After Li Ran graduated from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2009, with a degree in oil painting, he moved to Beijing. In the years since, he has established himself principally as a video artist, meaning that, though you might occasionally stumble across some of his works on canvas, his background in painting has been largely overlooked. It was thus refreshing to encounter a series of 13 new paintings in ‘Who Are You’, Li’s exhibition at Aike gallery in Shanghai, alongside two videos, a photo collage and a sculptural installation. But we should not confuse the artist’s ‘return’ to the medium with a break in his practice; as is evident in the exhibition design, characteristically replete with references to the stage, Li’s paintings form part of the mise en scène. A curtain divides the show into two sections: a raised, brightly illuminated stage on the left, where most of the canvases are hung, and a dimly lit, cavernous space on the right. With no signage at the entrance, visitors can choose to go either way.
Led by intuition (or perhaps by my queer penchant for darkened spaces), I went into what appears to be the backstage area. Projected onto a wall, the two-channel video Persona Swap (2017–19) juxtaposes original footage with a photo sequence of villainous characters from the late 1950s and early ’60s, taken from the artist’s archival collection, to track the many phases (or faces) of realism in modern Chinese theatre and cinema. The narration – delivered by Li, in a hyperbolic style typical of Chinese dubbing in cinema from the same period – begins with the story of V.V. Terevtzov, a Soviet émigré who taught a class on illusionistic stage makeup at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in the late 1950s. These techniques became effective tools for signalling class and ideological positions, as well as antagonism between heroes and villains. But following Terevtzov’s abrupt departure from China in 1960 due to the Sino-Soviet split, these Soviet tropes were abandoned. The images fade in and out, revealing representation and politics to be always entangled and subject positions fundamentally unstable.
The paintings in the other room can be interpreted as dramatized freeze frames that further explore such ambiguity. Their subtle matte tones and faceless figures are reminiscent of the work of Wang Yin, while their use of allegory, shadowing and bodily distortion recalls paintings by Sanya Kantarovsky. In Domestic Desk (2019), what appears to be a young intellectual (judging by his attire and the books above his right arm) leans after a shadowy figure attempting to dive into a split territory. In Ranger and His Friends (2019), a headless figure wrestles with a quasi-sculptural head, which lies somewhere between an inert bust and an elastic bioform. This image of the subject being wrenched from itself enacts the limit-experience described by Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Michel Foucault: the edge of intensity and possibility, where extreme contradictions become identical.
In his most recent biography, released in time for the exhibition, the artist compares his experience in Shanghai – where he has resided since 2018 – to that of a guest. We can see how this dialectic between host and guest, us and other, became the starting point for ‘Who Are You’ – a question that bridges the show’s themes of subjectivity, performance and politics. By circulating through modern Chinese theater and cinema, Li Ran ultimately veers back towards his perennial questions of realism and subjectivity. Stripped of the expected question mark, the three words in the exhibition title linger instead in the affirmative.