IN THE NAME OF THE BRAND
Tianbing Li does not comment, criticize or denounce. He lets the viewer enter into and experience his pictorial world whose object is to bring to the fore an inevitable reality, namely, the advent of material desires. Starting point: China. The painter’s native land has successfully gone through all the stages of the incredible challenge undertaken by Deng Xiaoping when he came to power in 1977. Long fantasized about, the Middle Kingdom, which is becoming a little more powerful each day, is proudly entering the century of all conquests. Its potentially huge market is also a much coveted one.
Every accomplishment is fueled by desire, and so is China’s opening up to the realm of the possible and the imaginary. Desire for urbanization, for industrialization and for access to the status of a global first-class economic power. And, today, China, like the Western world, venerates the unavoidable goddess of capitalistic Olympus: the Brand. Clothes, cars, mobile phones, washing machines, etc. Industries are bending over backwards to provide new products to be consumed as quickly as possible before they are replaced by other more efficient, more beautiful and trendier ones. Chanel, Bosch, Olympus, Louis Vuitton, Häagen-Dazs, Adidas, Mercedes-Benz ..... these are all names which give rise to dreams. Dazzling by their prestige and their presence everywhere, brand names conjure up the promise of the good life. In an insidious way, they remodel identities by exaggerating individuation and they create new dependencies. Tianbing Li brings out this phenonmenon in his portraits in black and white. A recurrent theme in his work is the mutation of identities, observed through the prism of consumerism.
Faces and bodies...... It is said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. In Tianbing Li’s work the canvas itself plays this role. Amazingly, the innermost anguish of the soul is outwardly transparent. Nowadays, Workers looking for jobs migrate to faraway cities and suburbs and little by little lose touch with their cultural origins. It was only yesterday that these Workers silently took part in turning consumerism into something sacred. As mere cogs in the wheels of the economic machine, they have been, and will continue to be, the victims of utilitarianism. When they are no longer able to perform efficiently, what becomes of them is of little consequence. Proof of their existence, i.e., an image, a trace of their physical appearance, is likened, in Tianbing Li’s artistry, to a numeric file which gets damaged and ruined before being definitively deleted in a matter of seconds without any regret or pain. The industry recruits new elements and the wheels continue to turn. In the name of the Brand.
As for the children....... As offspring of this new era, which holds for them the promise of a brilliant future, they are programmed from the start to be transformed into model consumers. Jovial and paradoxically faded and blurred, their faces appear to be suspended in time. This impression is accentuated by the absence of colors generally used to depict childhood. Black and white, or rather various shades of gray, seem to result from a draining of their very essence and a fully-developed conformism. Large paint spots already alter the surface – the mirror of the soul – and sinusoids and random cracks outline the geography of a hysterical desire to consume. On foreheads and cheeks, manufacturers have already affixed their seals: the name and logo of their brand and sometimes a bar code. Chanel, Bosch, Olympus, Louis Vuitton, Häagen-Dazs, Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, all names which can be read on the surface of the skin, which adorn the faces like scarifications and wounds which have been badly stitched back up. The seal, an object and symbol of capital importance, which is found on numerous occasions throughout the history of civilizations and religions, is, by definition, synonymous with power. Anyone stamped with a seal becomes the undeniable and devoted property of whoever so affixes it. A seal is frequently the outward sign of that which is divine and logically takes on an almost magical quality. The stamps of consumerism, a new all-powerful goddess, are the logos through which individuals are doomed to total and irrevocable obedience. Elevated to the rank of a religion, consumerism decrees its rules, which everyone is expected to obey.
Although the models painted by Tianbing Li are essentially Chinese, they go well beyond the context of their geographical and cultural origin, appealing to a cosmopolitan audience. The interbred nature of the artist’s work is precisely what constitutes its force and universal sensitivity. In his work, Tianbin Li uses the power of suggestion, abandoning any aggressiveness. China is a starting point. However, Tianbing Li’s observations concern both the West, an inveterate and confirmed consumer, and the East, which is only just discovering the ephemeral joys of immediate and compulsive satisfaction of artificially-generated desires.
When expressed positively, desires are longings for that which is in the realm of the possible. They are then converted into a realizable force. But, since a sense of balance is rarely a quality of modern man in any industrialized nation, it does not take much to go from rational desire to excess. It is difficult for people to have a relationship with their own desires which is not contradictory. Desire in itself is contradictory, as there is a longing to be satisfied and yet to remain unsatisfied. This is where the Brands take hold and skillfully organize desire, constantly arousing it by cruelly enticing the individual with what he cannot obtain, now or ever, either because the desired object is beyond his means, or because it is constantly moved around in order to create a demand for it. Desire constantly comes up against an insurmountable hurdle, eyes staring wide open at the infinite variety of objects to be desired in unimaginable proportions.
The Brand is transformed into a jealous and fickle entity, watching out for the slightest quiver of collective desires, aiming at establishing the loyalty of its subjects at any cost, thanks to its tricks and illusions. Like a ferocious little monster, the Brand is encouraged by the rise in individualism with vanity following in its wake. It becomes a source of valorization, directly linked to self-esteem, a barometer of personal success. It is a code which allows the individual to situate himself on the social scale and to recognize his peers, those who are part of the same socio-cultural category. Consumerism without limits is then no longer solely a sign of gluttony or a satisfying of artificial needs. It is the principal way of distinguishing oneself and showing one’s superiority over others, a sort of original philosophy, almost a reason for living. Desire is perverted. There is growing frustration. The logical consequence, long-term satisfaction, becomes impossible and only suffering marks the utopic quest for happiness. We desire too much and in the wrong way.
(translation: Marie Scorca)