Paradoxes, unlikeness, symbols, ambiguities… immerse yourself in the canvas paintings of Li Tianbing. It is a strange chaotic experience as the work of this young artist is a labyrinth, where we get lost in the joy. A plethora of techniques, hybrids of all kinds, incoherent and destabilising…Everything contradicts itself yet everything comes together in harmony. At the first look, it’s difficult to find a common thread in this work of art which diverges in several directions. Trying to understand it, means having to figure out the cube. The work of art of Li Tianbing flows directly from current reality. Read below for the full interview…
Why did you choose to develop painting as your artistic technique?
Bing: As an oldest and most traditional media, painting also implies limitless possibilities. Every stroke embodies the unique personality of an artiest. On the other hand, it is like the sedimentation of time bit by bit. This is particularly precious in an era that everything is industrialized, mechanized and computerized. To me, painting is like the daily secret diary and the painting process is my interactions with canvas and pigment, which can not be mapped out. We may make a sketch or a design sketch with computer before painting, but the surprises that painting often brings to me in the process are far beyond the result of painting. Sometimes, the picture seems to trap in a deadlock. However, it changes suddenly on the heels of a certain dot and seems to turn into a new level and looks richer. All in all, the painting action is my conversation with canvas, while the ending of the conversation is the accomplishment of my works, which are developed upon my identity in the past and now all the way. The peculiarity, personal privacy as well as the image construction patterns of painting is still unable to be replaced by other media, as we cannot replace the real Louvre with a virtual one in network. This is the reason why I’m deeply in love with painting as well.
How did you come to use a mixture of Chinese traditional techniques with Western ones? And about your current art work, mixing also photographic techniques?
Bing: Before my oil painting creation, I have buried myself in traditional Chinese paintings for more than a decade. I’m always addicted to the black and white world of Chinese ink. The so-called “five-colored toner” means the different gray scales (corresponding to the colors of oil paintings in the West) formed in harmonious proportion of ink and different quantities of water. A few colors, even the two colors of black and white are used in many of my later oil paintings only. Chinese ink often diffuse on rice paper as it can uptake water. So, in my oil paintings, the pictures look fuzzy, like pigments diffusing on canvas. I think the impact of the learning of traditional Chinese skills on my later oil painting creation is unconscious and subtle. When it comes to the photographic realistic skills in the end, my recent Children series discusses about the past and contemporary social background of China by centering on childhood, because I hope my works to have reflection function and “pseudo-documentary” function like a “mirror”.
How do you combine your education from Chinese art school with the European (French) art school? Would you explain the relation between technique and freedom?
Bing: I began to learn Chinese painting in the major form of counter-drawing when I was six years old. I focused on the learning of skills at that time. As soon as ink falling on the paper, it can not be modified or deleted any more, unlike oil paintings, which can be overlapped. Hence, a whole painting may frequently become invalid due to a careless stroke during the course of painting and has to be repainted. All these help to train the accurate paces of the painter’s hands and brain. The meditation long before painting and the painting at one stretch after the brush falling on the paper are both the major characteristics of Chinese painting creation as well. So, although I haven’t been unable to create an oil painting at twenty-two years old when I came to Paris, I understood the techniques on the whole. The six year’s learning at Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts de Paris later was, on the one hand, aimed at knowing oil painting techniques well and on the other, aimed mainly at developing my field of vision, which enabled me to learn about western contemporary art comprehensively. In the face of such freedom, I felt like “a fish in the sea”. As fish need energy in order to move about in the sea, the skill training on Chinese painting for more than a decade seemed to become food I have eaten, which enabled me to try all kinds of skills and styles freely, rather than giving up some means of expression due to the limitation of techniques.
Do you feel that this relationship between Eastern and Western influences works in balance, in harmony, or is it in constant conflict, and from there you create your work?
Bing: There has been sixteen years since I arrived in Paris in 1996. In this regards, the impacts from the East and the West should have achieved a balance and should have been complementary to a greater degree. I will never mind whether the impacts come from the East or the West in the arts creation process, for they have actually mixed together and found out their own way of running-in, and my works should be the displaying of such balance. The portrait in the works is me, a Chinese face, while it contains many western elements in the thoughts of arts creation and tactics.
Would you tell me more about the Chinese symbolism in your paintings?
Bing: I’m very interested in the symbolic significance and changes of colors in Chinese culture. For example, “red” implies joy in Chinese tradition and in turn for revolution after the Communist Party coming into power. You may find that both symbolic significances exist in China nowadays. “Blue” hardly has a symbolic significance in Chinese culture, but it symbolizes capitalism – the civilization from the sea in the recent decades. The traditional Chinese culture often endows some plants and animals with corresponding symbolic significances. I have absolutely overthrown their traditional symbolic significances in my Blue series (2000-2004) by changing the backgrounds of these ancient flower-and-bird paintings into the “capitalistic blue”, while changing the birds and flowers implying luck or wealth into consumption monsters implanted in toys and sexual organs.
“The two most important aspects of art are feeling and experience” Do you keep this conception when developing your technique? Is your work spontaneous or you make a plan before facing the canvas? Would you explain what your creation process is?
