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Artist Fang Lijun says painting animals is a kind of artistic freedom

As Fang Lijun unveils an exhibition of his works, Edmund Lee visits the prominent Chinese artist at his spacious Hong Kong studio to get a glimpse into his creative methods

 

AT SEVERAL THOUSAND square feet with a 4.5-metre high ceiling, ample lighting, and gleaming white walls, Fang Lijun's conspicuously empty Hong Kong studio looks like a major gallery in between exhibitions - except that it's tidier. On two long and lonely desks in the middle of this warehouse space are the small preliminary drafts for his ink paintings, and stacks of clippings Fang has collected from newspapers and magazines, many of which "were stolen from the planes".

The sound of water streaming through a pipe, which comes from a manufacturing site on the floor above, provides a calming soundtrack to our interview. "I didn't do the noise-cancelling properly because this is just a place for work," the artist says, smiling as he always does, while seeming oblivious to the coincidental fact that water is a vital subject of some of his most iconic works. "I'm used to the sound of it now," he says.

The Beijing-based artist's Hong Kong studio is situated next door to Hanart Square, the 5,000 sq ft exhibition space opened by gallery director Johnson Chang Tsong-zung back in 2010. Fang, represented by Chang, also has studios in Beijing, Chengdu and Jingdezhen.

He moved into his Kwai Chung space in 2008, and has since spent many winters here, primarily conceptualising and working on his ink-based works.

The artist is sitting on a large piece of white paper on the floor, and he casually examines an early draft for a painting which shows the cartoonish outline of a fierce grizzly bear with a golden crown on its head. He can't help but chuckle at the image.

"To me, there's no difference between painting animals and humans, because, in our culture, we have the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac," says Fang, who only recently started to incorporate animals into his paintings, most of which feature expressive, bald-headed protagonists.

"Then again, painting animals does give me more freedom. When I paint people, I'm always being asked who I'm painting, or why I'm painting them."

Fang says that the people he paints are mostly from his own circle of friends. But even if the human figures in his works continue to summon dreary inquiries about their identities, it is a small price to pay for the 50-year-old artist, who has established himself as one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Chinese art in the past two decades.

Fang looks relaxed, offering considered and comprehensive explanations about his creative methods - often without actually giving many of his ideas away. The only concrete piece of interpretation he offers is that he has always been fixated on the same subject matter: "the relationship between individuals and their society".

A recurrent motif in several of the paintings on view at his solo show at Central's Hanart TZ Gallery, which runs until January 12, is a variety of dripping wet figures that could just as easily signify the consequence of crying, sweating, or being drenched by the rain.

After claiming he finds it "quite interesting to add some motion to something static," Fang playfully remarks that "even the sun is crying" when we look at his ink and colour on paper drawing 2013.11, in which tears appear to be streaming down from several eyes onto a red circle in the middle.

But when he is specifically asked about the teary figures in his works, the artist turns elusive. "I have no particular explanation," he says coyly. "I'm a very curious person. I'm like the audience: I don't understand the work completely, but it still has an impact on me. After I look at it, I'll talk about it and try to understand it. There are questions in life a person will never understand."

In his new exhibition, Fang is showing a selection of new works that can roughly be put into three categories: oil on canvas; the ink and colour on paper works he recently came up with in this Hong Kong studio; and several ceramic sculptures of seemingly collapsing structures that he has created against the well-established Jingdezhen tradition.

Fang explains that while he is troubled by the way our appreciation of sculptures is almost entirely guided by their appearance, he has somehow found "the linguistic possibilities" in the ceramic making process, by which he means variables in the materials' colours, textures, densities and optimal burning temperatures.

"All these basic steps can make their own voices," he says. "When all these tiny units are saying things together, the [dominant focus on] appearances is broken.

"It's a very effective way to solve my problem. It's like going to a concert hall to listen to a symphony: when all the musical instruments are played at the same time, they can be very quiet, but they can also be [as all-embracing as] the universe. They are not restricted to just one dimension."

As is the norm for Fang, all the works are titled after the year, or time of year, they were created.

"Each work is the accumulation of your education and previous encounters with your reality," he explains. "It's not just about the moment you create the work - if I gave it a title, it may cover up all that has come before it."

In a sense, a lot has come before every work that Fang produces. As one of the figureheads of the early 1990s Cynical Realism movement, his work has long been seen as a disenchanted response to the social and political turmoil inscribed in the psyche of the new - and disillusioned - generation in the mainland.

Fang attributes the humorously rebellious nature of his early work to the tendency for new artists to focus on only one guiding theme.

"If you have worked as an artist for a long time, the restrictions you put on yourself become less stringent," he says. "There will be more freedom in your creative process, and the works will show a wider range of emotions. They all reflect on your values and world view. For me, I no longer limit my expressions as I did before. My work can express a wider range of emotions now."

On that note, I come back one last time to the dripping imagery of his recent works. Fang now says excitedly, "Recently, I've been so happy that I'm moved to tears."

It's hard to tell if that qualifies as an illuminating answer on this artist's behalf - but, well, good for him.

edmund.lee@scmp.com

 

Fang Lijun, Hanart TZ Gallery, 4/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central, Monday-Friday 10am-6.30pm, Saturday 10am-6pm. Ends January 12. Inquiries: 2526 9019

 

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