Spoleto Festival unveils subtle, evocative 2012 poster
Each year, Spoleto Festival USA requisitions a visual emblem meant to represent the array of the festival’s musical and theatrical offerings.
This year, it went with a detail of Chinese artist Li Songsong’s “Beast,” an image based on a photograph but highly transformed by thick applications of paint.
Unlike past posters, which often feature bright colors, abstractions and bold designs, Li’s paintings are subtle, evocative, “in some ways secret,” Festival General Director Nigel Redden said at Thursday’s unveiling. “They imply more than they show.”
The poster selection is significant in that it makes a subtle connection to some of the festival’s programming. One of its two opera productions is “Feng Yi Ting” by Chinese composer Guo Wenging. It tells the story of a seduction and murder that saves an empire.
“The opera also implies things,” Redden said.
Chinese politics are not in the forefront exactly. In fact, Li insists his work is not political, Redden said. But that is surely open to interpretation.
Hidden in the painting (the original is 7 feet by 13 feet) are two figures, ghostlike presences in a muted landscape, obscured by the thick texture. Beijing-born Li, 39, often portrays political figures or historical events, making them remote and contemplative through his use of mixed media.
The annual Spoleto poster is something people love to hate, Redden joked. “I think this year is going to be somewhat different.”
Each unveiling tends to cause some people to cry foul. Two years, ago, Maya Lin’s pair of carved maps, one of which was turned on its side, befuddled its viewers. Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca’s “Acoustic Mass I (Covent Garden),” which graced storefronts along King Street in last year, was a bold abstract rendering of sound — and it got mixed reviews. A 2008 green-blue-white design by Bridget Riley looked a little like the Wachovia Bank logo, but wider.
This year, flat designs and illustration have given way to the seriously artistic. Li Songsong, whose work is represented at Saatchi Gallery in New York City, is a rising star in China’s flourishing art scene. He is one of many visual artists in China whose work is known outside of the country, Redden said.
Mary Beth Heston, professor of art history and director of Asian Studies at the College of Charleston, is impressed with Li Songsong’s work. In the years since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, underground avant-garde artists have emerged carefully into the light and gained more attention, Heston said.
“The whole climate in China has changed so dramatically,” she said. “There’s a lot more room for dissent, (though) one has to proceed with a certain caution.”
Li Songsong and his fellow Chinese artists are no longer limited by national boundaries; they are functioning in an international context and embracing contemporary techniques and modes of expression, Heston said.
“Li Songsong is not alone in his veiled critique — literally veiled, in layers of paint, as if something is partially hidden under that,” Heston said. “In a way, we can say that speaks to the way politics works in China.”
Whatever the political and aesthetic context of the new Spoleto Festival poster, early viewers seem to like it.
Chandler Chakides, 27, an employee of the clothing store Copper Penny, said she’d have preferred something brighter and more festive, but the poster is “beautiful and interesting.”
Her colleague Julia Olson, 19, said she was glad that it wasn’t so “in-your-face.”
“I like that it’s different than what everyone expected,” she said.