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Benjamin Sigg Collection - The Art of Collecting

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Li Yan

Accidents Carefully Arranged

I do not want to create linear, singular things, but instead permeating, diverse and open interpretations. There will be different figures that are presented together, but in different times. A singular panel of painting was both linear and isolated. So after the editing process has finished, the space for interpretation is expanded.
Works 002,2012,80x120cm,Acrylic on canvas

A number of young, emerging Chinese artists are included in The Art of Collecting, an exhibition of Benjamin Sigg’s collection, including Li Yan. Born in the Ji Lin province of northeast China in 1977, he participated in a group exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery after being given the opportunity by curator Jiang Jiehong, just two years after graduating in 2005.

Li Yan believes he was fortunate to have the chance to be in a show along with artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Xiang Jing and many others. In 2008, the whole of China devoted itself to the Olympic Games and eventually secured a miraculous 51 gold medals. But during this time, when everything had to be in place, Li Yan created Accident, which consisted of fragmented news and an otherworldly scene of wars, protests and violence that were interweaved with the everyday on a bloody map. In this way, he painted a picture of everyday reality that existed between the figurative and the abstract.

TEXT: CoBo Editorial Force

How did you start the Accident series?

I was studying at the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in 2004 and produced a number of large-scale paintings, each was about two or three meters long. One of these was a painting of a tank that had been destroyed during the Iraq war, and I have become interested in the topic ever since. By the end of the same year, when I was working on my graduation show, there was a phenomenal tsunami in southeast Asia. The most shocking scene in the news clips was of bodies floating onto the beach, so I created a number of large paintings based on that. I presented five to six large paintings of the Accident series to the first Chengdu Biennale, but these works are all fragmented now. People liked them and a lot of the works were collected by a Taiwanese foundation. This motivated me and helped to build my confidence.

Then, I briefly went to Beijing for a teaching position and started working as a professional artist. It was only then that I realised that exhibitions of large paintings are difficult. Chinese contemporary art in 2005 was all about social imagery then, unlike what we have now, a certain new visual style. I was influenced by Anselm Kiefer. I liked him a lot when I was at school, especially his heavy historical touch and the way he used the hue of the tragic in society. But that was quite distant from my life, so I made adjustments and broke things down into fragments, into the quotidian.

Map and 5 pieces,2010,75 x 65 cm 22 x 15 cm (x 5),Acrylic on canvas

Modern people absorb information via media and so seldom experience things first hand. Truthfulness experienced is truthfulness mediated. That is, we do not pick things up directly. So one can no longer present a scene as a pure unit, it has to be presented instead in the form of news editing. One has to fetch the information from different websites, so I do that and select different images. Map and 5 Pieces, for instance, was information re-edited by me, so that satellite images were placed next to other images. With work produced in this way, the audience can make their own selections too, as there is an interaction process here. I think this is more truthful in a way, as it is based on my observations of the period’s media phenomenon.

So objectivity is not something that you seek in your practice? Instead, you seek reality that is edited by you?

I do not want to create linear, singular things, but instead permeating, diverse and open interpretations. There will be different figures that are presented together, but in different times. A singular panel of painting was both linear and isolated. So after the editing process has finished, the space for interpretation is expanded.

How do you make your selections from so many different news items every day?

I make paintings, so the painting’s perspective is also important in my selection. The work derives from social images, but after my editing, the image becomes the resonance of points, lines, planes and colours. A group of works may consist of explosions in one painting and an image of calm, everyday life in another. The two may be related to each other in terms of colours or compositions. I want to keep it painterly, and not just paint a photo. I also want to combine social images with my own way of painting. This could be viewed in terms of both content and artistic language. I also deal with both domestic and international news.

You once talked about how the media cannot offer authentic experiences today. How do you deal with that in art?

No one can be offered authentic experiences – they are either personal experiences or not. One has to try to comprehend different events in our own way, and I want nothing more than diverse associations. Benjamin Sigg collected a group of my work and this was the most representative work of mine during my “editing” period. I participated in Saatchi Gallery’s group exhibition, The Revolution Continues: New Art From China, and there were about thirty of us involved in it at the time. The work was basically a map at the centre, surrounded by a number of small paintings. I think a bird’s-eye view of different lands seems like an abstract painting, so that was an important element of my the work. The small paintings were also combinations of both the abstract and the figurative, which resonated with the map. I was trained differently in school, so I did not follow the Soviet socialist realism tradition, but expressionism with a focus on the abstract. Later on, I wanted to combine the two and present a work in which figures could be discerned, but were formed in an abstract way.

Is the juxtaposition of violence and the everyday in your work somehow influenced by Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil”?

I was not directly influenced by her ideas, but my 2009 Los Angeles solo show was called Quotidian Truths and was somehow similar to her ideas.

What are your future plans?

Scene No. 1 00092015,18x27cm,Aacrylic on canvas

I am not really someone who plans. More often than not, I am led by my feelings. I am currently preparing for an exhibition that will be set in a small town in the southern Si Chuan province. It is really is a town of poverty, with all the young and strong generations leaving for work in cities and the elderly and children stay at home. But because of the lack of development, the traditional architecture, the Cultural Revolution slogans and banners, and the cheap, modern buildings are all located next to each other in harmony, as if the different eras are mixed together. This series of works takes the form of single panel paintings. In fact, I have come back to single panel paintings because I was a bit overwhelmed by the ‘satellite’ works. I hope I can now slow down a bit and discover other possibilities.

Li Yan

Born in Jilin in 1977, Li Yan now lives and works in Beijing
1998–2002 graduated from the 3rd workshop of Luxun Academy of FineArts (BA)
2002–2005 graduated from the 3rd workshop of Luxun Academy of FineArts (MA)

Previous exhibitions include Limitless, Galerie Klaus Gerrit Friese, Stuttgart, 2014; The Catastrophic World - A Chinese paints our age, Ling Galerie, Berlin, 2011; Accident, Platform China, Beijing, 2007. Li Yan has participated in The Revolution Continues: New Art From China, Saatchi Gallery, London, 2008; Yan Li - Li Yan: Two Sides of A Mirror, Embassy of the Czech Republic in China, Beijing, 2012; DREAMS OF CHINA, Python Gallery, Zurich, 2013, and many others.

Collector & Artists