Li Shan 李山



Acclaimed artist Li Shan lives and works in New York and Shanghai. A native of Heilongjiang Provice, he began studies at the Shanghai Theater Academy in 1964 and taught there until his retirement. 


Li Shan established his reputation in the 1980s as a "Political Pop" artist, with portraits of Mao Zedong holding lotus flowers in his lips and many images of a goose with the lotus flower dangling from its beak in his Rouge series. 


He undertook Bio-Art (shengwu yishu 生物藝術) in 1993, after taking part in the Venice Biennale, where The Loughton Candidate by Matthew Barney was a revelation of what art can do. At first he sketched hybrid and GMO beings: Men soaring aloft on housefly wings, fish with feet, and more. From 2012 on, Li Shan began seeding wheat, cross-breeding pumpkins with other life forms, and showing these non-vegetables, non-things in place of the paintings that earned him fame. He is a shaman among artists.


The mutant Tiger-Flies are ink and color sketches on paper (1993) among his earliest forays into science-through-art. They are hybrids and monstrous beings, but have a benign side. These works on paper for his Bio-Art series give insight into his working and research process. 


Li Shan's bio-art underscores the dignity of all living organisms. He paints and draws things that are flying, crawling, swimming, and walking. Some of these creatures are mid-transformation. ​"Through his uncannily realistic representation of interspecies, Li Shan questions the hypocrisy and lack of equality of human values in today’s bio-scientific experiments," as noted in the catalog for SHANGArt (2006).  In a world where people can bio-engineer rabbits that glow in the dark, clone sheep, and genetically modify rice and corn and their own children, all of us are inevitably touched by GMO, Li Shan has observed. His artistic experiments call for us to value human nature and the nature of each thing in creation.


The hybrids of a tiger, man, and housefly in the 1993 drawings hark back to the 2nd century Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shanhai jing 山海經); the classic describes creatures who inhabit the mountains to protect civilization and to command our respect, fear, and reverence. Yet this series of artistic depictions are thoroughly modern in conception. He pursues the idea and process of genetic transcription, modification, reading and misreading. The small sketches presage the massive paintings in his Reading series and later, superrealistic photographs of houseflies with human skin, tongues, and elements of other beings.


Li Shan had a solo exhibit of never-seen works from the Reading Series at the Armory Show in New York, with ShanghART, 2022. His recent solo exhibits have been Decoding at ShanghART, 2019; BioArt at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei in 2012 and the Power Station of Art, 2017; The Pumpkin Project, Bio-Art (with Zhang Pingjie), ShanghART, 2007; Photoworks, ShanghART, 2006; New Small Works, ShanghART 2004.


For more background on Li Shan's place in contemporary Chinese art:


From the Asian Art Archive:

Tiger in the Hills 長了翅膀的老虎 (2003)
Rouge 紅粉 series ca. 1994
Li Shan, Reading, set of 10