Born in 1973, Li Songsong is part of a young generation of Chinese artists who did not experience life in Mao's China directly but whose work addresses the continuing resonance of this era of Communist spectacle through a painterly investigation of its imagery. Cuban Sugar is a vast painting made in 2006 based on a United Nations conference photograph taken at a time when a crisis in China's domestic production of sugar had forced it into an unwelcome trade agreement with Cuba. This historical record of human life and interaction slowly emerges from a vast, highly textural, four-metre wide geometric patchwork made up of different coloured and textured aluminium panels each hovering between figuration and abstraction. Up close, the paint is so thick and luscious that its density obscures the imagery in gestural abstraction. As one steps back from the painting, this extraordinarily photographic expanse comes into view. Part of Li's purpose in choosing to paint such ideologically-charged images in the first place, is to attempt, through the distance of his painterly process, to neutralize such features and render these historical and politicized images anew in a more open, non-judgmental and objective way.
To do this, Li employs a unique painterly practice that simultaneously both engages with and yet also dismantles his subject matter, freeing his source material of its carefully staged facts and associative meaning through an exposure and overt display of both the painting and the photograph's own artifice. In this respect, as he has acknowledged, Li has been inspired by the precedent set by Gerhard Richter whose exposure of the fictive nature of both the photograph and abstraction has proved an important example for him.
In this work, with its multivalent block-like structure of different panels cohesively augmenting and also enlivening this grandiose political stage with its assembly of people all concentrated into groups around a central display of images, Li's collage-like manner of painting seems to emphasize the diversity of human activity taking place within this formally-organized collective mass of people.
To reinforce this sense of individuality each of the panels has been painted as a separate entity and in a different range of colours and styles. Li's selection of these details is largely arbitrary and aimed primarily only at dismantling the cohesiveness of the original image in his own mind as far as is possible. 'For once selected', Li has said, 'in order to try to forget all about the image. I try to break it up bit by bit...(because)... when working on each specific part, I don't care so much about the whole... (and) ...I hope that I can try not to think about it.' (Interview with Ai Weiwei, Feng Boyi and Li Songsong, 6 November 2004 reproduced at www.Galerie-Meile.ch)
Li also proceeds to paint each panel in a methodical and deliberately vague way that intentionally blurs the line between mark-making and figuration. He does this by beginning each aluminium panel in the top left hand corner and proceeding to produce an extremely painterly abstraction that, nevertheless, echoes and repeats the shapes and shadows of the source image. His choice of colour is 'haphazard', he says. The relationships among the tones of a photograph are the beginning of the spontaneous journey. 'I've also tried to turn black and white photographs into colour in my paintings. Through such attempts, I can highlight some accidental differences and conflicts.'(Ibid)
Collectively these panels build together to form a composite painted version of the original image that can only really be fused together into a united whole in the eye of the viewer and through its conditioned practice of searching for a cohesive whole or pattern among disparate fragments. Like a black and white image flickering in muted shades of colour bestowed upon it by a colour television screen, Li's composite and yet also highly painterly images emerge as strong physical presences seemingly only forged into a unity through the logic of the pixelated gaze of todays age of information technology. A flickering grid patchwork of various styles all exploring and exposing the artifice of their common historical source, this painting, with its depiction of a political assembly seeking concord seems not only to articulate and assert multiple levels of reality and interpretation, but also perhaps, to reiterate Napoleon's famous assessment of history; that it is a set of agreed upon lies.