Painting of Kamikaze Removed at UCCA Beijing
By Pamela Wong, Sharpe Xie
In early August, Beijing-based artist Li Songsong’s abstract oil painting Six Men (2008), which resembles a photo showing Japanese Kamikaze pilots during the Second World War, was taken down from display at UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing after being reported by an unnamed viewer. The group exhibition “Common Ground,” which was held to mark UCCA’s 15th anniversary and had included Li’s work, subsequently ended on August 7, a week ahead of its original scheduled date. Police were involved in an investigation of the work.
The image in Li’s painting was first brought to attention through posts on social-media platforms in mainland China in early August, four months after the opening of the show. Li’s Six Men is largely based on a group photo of young Kamikaze pilots in the Japanese air force, who were often asked to sacrifice themselves for their country by flying their planes into ships or other military targets during World War II. The portrayal of the figures in Six Men is largely ambiguous, covered and obscured by colorful patches of thick paint, but one can recognize the figures through the cuffs on their arms, headgear, and the composition of the painting. The reasons why the work is politically sensitive or needed to removed from view remains unclear; however, online commentators criticized the work for its “glorification” of the Kamikaze pilots.
UCCA Beijing is currently closed. In response to ArtAsiaPacific, the spokesperson at UCCA confirmed the removal of the painting following complaints made by visitors and the subsequent closure of the show after the report. A spokesperson for the museum stressed that the team “has been working on future shows at UCCA Beijing, as well as other upcoming projects at UCCA Edge and UCCA Dune.” They added that the 798 Art District in general has been going through renovations this summer.
Alongside Six Men, Li is known for his photo-based paintings of historical imagery that can be censored in China as well as in other regions of Asia. He often uses mixed collage, thick layers of paint, and superimposition of multiple images to reinterpret historical scenes in a critical and stimulating way. For example, his 2009 painting The Great Surrender features Liu Zhiyuan, a former pilot of the People’s Liberation Army who fled to Taiwan in 1987. The artist once explained, “No matter how you paint, it’s impossible to obscure the historical reality with concrete facts. But maybe my paintings can raise questions about our way of looking at things.”
Previously in 2019, Chinese-born American painter Hung Liu’s solo exhibition was canceled at UCCA Beijing, after local officials denied authorization to import the artworks during the trade war between the United States and China.
While UCCA Beijing remains shut, the group exhibition “Liquid Ground” will open at Beidaihe’s UCCA Dune on September 25 and “The Pieces I Am,” a collaborative show with Tik Tok, will open at Shanghai’s UCCA Edge on September 29.
Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor and Sharpe Xie is ArtAsiaPacific’s editorial intern.