Polychrome Ceramics, Cheongsam and Chinese Porcelain


"In visual experience, the symbolic value of the objects of daily life evokes many associations and fantasies. This is my main reason for using Sun Yat-Sen jackets, cheongsam, sofas, bathtubs and women in various combinations."
--Liu Jianhua

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Liu Jianhua has been using all sorts of Chinese style apparel as a leitmotif in his work, from Sun Yat-Sen jackets and double-breasted suits to cheongsam, with Chinese male dress being the main symbolic element used in his cryptic, discordant series of compositions. Whether it is the Sun Yat-Sen jacket or the double-breasted suit, they appear as a certain kind of ideological symbol, and the underlying meaning of Liu's works also leans toward the contemplation of the ideology of his native land. The emergence of his style is closely linked to the trend toward conceptualism and symbolism by contemporary Chinese art in the 1980s, the influence of which can be seen in the discordant juxtaposition of symbols in Liu's work, which emphasizes the artist's interpretation and elaboration of cultural perspectives over the viewer's participatory experience. The appearance of the cheongsam in his compositions marks the beginning of a transition of his style from the figurative to the experimental. From the very beginning, "Obsessive Memories" is a coming together of the cheongsam and the female form, which on the one hand visually emphasizes the eroticism of milk-white thighs and pert breasts, but on the other hand deliberately overlooks the subject's details and instead uses incidental symbols such as the sofa or the bathtub to give an air of finality to the existence of that eroticism. More importantly, the decrease in size of Liu's compositions, which coincides with their adoption of the brightly-coloured cheongsam, also has the effect of turning the viewer's contemplation of the work into something akin to how he might consider a plaything, just as the absence of facial expressions of hand gestures deprives the audience of important means of passing judgement.

It is an awkward situation that we seem to have been led into: we cannot help but want to fondle the plaything, yet lack the cultural basis to justify our doing so.

Polychrome Ceramics

"I wasn't yet 15 when I went to work in a famous porcelain factory in Jingdezhen, where I learned the art of making ceramics and how to create sculptures of traditional figures. Later, I grew tired of it because I felt it wasn't really art. After 8 years of working there, I won a place at the academy to study sculpture. At the time, I took a particular interest in realism which I felt was real art, and I was certain that I could never go back to using the materials I had used in the past."

"The 1999 work 'Memories of Infatuation' marks a substantive change in terms of the material used, which is traditional Chinese porcelain, created with the most traditional methods of ceramic production."
--Liu Jianhua

Under the influence of the vigorous "New Wave Art" movement, Liu Jianhua, as an artist who graduated from the College of Ceramics in the 1980s, does indeed seem to have ample reason for abandoning the most traditional techniques of ceramic production, and this is precisely what he has done. In his early "Concealed" series, he expressed himself almost exclusively in the language of sculpture, from his choice of fibre glass laminate as material to the deliberately hand-sculpture, from his choice of fibre glass laminate as material to the deliberately hand-sculpted effect in every fold of clothes and flexing of muscle on his figures. With the series "Obsessive Memories", fibre glass production techniques and the difficulty of controlling the roughness of muscle texture began to conflict with the smooth elegance that Liu sought in his work, and as a result, he was compelled to return to the ceramic factory he had worked in for 8 years and resume working with a long-abandoned material. The production and colouring techniques of ceramics bestow these works with fast colour, vibrant tones and a smooth, lustrous surface; what has been abandoned is the idea of "sculptedness" that has been at the nucleus of Western modernist sculpture since Rodin.

A handicraft quality is gradually establishing itself in the vocabulary of Liu Jianhua's work.

Pastels and Blue Underglaze

"Two contexts are of particular importance: one is the ending of the cold war, and the other is the effect of post-colonial culture. To Westerners, post-colonial culture means the search for pluralism in cultural expression as a substitute for a Eurocentric cultural hegemony. As they would like to prove that as the leaders of global culture they have the ability to determine the direction for the world, they need to bring in cultures from outside the Eurocentic circle to make them part of their mixed platter of international art. Under these circumstances, it happens that at the moment China is playing the part of the spring roll on this international mixed platter."
-Li Xianting, "Should We Be the Spring Roll on the Mixed Platter of International Art?"

