During the rise of China's Post '89 New Wave Art, Nietzsche, Sartre and Kafka could no longer support the philosophical needs of the young artists of this generation. This Post '89 milieu gave rise to Fang Lijun's art and his Cynical Realism, of which the characteristic feature is rogue humour. 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. Liberated by contemporary art forms, Fang Lijun and others sought to convey their confusion, wants and troubles within China's regime; the resulting images 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. "
The unconscious traces of repressed historical memory are standardized in unfettered expressions of subjective empathy as Fang depicts emotionally raw experience on to his canvas. 2001.9.23 (Lot 1035) precisely invokes such instances of societal distress in varying degrees of severity with his flat and concise painting technique, an element derived from his prior practice of carving woodblock prints. The image is didactic and rigid in contour, yet their illustrative effect is buoyant.
A technical characteristic alluding to his wry utopian thoughts, Fang continues to employ paradoxical aesthetics that trigger a peculiar aftertaste from the viewer. Fang imbues rogue humour into 2001.9.23 by burdening our vision with uncanny bald children, flying above the horizon in surprising lightness and joy. Recognizing the sobriety of the clean-shaven head attributed to genderless, unidentifiable age of these figures, Fang mocks them by dressing them in suspenders, brightly coloured tops, adorned with the subtlest yet prominent reference to Cultural Revolution, a red scarf. Barely visible, this ominous cue immediately alters its exhilarating exterior of colourful sundry pictorial motifs and instead impresses a voyage of human existence, interwoven through a dense emotional network of tribulation, vulnerability and fear; staging 2001.9.23 as an idealistic vision of redemption.
Adeptly understanding the variable subtext of a shaven head, Fang ardently exploited it as his iconographic artistic channel in illustrating contemporary social narration and as a sign of non-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 everyday life, is a statement of individuality, of a roguish rebellious character. At the same time, it signals a collective experience, perhaps like a Buddhist monk's oath to individual liberation; or as one's personal ethical discipline, all five figures gaze high above, enlightened by the godly phenomena outside the canvas, implicit of its divinity that cannot be described, even by Fang's adroit technicality. As he continues to upend China's historical anecdote by foretelling the ideological shifts, simultaneously rationalizing the structures of reality, his vulgar humour is articulated through his gaudy palette of slightly diffused hue, an overt saturation that stripped away the vibrancy of primary colours to overemphasize an inner emptiness. The landscape below, unclear as a mountain or a desert serves to expand the canvas with its altitude bestowing a paranormal suspense- the space between as a symbolic sphere for apprehension, alienation and cryptic mysticism.
This visual tension is further created by the collage-like dissonance between the foreground and the background; the lack of synchronicity disrupting the overall aesthetic fancy Fang schemes with lyrically sprinkled petals encircling the floating figures in colourful harmony. The result is vague in context, multifarious, evocative and playful. Motifs presented are not clues in solving Fang's paintings, as vagueness itself is deliberately the fundamental metaphor. Within the ambiguity is where Fang ponders identity politics, struggles, and the malleable formations of identity as "people are like rolling balls. They will change direction if they receive a small resistance. Or you can say they are motionless balls that will roll if titled a little." Conscious of the neutrality that ambiguity grants, Fang repeatedly asserts questionable qualities, children or adolescence; desert or mountains; female or male; flying willfully in freedom or suspended by a controlling power, ultimately, expanding his canvas space into an infinite realm of subjective interpretation. He opens his paintings for universal and deeply personal experience to each and every viewer, staying faithful to his earnest statement "I'm Chinese, but I hope that my pictures are not just Chinese, but that there is something in them that can be understood by all." Indeed, considering that the present painting was completed in the days after September 11th attacks in New York, one can see how Fang's deliberate "vagueness" allows for supple and poetic visual metaphors of the human condition.
Fang's sharp tongue for satire is deeply rooted from metaphysics as 'vagueness' forces us to ponder on the essential nature of being and the world. Clearly far from cynicism and simply a humanistic reflection on the historical and cultural tyrannies, his works project Cynical Realism with "cynical" dramatization of dystopian, utopian and perhaps apocalyptic vision performed by the absurdly garish primary colours and rigid contours, but only in ironic hope to render existential ethics and the inner "realism" of human beings.