Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
14.10.2023 – 13.04.2024
Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is currently hosting a solo exhibition by renowned Chinese contemporary artist Fang Lijun, titled Fang Lijun: Faces and Ceramics. This exhibition is meticulously curated by Professor Shelagh Vainker, who serves as both the curator for Chinese Art at the Ashmolean Museum and an Associate Professor of Chinese Art in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford.
The exhibition opened on October 14, 2023, and will run until April 13, 2024, comprehensively showcasing Fang Lijun’s diverse artistic practice from the late 1970s to the present day. Audiences will have the privilege of witnessing over a hundred of Fang Lijun’s representative and latest works, which span across a variety of artistic forms such as sketches, oil paintings, works on paper, woodblock prints, porcelain, porcelain paintings, and experimental documentary videos.
ART.ZIP had the honor of engaging in an in-depth conversation with Fang Lijun, delving into how the artist has built a rich and colourful artistic world through various media and materials.
AZ: In the planning of this exhibition, what are your main areas of focus?
F: I discussed the presentation direction of the works with the curator. The curator for this exhibition is Professor Shelagh Vainker. She is particularly interested in presenting a comprehensive historical process of an artist, which serves as the first focal point. On the most prominent wall, my works from as early as 1977 to today are displayed, including both signature and most recent pieces. Due to spatial constraints, we essentially selected the most significant works that would fit within this exhibition space. These include my earliest sketches, followed by oil paintings, prints, and ink paintings. Works from all sorts of materials I’ve used are presented.
The second focal point is the reconstruction of a fairly comprehensive collection of my porcelain works, which includes conceptual sketches, some prototypes, and the finished pieces. The third focal point aims to showcase my latest achievements. On a large wall, there are small-scale portrait paintings, totaling nearly 150 to 160 pieces. The fourth section features thirty of the most recent porcelain portraits. Although the space is not very large, the exhibition is quite comprehensive.
AZ: This exhibition showcases quite a number of your porcelain works. Could you briefly introduce them to us?
F: My porcelain works mainly fall into two categories. The first one, which people are relatively more familiar with, is the “Fragile Series”. The idea behind this series is to explore the physical limits of ceramic material, looking for a threshold between existence and collapse. I’ve been exploring this series for about a decade now. I find the intriguing aspect of these works lies in the process of locating this threshold. It’s like taking a step further when you’re already on the edge of a cliff; it’s an endless journey. This threshold is hard to quantify. For example, about 50% of the attempts fail, and maybe 20-30% end up being successful. That’s roughly the ratio, and it’s probably the best outcome one can hope for. This exhibition displays some sketches, experimental drafts, and a few finished pieces, totaling about forty works.
AZ: So moving from two-dimensional painting to three-dimensional ceramic art, what do you think is the biggest technical challenge?
F: In traditional art forms like painting, whether it’s classical oil painting or detailed brushwork, whether you’re painting double eyelids or single eyelids, nighttime scenes or morning glows, it’s all human-imposed. You could say the artist is in complete control.
However, sometimes when dealing with the inherent qualities found in nature, such as the material and its physical properties, we might strip away or mask these natural states and characteristics. I’ve gradually started to feel that this is a significant shortcoming. So I hope to find a working method that allows the artist to step back and let the material and its physical properties also have a “voice.” In this way, the language of expression changes completely.
In this context, porcelain have become my primary medium. But it’s not the only choice; painting has its own state of being because it comes out of nothing—it’s subjectively imposed by the artist. But for materials like porcelain, their physical properties inherently exist. We are artificially altering or making use of some of their small properties while concealing most of them. When we liberate these materials and explore their possibilities, they enter another state. So, the key is to understand and utilize the natural attributes of the material more comprehensively.
AZ: So how do you see the relationship between painting and sculpture?
F: The two have very different linguistic characteristics. The strength of painting lies in providing a greater space for imagination. Because it is two-dimensional, viewers must engage all their imagination to fill in the gaps of the third dimension.
Sculpture, being three-dimensional, aligns more closely with people’s intuitive understanding of the real world. However, this also means that sculpture is more constrained in form and struggles to convey a broader range of possibilities.
