Fang Lijun (b. 1963)

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Fang Lijun

Born in 1963 in Handai of the Hebei province, Fang Lijun endured a rather difficult childhood. Stigmatized as a ‘rich peasant’ during the Cultural Revolution, Fang routinely endured taunts and witnessed the humiliation of his family members. To protect him from persecution by his peers and neighbors, Fang’s father kept his son at home and taught him painting, whereby instilling an early interest in the arts that was soon to evolve into a promising career.

In 1977 Fang Lijun began his formal artistic education, studying painting at Handan Middle school for Railway Workers and at the Workers’ Cultural Palace. Moving on to the Hebei College for Light Industry in 1980, Fang studied ceramics as well as woodblock cutting. Afterwards, Fang briefly worked in advertising while showing his work at some regional art exhibitions, then once again resumed training in1985, entering the print department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. One year before graduating from the Academy in 1990, Fang participated in the Beijing National Gallery’s controversial yet pivotal China/ Avant-Garde exhibition, heralding his role as a budding innovator in China’s burgeoning avant-garde scene.

By the 1990s, Fang Lijun cemented his name in the art world as a leading artist in the Chinese artistic movement entitled Cynical Realism (Wanshi xianshizhuyi). One of the dominant styles that developed just after the Tiananmen Incident, Cynical Realism was seen to typify the pervasive feeling of disillusionment in the bloody aftermath, with its use of humour and irony. While the beginning of the 1980s had signaled an optimistic outlook brought about by the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, by the end of the 1980s optimism was waning. It would seem that political and social turbulence during such a relatively short period of time resulted in a certain feeling of loss and disenchantment with the country and political rule.

Caught in the midst of this chaotic milieu, urban artists such as Fang produced works that were seen to reflect the nation’s burgeoning feelings of skepticism. Living in an artist’s colony in what was known as Beijing’s version of Greenwich Village—the Yuanmingyuan area, Fang painted fervently, exercising an exploration of his many doubts and questions concerning the political situation in China. With his trademark bald-headed youthful subjects, Fang’s paintings were seen to illustrate the Cynical Realist notion of lost idealism, and a more realistic yet ironic view of changing Chinese society.

In one of Fang’s better known images Untitled from 1992, a lone man stands in the foreground, either yawning or yelling as three figures stand in the background, identical in their blank expressions. Marking the clash between the old and the new, it shows a disjuncture between the complacency of conformity and a yearning for individuality, marking just some of the prevailing conflicts and desires of the time. And yet, the meaning is not particularly clear. Focusing on facial expressions that communicated a multitude of emotions, Fang purposely created scenes with enigmatic narratives.

Indeed Fang may not be entirely comfortable with the Cynical Realist label, inclining to state that his subjects expressed more of an ambiguity and ambivalence, rather than the more dissenting sarcasm associated with notions of Cynical Realism. While Fang may not be at ease in being allied with a style that is so markedly connected with a critique on the political and social state of affairs in China, the ambiguity of his work clearly shows a sense of confusion. Judging by the popularity of his work both nationally and internationally, this sense of confusion is one that resounds throughout China and beyond.

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