During the rise of the Post '89 New Wave Art, whether Nietzsche, Sartre, or Kafka can and no longer support the strong philosophical need of the young artists of this generation. This Post '89 conceptual milieu gave rise to Fang Lijun's art and his Cynical Realism, of which the characteristic feature is the rouge humor. The Cynical Realists were not only looking to fulfill their intellectual hunger, but also for a greater understanding of the workings of reality and a society not as repressed as their own. Using the free expression of art, Fang Lijun and others sought to convey their confusion, wants and troubles with China's regime. The resulting images are humorous and simultaneously embrace the notions of mockery, indifference, and the transcendence from "petty reality". Lin Yutang once praised the concept of the rogue, "Today when liberal freedoms and individual freedoms are threatened, perhaps only the rogue or the spirit of the rogue can liberate us, so that we do not all end up as disciplined, obedient, and regimented soldiers in the same uniform and with the same rank and number in one big army."
In Fang Lijun's work we see the symbolisms of this rogue humor realized in Cynical Realism. In the featured 1994 No. 8 (Lot 512) and 2001.7.31 (Lot 513) of this sale, he uses the clean shaved head, which is an ambiguous symbol in its connotations. On one hand, it is a sign of conformity - one can see shaved heads on prisoners, soldiers, and monks, which is a part of their uniforms. On the other hand, the clean shaved head, in the everyday life, is a statement of individuality, of the roguish rebellious character. Despite the solitary swimming of the man and the individually clothed men in the two paintings, the visage of the men are virtually identical; they are bald Chinese men, all afflicted by the same mental constraints. In their likeness the bald men of 2001.7.31 stand resolute yet look uncomfortable while the idle single swimmer in 1994 No. 8 exudes a similar eeriness upon the viewer as he swims slowly in a large abyss.
It is with his chosen color palette that Fang is able to bring forth a visual manifestation of the man's psychological state in 1994 No. 8 The tone of blue is not calm and embracing as one would imagine but slightly acidic and bright. It is not a color one would associate with tranquility of water but of artificiality or the man's troubled emotions. Cold, the water is not particularly inviting and is suggestive of the man's involuntary state of discomfort in his partial 'drowning'. Rather than leisurely enjoy his swimming, the intensity of the blue water and the man's reaching body is indicative of the man hoping for land at the waters end; a haven for him to finally relax and feel at peace with himself.
In 2001.7.31, we find the hairless figures huddled collectively near the bottom of the canvas, necks outstretched towards the concocting sky. Cluttered, the men look fearful, vulnerable yet defiant as a unit. As the sky rumbles deeply, the figures stand below seemingly pondering if they will be forgiven, will the sky be merciful? Has their defiant move to be individualistic, signified by their multicolored garb, been too bold? The depiction of a mass is particularly effective in relating to the communal emotional and intellectual predicament many youth suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The viewer can only imagine what it was like to live China's then tumultuous political society. Yet, other moments in history of political and cultural defiance is equally applicable to describe the tormented faces of the men and thus fortifies the versatility and universal reception of Fang's artwork.
The darkness in emotion of the sky of 2001.7.31 is contrasted to that of the body of water in 1994 No. 8 The nude swimmer gently glides with the water and ironically looks at ease despite his entire nudity and lack of hair, consequently completely vulnerable to anything and everything in the vast waters. Whether it is the icy cold waters or aquatic predators, the vulnerability and solitude experienced by the swimmer renders him helpless, an idea reinforced by his fully submerged naked body. While nudity can be interpreted as a freedom from restraint, we are not provided evidence to interpret this figure as happy in this inundated state. This theme of swimming, which Fang Lijun often uses in his works, shows his attitude in facing reality in that everyone is most vulnerable when submerged in water. As neither the single figure nor the group of men, whether in water or in face of the sky are happy in their current state, Fang Lijun's works suggest a person's need for equilibrium between being a fiercely defiant individual and part of a greater assembly.
There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.
As images, the sky and ocean express a concept of self-liberation, liberation from internalized repression. Water, like the bald heads, is also an ambiguous symbol that cannot be morally categorized. In Chinese folklore and Buddhist traditions, we often find temples and monasteries high in the mountains, where wispy clouds and mist hang nearby. In closer proximity with the sky, the monks are removed from the artificiality and noise of the cities and towns below and left at peace to contemplate the truthful relationship he holds with Buddha and his great philosophies. Likewise, monks have been seen meditating in waterfalls, a practice known in Japanese Buddhism as Takigyo where the monks concentrate on creating a greater sense of self awareness. The likeness of Fang's chosen motifs to these traditional meditative activities is suggestive of Fang's yearning for a removal from the masses and independence. Channeling these activities in his paintings, Fang's rebellion is not violent and driven by a heated temperament but a compassionate yearning for guidance. Water and air is a hopeful, calm and silent medium in which to find harmony between the mind and the self.
Despite Fang's use of these motifs we associate with freedom and boundless opportunity, the figures of both his works fail to convey such a relaxed attitude. They are in fact slightly claustrophobic, suffocating from an inability to distinguish what to do, essentially drowning within the abyss of the air and water. They do not struggle however against these elements but seem to embrace them, admitting to its greater power over the small bodies of which they are.
However associated with cynical realism and a distinctly Chinese flavor, the works of Fang Lijun and his address of whether group mentality or solitude individual is better are commonly experienced throughout. In today's world where populations are multinational and well traveled, the typified Chinese Cynical Realist art does not solely apply to people in China but aptly penetrate generations and cultures across the world as Fang attempts to answer a question everyone comes across in maturity and ageing.