Li Jin (b. 1958)
Two Butterflies
signed in Chinese (on the left side)
ink and colour on paper
image size: 51.8 x 1389.2 cm. (20 3/8 x 546 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2006
Artside Gallery, LI JIN: A Feast, Food and Sex, Seoul, Korea, 2007 (illustrated, pp.28-33).

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

Lot Essay

The object is a key element in traditional Chinese ink painting, an art form which is essentially metaphysical in nature and dependent on the qualities embodied by the scholar-gentleman. Li Jin's paintings counter an 'appreciation of the pure', in which emotions are expressed through the depiction of objects, and themes are limited exclusively to expressions of the self. Through self-deprecation and irony, he presents his own concepts in a proximity to real life in what appear to be scenes of the kitsch and carnal. With a profanity common to all humans, he reflects the joy of existence through the depiction of the essential nature of people and objects.
In keeping with the ancient practice of the literati, Li Jin has skillfully inscribed upon his painting; the text of his inscription is taken from the lyrics of the popular song Two Butterflies. He has created a twelve-metre long hand-scroll reminiscent of a traditional landscape painting which unites poetry, calligraphy, and painting. Having gained popularity across China in the first decade of the 21st century, Two Butterflies became a shorthand for popular culture. The readily accessible song is in keeping with Li Jin's painting, replete as it is with images of the vulgarity of real life, as he singles out beauty and simple pleasures. Sections of the scroll are interspersed with other lines of poetry: "Oh, leaf of the willow, how I often frown at the thought of you; Oh leaf of the vine, how I am entangled in your heart", "Oh leaf of the bamboo, your empty core is that which you control yourself; Oh leaf of the lotus, you cry pearl-like tears". These lines are taken from the lyric Hanging Branch, composed by Feng Menglong, which became popular during the Wanli reign of the Ming dynasty. Chronicler Shen Defu notes in Chapter 25 of his Unofficial Matters from the Wanli Period that this lyric song was 'Copied by everyone, and all loved to listen to it; gaining universal praise, it won over our hearts'. In Two Butterflies, Li Jin borrows from the ancient and the modern to portray the love lives of men and women. Transcending temporal constraints, the ancient and modern are intercut and rebound off each other in this scroll.
With a seemingly casual and lethargic touch of the brush, Li Jin depicts himself in the painting with contemplatively closed eyes. He depicts his inner thoughts in great detail in amontage synchronised to the cadences of music that scrolls across the painting. The artist appears in the painting in a variety of guises, wearing clothes which span different time periods and different identities from that of a late-Qing dynasty scholar to a member of the Communist revolutionary army of workers and peasants; in each guise he is seen in the good company of a woman at his side. The hand scroll's complex expression of 'desire' is Rococo in nature: the depiction of love affairs and hedonistic indulgence expresses an aesthetic joy and pursuit of the spiritual. What appears to be unbridled extravagance is in fact merely the profane, identified by the artist through his closeness to real life, which he has transformed into a celebration of the beauty of life.
As Mencius said, 'The desire for food and sex is a part of human nature'. In the painting, humans wallow in worldly pleasures in the form of fine food and women. At first glance, the painting appears to be an exposition of individual pursuits of desire; in fact, it is a depiction of self-exploration. While changes in our materialistic society render unlimited desire as ubiquitous; Li Jin demonstrates his own contentment and a disinterested passion for this kind of life. While his work does not display the elevated aspirations conveyed by 'lofty forests and springs' in traditional ink paintings, it does, nevertheless, employ an intuitive 'seeking of proximity rather than distance' by presenting familiar objects of everyday life which enables the artist to reveal his joie de vivre and self-satisfaction. As if revealed in the conversation of an old and accomplished scholar, the insight demonstrated in this painting is the result of the artist having idled away many a year. In the medium of traditional ink painting of old, the artist would paint in the language particular to his own time: this honest and raw expression resonates with those in modern times.
Li Jin's use of fine food, evident throughout his painting, is not unlike the method 'investing form with meaning', common to Song dynasty literati painting. However, in Li Jin's hands, the free-flowing wine and extravagant platters are not only a display of his own individual joy but also a depiction of a universal truth of human life. To play on the words of poet Li Bai (705-762), who encapsulated the eternal truth of living in the world and the moment: 'A life lived to the fullest must find pleasure in all places. Allow old age not to creep up with nothing to show for it'. It may be said that 'when taken to the extreme, the vulgar becomes elegant': Li Jin's witty artistic vocabulary invites the viewer, through contemporary ink painting, founded firmly within the traditions of ancient Chinese culture, to appreciate both the elegant and the profane.

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