The exchange between imagination and form is quite fascinating. This is one of the most fundamental reasons why I choose to work with porcelain. Porcelain establish a balance between material and form. For example, the porcelain material itself, the temperature, the ratio of clay to water, the speed of your firing, and your ventilation conditions—all these physical aspects have their own unique “voice” in the creative process. It’s somewhat like a symphony, all coming together to break through a three-dimensional form.
AZ: So, your porcelain works are like a symphony?
F: Yes, each component has its own “voice,” so as an artist, you can adjust these “voices” according to your creative needs. Whether you want it to be particularly bold or particularly elegant, the choices are there. However, these voices arise naturally, rather than being artificially imposed.
AZ: In Chinese art and culture, porcelain hold a special place. How do you challenge this traditional medium and its inherent properties?
F: Porcelain have more than two thousand years of history in China. Traditionally, people have a fixed understanding of what “perfect” porcelain should be, but this is somewhat narrow-minded because porcelain themselves have so many dimensions. From materials, the process of making, interrelationships, to possibilities, the medium of porcelain is almost limitless. We’ve only used one-thousandth of its potential in pursuit of this so-called “perfection.” As society has evolved, the spiritual concept people have towards porcelain has changed dramatically; it’s no longer just a vase. Just like how painting broke the Renaissance emulation during the modernist period, porcelains are also continuously evolving. Because times have changed, our own perceptions about porcelain have also changed, so there are more possibilities.
If we continue to view porcelain based on traditional manufacturing concepts, it’s a bit of a pity. It’s like sending an army over a single-log bridge when the world is wide open to you. There’s no need to cross that single-log bridge, but everyone is habitually inclined to do so. So I believe that as soon as you give up this fixed concept, you can gain the whole world. I want to see what new possibilities could arise and what results I can get if I break these inherent views. I found that if I don’t follow these standards, I gain the entire world.
AZ: Your porcelain works seem to find a paradoxical unity between fragility and toughness. How did you come up with the inspiration to meld the material characteristics of porcelain with human spirituality?
F: From the moment I realized that art should be inextricably linked with personal experience, I started looking for a medium that could perfectly embody this sense of life or experience. For instance, in the early 1990s, I used human expressions and colors to convey this state. My subsequent works featuring people in water were actually about finding a person, a real life, and their relationship and experiences within society— the state of human interaction. Later on, I began using porcelain to imitate life forms, using different types of clay and glazes. When fired together in layers, the varying contraction rates among them naturally make it look like human skin. Many people see just the surface layer of the work and can feel that humans can be divided into layers, thinking the piece stimulates the viewer’s imagination. While this may seem like a successful creation, I find it to be superficial. It’s still an imitation on the surface, which psychologically appears weaker. So I shifted towards pursuing a threshold idea, pushing it to the point between “existence” and “non-existence,” capturing that instantaneous state, which concerns essence. Initially, I just wrote down some keywords: “light,” “thin,” “empty,” along with “withered,” “transparent,” “exposed,” “exquisite,” and “fragile.” Then, I began creating around these words, figuring out ways to manifest them, and quickly achieved some satisfying results.
AZ: You have consistently focused on portraiture, from sketches in your student days to more complex and nuanced presentations now. How do you view this subject matter, and what kinds of changes has it undergone in different stages of your creative process?
F: The essence of portraiture is fundamentally about dynamically exploring human nature, or people themselves. Regardless of the materials or details used, such as colour and expression, they must align with this core concept. Therefore, from this perspective, the theme has remained quite stable without significant changes. However, under different contexts, materials, and technical conditions, the works show various expressions or let’s say, they show various possibilities. It’s like an anchor fixed at a certain point; no matter which direction the wind blows or how the water level changes, the core remains unchanged.
AZ: In the 1990s, your works were often interpreted as symbols of fatigue in a society manipulated by politics. How do you see the differences in the political nature of your works then and now?
F: I think the term ‘politics’ is quite heavy for artists. Art has both its narrow and broad definitions; things that were not considered art before may now be accepted as such, right? The same goes for politics; it has a narrow and a broad meaning. From the perspective of broad politics, no one can completely escape its influence. So, I think this point is crucially important.
AZ: So, all things considered, do you feel there are any differences between your past and present creative works?
