There was an auspicious breeze pacing the corridors of Shanghai’s M50 art district. It was a welcomed incentive to take my time observing the diverse body of art forms, from graffiti to abstract painting. I noticed very few other artists, besides Liu Yi, merging traditional Chinese art techniques with new media.
In her installation, Thrown Into the Wind at ShanghArt gallery, the artist had created a space of pervading solace that ran contrary to the subject matter in her short film, Chaos Theory(2014).
The viewing area for Yi’s film the center piece of the exhibition--was haloed by a segment of flowing gossamer silk. It fluttered overhead, appearing like smoke as fans underfoot sustained its ever-changing dynamism. Upon the fabric, in paint and mixed media, were fluid corporeal forms, Chinese characters, and other hieroglyphs that suggested an esoteric symbology. It was at once a scroll, a ring of smoke, a flag, and a strange primordial snake that embodied the artist’s theme of wind and transience.
The film itself is an animated short that employs traditional Chinese ink brushwork. The suppleness of each line morphs into legible forms with great ease, including animals, humans, and flora--a testament to Yi’s skill with a brush. Movement is also conveyed with a calculated grace, accenting once again the artist’s technique and the character of a papery drawing surface. I asked Liu what her connection was to traditional ink painting.
"Many of my good friends majored in Chinese painting, and it would often come up in our conversations," she said. "There were often opportunities to go to Chinese traditional painting exhibitions. This influenced me a lot, in many imperceptible ways."
I wondered which quality made it her medium of choice. "I think the tools of ink painting have unique value, just like Dong Qichang said, the great painter of the Ming Dynasty, 'Judging by the natural oddness, the landscape beats the painting; judging by the ingenious depiction, the painting beats the landscape.' I can use ink painting to represent my own creation, within the boundaries of Art, and the natural forces that repel and depend on each other." Liu spoke of her materials as an extension of the philosophical allusions in her work. There was a chance the same thoughtfulness she applied to her materials influenced her manipulation of space--yet another material for the artist to explore.
I asked If she develops her animations with a viewing space in mind. She said, "After I complete the animation there are still vague considerations, but the last thing that cements the work is when I come up with a new scheme in the exhibition space. Because spaces are different, audiences are different, the rendering of the production is also different; It's as if the work is created all over again." It is an interesting contradiction, since with ink itself you can only ever make a stroke once. She is able to combine the "sense of scale, spirituality, and vitality" of ink painting with the ever-changing manipulation of the viewing experience.
I found that the principle of spontaneity is crucial when trying to understand Yi’s work. Before you enter the gallery space, there is a quote by the artist:
"Wind always circles around, brings and takes away. It always takes away the once unforgettable things or the words we vowed to keep, A hundred miles per hour. But it never brings back the balloons it’s blown away. If we have to be the blower of balloons, then, I’ll have to thank the wind for its gift of disappearance. So, what do we owe the wind?"
There is a slight comedic tragedy to the imagery of the lost balloon as a metaphor for the past. She implicates us as easily as she implicates the transient nature of time. Her surreal visual language, which blends the morbid, the fragile, and the animalistic, is optimal for blurring the lines between human kind and a higher order of nature. But what does this nature entail?
Given the exhibition’s title, I asked her where she believed the chaos of the world originated. She referred to early Confucianist doctrine, which says, "People are good by nature, and in fact strive to find harmony." But the fact is, “People are both good and bad," which results in the state of chaos Liu believes underpins our existence. For example, in Chaos Theory (2014), there is reference to the the 2014 Kunming train station attack. Liu Yi integrated this content into her film on account of it occurring at the same time she was animating. This ability to seamlessly render deplorable human behavior in poetic terms is what makes unpacking her work an exacting task, since we must simultaneously confront beauty and horror.
Yi’s installation, as much as it is a physical experience, is equally as intellectual. With images of violence, both implied and explicit, being juxtaposed with the serenity of flowing silk, there is reason to believe that in talk of chaos and time lies a theme of redemption. Bodies represented in precarious situations--images such as a woman’s buttocks exposed to an approaching syringe, or a group of limbless youth dangling from a large wall--allude to the fragility of human kind. The viewers are granted a similar experience: in a time where things appear safe, there is an intangible chaos and danger with which we must all reckon. Liu Yi provides a space for this sobering experience, with a calculated incongruity that produces a baroque-like poetry of gloom, mortality, and wonder--a surprisingly comforting rendition.