Spiegel-Wilks Seminar: Venice Biennale

Contemporary Art in East Asia and the World


Tong Yanrunan

Although it seems to be repeated every day for fifteen years, in fact, the opposite is true. Each face is alive and cannot be copied. Each time it is painted, it looks like a new adventure, a new challenge. The picture Both are rich new worlds.” –Tong Yanrunan

Tong Yanrunan is an artist who was born 1977 in Jiujiang City Jiangxi province and still works largely in China. He studied at the Chinese Academy of Art and has exhibited internationally. He has spent the past 20 years on a oil portrait making front-facing portraits in a size of 41cm x 31cm. Though he has painted larger paintings than this, most of his paintings fall within this size limit. To me, this body of work seems like a meditation on the act of portrait painting. The ability and the drive to stick to the same project for two decades, perfecting a skill, speaks to a greater purpose.

Tong Yanrunan was one of the exhibitors at the Ivory Coast’s Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Their pavilion had the theme “The Open Shadow of Memories.” The Biennale website had written: “Tong Yanrunan uses his pictorial portraits that go beyond realism to unveil the memory of humanity without revealing feelings and social differences, thus leaving viewers free to meet their own ‘alter ego’.” Tong had his own room at the pavilion and was the only artist featured not from the Ivory Coast. This was the third time that the Ivory Coast participated in the Venice Biennale.

This was not Tong’s first time exhibiting in Venice. In 2018, he had an exhibition in Venice where he painted in the span of a few days, several portraits of locals which were then hung in the exhibition. This is a typical format it seems for the way Tong’s work is exhibited. Tong’s portraits are frequently displayed in a grid, which to me emphasizes a common humanity between individuals, implying endless combinations for display. His practice is somewhat unique, as he always works by having the models sit for him in person, working from life. This process is then somehow deeply personal, between the artist and the person being painted, and impersonal in its display. This feels particularly relevant in our current era where there is such an emphasis on technology and photographic portraits, to then have this body of work which is so deeply human.

If we look at the details of his paintings, the oil paint is applied thickly, and certain layers appear to have been scratched away. This may seem violent to some, while others have commented that the face then appears like a landscape. Though his portraits might not have the traditional details of portraits that we have come to expect in oil paintings, they do seem to capture the spirit and likeness of each individual. At the Biennale, it was quite refreshing to have a more classical kind of artwork, since there were so many video installations and shockingly few paintings.

Looking at his work and researching what has been written about it, I found it difficult to find information on Tong beyond his website. One theme that did come up was the question of, what is Classical Chinese Portraiture? Some critics seemed to align him with Western artists, such as Richter, whereas others saw him as distinctly belonging to the lineage of Chinese classical portrait painters. His work seems to be asking questions of identity and problematizing more broadly the role of portraiture in the canon of art history.

Ultimately, seeing his work at the Venice Biennale was quite refreshing and enjoyable. The room that the portraits were displayed in was somewhat immersive, which was an interesting parallel to the various immersive video installations in the Biennale. Tong seems to be reinventing a classical form, which feels very innovative given that there seems to have been a distancing in contemporary art from painting. A challenge of learning about his artwork was to find good, reliable sources. All of the information I found was online, sometimes translated from Chinese, and it was difficult to verify quotations. Though I found his work compelling, it was a challenge to find sources on him which I think points to a broader issue facing artists globally.

-Natasha Guy

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