"Rebellious clothing and antiquated aesthetics have finally fallen in with one another. I know that it's a cunning ploy, seeking a bit of beneficence from one's ancestors in order to break new ground in the here and now! Some mingt say that to be a pioneer of the cutting-edge means swimming against the flow, but I'm no pioneer, and neither am I an actor on television. I don't have a reason, just insuppressible exuberance."
-Yan Jun, Zhoumo Huabao ("Weekend Pictorial")

If the appearance of cheongsam in "Obsessive Memories" may be said to be a bit dubious and an affront to the nationalistic among us then everything becomes even more overt in the 2000 series "Games", which serves up cheongsam-clad Oriental women reclining on Oriental porcelain. The idea that they are playthings to be fondled, already implicit in "obsessive Memories", is now made even more obvious and extreme, evoking a sense of rumination and luxurious enjoyment. More than anything, "Games" resembles a scrumptious dish prepared with Chinese culture as its recipe.

Who is the diner who will enjoy this meal? And who is the chef who prepared it?


"It is my hope that when people see my work, they will fell an inner rush and a sense of awakening."
--Liu Jianhua

Lacunae in visual imagery is an extension of the modes of modelling in Liu Jianhua's work. Since the earliest "Concealed "series, markers of human characteristics have been consistently absent throughout the artist's changes in material and symbols, an absence which may well persist into the future. Ultimately, we can detect in Liu's work the conflict between changes in tastes and changes in space and time, but what we cannot see are the individual entities which either produced these changes or were produced by them. This seems to be the perfect portrait of visual experience in contemporary society: just as flipping through fashionable magazines, we are exposed to endless bright and colourful images which we endlessly accept without retaining any memory of - and if there is any memory at all which is retained, it will merely be of the outer shell of commerce and culture.

The absence of the individual has the effect of making Liu's works resemble reality even more, in the form of a visual orgy more extreme than reality itself. In this visual orgy, all the doors of memory open only to material things and culture, while the existence and experience of the individual self are deliberately ignored.

Starting with the "Concealed" series, Liu Jianhua has been concerned with the oppressiveness of culture toward the individual, and has continually created symbols and conditions of discordance as means of revealing the existence of this oppressive power. With the use of a feminine symbol like the cheongsam in "Obsessive Memories", he began to place his work in an internationalized, globalised cultural context for our contemplation. Through the absence of the individual and the presence of eroticism, he fosters a ruminatory attitude on the part of the viewer toward the work which hints at the true relationship between the Western art world and the contemporary art of Third World countries. Assuming the guise of a cunning court jester, Liu pretends to do his best to conform, but all the while utilizes the constant shifts from sculpture to polychrome ceramics to handicraft to make the creator ( a Third World artist ) disappear into his creation( a Third World work of art). Ultimately, he has made the decision simply to serve up the depersonalised outer shell of cultural on pastel and blue underglaze porcelain, creating in the name of culture an exotic feast at which there are no individual entities - not even the artist himself in the form of an individual - but only the culture which is present, and nominalism of culture.

Strictly speaking, the exploitation of traditional resources by contemporary Chinese art at the beginning of the 1990s was not a logical outcome of its own development. Rather, it was a manifestation of colonialism - under the illusory blueprint of globalisation-on the cultures of Third World countries. Whatever the purpose post modernist theory has in mind in its advocating of diversity, the pursuit of diversity has in fact led to the creation of what might be called a "vulgar vision". To Euro-centrists, the interpretation of contemporary Chinese art involves the process of decoding Chinese symbolism, but to contemporary Chinese artist intent on seizing the opportunity, this very Chinese symbolism represents the only means by which they can internationalize their art. The significance of Liu Jianhua lies in the way in which he uses a playful approach to make profound revelations about the predicament confronting contemporary Chinese art, and poses questions regarding his own country's cultural development and Western culture's right of choice. Unlike many contemporary Chinese artist, the question he poses do not focus on party politics and the political system, but instead extend to the issue of the existence of individual entities and ties this in with Western culture's right of choice over matters such as diversity, pluralism and how art should be viewed.

In Liu Jianhua's art, we can hear a voice which hints to us that the only way in which we can shake off the sort of mentality that only understands Chinese culture through pigeonholing and views it with a sightseer's eye, as well as the opportunism existing at the core of contemporary art, is to approach it from a point of view that takes in persons and objects as individual entities. Perhaps this is the only way that contemporary Chinese art can be restored to Chinese society, and provide a worthwhile, dignified Chinese response to the cultural fate of Third World countries under the irreversible trend towards globalization.

Pi Li
13 January 2001 

Translated by Trevor Morris