Selected works by Li Songsong

Li Songsong


Oil on canvas

180 x 300 cm (diptych)

In Gift, Li’s expressionistic painting utilises the devices of photography to allude to the deceptive qualities of images. Picturing Chinese fighters parading a shot down enemy airplane during the second Sino-Japanese war, Li renders the scene as a purely aesthetic experience, supplanting historical connotation with his own legacy of artistic production. Mirroring the original documentary photo, Li’s black and white palette concentrates attention on the formal techniques of the painting; the scene becomes secondary to Li’s seductive brushwork, as ’fact’ becomes disembodied into a malleable network of fluid, loose gestures. The right side of the image has been slightly enlarged to force a comparative study of the image, underscoring the subjectivity of represented ’truth’.

Li Songsong
The Decameron


Oil on canvas

170 x 210 cm

Li’s The Decameron takes its title from a novel written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the mid-14th century; structured as a frame narrative the book is a collection of 100 stories told by ten characters over a period of ten days, creating not one continuous plot, but a medley of tales surrounding set themes. In Li’s painting, Boccaccio’s literary structure is applied to dissemble and reinterpret a public source photo of the 2004 National People’s Congress. Elongating the original image then cutting it into 10 separate pieces, Li completed the painting in individually demarcated sections, each one a distortion and biased embellishment of an historical event.

Li Songsong
This Is How We Talk Politics


Oil on canvas (diptych)

210 X 210 cm 100 x 245 cm 160 X 260 cm Overall dimensions: 260 x 470 cm

Themes of intimacy, remoteness, and anxiety run throughout Li’s work. His scenes gain a haunting uncanniness not from their place in social memory, but because of their intensely concentrated surfaces. Treating his loaded source material as a void template, Li approaches painting as a purely amoral intervention, a meditative engagement with the possibilities of personal significance within an increasingly virtual world. Li’s diptych This Is How We Talk Politics blurs this distinction between public and private. Its sumptuously textured panels paradoxically convey the speed, pixellation, and distortion of mass media as fixed and tangible matter. Thick impasto fields in greyscale loom like a concrete facade, gauged and pockmarked, stippled and annotated through Li’s obsessive gestures, creating an almost spiritual contemplation of beauty from the intrinsically impersonal and generic.

Li Songsong
Cuban Sugar


Oil on aluminium panels

280 x 400cm

Li painted Cuban Sugar in 2006 at a time when China underwent a crisis in domestic sugar production, forcing it to engage in trade with Cuba to cut inflation. Li’s visualisation of this event is fractured, reflecting this ideological conflict of interest with an image that is not self-sustaining, but rather uncomfortably made up of a composite of independent sections. Executing his scene as a montage, each defined area operates as a painting within a painting, suggesting a layered and disjointed approach to historical interpretation, further complicated by Li’s intensely formal approach to his subject. Li offers no political opinion within his work, but focuses solely on the act of painting to open new relationships between individual perception and the authoritative narratives of documentation.



Ai Weiwei: Could you tell me when you started to paint in this style?
In 2001, I saw the exhibition you had in a bar.

Li Songsong: What I painted was the kind of iron candy boxes we played with when I was small. Its title was "Beijing Candy." There was another one called "Digging," which depicted some soldiers digging trenches.

Ai Weiwei: Were you already painting in this style back then?

Li Songsong: Not really. The two paintings I mentioned above were done between 1997 and 1999. At that time, I just graduated from college and had not much to do at home so I painted those. This way of thinking was not especially active back then.

Ai Weiwei: The "Horse" installation that you made in Qinghua Art Academy; was it done before those paintings or after?

Li Songsong: It was before. I made "Horse" in June 2001. I started to paint these paintings during that summer when I found some old photographs.

Ai Weiwei: What was your initial thinking?

Li Songsong: Originally I wanted to paint something that had a certain distance from reality. I thought to construct a scene in painting, representing things or a certain sentiment from our real life, was not so interesting.

Feng Boyi: Have you always been interested in old photographs dealing with historical topics? How have you singled out those images that you need from a large number of old pictures? Why have you chosen topics of historical scenes and events ranging from during the revolutionary war period to after the founding of the People's Republic of China; including photographs of historical moments during the Culture Revolution, with such recognizable icons as the Conference Assembly Room to the dome of the People's Conference Hall? You don't simply use these images as historical evidences; do you consider these images as a mirror that reflects the ideology of the people at that time?

Li Songsong: Not really. The painting of the soldiers digging the trench, for example, was a picture I saw by chance. I felt attracted to the process of looking at photographs. When we look at pictures in a book, we usually turn them over when we understand the meaning in them. I painted this picture probably because I looked at it so closely. It was a very plain photograph: some people in uniform were digging into the earth on a wasteland. After I read the explanation, I realized that the people were voluntary soldiers digging a trench during the Korean War. If you look at an image long enough, you will discover other meanings in it. I've also painted images from TV, the portrait of the late Deng XiaoPing for example. At the time when he passed his portrait was on TV every day. I took a picture of his portrait and painted it. But I didn't continue with this kind of topics, including the one of the candy box. Perhaps I wanted to paint some existing and ready-made things at that time. But I didn't want to sketch a person in a conventional type of space. I wanted the original image to be something one dimensional.

Ai Weiwei: You do not have so much interest in directly taking from reality to put into paintings.
Li Songsong: I find it unnecessary. There are better approaches, photography and video for example. Just looking at live things is simply more fun. I feel that when it comes to this aspect of representing reality, painting is rather powerless.

Ai Weiwei: So when you have a photograph or a candy box in front of you, what kind of possibility would it give you? You said that painting is ineffective in faithfully representing a three-dimensional thing, what difference then would this style of painting make?

Li Songsong: I feel that it is at least equal. That is to say, the origin is something flat, something ready-made. Painting is also such a trace, of the same kind, on one dimension.

Li Songsong: A trace on one dimension. Besides, it doesn't have to be judged by aesthetic principles. There is no need to decide on the space, or to make a choice. (All you have to do is) to place something on the top. It is already responsible for itself. You simply complete?
Li Songsong: Maybe it's like reading. Simply rereading it again.

Ai Weiwei: Your idea reminds me of Jasper Johns. Of course, his paintings and yours are different in nature. Someone has discovered that in all of Jasper Johns' paintings, there was no active involvement on his side. For example, in his early works, he painted the American flag, the target, and the American map. Until the numbers he's painted in his latest works, including all the crosses appearing in various directions must have come from a graphic or text he spotted passing a barbershop or driving on the way to Harlem. His current paintings have carried on this tradition. He has never directly created forms and structures in a traditional sense and instead deconstructed a form he has come across usually in his paintings. He says, "I have little interest when it comes to creation itself. I am only doing reinterpretation. It's impossible for me to change the reality itself but I want to re-interpret it." In this regard, do you think you share some similarities?