Soul-piercing: The Phantoms in Li Zi’s Paintings

Wang Meng

The highly symbolized forest, relic, sculpture, Chandelier, lion, ……, strange geometric space, all these mysterious scenes convey, silently, the heavy sense of opera, make up of the alien dimensions in her latest paintings and ready-made works, and create a tense phenomenon of opera-like mystery and plot. Li Zi’s paintings present kind of particular temperament, which could be taken as very good samples for the discussion of the exploration and comprehension of the problems existing in the current painting circle. A secret transformation is taking place in the current art world, especially among those young artists, who are neither so keen at the publicity of sociologic narration, nor so involved into the reality by encoding the painting. Far from the once advocated passion of sociology and discourse of publicity, the individual consciousness of the artists is awakened, and their painting practice is transferring from visual concept to individualism, which arouses the re-practice of painting as painting from its post-ontology significance. The opening and returning of the post-ontology are taking effect at the same time, for the purpose of current transformation of the painting mechanism. It concerns more about the ontology of the painting itself. The precondition of this transformation is the return and rebirth of art elements after the collision between visual display and artistic form in relation to conceptual mechanism. Paintings nowadays triggers the alteration of “openness” and “purification”, which is extensive as well as conservative, extending to different aspects of various topics, and controverting to the activation and purification of the painting itself. This process contains a critical thinking of philosophy.  

As far as the artist concerned, the painting practice that he is engaged in is becoming a personal exploration which tends to be more and more “individualized” and “issue-orientation”. The uniformity between the artist and his thoughts, spirit, and option is happening. That’s why every artist who works on modern painting have to take effort on establishing the independence consciousness for painting. Every single case interweaves with another, which forms a field of issue links and multiple dimensions. Paintings construct a notion interface of “happening”, where the languages, media, and approaches are all renewed and expanded. And these new artistic expression and forms are becoming the new start of current artists. Li Zi’s paintings are laid in this discourse, but her works distinguish themselves from other artists’. This ‘alienation’ contributes to her interest on mystery, religious topics, so that’s why you can see that salvation, tragedy, fatalism are all the topics of her works. Compared to the ordinary ones, her works display a sense of “being uncanny”. Li Zi is strongly interested in Anish Kapoor(1954-), who’ works are mainly about the bloody tearing of flesh and the salvation of intelligence and soul out of life and pains, and Anselm Kiefer(1945-), who’s works are full of the obscure topics like pains and deep inquiry into history. The works of these two artists are comparatively uncanny too, but not lack of the splendor of human nature and soul reflection in this splendor, which all create the feeling of epic surpassing history. The existentialism philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) has referred to the sense of “being uncanny” in his discussion, which is a basic experience of human survival in this world and explains the relationship between human and existence. The originator of psychoanalytic school Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) had once discussed “being uncanny”, the subject of which, he thought, related to horrible things----something which aroused panic, and he further pointed out that this kind of uncanny feeling reminded people of the panic familiar to everyone in the past.       The sense of phantom in Li Zi’s paintings is to be found in the uncanny feeling between the black and dark. The uncanny feeling is created in the boundary between illusion and reality, which forms kind of lingering feeling. You know there’s something there, and you can feel it. It seems to have shape, or just a feeling of nerve current, which is invisible, hard to prove, but deliberately exposed in a secret way. “Mystery” is the spiritual scale that Li Zi pursues in her paintings, and also the replacement for the “uncanny experience” in her paintings. How to understand the uncanny feeling in her paintings is the core to understand her works. Although Li Zi chooses the black color for her paintings, we cannot simply classify her paintings to the so-called Dark Culture in the art history of Europe. Different from the blood and violence in Goya and Bacon, different from the absurdity and weirdness of the folk subjects deformed by Bosch and Bruegel, Li Zi’s works are not to represent the darkness in human spirit, though she does reserve the tragic phenomenon and death topic in her paintings. We don’t see either the torture that God imposes on human like in Publius Naso Ovidius’s Metamorphosis, or crucifixation of Jesus and his disciples of the Bible repeatedly depicted by Diego DE silva, velazquez (1599-1660), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Michelangelo Mrisi Da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Li Zi does not render too much on the passion of religion, but she does respect Aristotle’s concept on “the function of tragedy”: Tragedy provides us with kind of particular, awful and merciful pleasure. From the perspective of aesthetics and artistic philosophy, even though not truly welcomed, sorrow, fear, death and anxiety in the tragedies do not affect at all the pleasure and aesthetics they brought to the audience. If there is a kind of aesthetics makes comedy and praise, there is sure to be another kind which makes screaming and piercing pains. Now you can apply mysterious sense to uncanny sense to understand and enter into Lizi’s paintings, which goes directly into the theme of her works.

