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Photography of China
Interview: Liu Yue | Photography of China
2022-03-19 18:09

Liu Yue 刘月 (born in 1981 in Shanghai, China) studied at first painting, then once graduated he essentially dedicated himself to photography. His artworks might appear simple, yet with a closer look we realize they are astonishingly deep and manage to call into question everyday life objects. Although he created different series, they all seem to reflect his own reflexion and attraction to notions of space, time, and object’s structure and forms. Liu Yue allies intuition and ponderation; he likes showing the banality so that to disclose its magical side and challenge our own perception of things. This young artist has attracted quite early the attention of several international institutions, notably the Photoquai festival in Paris in 2011.

After having seen his exhibition held at the OFOTO Gallery {ECHO - Liu Yue Photography Exhibition, planned between May and July 2012} as well as his collaboration with Wang Yanling at the Am Art Space {exhibition called Anthem, Xiao Ming & Xiao Hong, planned between May and June 2012}, I found his work very fascinating. Thus, I have done everything I can to meet him. That was done on 3rd July 2012: we plan to rendez-vous at the OFOTO Gallery in Shanghai. While we were drinking a delicious tea in the backroom, I start to ask him further information about his motivations and his thinking.

Do you remember your first experience making photography? What motivated you?

In the past when cameras did not exist yet, people used other means to express their artistic sensibilities. There were for instance painting and sculpture among others. Today people are spoilt for choice thanks to all the development and progress achieved in general. Photography – despite its invention one hundred years ago – remains a new medium that possesses radically different features compared to what we have known before. Photography is anchored to contemporaneity, it is opposed to usual notions of determinism and speed, what you see is pretty much what you get, but to get what you see is actually complicated. I think this medium is pervaded by contradictions and trickery inasmuch as it can reveal and conceal at the same time. I really started to create artistic photographs after university, but until now I never considered myself as a photographer for photography remains a part of my creative process. Nevertheless, it happens sometimes that photography is the only way to express myself, but it is more a passive decision, my passivity determines the medium in the end.

What are the steps when you start a new body of artworks?

Let me give an example. Before we start our conversation, we had in mind a clear vision of the goals and the expectations we might have towards to final result (if not, it would be impossible to get logical and rational questions or to obtain clear answers). But in truth we never know what the outcomes will be. In other words, this is an unknown condition determined by time, a subjective way to expound a predetermined paradox. While we are speaking, we cannot know what will be the consequences, still it seems that before obtaining any real result we try to deduce it. Such process makes us moving towards an unknown path that goes beyond predetermined judgment. This quest for the knowable and the unknowable, this sort of contradictory chaos, fascinates me.

When I create something, even though it is triggered by a subjective desire, I certainly cannot guess what will be the final outcome. No matter how hard I try to control or plan it, it remains very misleading. The final artwork tends towards an unknown normality, more natural, more accurate. I want to explore this kind of coercible concept as well as things that look natural. I do not have any fixed plan that helps me to follow a stable and sufficient guideline. My creative process merely consists in the formal expression of difficulties or issues I am facing. Maybe I will create an artwork using this method, maybe the next one will be different, it depends. I do not want my works to be based on safe and reliable methods, even though the final result engenders an atmosphere opposed to calm and harmony.

I find guidelines through common objects. I try to unveil their essence, which is itself conditioned by time. Under these limited conditions, I strive to feel these important yet so insignificant things. Look straightforwardly to an object enables also to make the audience understand other things that seem trivial. This banality is gradually emphasized and the information is enlarged, and so it becomes not that ordinary. Perhaps it is simply the real appearances of things in their natural condition.

In your series Echo, did you tried to investigate into the various definition of this very word or is it rather an exploration of how we perceive things? What did you wanted to convey?

I guess I wanted to express something abstract, which goes beyond sensory experience. I cogitate about ‘echo’ in the literal sense, which possesses a clear definition and makes us think about things that usually look normal. But in the end, what sensations brings the word ‘echo’? What does it mean? We have no clue. We understand it as a phenomenon, for instance when a sound reverberates against an object or a wall. Consequently, we believe the person who produced the sound created the reverberation, but in reality the space surrounding us produced it, and we have no idea what it means. It is a mere phenomenon we experience in a space, a mysterious and natural power, inevitable and unknown. Hence the exhibition’s foreword is just a reminder of how people interpret ‘echo’; I would like to change the viewer’s unilateral vision of things.

In this exhibition, you will notice that all objects manifest emptiness, nothingness. They do not have materiality, quality, or temporality. For example, there are silk-satin quilts in some of my works; from a material perspective, they seem beautiful, soft, and normally cannot bear a heavy weight. However, they transform into a form that has nothing to do with the original material, as if they were sorts of imposing chevrons, which refute what people thought about the inner properties of the object. The spheres above are deprived of characteristics and value; some of them are just the subtle trace left by the surface of a polished sphere, fine and delicate. In general, my works are timeless for the setting does not communicate any historical or everyday life information. The setting creates something indescribable (devoid of meaning, order, and going beyond our understanding). Interestingly, these quilts, spheres, and settings among other elements belong to the real world but they have been abstracted from their initial contexts so that to become something paradoxical and empty.

It is as if we were looking at things with a magnificent and ancient light, which allows us to move beyond the frame of what we know and admire their truth beauty. It is like when we have been told to be man or woman, and after we will take decision according to this assumed truth. Once we detach ourselves from usual definitions, we can really ask ourselves who we are. Maybe these definitions are based on external appearances or phenomenon, but being detached will help to discover one’s nature at least.

In my works, the appearances of things are rather contradictory and surrealists. When we look closer, we find out the points of contact between all these objects is minuscule and the apparent supports are actually implausible. We cannot imagine these kinds of materials appearing such a way. All the links between the objects, including their relationship with the space, have been purified, reworked; they are unique. As if we were able to get rid of our prejudices in order to look at things abstracted from reality, in order to face them by using a more natural approach. By doing so, things are even more beautiful and vibrant.

I noticed there are quilts in your series Echo. Is there a link between them and those of Mountain Blossom?

They have very dissimilar meanings, but the material implies many similitudes. Echo’s quilts are notably the one I gathered in 2006 for my series Mountain Blossom.

Huang Yunhe - Director of the OFOTO Gallery - declared that your studies in painting give your photographs particular fine and smooth perspectives. What do you think about this?

I think it depends on the visual sensibility and the way of thinking; it is also linked to the thing that moves someone on the inside. Each person has his own opinion, but it cannot entirely describe what we are facing. It is true to say that an artwork’s composition bespeaks a disposition and might raise emotional response, but I am certainly not in search of these kinds of univocal appearances. This is why I do not like that much to explore things that belong to the outside world; I do not like that much neither judging the visual aspects of my work. I prefer to question myself then use my own experience and my intuition so that to explore what fascinates people. This incomparably excites and pleased me. Painting is a traditional medium that I also like very much, especially because of its quality and its representational system. It can unveil many thoughts I have inside my mind. Yet studying painting did not enhance my desire to create.

Memories of my childhood, by contrast, had a dramatic impact on my works. As an example, my parents used to bring me to the zoo and I was captivated by the swans’ slow moves on the artificial lake, I could watch them for hours. I also loved to go to the market with my parents because there were many animals, among them chickens. Once the chicken is sold, you have to weight it, pluck the feathers off, I was really interested in this final step. It is hard to resist to the charms of these beautiful moments. So every time my parents needed to go to the market they would bring me. Although these places were stinky, there were my favourite ones. I love carps as well. I remember once, while I was watching one of them I noticed it blinked, I was extremely surprised. My parents did not believe me, so to prove I was right I waited for almost half a day staring at them until I saw another one blinking. These memories make me realize how patient I am.

Hence it is maybe since my childhood that I like to observe and that I am easily moved by phenomena hard to explain. Naturally I have transposed these earlier habits into my current works. I think this way of feeling about the world is elegant and noble, there is something beautiful in that. This sensation is quite subtle, an almost natural way of thinking. All these things compose maybe my true face.

How important is the practice of referencing in your work? For instance, in your series Fountain you directly refer to traditional Chinese landscape.

The consideration and inspiration implied by the shanshui {literally ‘mountain and water’, Chinese word signifying the traditional painting of landscape} are associated with oriental notions of dao and meditation. Indeed provided you are Chinese and even though you do not understand traditional painting of landscape, it will have a certain value to you, it corresponds to a way of thinking and cultural standpoints. But if I were saying this series follows the footsteps of shanshui, it would overestimate me and distort my genuine intention. First, I do not use the vocabulary of shanshui; second I have always refer to notions of shanshui very naturally. This might be contradictory but it is really the case. I guess this paradox has always been there.

You have probably noticed that a certain amount of my works pick elements from shanshui, yet it does not mean they are entirely shanshui notably because most of them examine the essence of things, which is against traditional principles for they are based on the creation of fake landscapes. For instance, at the beginning Mountain Blossom aimed at imitate perfectly the outside world’s appearances, which ended up with slightly dogmatic and schematic forms. Such desire is a perfect violation of traditional landscape paintings’ principles. At first sight, my artworks are calm, harmonious, and seem to have the same composition as landscape paintings; but in truth they are based on classical western painting’s principles.

Owing to the fact that it is a photograph, the perspective is natural and cannot be compared to the ‘shifting’ perspective in traditional landscape paintings. When you look carefully, you will figure out a certain amount of things differs from tradition. The quilts for example might recall ancient China tumulus, they seem beautiful, but since there is a whole series of them it gives you the impression that they have been produced industrially. In the end, these mountain and river shapes symbolize the impulse to allude to shanshui, while countering this tradition at the same time.

In a nutshell, Chinese traditional art inspires me a lot but not only for its external features. To me, shanshui is not a mere noun, it is as well an adjective, a verb and a state of mind.

Is minimalism an accurate noun to qualify your approach?

The word minimalism cannot define all my works. From an historical perspective, this term was first associated with modernism and then shifted to postmodernism. Its definition is not clear and relates to a specific period. At that time, the idea was to focus on forms and transcend things. Afterwards, everyone strongly hoped postmodernism would have proposed a continuation but more importantly a conclusive summary. Yet it engendered countless definitions and partial understandings. For instance, most of postmodernist discussions or ideas – which are still used today – proceed from modernist schools.

Nowadays our world is still postmodern, which causes a substantial paradox for we are still employing modernist approaches to judge postmodernist phenomena. When you want to cluster artists doing similar things, you have to go through thousands of definitions of various art styles, for instance op art and western modern art influenced Japanese Mono-ha. Interestingly, it gives me the false impression that so far everything has been based on misconceived ideas and thinking in such a way is pretty postmodern. In fact it seems hard to believe in a knowledge that derives from various fragments.

In my opinion, what an artwork conveys or contains remains a latent form of personal experience. No matter this idea pertains to oriental philosophy, or postmodernism, or ancient aesthetics, it will never be possible to describe it with an ‘-ism’. If is like after the discovery of a plants possessing large leaves we would have the habit to classify all the other plants with big leaves all together, without realizing the first one has nothing in common with the second.

Needless to say that I do not like neither such definition nor categorization. Yet sometimes words such as ‘minimalism’, ‘abstraction’, among others might help the viewer to understand better the artist’s approach.

Indeed it helps but there is a bad side as well. Determine the nature of art is highly complex; nobody is capable of defining it. The only thing we can do is use definitions so that to have more or less reliable and secured ideas. It would be perfect if we could perspicuously deduct and analyse from the result. It is as if we were able to explain what is artistic creation but as soon as we try to analyse what is art, it is not art anymore.

Each person is similar to a microcosm: there are constellations and stars shinning by themselves; there are planets that look like the Earth or Mars orbiting around. They all have a circular shape, slightly different size and characterists, and all naturally follow the curve of their orbit. Despite our analysis, synthesis, or observations it will not change their own specificities. In my works I try to make things appear in a appropriate and necessary way; everything is very natural and highly man-altered at the same time. This embarking point makes us aware of the inner logic and interrelation between represented objects.

Are there links between your exhibition ECHO and Anthem held at the AM Art Space? Because they both seem to stress on the structure of common objects.

The Am Art Space is very unique; it is an experimental place where ideal things can come true. Anthem is an exhibition created by ‘Xiao Ming and Xiao Hong’, who is an artistic character we invented with Wang Yanling, he does not point out who is who. Although our two approaches are quite conceptual, ‘Xiao Ming and Xiao Hong’ ‘s artworks are distinct. In general, we discuss about ideas that interest us, streamline our inquiries, and prepare projects for a long time. Our approach would be partial and inaccurate if we were using personal way of expressing. Thus, we found more suitable to combine methods and invent a new artist.

We had a lot of ideas regarding the final project. At first, we wanted to create an extreme artwork by making excessive copies of a model that symbolises the limited relationship between natural things and space. But finally we have chosen to reproduce all angles of the room in paper and to make a vocal performance so that the space produces reverberations. Bodily experience and intangible artworks unveil an unknown space, different from the real one. This project turns the space into a large-scale installation unlike many other shows that simply exhibit artworks on walls. This notion of spatiality challenges cognition and expression.

‘Xiao Ming and Xiao Hong’ ‘s works proceed from our own experiences, thus inevitably they are imbued with our specificities so it is not wonder that you see links with the OFOTO Gallery exhibition. We think our personal visions are poison and cure at the same time. We tried to inject a dose of this poison/cure into ‘Xiao Ming and Xiao Hong’ ‘s body and we noticed it generated a natural reaction. Thus this reaction demonstrated what should be the exact specificities of ‘Xiao Ming and Xiao Hong’.

Which photographers or artists do you like?

This is a quite puzzling question because I have never understood what is the difference between someone taking photographs and a photographer. The only thing I can say is that I am neither of them. When I was little I considered myself as an artist but this word is annoying because many people call themselves artists.

Actually I do not really have favourite artists or Chinese photographers, it is the same for foreigner artists, they are all pieces of a giant puzzle, it is difficult to think about one in particular. I think that anyway once an artist becomes appreciated others will be appreciated in the same way.

In China we use the expression: ‘quote out of context’, which means in another words giving a very partial view of something. Having seen few artworks do not allow you to judge the whole. It is a sensitive point to me, I will not say someone is like this or like that. But in a certain time-interval I will say this artist’s artworks move me profoundly, my feeling at this particular moment will be then sincere.

What are your expectations about the future?

I will always have the opportunity to have exhibitions here and there, but they are always the same and
I am not sure about their benefits. I want to reuse old concepts from older works but in a more rational and efficient manner. I already have plenty of artworks and large-scale ones that I would like to create. I hope I will have the chance to exhibit them more clearly because people misconceive my work. Although it might be not that important, an artwork’s formulation and introduction participate in the magic of art. This is why I would like to write more about what I create; I wish to write a book for instance. Off course I will not neglect other mediums.

Moreover, I hope I will find a space that suits perfectly my works. It is not that urgent, only an ideal wish. I am convinced an artwork that has just been created can have a great impact on the viewer, and develop such feeling is very important. I hope I will show artworks even more perfect and extreme.

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Related Artists: LIU YUE 刘月


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