From Pets to Animals
—— Li Ji’s animal painting and photography
By Luo Fei
Li Ji was known by the art world in the1990s and early 2000 for his series “Ladies and Pets”, which depicted some well-dressed ladies with different animals, implying a delicate interdependent relationship between them. This series is slightly erotic, humorous and yuppie. The ladies and pets in these photos are not actually themselves but roles being shaped by some kind of culture. Besides, since either ladies or pets have been carefully domesticated by their “masters”, they know not only how to please their “masters”, but also how to show their soft and tamed side. However, their “masters” are not in these paintings, because what indeed tame the women to sexy ladies and animals to pets are invisible but ubiquitous consumerism, patriarchalism and anthropocentrism.
For Chinese contemporary art in the 1990’s, the artists were generally vigilant, or could be said as having not yet adapted, to the rise of consumer society, hence they usually expressed severe criticism to the human alienation and physical materialization in the consumer society. Similarly, the world revolved around patriarchal society and anthropocentrism reached its domination and possession by the materialization of women and animals.
Li Ji revealed in this series not only his interest and thoughts about people – the “ladies”, but also his knowledge and extraordinary love to animals – the “pets”. Grown up in a family of intellectuals, Li Ji has shown a strong curiosity about all kinds of knowledge since young especially in biology. He is even more familiar with his mother’s books than herself. His interest in the living conditions of animals around the world is so strong that he always dreams of going to Africa to see the wildlife.
Li Ji started his wildlife discovery in 2009, when he just completed the “Ladies and Pets” series and then photographed wild animals while visiting national parks and nature reserves with his wife in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and other domestic places like Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai, Hoh Xil and so on. In every trip he would return with countless adventurous stories and fantastic wildlife photos, even though he has encountered with the danger of life and death several times.
As an artist, Li Ji responds to the rapid disappearance of wildlife in the world with the conventional means in visual art. From 2009 to 2011, he painted a series of modified masterpieces of Western art history, such as Miller’s “Late Prayer”, Goya’s “May 3rd, 1808 Nightmare” and Manet’s “Lunch on the Grass”, turning these human’s godliness, gallantry and livelihood into a denouncement to the tragedies of the large-scale massacre mankind implemented on wildlife. In this series, by misappropriation and codification to the masterpieces in art history, Li Ji responded to the world’s classic contradictions: Does human develop and evolve at the cost of eliminating animals (especially large animals) ? Furthermore, will this irresponsible and insatiable destruction of anthropocentrism be the final call of mankind in world history? In contrast to his critique of consumerism in the ” Ladies and Pets ” series, the critics and allegories of anthropocentrism are simpler in painting style but are filled with deep compassion.
Artists tell the story of world history with the story of art history. It is interesting that it is the artist – we – this group of Homo sapiens who have the ability to tell the stories, and turn these imaginative things such as art, justice, history ultimately into the common values and social norms. In the view of researchers of contemporary human history, it is precisely because of such a “cultural evolution” about the “cognitive revolution” that begun 70,000 to 30,000 years ago, making Homo sapiens on the road of “gene evolution” leave the animals far behind, and thus began to rule the animals.
In the 18th century, one of the four pioneers of the French enlightenment, Buffon assumed: “Human domination of animals is a lawful rule that can not be destroyed by any revolution. Which is not only a natural right, a power based on some eternal principles … people have thought, so he becomes the master of all creatures without thought at all. “A the same time， aware of the animal’s misfortune: “Let the animals feel uneasy and fearful, let them flee, let them become more wild than the nature is human, because most of the animals are only calm, safe, controllably and unharmfully breathe the air, eat the food on the ground. “(Quoted from Buffon ” Natural History “).
However, the glory of human nature after the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the revolution in science and technology, the expansion of Homo sapiens in the world may have long been not only to disturb the animals but also the earth, including human beings themselves. Of course, from the history of the evolution of the world, the mass extinction of animals did not begin in any campaign in the past two or three hundred years, but began 70,000 years ago with the birth of Homo sapiens. Only the industrial revolution exacerbated the extinction of species, not just terrestrial creatures, but also marine life. So, for those who live today, to record and describe the animals who are expelled by human and are still disappearing, means personal comfort or self-examination and change in human’s own crisis?
In recent years, through trips in the wild nature, Li Ji has photographed the hovering buzzard in the sky, vulture, long tail lobular monkey playing in the jungle, vigilant leopard on the road, brown bears foraging in rubbish, the rare Bengal tiger。。。As Yuval Noah Harari, a contemporary Israeli historian, wrote in his book, A Brief History of Humankind: “From ancient times to the present, the whole animal community has suffered the most important and most damaging power from this group of homo sapiens wandering around and telling the story”. But in Li’s painting and photography, wandering around is no longer the story telling people, but the animals constantly on the alert of people.
Since 2012, Li Ji has created a number of paintings of single small wildlife in the studio, such as African spotted hyena, black-backed jackal, Asian jungle cat and Cambodian bison. These animal images are mainly derived from Li Ji’s own photos or related books, as he tries to avoid the dramatic sense that normally presented in this kind of pictures, to show their daily lives instead. Owing to his understanding of animal habits and physical structures that learnt since his childhood, his modeling ability built up in academic studies, and ability to capture the decisive moments in photography, Li Ji is good at epitomizing and capturing the shapes of different species of animals vividly and accurately, supplemented by some lines and colors, so that these animals are more dynamic and expressive, while maintaining their natural beauty.
As an artist, Li Ji also regards his painting in this stage as an exploration of “return to painting”, which could be interpreted as a balance to the excessive conceptualism in contemporary art world. This idea of returning to media has been expressed by more and more artists in recent years not just in painting, but also in other media such as performance art. Li Ji, however, did not return to the formalism painting which abandoned meaning and cultural functions. He was exploring another possibility of expression contemporary painting.
In the West, ecological criticism has become an urgent proposition both in the field of cultural studies and contemporary art since the 1980s, for people realized that art can not be simply appreciated without common life scenes and cultural connotations. By ecological and ethical criticism, artists, curators and critics re-examine the increasing desertification, and the conflict among natural deterioration, drastic animal extinction and human invasion. Today, this kind of environmental-oriented scrutiny and criticism has become a global theme in contemporary art. In this sense, Li Ji’s animal photography and paintings will provide the most basic textual support for ecological art.
Nowadays, the animals hanging around us are neither domesticated animals nor objectified animals being consumed in “Ladies and Pets”. They wander, forage, seek for a home and try to live together with mankind. At this moment, what are we searching for?
Jun. 16th, 2017
FROM PETS TO ANIMALS – Li Ji Solo Exhibition
2017.07.08 – 08.26 / 10:00 – 18:00
ANART OFOTO Gallery
2F, Building 13, 50 Moganshan Rd., Shanghai, China