For his first solo exhibition in London, Li Ran presents a selection of video works alongside new paintings and texts portraying the psychological state of a group of semi-fictional ‘humble intellectuals’ revolving around him in China.
An accompanying booklet presents the artist’s painting sketches and video scripts, as well as an excerpt from a short story called Godly Sorrow which is also interspersed with poems. In the short story, the artist – posing, in the first person, as a contemporary Chinese poet – gossips about his writer friends: leaning left or right, some of them displaying unwavering determination and occasional arbitrariness, while others are perpetually hesitant or melancholic. These intricate mental states are also reflected in the video work, The Most Abstract Paragraphs (2021-22), featuring two writers from Shanghai who appear to belong to the 1940s or post-Cultural Revolution era. Engaging in ceaseless banter and jests about the perspectives of themselves and others, they test each other, console each other, and grapple with the anguish of their positions, gestures and the perplexing question of where they truly stand as creative individuals set adrift in a historically complex and politically-charged ocean.
The theme of the art industry’s inner workings, formed with seemingly abstract conversations and secret languages known only to insiders, permeates Li Ran’s artistic practice. The paintings, referencing and resonating with the texts and videos, vividly capture the emotions of these intellectuals trapped in their self-made worlds of alienation and distress. Li utilizes a violet tone in the background to establish an ambience of weary anticipation in works such as Standing in the Haze or Waiting for the Advent (both 2022), the latter title also serving as the exhibition title.
As the artist remarks, “This kind of waiting is not limited to the past few years of the pandemic; it is an enduring ideological illness that has persisted for long and will go on...” Similarly, the artist weaves the poem titled Standing in the Haze into his short story:
In the Age of the Plague
there was a spoon stirring,
Dropped into the jar of salt and pepper,
the star did not fall because of this,
a sneeze in vain.
Luckily, there was a 1984-made screwdriver,
It was a friend’s pinky finger,
dipped in vinegar, wrote down a line of words,
without beginning or end.
Based on his perception of the surrounding reality, Li Ran repeatedly employs a certain romanticized irony in his works. His narrative paintings, such as Bad Elements in the Troop, Commissioned Thriller Writer, Banana Kick (all 2022-23), tell stories about the reality that surrounds him from endlessly queuing for a PCR test to facing a form of writer’s block that avoids publishing anything meaningful in a bid to avoid censorship. The artist also pushes reality to the fringes, through the more peculiar and fragmented emotions evoked in paintings such as Who’s More Splittist? Who’s the Heretic? (2023) and in the video Night of Patmos (2017), which also revolves around a literary character marooned from his own bit part in a novel. These emotions deepen Li Ran’s understanding of each specific condition he researches, resulting in a series of profound and spiritual observations on lives lived through fiction and friction.
Li Ran press release