Chinese Artist Liu Wei Uncovers Daring Themes In Thought-Provoking Artworks
Chinese artist Liu Wei has spent the past few months thinking about the future—and it looks bleak. “Everything in our lives is mediated by screens now,” he says, fittingly speaking over a video call from his studio in Beijing. “It was happening before, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic. The way we use our senses is changing. I think the body will disappear, eventually.” Hands will wither. Legs will shrink. Our brains will be plugged into a universal supercomputer. “It will be like The Matrix,” says Liu. “Then we will lose emotion; affection will disappear.”
He pauses, looks away from the camera. “Maybe our previous definition of love will disappear. But there will be something new, a new kind of affection.”
This U-turn from despair to optimism will not surprise anyone familiar with his work. For more than two decades, Liu, 48, has been examining the forces that shape and shake societies, then packaging his unnerving conclusions into thought-provoking and often beautiful artworks. His most famous paintings feature China’s vertiginous cities rendered in abstract strips of vivid colour.
Some critics suggest the bright hues evoke a sunset; others say they represent the suffocating, colour-warping pollution that blankets many Chinese towns. The duality is deliberate. “My art is never to provide answers,” Liu has previously said. “It’s rather to pose a question.”
Last year Liu puzzled plenty of gallery-goers at two major shows: his first retrospective in the US, jointly hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and May You Live in Interesting Times, the central show of the Venice Biennale, in which he exhibited two installations. This month, Liu is opening a major solo show at the Long Museum West Bund, the dramatic, sprawling, 355,000 sq ft complex opened by art patrons Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei on the bank of the Huangpu River in Shanghai.
“They have had a huge impact on the art scene in China,” says Liu, speaking through an interpreter. “And the Long Museum West Bund space makes me very excited.”
Nearly three months before the show, Liu was still working out how to fill the museum’s cavernous concrete halls, partly because this year has given him so much to think about. “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was thinking of a classic presentation of previous works or a show of just paintings,” he says. “But this is an extraordinary situation. Now, I don’t know if the old way of showing art works anymore, or if we need to rebuild the whole thing.”
For the first time in years, Liu is not working in painting, sculpture or installation, but experimenting with performance art. “I’ve made very few performance works because performances [only last for a short time], then always have to be captured on video,” says Liu. “In the past, that cancelled the significance of the performance on its own. But now that video surrounds us all the time, the video has been dragged to the same level as a performance—they’re both reality, they have become one.”
Art And Technology
Liu is also exploring ways to incorporate screens themselves into his art; he is interested in them both as objects and for the software they hold. “All these technologies like facial recognition, making data of our lives, having everything stored as data, it is worth thinking about. Technology has developed at a really fast speed—thinking hasn’t had time to catch up.”
Thinking, rather than making, takes up a significant chunk of Liu’s time. “I normally stay at home to think during the morning, then come to the studio to work in the afternoon,” he says. “The studio is also about half an hour away by car; I also use that time to think.”
Even in his studio, Liu is not always hands-on: he has a team of roughly 20 assistants who help turn his ideas into reality. Many of his installations, measuring several metres long and weighing hundreds of kilograms, require huge amounts of manpower. Some are made of found objects, such as the recent New World, an assemblage of washing machines, refrigerators and other appliances discovered on the streets of the Chinese capital.
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Technology has developed at a really fast speed—thinking hasn’t had time to catch up
— Liu Wei
The detritus of cities has long interested Liu, who has lived through China’s rapid transformation from a closed-off and primarily agricultural society to an industrialised global superpower. Born in Beijing in 1972 to a family of doctors while Mao still ruled, Liu began drawing as a child to entertain himself while his brothers were in school. At the age of 15, he left home to attend the prestigious National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, where a lecture on Andy Warhol changed the course of his life. “I suddenly realised that art was not simply a matter of drawing as realistically as possible,” he has said.
In Liu’s lifetime, the population of Beijing has mushroomed from just under five million to more than 20 million. When he was a child, the tallest building in the Chinese capital was 12 storeys; today, the title is held by the 109-storey-tall China Zun tower. This rampant urbanisation is not just a historic event for Liu to ponder, but something that continues to define the present: in 2017, he and his team had to vacate his studio of more than a decade when the whole neighbourhood was earmarked for demolition and redevelopment.
“The images Liu creates in his paintings, as well as the material textures he marshals in his sculptures and installations, are reacting to and inspired by his experience of living for decades in an urban landscape that is at once evolving and upgrading itself, but also devouring everything that lies around it,” says Philip Tinari, director and chief executive of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, who has written extensively about Liu’s work and, in 2015, curated a show of his art at UCCA. “At its core, Liu Wei’s art is about the visual logic of the Chinese city.”
One of Liu’s series, Density, features metres-tall pyramids, spheres and cubes made from compressed books. Density 1, a 2.5-metre-tall sphere, alone weighs 1.5 tonnes. On one level the works explore how everyday objects can become something extraordinary, and how what is light can become heavy. On another, these sculptures can be read as comments on the development of cities and how layers of urban life accumulate over time. More explicitly, Liu has also carved piles of books into teetering cityscapes that look like they have been torn apart by war or a natural disaster. Even the most seemingly solid objects, Liu seems to say, can collapse. The latter pieces were shown in New York in 2015 at Lehmann Maupin gallery, which has worked with Liu for close to a decade.
Western cities have not escaped Liu’s criticism. At his retrospective in Cleveland, he showed Love It! Bite It!, a series of sculptures of famous buildings made out of dog treats. The Colosseum, the Pentagon and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum were a few of the architectural icons rendered in ox hide and pigskin, which sagged and splintered under their own weight. These symbols of power are presented as, well, a dog’s dinner.
“Liu’s sense of humour derives from the daily absurdities of the city and system he lives in and under,” says Tinari. “I think it belies a kind of knowing resignation. He embraces his, and our, ultimate helplessness in the face of epochal change, but still manages to make his critique clear to those who know how to look closely.”
Art can question technology, can question what is beautiful, can question what is good
— Liu Wei
Recently Liu has begun making installations that do not refer directly to either Chinese or western locations specifically, but explore the representation of landscapes in art much more broadly. Sculpted from shimmering sheets of aluminium, these works feature curvy, abstract shapes stacked on top of each other, hinting at mountain ranges and other natural forms. In Microworld, which was exhibited at last year’s Venice Biennale, Liu seemed to give viewers something to grasp onto by painting one floating sphere cherry-red, like a fiery sun, and colouring one cuboid block on the floor dark green, which might allude to grass and trees. But the work’s title suggests an entirely different reading: that this is a representation of particles such as atoms and cells magnified on a grand scale. To Liu, it is as much an exploration of the microscopic landscapes within our bodies as it is a depiction of rolling hills or lush forests.
There is another disjunction in Microworld: it is a representation of organic forms, but one made of metal that has been cut and shaped by machines. Much of Liu’s work questions our reliance on technology, but he is himself dependent on it to make his most ambitious pieces. “As an artist, it’s important that I think about technology, take the good parts and make something out of it,” he says. “We can’t stop the development of technology; we have to adjust in response to it and keep thinking about how we can use it. Art can question technology, can question what is beautiful, can question what is good about our daily lives.”
Liu Wei’s exhibition opens on November 11 at the Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai