Chinese painter Li Songsong is an artist caught between past and future. Born in 1973 at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, he is not part of the generation of artists who came of age in the upheavals of that time and first emerged in the early 1990s. Yet, as the son of a prestigious military family who vividly recalls the death of Mao and Zhou Enlai as his earliest childhood memories, he is certainly not one of the younger generation of Chinese artists whose only recollections are of China’s big boom as a global economy. Like many his age, he struggles with the uncertainty of identity, unsure what he is supposed to remember, unclear what he is supposed to forget.
Dog Walking, 2015
Oil on Aluminium Panel
Li Songsong defuses the political undertones of magazine and film clips and found photographs of historical events—images sourced from the public realm—by drawing attention to the medium he uses to rework them. Dividing the original image into diptychs or multiple interlocking panels, Li creates a subtle dissonance in shade and texture among the sections. His use of impasto and high-relief paint on aluminum further detracts from the notion that there is objective truth to be found in a photograph. The complex montage in Li’s 2006 painting Cuban Sugar is prime example of the artist’s rejection of political absolutes. Based on a photograph of the United Nations conference on China's domestic production of sugar, which forced the country into a trade agreement with Cuba, invites the viewer to see different parts of a single historical moment.
Historical Materialism, 2014
Oil on canvas
330 × 510 cm
It is more that in his painting Li Songsong is setting up a way of dealing with a problematic memory, one that is persistent yet is perpetually being erased. In the process of making the painting, he will have to, as with all his works, forget the overall image as he works on it, rectangle by rectangle. He will break it down and vary its coloration until the original photograph will be barely decipherable.
Easy Boy, 2014
Oil on aluminium
130 × 200 cm
As is analogous to the way this memory is handled by contemporary Chinese society, he will put viewers at a distance from its historic potency and provocative potential. The surface of the canvas, so lush and seductive, will function as a screen, just as so much of contemporary China screens its participants from confronting the past. Yet, from a distance, a remnant of the past will reveal itself, disrupting the fluency of the paint and insinuating that despite our best efforts, some things will never be forgotten.