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Li Tianbing: A Collector’s Guide


Li Tianbing in his studio.

Li Tianbing is a Chinese contemporary artist who uses his own narrative to encompass the extreme transitions undergone by the Chinese people, such as the colonial period, the Cultural Revolution, and rapid modernization. The artist manipulates his photographs with oil paint to reveal the emotional and psychological truths behind the images. He is most known for his monochromatic works that depict the psychological damages caused by China’s One-child policy.

  1. Although photography is an essential component of Li Tianbing’s work, cameras were practically unattainable in 1970s China. Having childhood photographs was a privilege in China during this time. A family-owned camera was a luxury most families did not have, so many people from this period have undocumented childhoods. Luckily Tianbing’s father, a Chinese propaganda soldier, was able to borrow a camera to capture images of his young son. At the age of 12, the artist sold a cow in order to attain his first camera. The majority’s inability to take record of their children intersected with the preexisting sense of loss inflicted from China’s One-child policy plays an integral role in Tianbing’s work. 
Li Tianbing, Green Self-Portrait with the Forest (2010)
  1. He experienced China’s One-child policy firsthand. Tianbing’s parents always planned on having another child but delayed their efforts due to the demanding circumstances of his mother’s studies. China’s One-child policy was implemented before his parents were ever able to try for a second child, making the prospect a lost dream. This is a trauma that he never has or will discuss with his parents. Tianbing describes his childhood as a very lonely one. The artist resorted to his imagination for entertainment, subsequently having it serve as a form of therapy for him. Referring to his childhood, the artist stated, “Sadness is something you feel for other people. Children adapt very easily. They have their reality and that’s it; they don’t look beyond. And they usually find some way to amuse themselves. For me, that was art. Art was my lifeline.” His isolation paired with the national depression he witnessed at such a young age became a permanent part of his work as an artist.
  1. His time in Europe influenced his perception of his own narrative, his view on China, and the content and aesthetic of his work.  When China began allowing its citizens to attend school outside of the country, Tianbing applied to study art in Paris, France, at the Ecole Supérieure Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Being outside of his country allowed him to view his experience in China through a simultaneously subjective and objective lens. Tianbing communicates his subject matter to a wider audience through Chinese motifs in a Western interpretation. Subsequently, he uses this intersectionality as a metaphor for China’s rapid transitions, such as the forced cohesion of Eastern and Western culture, communism and capitalism, ancient culture, and modern consumerism. The five photographs of Tianbing from his childhood defined his personal and national identity while in Europe. The artist felt that his idea of home was crumbling around him due to exponential changes in Chinese society. The photographs prompted him to reevaluate his childhood and explore the broader consequences of China’s One-child policy, ultimately leading to his series of child portraits.

“Perhaps because I was very far from home. And because my memories were fading; all I had were those photographs. And because not just the memories, but also the real, concrete world of my childhood in China was disappearing, being rubbed out by the unbelievable pace of construction.” – Li Tianbing

Li Tianbing, On the Way to School No 2 (2007) available at West Chelsea Contemporary
  1. On the Way to School No 2 has been said to bring its viewer to tears and is a part of a larger body of work centering on portraits of children to communicate the distress caused by China’s One-child policy. This work can be found at West Chelsea Contemporary. Semi-biographical work dominated his career in attempts to recapture and reimagine his upbringing as a reflection of his greater society. On the Way to School No 2, a monochromatic image reminiscent of old photographs, is a haunting presentation of a society in turmoil seen through one of its unknowing victims. The work depicts a child of the One-child policy that has grown up in isolation and is condemned to a life with permanent psychological damage and emotional unavailability. Alongside other pieces that portray colorful imaginary characters representative of “invented friends”, On the Way to School No 2 mourns Tianbing’s own loss of a childhood community, as well as the collective loss of a generation. 
  1. The fortunes of Tianbing’s later life are beginning to transform his subject matter. The artist’s own childhood misfortune made him appreciate the current era he lives in. He has a son of 18 months and another child on the way, something he recognizes as impossible had it been a different time. Reflecting on his fortune, Tianbing says, “My parents couldn’t choose. In China, that choice is not open… But for most people, the possibility is just not there. I feel like I have won a prize, being able to have a second child.” Grateful to give a sibling to his son, Tianbing has begun focusing more on current issues in China aside from the long-term influence of the One-child policy. Some of the issues Tianbing focuses on in his work today include commercialism and the increasing difficulty to find factory workers. Children still play a role in his work, but now are becoming a symbol of these current issues. When he does create work within the dialogue of the One-child policy, his “invented friends” appear happier, some are even smiling.

“My work is perhaps less, now, about the one-child policy. But it will always be there. An artist must, after all, speak of his own experience.” – Li Tianbing

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What’s on now at WCC:

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West Chelsea Contemporary presents the Austin International Art Fair, a 7 week long, large-scale immersive exhibition featuring rare works by an impressive roster of international art world masters. Included in the show is father of Surrealism Salvador Dalí with an exceptional selection from the Argillet Collection. Additional featured artists include: Neo-surrealist Australian artist Gil Bruvel, Gary James McQueen, contemporary Chinese artists Zhang Xiao Gang, Yue Min Jun, and Zao Wu Ki, as well as Neo-Pop Japanese artists Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.

Salvador Dalí | Zhang Xiaogang | Takashi Murakami | Yoshitomo Nara | Gil Bruvel | Yue Minjun | Gary James McQueen | The Connor Brothers | Edward Burtynsky | Maurizio Cattelan | The Love Child | Sofia Cianciulli | Peter Doig | Roberto Dutesco | Kate Garner | Claude Gassian | Damien Hirst | Liu Bolin | Raphael Mazzucco | Vik Muniz | Lyora Pissarro | Gerhard Richter | Gillie & Marc Schattner | Mila Sketch | Hunt Slonem | Matthew Trujillo | Victor Vasarely | Antoine Verglas | Albert Watson | Zao Wou-ki | Rimi Yang | Russell Young | Zhong Biao

Reach out today to inquire or acquire.

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