Bing: My way of arts creation is diversified and can be adjusted according to different series and themes. For example, the Self Portrait’s Deformation series in 2000-2006 is more spontaneous, for it is a description of my current status. I tried to seize the ever-changing “myself” by painting, so the pictures were traceable along with the interactions with me. The recent Children series talk about the past and narrative. I need a good many of picture information to try all sorts of combinations in computer. Thus, the draft has been in my mind before painting. Of course, entirely different feels can be brought while facing small pictures on screen and while standing in front of a large canvas. The image can be frequently modified and adjusted as the arts creation going on and the foregoing draft is only for reference, for the interaction between the direct feel in front of canvas. And, the painting itself is the foremost forever.
Is there a special meaning behind your usage of Chinese ideograms on your paintings? As it explicitly shortens the quantity of people capable of read it, does it have something to do with the lack of communication channels and the severe control over media in China?
Bing: I always concern about the social forces produced by written languages. All kinds of processed media resources ranging from political slogans flooded the streets in 1970s and 1980s in China to the overspreading commercial advertisements nowadays make us dazzled. So, I call it “written language violence”. That is, people who control over written languages will control over the society. In my works therefore, I often juxtapose these written languages from different eras and sources. China possesses the most powerful network filtering system in the world and consultations therefrom are usually selected. These filtered event headlines also become part of the background texts of my works. In some other works, I take Chinese characters apart and recombine them, which then become meaningless forms and structures. At this time, neither Chinese nor foreigners can read them, but the pressure from them can still be felt. This mainly stems from the way of displaying. In this regard, the social forces of written language prevail all over the world.
What is your approach to the current structure of Chinese society?
Bing: Nowadays, Chinese society is experiencing a great change. Few people believe in Marxism-Leninism now and the absence of belief enables this change to bring more pain to us. In the face of crony capitalism, extreme disparity between the rich and the poor as well as the popularity of corruption, China has to adopt one of the following two measures: going back to the state of North Korea or furthering up its reform, rather than keeping still. Now, evidences show that China will deepen its political restructuring in the manner of Taiwan or Japan. Let’s discuss about my early works from my arrival in France. Bacon’s works had a great impact on me. In the several years after 1996, I kept creating expressionistic paintings. However, after the year 2000, I began to develop and try entirely different styles, including the Blue series, Self Portrait’s Deformation series which still under the impact of Bacon, the series taking hair as the media and the LC series. When my solo exhibitions were held in this period, viewers normally mistook them as group exhibitions of several artists. These multi-direction researches will lay a solid foundation and provide tool libraries for the arts creations in the rest of my life. So, it was the span development of two-dimensional plane from the year 2000 to 2006. Nevertheless, the Children series thereafter, from single black and white head portrait to the Me and My Brothers series and up to the recent large-scale scene and social issues is the development of three-dimensional depth on one dot and is a deep exploration. I will also make the similar deep exploration on other dots in the future.
Do you feel that being an only child increased or helped you to be more in touch with your imagination?
Bing: In my childhood memories, I was always alone, because my parents must go to work. Thus, drawing became an important pastime. I would imagine that there was an even-aged child playing with me, playing chess with me and chatting with me. I would change my parents’ queen-size bed into battlefield and change quilts into barriers to make war and shoot toward the imaginary enemy. I can play for a very long time. Besides, the uppermost thing was drawing. At that time, my parents had no money to buy pencils and papers for me. Therefore, I picked up a piece of fossil and drew on the ground, streets and the toilet doors nearby. I found that the imaginary objects could be actualized and materialized through drawing. I remember the themes at that time were horse and soldier. Neighbors told my mother: “You don’t have to worry about looking for your son. So long as there are drawings all over the ground, he must be at hand.” Maybe the identity of the only child made me fall in love with drawing more and fall in love with the feel of imagining and drawing alone. I’m aware all the time that my state today is still the same as thirty years ago. I never need an assistant and I like staying alone. There is no difference except that I draw on canvas now yet on the ground of public area before. I still draw from morning till night.
One of the most common pursuits followed by Chinese contemporary artists is related to be free to create. Are you looking for artistic freedom as well?
Bing: As I painted mainly in Paris during the past decade, my perception to freedom of arts creation is surely different with domestic artists. I have ever worked in Beijing, China for more than half a year in 2008 and thus directly interacted with the native artists. At that time, many artists liked to cluster. So, they rented rural land in the outskirts of Beijing together to build studios, just like the Barbizon in France in those years. However, these studios were forcibly demolished by the government in less than a year. Contemporary artist is a group of marginal people in Chinese society and also a group of people thirsty for freedom. Although they can close the door and bury themselves in arts creation freely, displaying is another thing. They don’t have the freedom of displaying, for China is extremely strict in cultural censorship. They can choose skills at will, but they have to avoid sensitive issues when it comes to themes. They must learn how to detour ahead.
And finally, what would be the role of the artist nowadays? And how would you define your role or mission as an artist?
Bing: When I was learning traditional Chinese painting in my childhood, I have appreciated literati paintings in ancient China all the time. It is contrary to court painting and the painters are concurrently writers, musicians and even politicians, for whom, Painting is not occupation, but part of the life, which is as natural and sheer as floret coming out from a branch. To me, the painting process itself is an amazing experience and a way of living. However, it should not be the product created by lofty and unsophisticated artist only, especially in the days with diversified multimedia and democracy like today. Meanwhile, we are in an era most tolerant to artists. In this era, artists from all kinds of schools and all sorts of artistic forms coexist and in which everyone can be an artist without the determination of quality. I’m constantly exploring my own forms of creation according to my characteristics. However, it is particularly important in an era of contemporary art teemed with rubbish if we want to lift them up to a mature level both on technique and thought.
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