LI TIANBING WITH THE CHARACTER OF PORTRAIT
Li Tianbing approaches, not without audacity a very particular style of painting: the portrait.
This art allows an object, which doesn't exist, to be inscribed as absent in the present which it represents. A Greek tradition concerning the origins of the painting that we surely know through the Natural History of Pline allows us to establish a relation between the shadow that a person projects on the floor or against a wall and the religious beliefs concerning the survival of the soul and its separation from the body. It is the story that is so often illustrated by the painters of the daughter of the potter Butadès who on learning about the departure of her lover for a faraway journey, draws the contours of the shadow of his profile, projected against the wall by the light of a candle. This allows Butadès to mould it by using his art to create an effigy of the absentee that his daughter treasures close to herself and that she thereafter places in a temple.
The Chinese tradition is rich in examples commemorated by the portraits of virtues of servants of the State. Such that during the epoch of Han, under the rule of the Emperor Ming Di, portraits of twenty-eight ministers and general merit holders were executed at the Yun pavilion. During the reign of Emperor Ling Di, the portraits of the disciples of Confucius were painted for the Hongdumen Academy. The Emperor Guang Wu, finally, visiting the portrait gallery with his wife Ma stopped in front of the effigy of Emperor Yao and exclaimed "Every person in the country would have liked to have a ruler like him"… Art in China can undoubtedly only flourish within the narrow boundaries of a political framework where the only unique way of deciphering depends on its proper usage of characters. The exercise is thus imprinted by a strong moral connotation. It does not relate to establishing with the spectator a connivance that unifies the original faces.
Chinese painting would have restricted the art of portrait painting to the activities of historiographers or other State employees and privileged landscape art, on the contrary, to the great European artists such as Léonard, Raphaël, Carpaccio, Perugin, Mantegna or Courbet, who would have been able to express their feelings intimately though their work of art which is, before anything a subject of history. We thus, better understand the reluctance of Chinese masters to delay defining "real". Lets hear what the wise Han Feizi (280, 233 B.C) has to say on this subject " a host of the king of Qi was painted. He asked "What is the most difficult to paint?" "Dogs and horses are the most difficult to paint" he replied. "And what is the easiest?". Souls and demons are the easiest as dogs and horses are known to man. We have them in front of our eyes every morning and night. We cannot paint them as they must be (lei) and that makes them the most difficult. On the other hand, souls and demons have no form. They don't float in front of our eyes. And so they are easy to represent."
This story is remarkable because it inscribes the thought where the form is less important than the intention; split in an energy of constant mutation. All the Chinese people know of the legend of the painter Zhang Sengyou who illustrates this point. According to this legend, Zhang Sengyou painted four dragons on the wall of a temple. Zhang Sengyou was reserved about the idea of adding the pupils which were missing on these dragons. When he did so for two of the dragons, a huge tempest was unleashed and the two dragons detached themselves from their … to fly off while the other two who were still blind, remained affixed to the wall… It is by this long roundabout way that we would like to approach the painting rendered by Li Tianbing. His portraits are a synthesis of the reflection between European and Chinese traditions. The black and white portraits that are given to us to see, correspond to a communicative alternative that is comparable to what we have just related above.
Firstly black and white as is the style of the photographs taken by Sarah Moon and Araki whom Li Tianbing is a fervent admirer. Nostalgia or insipidity from a strange expression at the control of a judgement? Portraits of well known personalities (Andy Warhol, Michael Jackson…) or of obscure anonymous people: principle of mutation, chance and necessity both considering a common humanity treated under the rule of latent equality and which will perhaps one day find its place in the gallery of Illustrations. The image is sometimes blur because of the bombarding of pixels or the work of the brush strokes that move up and down as a knife obstructing our vision…identities that nothing and nobody can approach in its interior being. This company of confusion or of deconstruction constructed that the artist reveals to us, develops in the morning with joy and energy, always being renovated. This, according to Li Tianbing connects to a confession made in a personal diary that reminds us of the 'Diary of a Crazy Man' written by the well known Chinese author Lu Xun.
But there is something else that we think about when we observe these forty paintings of children accompanying adults that Li Tainbing will exhibit for the first time in New York: the large families and the art of relationships between its members. The travellers, as well as those who are familiar about China, will discover at one moment or the other, the importance of the art of relationships, these codes of conduct specifically called guanxi. As Stephanie Balme pertinently reminds us, in one of her most admirable studies, "the reforms of Deng Xianoping, resumed by the slogan 'Enrich yourself!' lead the Chinese in the search of prosperity and made them desire to overcome the power of and by the guanxi. These codes, so well present in the daily life, don't let us to question, as in a perverted form they provoke us to swing from the ancient ethical codes to practices of corruption. Inscribed in the tradition, how do they develop in a context so modern and intense? What form of power do they have among the elite who have been nourished with rhetoric equality?". These questions surface while looking at the portraits painted by Li Tianbing, which if observed closely have been stamped by an embossed big mark on the face of the children.