F: I think that the broad influence of politics depends on many factors. First is your personal knowledge structure. We are educated from a young age, and what you know varies at different stages. As children, we didn’t have much discernment about these matters. Today, it is definitely different. Then there’s the factor of age; adolescents have some rebelliousness regardless of the era in which they live, and this is determined by hormones. For instance, a person with a temper will generally become much gentler as they age. So, the relationship between individuals and society is influenced by a multitude of factors.
AZ: On the surface, your current works seem more gentle, but are you still striving for some kind of extreme in essence?
F: Yes, because the artistic challenges we face are truly numerous. As an artist, the deeper you go into artistic creation, the more you realize that the challenge of art itself is immense. You have to harmonize your life’s perceptions, and these perceptions will form a certain relationship with artistic language. Just like a fisherman constantly balances his relationship with the boat and water, people must continuously adjust various relationships.
AZ: Have there been significant shifts in China’s collective consciousness since the ’90s?
F: Superficially, societal attitudes seem to be as changeable as the weather and wind direction. Yet, when you examine it from a systemic perspective, there has been little alteration.
AZ: Apart from porcelain, do you plan to explore other artistic mediums?
F: An artist’s work is not just about creating visible pieces, just as the operation of a city requires an invisible underground system. There’s also a lot of unseen work behind artistic creation. Therefore, I’m also dabbling in oil painting, ink painting, and printmaking, among other mediums. Creating in multiple mediums is an especially enjoyable experience, and it’s also something that can enhance your efficiency, keep your mind sharp, and make you consider the strengths of each medium. I am neither averse to nor constrained by any specific material or tool.
位於牛津的阿什莫林博物館正在展出中國著名當代藝術家方力鈞的個展——《方力鈞：面孔與陶瓷》。 此次展覽由牛津大學亞洲與中東研究系的副教授兼阿什莫林博物館的中國藝術策展人馬熙樂教授精心策劃。 展覽自2023年10月14日開幕，將持續至2024年4月13日，全面展示了方力鈞自20世紀70年代末至今日的多元藝術實踐。 觀眾將有幸一窺方力鈞逾百件的代表作品及最新創作，這些作品涵蓋了素描、油畫、水墨、木刻版畫、陶瓷雕塑、瓷板畫，乃至實驗性紀錄影像等多種藝術形態。 ART.ZIP有幸與方力鈞進行了一次深入的對話，詳細探討了藝術家如何通過不同的媒介和材質構建了一個豐富多彩的藝術世界。
F: 我和策展人一起探討了作品的呈現方向。這次的策展人是馬熙樂老師（Prof. Shelagh Vainker），她特別希望呈現一位藝術家比較完整的一個歷史過程，這是第一條線索。在那個最主要的牆面上，呈現了我從1977年最早期的時候一直到今天的作品，包括代表作和最新的作品。因為空間的限制，我們基本上是選擇了適合這一展覽空間的最重要的一些作品，包括了最早的素描，然後油畫、版畫，然後還有水墨，基本上我各種材料的作品都有呈現。
F: 從我認為藝術應與個人體驗相結合的那一刻起，我就在尋找能完美代表這種生命感悟或者體驗的媒介。比如說，最早1990年前後的時候，我用人的表情和顏色來表達這種狀態。之後的人在水里的那些作品，其實也是在找一個人，一個真實的生命，在社會當中的那種關係和和體驗——人類在交流的這種狀態。再到後來，我開始利用陶瓷模仿生命體，利用不同類型的瓷泥和釉色，利用它們之間的不同的伸縮，分層後一起燒制，它自然就變得就像人的皮膚一樣。很多人看作品就看到表面一層，也能感覺人能被分為幾層，他們覺得作品調動了觀眾這種想象力。這雖然看起來創作成功了，但我覺得這不夠，這太表面了。然而它在表面上還是模仿，因此從心理上面就是顯得弱一些，所以我就轉到追求一個臨界線的想法，就是一定把它推進到那個「存在」和「不存在」之間，就是那一瞬間的狀態，關於本質的那種。最初，我只是寫下了一些關鍵詞，「輕」，「薄」，「空」，還有 「枯」、「透」、「露」、「精美」、「脆弱」，就這樣的一些字詞。然後我就圍繞這幾個字詞開始創作，就開始想辦法，很快就取得了一些令人滿意的成果。
Edited by 编辑 x Michelle Yu 余小悅
Interviewed by 採訪 x Dr. Joshua Gong 龔之允