Presence of Matter and Absence of Personality
Since the beginning of the 1990s, Liu Jianhua has used all kinds of Chinese-style apparel as a leitmotif in his work, from Sun Yat-Sen jackets and double-breasted suits to cheongsam. The Chinese male style of dress was made the main symbolic element of the series titled “Concealed and Discordant”. Both the Sun Yat-Sen jacket or the double-breasted suit appear as the embodiment of an ideological symbol: the implications for these symbols in Liu's works is a 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 artists in the 1980s. The influence of this 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 marked the beginning of a transition in style from figurative to experimental. From the beginning, "Obsessive Memories" brought together the cheongsam and the female form, which on one hand visually emphasizes the eroticism of milk-white thighs and pert breasts but, on the other, deliberately overlooked the specific details of the subject. Instead, we find incidental symbols such as the sofa or the bathtub that impart an air of finality to the existence of that eroticism. More importantly, the decrease in size of Liu's works, 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 they might regard a plaything. The absence of facial expressions and of hand gestures deprives the audience of a basis and direction of judgment. It is trapped in a dilemma: the viewer cannot help but consider the object as a plaything, without any cultural implication for this.
Under the influence of the vigorous "New Wave Art" movement, Liu Jianhua, who graduated from the College of Ceramics in the 1980s, seems to have ample reason for abandoning the traditional techniques of ceramic production. This is precisely what he has done. In his early "Cryptic" series, from his choice of fibreglass as material to the deliberately hand-sculpted effect in every fold of clothes and flexing of muscle of the figures, he expressed himself almost exclusively in the language of sculpture. With the series "Obsessive Memories", the use of fibreglass and the difficulty of controlling the texture began to conflict with the smooth elegance that Liu sought in his work. As a result, he was compelled to return to the ceramic factory where he had worked for eight years and resume working with clay.
The production and glazing techniques of ceramics bestow these works with permanent colour, vibrant tones and a smooth, lustrous surface. He has abandoned the idea of "sculpted" form that has been at the nucleus of western modernist sculpture since Rodin. Thus, Liu Jianhua’s works gradually established their own technical language.
If the appearance of the cheongsam in "Obsessive Memories" can be said to be dubious or an affront to nationalistic Chinese, it becomes nothing less that overt in the 2000 series "Play", in which lacunae in visual imagery is a main content of the modelling. Since the earliest "Concealed" series, the markers of human characteristics have been consistently absent through the artist's switch in material and symbols, an absence which may persist. Ultimately, we can detect in Liu's work the conflict between taste and changes in space and time, but what we cannot see are the individual entities that initiated the changes or were the result of them. They seem to be the perfect portrait of visual experience in contemporary society, just as by flipping through cool magazines, we are exposed to endless bright and colourful images that we see without retaining in memory. 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 makes Liu's works more like a visual orgy that is more extreme than reality itself. In this visual orgy all the doors of memory open to material things and culture, while the existence and experience of the individual are deliberately ignored.
Cheongsam-clad Oriental women are “served” in various poses on Oriental porcelain platters. 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, "Play" resembles a scrumptious dish prepared from a recipe, the ingredients of which are "Chinese culture". Who is the diner who will enjoy this meal? And who is the chef who prepared it?
This reminds us of the “spring roll” theory of well-known curator Li Xianting:
"Two contexts are of particular importance: one is the end 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. Where 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 banquet table."
- Li Xianting, "Should We Be the Spring Roll on the Mixed Platter of International Art?"
Beginning from the "Concealed" series, Liu Jianhua has been concerned with the oppressiveness of culture toward the individual, and has continually created a discord between symbols as means of revealing the existence of this oppressive power in culture. With the use of a feminine symbol like the cheongsam in "Obsessive Memories", he began to contemplate his work in an internationalized, globalised cultural context. Through the absence of the individual and the presence of eroticism, he fosters a ruminative 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 multi-colour glazed ceramic object to make the creator (a Third World artist) disappear from art (Third World art). Ultimately, he serves up the de-personalized outer shell of cultural on “blue and white" and "famille rose" porcelain, creating in the name of culture an exotic feast at which there are no individual entities - not even the artist himself as an individual - but only "culture" and the nominalism of culture.