The relationship seems to tell us not to attach more individuals to a clanish patrimony but to a large family of humans such as has been constructed before our eyes with new compromises in its rapport with multinationals or the State capitalism. The modernity of these images blend three temporalities: that of the painter, Li Tianbing, and also ours; that of the children and their parents; the anonymous mass, composed of their predecessors whose ways of lives we are familiar with, or the idealist representations of the codes of conduct that have nourished the imagination of entire family generations in China.
Li Tianbing, himself was inspired on seeing children, these cheap engravings where a in a lake hundred young bambinos are playing with the lotus flowers. Or these two children dressed as adults whose effigy has been reproduced as in our days and plastered on the doors in the interiors of the villages… Two words in Chinese describe the lotus flower: lian and he. The first word is phonetically similar to another word signifying "to ally" (especially with respect to wedding relationships) but also "uninterrupted", "one after another" or then "love" and "modesty". The second may symbolise "concordance" or "conjugal happiness"…the representations of the children in the traditional Chinese iconography abounds this. The theme of childhood vehicles the virtues of spontaneity (ziran) and that of availability. Everyone in China has seen this representation of the mature man, Lao Laizi, dressed as a child and playing in front of his very old parents to convince them that they are still young!
It seems as though Li Tianbing is trying to tell us that excessive expression of the filial devotion will be executed not as a way of return to an immanent confucian tradition but according to an unexpected perspective that could head in the direction of adoption or family recomposition. On these canvases we see a child Khmer, a little Tibetan lama…who has not known in this world, or even in his own family about adopted children or of recomposed families? And Li Tianbing who also knows about the power of images, reveals before us the desire of paternity that we would have known to identify and / or claim. China today is also the tragedy of thirty million black children (hei haizi), non declared children born to "guilty" parents who have crossed the quota of family planning which imposes having only one child. What would become of these children deprived of their rights, their legal existence? China is also the laboratory of the maximum slavery of the 21st century. We cannot ignore these problems neither the social dimension of the paintings painted by Li Tianbing who is the first Chinese artist to take up the subject of the Cultural Revolution in his report on Cambodia and the ethnocide Khymer Rouge.
Li Tianbing seems to be telling us that to decide the character of an image is a nonstop negotiation process between those who can speak, building together a world of signs and sharing. Sharing the acceptation or the refusal, the taste or the distaste, of figures whose role and identity of each person is always redistributed. It is from this ambiguity of the image that figures play the role of love or hate, of social recognition as much as ostracism that constructs a visible economy of a very particular character that concerns us without really defining its real owners. Li Tianbing questions the opinions in the perspective that escapes the stakes, which are at times very dramatic between power and liberty. We have neither the idols, nor the icons but the images that have grieved over the body to let live the desire which is yet finding its way to express itself in words. This negotiation of the look is also an interpretation of history. Firstly that of an artist who is enrolled in a remarkable cultural Chinese continuity. Here wer are not talking about a style but of a way of life. Li Tianbing could have become a diplomat. He chose to become an artist. However, to be a diplomat or an artist, from the point of view of the most universally renowned culture in China, is treated as being the same. In both cases, the art of a paintbrush is the instrument of a well practised activity leading to a beneficial end: the strategy. Choosing the life of an expatriate, to live in France, in Paris, then to go discover the United States by being in Chelsea in New York and one of the most beautiful galleries, when you are thirty years old is a good sign. It is especially the symbol of great strategic intelligence and remarkable sensitivity. Paris, since a century, is the incontestable mythical reference of several Chinese artists. The most famous have lived here: Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, Xu Beihong…Others have become French citizens: Huang Yongping, Chuh Teh Chun, Zao Wu Ki...Li Tianbong, in turn, could not have ignored the French capital. Needless to say that here, the destiny of two other major cities of the world are finely linked: Shanghai and New York. Shanghai and its ancient French concession is nicknamed the "mini Paris", and Li Tianbing knows this city by heart. New York? We, of course think about Marcel Duchamp, André Breton or Arthur Miller who had written the Little Odessa: "France is Paris and Paris is China"…And if the coming of Li Tianbing to this cultural hub, New York, invites us to a complete reversal of perceptions on ourselves and others and on our rapport with the worlds?
Dr. Emmanuel Lincot
Specialist in Chinese contemporary art
(Translation: Sejal Gupta)