Artists you should collect – LI TIANBING


Born in 1974, in the southern province of Guilin, China, Li Tianbing moved to Paris at the age of 22 to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Surrounded by a wealth of visual, cultural and historical resources, Li quickly developed a distinctive visual language with which to express his own cultural origins. Drawing on both traditional Chinese techniques and contemporary Western references, his work was soon commanding a similar level of international attention afforded to elder contemporaries such as Zhang Huan and Yan Pei Ming.

When Li arrived in Paris he had with him a tiny album of just five small, black and white photographs of himself as a young boy. To have childhood photographs of oneself was a privilege in 1970s China. A family-owned camera was a rare and expensive commodity and so children’s formative years went largely unrecorded. Li ‘s father worked as a soldier in the army’s propaganda unit and was able to intermittently borrow a camera to record his son’s infancy at the ages of three, four and five years old. These images have come to play an integral role in Li’s work. Being an only child in China was a condition shared by many children of his generation, and one the artist has described as a deeply lonely experience with profound psychological effects. Consequently, the artist often sought refuge in his own imagination, inventing games inhabited by fictitious characters.

This compelling biography informs Li ‘s poetic childhood portraits and we see it in its most vivid expression in 2006 with the introduction of an imagined brother to his painterly repertoire. Later works depict the artist accompanied by a host of brothers and playmates, which have come to form a complete yet entirely ‘imagined’ family album. On a personal level the paintings offer an intimate portrait of a fantasized childhood, where fiction and fantasy seamlessly merge. On a far wider reaching scale, the work articulates in a highly personal manner the shared loss of a generation who grew up during this era.

Referring back to the monochrome palette of his small photographic archive, Li paints himself and his illusory characters in a palette of dramatic greys and sets them within scenes that evoke China’s past and present, its pastoral idylls and commercialized city sprawls.

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