Whatever his original intentions are, however, the popularity of these works goes beyond his expectation. Viewers and collectors are fascinated by the brilliant colors and Oriental symbols. With the constant production and sale of these works, and with the international world's “fascination” with exoticism, the irony in these works is obscured and even disappears. The domestic critical circle has remained silent about these works, a special kind of silence. What exactly has made them keep silent in such an identical way? One art critic has sarcastically described the dilemma of contemporary Chinese art:
The condescension of famous western curators is a “sign of hope” to some Chinese artists. Stories of love and hatred between western bulls and Chinese cows are still being told. The cow in favor sings the praises of “globalization”, while the cow out of favor unfurls a banner against western cultural hegemony and joins existing cultural ranks. When another group of western art curators comes, both the former and the latter will be seen in the long queue waiting for audience with the “prophets”. This is jokingly called “seeing a doctor” in the art community in Beijing. When receiving a letter of invitation, both “God’s favored sons” and warriors against imperialism will excitedly rush to the West, which is jokingly called “singing at a home celebration” in the art community in Beijing. In international art exhibitions, Chinese art is regarded as “the spring roll in the Western banquet” enjoyed by westerners and produced by none but the Chinese themselves. The supply-demand relation has formed this relatively stable professional production line. China is one of the places of origin of some ordinary “material consumer goods” and “spiritual consumer goods” in Europe and America.
--Yin Jinan, “A Distorted Map of Contemporary Chinese Art”
Strictly speaking, the exploitation of traditional resources in 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 of post-modernist theory and the advocating of diversity it extols, 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. Liu Jianhua’s art strategy was established against this background which is also the reason of its dilemma.
The situation Yin Jinan describes actually reveals that the so-called advocacy of globalization and nationalist clamor are in nature cultural utilitarianism and ingratiation. Such clamors conceal a discussion of and deep probing into many issues. It was against this background that Liu Jianhua finished “Daily/ Fragments”. These works are replicas of articles for daily use, made of traditional white porcelain. The choice of the objects is random and accidental. The only thing in common among them – which is also the biggest distinction between these works and the previous works of the artist – is that they are based on objects for daily use. If Liu Jianhua produced and used symbols in the past, then he has latterly abandoned the practice of abstracting symbols from objects, and instead freely uses the objects themselves.
As the objects are from everyday life, they have not been over transformed, and more than anything carry a linguistic function. Each object is a “word”. These unrelated words, though arranged in the same space of exhibition, lack the possibility of presenting a discourse, because the original context between these unrelated objects has been removed, and there are a lot of gaps between different words and different objects. But none of those block the creation of discourse; on the contrary, viewers from different cultural backgrounds will create their own imaginary or realistic interpretations according to their different life and cultural experience. As an artist, Liu Jianhua has “yielded” all his right of discourse to the viewer; he himself apparently free of any responsibility. Therefore he has the right to ask: Why does such a discourse occur? Or under what conditions does a discourse occur?
In these works, the person, or the subject, is absent as before. This is an inherent relation between these works and the previous ones. What makes these works different from the previous ones is that this time the artist seems to have gone further. Traditional sculpture divides the spatial language of sculpture into positive and negative spaces. Positive space is that the work takes, and negative space is that the work leaves. Now Liu Jianhua focuses more effort on enclosing and using negative space instead of on creating and transmitting positive space. It is not “being” but “non-being”—including the “non-being” of the artist himself – that the artist tries to construct. The meaning of these works lies in their unrelatedness, which gives the viewer the right to make free associations between them. It is the process of constant tearing (from the original context of the objects) and associating (freely by the viewer) that provides these works an unusual meaning. Therefore, the spaces of these works start to open to rich possibilities. Perhaps using ambiguity multiple meanings enables the artist to avoid the previous dilemma, which lay in the dichotomy of methodology: the artist has things to express, and the meaning of his or her work is based on the audience’s comprehension of the artist’s expression, otherwise the meaning cannot be established. Now the artist compels the audience to express, to ask questions to each other and communicate with each other. Perhaps it is this communication that will produce much richer meaning than that the artist intended to express. The communication will surely give rise to a kind of “daily-politics”, from the angle of which we will find that the so-called daily discourse is “fragile” or already fragments, not to speak of those grand discourses.
Compared with his earlier works, these works of Liu Jianhua extend a line of thinking from politics to culture and to experience from the angle of everyday life. Unlike many contemporary Chinese artists, he no longer directs his questions to party politics or the political system, but extends his sight to the issue of individual existence, and combines it with the western right of cultural choice and such issues as diversity, pluralism and viewing. In Liu Jianhua’s art, we hear a voice that hints to us that only by studying issues of Chinese culture from an individual angle can we break down the stereotypic view of Chinese culture, novelty-seeking vision and opportunist mentality within contemporary art. Here the most effective method is analysis of “everyday life”.