibition, China’s New Art, Post 1989 in Hong Kong, the 45th Venice Biennale, and China/Avant-Garde in Berlin. Currently in the collection of Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a related work to the present lot, Series 2 No. 2 (1991-2) furthermore made the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Fang quickly became internationally known, showing at the aforementioned international biennials and the pivotal exhibition Inside Out, curated by Gao Minglu, held jointly in New York City at the Asia Society and MoMA P.S. 1 in 1998-99. Fang Lijun has played a crucial role in the development of contemporary Chinese art, and so the study and discussion of his work will indisputably continue to have an impact on the future direction of art in China and beyond. (D. Eccher and Fang L.J., Fang Lijun: The precipice over the clouds, Milano: Charta, 2012)