Li Songsong

An artistic touch: Seize life because you only have it once, says Li Songsong


Known for his striking recreations of historical photographs, painter Li Songsong set the bar high with his first solo exhibition at New York’s renowned Pace Gallery in 2011.

But the Beijing-based Li never seriously considered becoming an artist until his 30s. “Childhood dream and reality are two entirely different matters,” says Li, who studied at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts.

“It’s not about whether I want to be an artist but whether I’m able to be. And it’s not as easy as choosing my favourite flavour at an ice cream store.”

With an emphasis on modern Chinese history, Li sources a wide range of images from films, magazines, newspapers and the internet for his art.

“I started with old photos, many of which are from the 1970s, the generation I was born in,” he explains.

“What really intrigues me is how ignorant we are of our own history. If you’re willing to think about it, our history education is very often filled with contradictions and vagueness. What I’d like to do is to figure out where we stand in history.”

Of the historical scenes or events Li chooses, some are readily recognised by Chinese such as the National People’s Congress and the dome of the Great Hall of the People in his work The Decameron.

His reconstruction of images leaves the finished work with ambiguous meanings and thus invites viewers’ interpretations.

“Any preaching has its potential risk. If I expect to narrate or advocate a particular point of view through my art, it might be reduced to propaganda,” he says. “I have my judgment, but promoting it will make my art no more than a piece of illustration in a magazine, whose function is simply to convey a proposition or deliver sarcasm. I don’t want to treat art as a tool.”

Li usually deconstructs his paintings in square or rectangular sections and paints each portion separately. It normally takes him one or two days to complete one section and a month to finish the whole piece.

“Each of my artworks can be regarded as my timetable,” Li says. “It reflects how I manage my time at work.”

And time, he adds, is the one thing that truly belongs to us. “[Life] is like a brief window of time during which anything can happen. But you never know when the window will close. You need to seize it because you only have it once.”

Li presented his latest work, The One, at his second solo exhibition with Pace Gallery in Beijing in September. The tunnel-shaped installation is lined with 91 irregularly shaped aluminium panels covered with impasto oil. “I tried something new. Unlike my old pieces mostly deriving from sources like photos, The One is imageless,” he says.

“Only one person is allowed to enter at a time. Viewers will have to construct their own experiential meanings and each passage is unique.”