Pearl Lam Galleries is pleased to present Chinese artist Li Tianbing’s first solo exhibition in Singapore. Journey of the Lone Monkey sees the artist breaking new ground with paintings that introduce the figure of the monkey in captivity and in the wild, alongside Li’s recognisable portraits of imagined brothers and playmates set in part-autobiographical, partimagined scenes of Li’s hometown, Guilin. The exhibition continues Li’s exploration of the conditions of loneliness and solitude manifested on personal and societal levels.
In describing the paintings from his Children series, Li has often discussed the act of populating his paintings with his imagined brothers and playmates as a cathartic tool. Taken together, his well-known portraits of Chinese children emphasise the socio-cultural context of China in the 1970s by working through his personal memories of childhood solitude. Dealing with the authoritative dictate of the one-child policy enacted in China when he was a young child, these portraits restage Li’s invention of a fictitious brother to fill the keenly felt absence of a playmate in his family when he was a young boy. Li notes the added misery of being conscious that this was the result of a social force, not the choice of his family, and that his own memories of loneliness are tied to the collective condition of his generation. Mining and reconstructing from memory, Li draws on a precious few existing black and white photographs of himself at ages three, four and five as the basis for depictions of himself and his imagined playmates. Backdrops are recreated from photographs taken on Li’s tours of the rural Chinese countryside where he used to live, remote villages that most closely resemble the real spaces of his childhood.
Continuing the idea of isolation as a societal condition, Li’s new paintings include the figure of the monkey—alone, in pairs, in small family units, or set beside portrayals of his childhood self. Ordinary macaques, the most widespread primate genus aside from humans, are a common sight in Li’s hometown, Guilin; many live in the mountains and some are caught by humans to be featured in village circuses or as photographic props for tourists. Li recalls that when he was around 4 years old, his uncle captured a monkey as a companion for him. The monkey was constantly tied up in the balcony, forcibly separated from her pack and family, and eventually died pining and lonely. In the self-portraits Me and the monkey baby and Me and the monkey on the hammock, one senses the impact of Li’s early encounter with another inherently social animal to whom enforced loneliness was a sentence. In the exhibition, these works function as a bridge between Li’s portraits of lone children and those of monkeys alone in captivity or in an isolated group.
Other works, such as The tied Sun Wu Kong #1, #2 and #3, ground the figure of the monkey in Li’s references to Journey to the West, one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature that describes how a lone monkey king accompanied the priest San Zang in his travels West in search of Buddhist sutras, and their adventures that ensued. As children growing up in China in the ’70s, Li’s generation was cut off from all access to idolatry and religion; the Monkey King in this novel become an idol to the young Li, a heroic quasi- Superman. The titular Lone Monkey conflates the figure of the pining, solitary macaque from his childhood memories, and the heroism of the Monkey King of myth, throwing into question the many manifestations and consequences of the condition of loneliness.
Collectively, the works in Journey of the Lone Monkey articulate Li’s interest in the phenomenon of alienation in postmodern societies. Through a poetic staging of the dramas of mankind in intimate portraits composed from autobiography and fantasy, Li continues to explore how the identity of a society is strongly conditioned by the manner in which it structures or allows people to organise its nuclear families.
About Li Tianbing
Born in 1974, in the southern province of Guilin, China, Li Tianbing moved to Paris at the age of 22 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Here he came in contact with a wealth of visual and cultural resources and formal histories. Surrounded by such diversity, Li quickly developed a distinctive visual language with which to express his own cultural origins. This draws on both traditional Chinese techniques and contemporary Western references. His work was soon commanding a similar level of international attention afforded to elder contemporaries such as Zhang Huan and Yan Pei Ming.
When Li arrived in Paris he had with him a tiny album of just five small, black and white photographs of himself as a young boy. A family-owned camera was a rare and expensive commodity in 1970s China, so children's formative years went largely unrecorded. Li 's father worked as a soldier in the army's propaganda unit and was able to intermittently borrow a camera to record his son's infancy at the ages of three, four and five years old. These images have come to play an integral role in Li Tianbing's work. Being an only child in China was a condition shared by many children of his generation, and one the artist has described as a deeply lonely experience with profound psychological effects. Consequently, the artist often sought refuge in his own imagination, inventing games inhabited by fictitious characters.
This compelling biography informs Li’s poetic childhood portraits, and we see it in the frequent featuring of his imagined brother in his painterly repertoire. Later works depict the artist accompanied by a host of brothers and playmates, which have come to form a complete yet entirely ‘imagined' family album. On a personal level, the paintings offer an intimate portrait of a fantasised childhood, where fiction and fantasy seamlessly merge. On a far wider reaching scale, the work articulates the shared loss of a generation who grew up under an authoritative dictate exercised at its most personal level. Li’s compositions interweave the dualities present in China today: East and West, communism and capitalism, ancient culture and modern consumerism.
Li has held solo exhibitions at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London; L&M Arts Gallery, New York; Galerie Albert Benamou, Paris; Galerie Loft, Beitou; Kashya Hildebrand Gallery, Zurich; and Galerie Deborah Zafman, Paris. He has also exhibited internationally in group exhibitions at notable institutions, including Today Art Museum, Beijing; Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai; National Museum of Fine Arts, Beijing, China; Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Spain; and Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong. The artist currently lives and works in Beijing, China, and Paris, France.