Paradoxes, unlikeness, symbols, ambiguities… immerse yourself in the canvas paintings of Li Tianbing. It is a strange chaotic experience as the work of this young artist is a labyrinth, where we get lost in the joy. A plethora of techniques, hybrids of all kinds, incoherent and destabilising…Everything contradicts itself yet everything comes together in harmony. At the first look, it's difficult to find a common thread in this work of art which diverges in several dire c tions.Trying to understand it, means having to figure out the cube. Turn, shuffle, get annoyed, restart from scratch! And however, there are some common points between a cat adorned with a woman's breasts and the black and white portrait of a victim of Pol Pot. The work of art of Li Tianbing flows directly from current reality. It is the reflection of the contradictions of our society. The past, the present and the future indulge in the incessant combats. Sentiments and contradictory ideas jostle each other. Fashion is born today to disappear tomorrow. The most diverse of influences blend together and give birth to the most curious of mixtures, to individuals who each day face the diversity of their origins.
Li Tianbing's auto-portraits are the materialisation of the state of affairs of this multi-cultural that questions its identity. The face is distorted, twisted, stretched in all ways, melted, spread out, pulled from all sides by cultures that shock each other. Impossible to make out the exact contours, to have an idea about the head of the person who is represented. Impossible to figure out his ethnic origin, his cultural heritage. He's a nomad. And today, only a nomad can stay connected to the world, anticipate its changes, predict the new trends and appreciate all the possibilities that it offers. The world progresses at a crazy speed. The artist can advance at an even faster pace. But it is impossible to advance without ever looking behind. Thus, the past regularly haunts the canvases of Li Tianbing. A past, haunted by the parasites of the present. Different historic periods interlink with each other. Interfaces are created. Slipped from spatial temporal layers, unexpected, comic and improbable images emerge.
Mao floats in the Yang-Tsê Kiang, but at his side, it's no longer his contemporaries. They are Michael Jackson, Bill Gates and the Colonial Sanders, mascot of the fast food chain restaurant KFC, that accompany his exploit. More children surround Mao, who had promised them that the world of tomorrow will belong to them. They have given up the place to George W. Bush, Vladimir Pountine, Oussama Ben Laden, Michael Moore or yet again, Brittany Spears…
The portraits of the victims of the Khmers Rouge, photographed before their execution in the sadly celebrated camp S-21 are reproduced in the black and white paintings. The faces are blurred, huge black marks glare out from the image like destruction caused by time. It appears to be an emotional homage. But surprise! On their chest are hung cards representing Pokémon. Confusion, perplexity and indecision engulfs us before the presence of these small joyous faces that are totally off tangent from this dreadful Cambodian drama.
The beauty of Buddha in the countryside of Shanxi had been erased to leave only inflatable dull grey silhouettes. A dusty grey. A grey synonymous with tradition and silence – which is savagely violated by elements of loud aggressive colours. A hamburger here, a bottle of coke there. But especially toy games. Dolls, soldiers, helicopters, robots, boats… Toys are by definition inoffensive. They take you back to the honesty and the innocence of the child. But often they are noisy, ugly and vulgar, of mediocre quality – fragile, trashy and superficial. All this poor material, all this plastic, an invention of the West, pollutes and turns the millennium culture and the beautiful truth into a ridicule.
The Chinese art fully pays for it. Wise, precious and unanimously recognized as aesthetically correct, it is bombarded by the contemporary western influences. Especially by sex, for which the Western people have developed a pathological obsession. Thus innocent fishes, birds and other mammals find themselves adorned with voluminous breasts or obscene phalluses. Profanation? Maybe. Derision? Certainly. Tianbing Li ill treats the past like a naughty child who plays a trick on his tired old grand mother. And this can be seen not only in the pictorial context but also in the way the painting has been worked on. The background is uniform, clean. The flat tint is perfect, rendered according to traditional techniques. But once its time to add the finishing touches, the artist seems to have been instigated by bursts of rebellion. The brush strokes become angry; the paint is thrown, spitted out on the canvas; large stains form on the surface; the image has been blurred one out of two times, like a spoilt digital file.
But if Tianbing Li insists so much on this historic, cultural and artistic past, it is not as much as to have fun as it is to show the fragility of this past that we tend to forget, falsify and not savour. The past may have been beautifully embellished on the surface to give a good feel about it, but it quickly reveals its monstrosities and its defaults to he who unfolds it. And such are also the paintings that are made from hair that has been recovered at the saloon. From far, the classical reproductions of paintings, traditional Chinese art or then still famous paintings like the young man before the floats of Stuart Franklin or the small Vietnamian having an attack of Nick Ut seem elegant designs, finely rendered. But in reality, what we take for delicate pencil strokes is in fact hair stuck on the canvas by cheap disgusting glue that bulges out from all sides. We very conveniently forget the nice strands of hair at the hairdressers as we forget the details of the past. What seems more throwaway than a can of coke. As throwaway as the new idols that we worship and let influence us: politicians, sport stars, singers, actors…Interchangeable icons that we wouldn't hesitate to throw away as soon as we've seen too much of them.
The artwork of Tianbing Li proposes an alternative to all this waste: the utopia of a futuristic world. A world that will make an abstraction of the past and of the cross-breeding. The glaciers are a bright and electric blue, the nocturne landscapes composed of lakes, mountains and supernatural colours that would be a backdrop for the new reality.
Legs of grasshoppers and claws of crabs would grow as war guns. Objects of daily life, reeking of their banality, like toilet paper, sponges and bottles could become organic matter that can colonise planes, helicopters and arms. The explosion would no longer be synonymous to destruction but the creation of new objects, new species yet to be defined. Tianbing Li, already an inventor: mammals crossed with high-tech technology, non identified vegetables, half vegetables, half meat, embryos of strange animals, heads of scratched birds, dinosaur brains merged with pink paint. And toys, still the toys…There are, thus, traces of today's present which will be the past of tomorrow. Impossible to get rid off what has already happened. The episodes of History that we have known are volatised. But the hamburgers, the plastic…Thus the world can only be seen through the prism of cultural, temporal and artistic cross-breeding. The world decomposes and recomposes. The world which is nothing but a cube.
(Translation: Sejal Gupta)