Mystery is the gift that Li Zi achieves in painting, which matches the basic philosophical experience of human existence in the world. She believes that “the world is infinitely large and infinitely small. We just coincidentally meet on this point.” She thinks that human is an accumulation of countless previous lives, which makes the multi-dimensional space in her paintings. There seems to be various layers of time and space, existing in visible or invisible forms of phantom in her paintings. At the point of meeting, there attaches a world or worlds behind this world, which makes her paintings become multi-perspectives in picture construction and space vision and which constructs a “field” of multi-space connection that can be seen, felt, experienced and enlightened. The ancient Egypt artists believed the immortality of souls and their arts follows the law of frontality. Li Zi’s paintings construct kind of “mysterious perspectives”, interlaced with visible and invisible spaces and interspaces. The forest in Li Zi’s paintings is a world of darkness.

Her paintings The Fifth Category Forest develops with two stages: in the first stage, the discarded sculptures are scattered in the forest, including the relics of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, except that The Illusion of Saint De Lisa has been ruined. The current of time washes off the glory of baroque, the large luxurious wrinkles, as well as the pretty face of De Lisa confronting the collision of bitterness and happiness. The arrows out of the hands of the angels shooting at her are disintegrated into the lines of strange space stretching in the forest. The lines imply a dimension different from our time, the lost of the past centuries. In the second stage, the sculptures are gone, but kind of gaseous shadows appear. “Angles can not fly into a room with portraits”. The Koran says that the lifelike sculptures and portraits bear souls inside. Sculptures are of intelligence. The forest in the second stage turns from three dimensioned space into imagery existence, a silent scene. In the painting of large size, the trees shaped in triangle line in the vertical way, the lines which lead to the other dimension disappear. Another kind of intuitionistic ready-made article covers the painting. The voile becomes the sign of dimension. In some other works, the fluorescent lights invades into the picture or the yellowish or bluish gaseous shape makes the forest a more mysterious implication.   

Mystery is also the theme of the works like The Floating, The Tower, The Fountain, The Gate of Gaze, Marseillaise, A Little Further away. Lizi considers mystery as the positive view of the world, as in her cognition, the world contains two layers, known and unknown. What fascinates her is the unknown world, the seeking for the soul. She believes that there are several souls dwelling in her body, quite many previous lives and her body completes her as a person. Mystery leaves people a space of imagination, helps people to know a more comprehensive world. The Unknown is frightening and fascinating. Floating is all about Chandelier or the scene of Chandelier. The light and dark signifies the uncertainty of the future. Martin Heidegger considers the uncanny feeling as process, which is just a mental situation, which we consider as the element that constructs our existence. The fear in philosophical level has nothing to do with things outside, any thing or any case, but has something with the reminiscences existing in our world. Fear becomes a mode of existence. Horrible things are revealed in kind of distinctive way, constructing an uncertain way in which they happen when the world approaches the subjects. The uncertainty in familiar environment is reflected by the visual word of the reminder, the chandelier in Floating. Under fear, familiar environment is remoulded into the construction where occasional and uncertain things take place. The inspiration for the works like The Gate of Gaze and The Window of Gaze is from the ancient city Pompeii. The vaulted columns and the dark sun forecast its ruin, and the grids on the ground form geometric shape and enhance the sense of mystery and strangeness. On The Chinese Garden, the trees on the two sides, coexisting with the geometric shapes on the ground, create a scene of imagination. The green shadow in the middle gives audience a feeling of haunting. The French words on The Tower are a poem about Lyon. The words are scattered in the air, with two zebras running through different layers of the spaces. The combination of words and images form an opera to be heard. The words on The Fountain are the lyrics about water in an Italian opera. The Fountain reminds people of the past. People at that time have gone, but the erosion and mutilation made by the flow of water are just like the passing of time. The fountain at this moment becomes a reminder which passes through time, bringing the past to the moment and this moment to the future. In her latest works, the drifting words on the pictures arouse metaphysic illusion.   

