Galerie Paris-Beijing, Paris
11 September – 18 October 2014
by HARRIET THORPE
In his exhibition Politicians, artist Fu Site reveals a dark subconscious where characters play out strange scenes, stumbling into the depths of the human pysche. Across the series of works, black-suited, white-shirted men blunder, drunk, reduced to their most basic instincts of power and agression. Fu’s mixed-media technique creates a mood of fragmented memories where corruption and confusion are indistinguishable. With a studied influence from art history, Fu’s works are contemporary paintings of a capitalist age that extends back to the beginning of democracy in Europe.
The artist explains: “When I watch television or look through magazines and I see images of politicians giving speeches, debating or taking part in a conference, I always think their actions are very complicated and interesting. Although they are the subject of the paintings, however, it’s not a comment on reality, the works invite a fantasy or a fiction surrounding these figures. The ‘Politicians’ are a group of people whom I chose to be actors in the paintings. Through these characters, we can see the complications of humanity, and it’s interesting because this is a group of people who represent us. Politicians have many personal desires, they fight and argue with each other for good will, sometimes bad, but this fighting is a way for us to find solutions. And maybe we don’t find solutions, but we are fighting all the same. There is something dangerous and sinister … something hopeless in the works.”
Fu works with mixed media, including china ink, oils and colouring pencil, creating a layered effect of a dark dreamland. For the most recent works, he has pulled paper over a canvas stretcher and he tells me that working on the paper gives him a sense of freedom. He usually has several works in progress at the same time: “You can never preview a painting to the end, you just have to see how it goes. I try to mix different techniques together more and more, and this process itself can reveal things that the subject of the picture cannot. I like connecting the subject to a confusing world, which I can show through technique.”
Although Fu’s Politicians are just characters playing their parts, their field of work suggests a loaded expectation of meaning, particularly in an era of political contemporary art. I compare his work to two other Chinese contemporary artists who work with political memorabilia from collected media, photography and footage: Li Songsong, who paints patchwork assemblages of historical political events from photographs, and Liu Wei’s Floating Memory (2001), a layered video work of memories surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacres events in Beijing on 4 June 1989. This work is currently on show in the collection at Centre Georges Pompidou, which lies in the same neighbourhood as the Galerie Paris-Beijing. “I do work in a similar way from photographs,” Fu responds, “but I also work very differently from these artists. They paint or use the photograph, but do not change the content, but for me it’s more like a fiction. I need a portrait of the human figure, but then – in French it’s called a mise-en-scene – like a cinematic work, like a film still, it’s always a fiction. Contemporary for me is a subject of the occidental – it’s not Chinese. Maybe you can say there are Chinese contemporary artists, and maybe you can say there is some traditional element in their work, but deep down I don’t think there is a real tradition of the contemporary, it’s just coincidental. When Chinese people see my work, however, they don’t see me as a Chinese painter, they see me as a European painter. There is more influence of western culture in my work – such as David Lynch and his films and the way of thinking, the mysticism.”
Moving away from this comparison, we begin to talk about the practice of contemporary painting. “I call my paintings cinematographic because there’s a narrative that takes place. I don’t think contemporary painting should cut out narration. In the 1960s and 70s people said that painting was dead and now painting has re-emerged today, so in our time I would like to find a connection with art history. When people see my work and explain their feelings, they mention other painters from history such as Manet, Goya or Francis Bacon, or maybe even a classical painter, but they can also see the contemporary. I’m not trying to paint from history or be a contemporary painter, I think they are both in my work and I like that fusion.”
In Forest III (2014), a dusty pink smoke rises through a layer of clashing branches where a strange scene unravels. Clusters of politicians in tuxedos are locked in a warfare of arms and legs. In the spirit of Bacon, figures are highlighted by oils and cropped and distorted into new shapes in a contrast of physical and psychological turmoil. A familiar interior line can be seen which, drawn with colouring pencil, glides through the work placing the figures into a linear perspective. “Bacon was one of my early influences. Bacon has influenced a lot of artists and painters. I think what you can see now in my work is a coincidence, and there definitely is a connection with him, but I don’t see it particularly any more. I change a lot of things. I like his technique of painting, but I like him in the way I also like the films of Lynch or works by Goya and Velázquez – it’s a lot about the feelings in their work which are really dark. They are not happy paintings, something is cold and the work is different for it. I also like the idea of a hallucination, like an unconscious dream.”
Speaking of dreams, two works, Bedroom (2014) and Beside the Bed (2013), are displayed side by side in the gallery. One bed is serenely made, smooth white sheets in an empty room, whereas the other bed is aggressively unmade and two politicians are engaged in a headlock in the foreground. “These two works are a continuation of a previous series called Sealed Room. The scenes play out in the interiors and I bring the figures into different spaces and environments to create strange, and sometimes dark feelings. These works are very connected with Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock. This one (Bedroom) is a bedroom scene under a warm light. I don’t know if you can tell what I put in the corner. It’s the carcass of a pig, but I just placed it so we cannot tell what it is, you can only guess.”
I had noticed this form, initially thinking it was a woman. I ask Fu about the lack of women in the Politicians series. “I don’t paint women very often. There is one piece in the exhibition with a woman and a baby, but that piece is not really in the same subject as the show, it’s an older piece from last year. On the subject of Politicians, there are no women. It’s a world of dangerous men, all fighting, strange and sinister.”
Fu has a fascination with interior scenes where he constructs a decadent world of embellished furnishings, swimming pools and golf clubs. Fu insists, however, that his world is not about portraying wealth. “For me, it’s more about showing a different world – a European world or the 19th century during the romantic period.”
On the Top (2013) explores a new sense of scale and horizon that is absent in the interior scenes. Two politicians are perched at the top of a staircase, which leads down into the painting, where a structured building extends diagonally into the background. The work is made on thin paper with China ink. Fu explains: “I wanted to show the existence of the universe in nature, to represent the building of a civilisation, but also that we humans know nothing. There is a sentimentality of being lost, confused which I find in the works of Caspar David Friedrich. His subject matter was about life and death, which had been important to him because when he was young many people had died around him. So inspired by his works, I wanted to paint a view of nature and the universe.”
With no protective interior walls, these politicians are no longer locked in eternal struggle. The horizon has a daunting effect and the politicians turn their attention to deliberating over the future. This exhibition is a revealing introduction into the work of Fu Site with works from previous series, works from the current Politicians series, and a taste of what is to come.