Chinese Culture Dish

Through his work with female porcelain figures, Liu Jianhua has embarked on an exploration of his personal cultural identity and the influence of traditional role of genders in modern society.

Statuettes of headless and armless women, clad in "qipao" dresses and placed in provocative poses on dinner plates, offer a chilling glimpse into the mind of the 39-year-old artist.

" I guess that visitors might have an inner rush or a sense of awakening when they see my work," Liu said, adding that there are other, far deeper meanings to his porcelain figurines than it may seem.

On the surface, his work seems to reinforce what Chinese art critics have for years been saying about contemporary art in China - mainly that it caters too much to Western tastes. But beneath the visual impact of the female figures lies a scathing criticism of modern sexual attitudes, which is often personified by a reversion to traditional images of Chinese women.

In this light, his work can be viewed not just as a criticism of traditional Western views of Chinese women, but of the culpability of Chinese artists for the perpetuation of the images themselves. Much of Liu's artistic influences can be traced back to his early days as an apprentice ceramicist, where he participated in the mass production of ceramic works.

"I know that some might call my works a vulgar vision," he added. "But better to think about it for a second time, then one will find more meanings behind it."

Born in Ji'an, Jiangxi Province, Liu had decided to follow in the footsteps of other journeymen ceramicists, whose careers started in the city of Jingdezhen - a place which for centuries has been referred to as China's "ceramics kingdom." At the age of 15, he entered a training program at a local ceramics factory, hoping to break into the trade.

"There was nearly no means to see the outside world there," he called. "I worked very hard but found no fun. You could imagine a boy's own world was bound with mechanical labor work, so I told myself I would never touch any plate or bowl when I stepped out of the place."

He vowed never to return to the production line.

Unchallenged by the complicated and tiresome process of learning the trade and eight years later he left the trade for art school. In 1989, he went to study in the Sculpture Department of Jingdezhen Pottery & Porcelain College. Following graduation, he worked as a professor at the Yunnan Fine Arts Institute.

But in the early 1990s, Liu, like a number of other Chinese artists, began to dabble in post-modernist pop art. As he started to develop an artistic voice of his own, he found himself returning again and again to the work he had done in Jingdezhen, both as a source of inspiration and disgust.

"The more I went back there, the more I found my inspirations in art creation," he explained in art creation," he explained. "It's hard to define it in words, I just found the 'home of my soul' in the place which I had hated so much before."

As a metaphor for modern consumerism and materialistic desire, Liu uses female figures placed in seductive poses to convey sensual, yet contemptuous pleasures of the flesh. The message is that through traditional symbolism - the message is that through traditional symbolism - the "qipao" dress and the characteristic bowls and plates - consumerism and the exploitation of women are explicitly linked.

"To Eurocentrists, the interpretation of contemporary Chinese art involves the process of decoding Chinese symbolism, while to Chinese artists, this is the only way for them to use these symbols to enter the international art stage," he said. " But it is so difficult to locate the representative symbols reflecting the essence of Chinese culture, so it's fortunate that traditional porcelain wares occurred to me."

Last year his sculptures were invited by the Guangzhou Art Museum to be included in an exhibition named "Talking with Henry Moore" featuring sculptures by Chinese contemporary artists. Liu's Chinese Culture Dish" exhibition has also traveled to Hong Kong, London, and Paris.

As for the impressions of visitors to his exhibition, Liu said he prefers to leave that up to the viewers. " What is in the dish, who enjoys the meal, and who is the chef to prepare it?"

Maybe that's a question that we should all be asking ourselves.