Aggressiveness is another feature of Li Zi’s paintings, which, from philosophical aspect, refers to the sense of intrusion brought by the visual signs and option but so much appealing to the audience. This feeling often makes the audience shake. Li Zi leaves an invading lion stuck in a geometric space, and entitled it 160 Decibels. 160 Decibels is far beyond the limitation that a life can bear. In a space with energy as powerful as this, any creature would be mashed. The howling sound of the lion and the shocking power of 160 decibels combine the vision with sound, and make the unquantizible logic expression quantitative. The lion becomes a phantom of the soul, stripped out of the prairie, laid in a closed space, lost its power to extend. Nature and despair conflict with each other, which is the reason why it makes the sound in 169 Decibels, which is a sound it must give out. Prometheus is a story which excites Li Zi. Due to stealing the fire for human, he is cursed and punished by Zeus. Every night, he is hung on a cliff with his heart pecked off by an eagle. The next day, this torture is repeated, as has been lasting for two hundred years. This is a very shocking story. Li Zi names the sculpture body of man with this name, and neutralize the sex by twisting the body. Li Zi thinks the neutral sex makes a feeling of mysterious religion. The broken pieces of the sculpture are surrounded by the dark domain, accompanied by strange geometric shapes and lines and gaseous object.     

I’m Lost, The Fifth Category Forest, Prometheus, Floating, A Little Further Away, The Bedouins on the Seaside, An Ordinary Fetus, …… the things out of unconsciousness repeat themselves in an unpredictable way, enclosed by mysterious accompanies. While talking about the phantom, we are forced to get into the unavoidable options expressed by the latest and frequently used subjects on the paintings. The same feature is enhanced and controlled by the repetitive logics of the stories. The black voile hung on The Floating, the alien space opened by the waste in Breaking Open, The fluorescent rope hung on The Fifth Category Forest, the aggressive voile flying in the uncertain space and codes of words in I’m Lost, the collage and the heavy and thick backing materials, and the sculpture bodies which embraces across the space order, and the ancient frame piece in Prometheus, the gaseous obscure materials on The Floating and The Fifth Category Forest, as well as the voiles creating multi-dimensional paintings and the sculpture body pieces in Prometheus, all these ready-made materials enhance Lizi’s paintings and leave them an effect of opera, a poetic feeling of vision and option releasing out of the dark domain. In her work I’m Lost, the moaning from the bottom heart of the soul, going through quite a few centuries, is displayed as words in golden yellow color in the middle of the painting, which is like the painting wearing the dark voile is waiting for the approaching of the night. Li Zi also extends the application of ready-made materials in her cross-media paintings to the manufacture of device. She composes the images in the optional discourse with painting device. The tension of paintings, enhanced by the interlacing of the materials, forms an implication of plot, breaking through the context with stable optional boundary as the basis.

Li Zi understands feeling and emotion as un-quatized logic. She locks many unquatized logics in her paintings, creates kind of metaphysical illusion, stimulated the effect of opera with high decibel vibration. The opera-like style realizes the renaissance of themes which we have lost long. When you lay yourself in the aggression that she imposes on you and gain the mysterious feeling, you would feel like being invited by the soul. You will be easily involved into the plot under the stimulus of various elements and subjects. This is a motion of signifier. The artist lays some phantoms in uncertain environment, leaves the fix frame and edge of the painting open. Reality or illusion? It is hard to identify the meeting points of the layers of different spaces. Everything is uncertain. Among those interlaced topics, the series of extreme visual powers is set in the suspense experience. The tragic themes are opened wide in silence, which makes it possible to approach the souls. William Random Hearst, in his work The Impossibility of Death, expresses his thought through the positive expectation on love and beauty. Looking at Li Zi’s early work, Love is Colder Than Death, the issues that human do not want to confront but have to can be spiritually expressed in the artistic and philosophical world.     


At National Art Museum of China
April 24, 2017