There is no such thing as ‘new work’, insists Beijing- based artist Liu Wei. ‘The moment a work has been completed, it ceases to be new.’ Philosophically, and in his astonishingly varied practice, Liu Wei is hard to pin down. A leading figure in China’s post-Cultural Revolution art establishment, he has consistently stolen a march on the avant-garde.
Born in 1972, Liu came of age as the tanks rolled in on Tiananmen Square, and his work since has provided an urgent, often ironic commentary on China’s rapidly changing society.
His 1999 video installation Hard to Restrain showed naked humans scuttling like insects under a spotlight. It Looks Like a Landscape (2004) took a pop at traditional Chinese scroll painting, with its serene mountain range of beautifully photographed buttocks. Indigestion II (2004), a giant sculpture of human faeces teeming with larval soldiers, made clear the artist’s strong ideas on militarism, while Love it! Bite it! (2005–07) offered an allegory of consumer culture in the form of a city of monuments constructed from dog chews.
Neither this overtly subversive stance nor more recent reflections on urbanism, such as his Purple Air grid-paintings, appeared to pave the way for Liu’s solo White Cube show at Frieze London 2018, in which Outdoor and Silence, two complementary series of abstract oil paintings, were offered alongside a group of abstract sculptures entitled Microworld.
The effect was richly contemplative, an almost platonic vision of pure form as far removed as it is possible to be from Liu’s politically explicit oeuvre to date. For the artist, however, they represented a deepening of his earlier ideas.
‘All artistic creation is a continuum,’ he points out. ‘I’m continuing with previous themes, but using a new way to express them. As an artist, however, I cannot merely articulate things as they are. This work is my way of developing my understanding, of combining reality and knowledge.’
Liu’s latest work has exceptional drawing power (most of the pieces presented by White Cube sold out on the first day of Frieze, for sums between £90,000 and £450,000). If there are traces of shan sui, the traditional Chinese ‘mountains and water’ genre in the Outdoor series, the artist goes several steps beyond to a place of elemental energies; there is seismic power in his ferrous reds, magnetic blue-blacks and sulphur ashes.
The Silence paintings seem to draw on the tradition of the peach garden — enlightenment through nature — but enlightenment for Liu appears not to be an easy state, but rather a piercing vision to the heart of existence. Similarly, the Microworld sculptures, with their molecular/amoebic forms infinitely reflected in mirrored plinths, suggest no end to the ‘knowability’ of matter.
In creating the works, Liu was influenced by the philosophy of Bruno Latour, in particular Latour’s investigations into the relationships between humans and nature. Their discrete, abstract forms are an attempt to portray not just these relationships, but also the ‘loneliness between the silent things,’ he explains: ‘Trees, skies, people — these all have their independent existence in the world. There is a sort of relationship between them, but this is not a relationship that can be visualised, or expressed figuratively. These are landscapes of the mind only.’
In the past, Liu has used digital technology and teams of assistants to create his artworks and installations. Finding himself back in front of a blank canvas, brush in hand, has enabled him to work in the moment, and from instinct, but his ‘back-to-basics development’ is also a rejection of the status quo in the Chinese and global art market.
‘Digital technology has made a very big difference in the way art is created and transmitted,’ he says. ‘With the development of social media, it may seem like everyone now has freedom of expression. And yes, artists have an unprecedented opportunity to present their work — they can put a lot of pictures on the internet — but the truth, from my perspective, is that the digital world places limitations on artists because they can only express themselves through social media. If you live your life in the same way as others, you will lose your unique way of thinking. And in the end there is no art, only style.’
Art, by contrast, ‘always starts with a question,’ he says. ‘It’s about asking: What is art’s function? How should we present it? I may not find answers, but that’s OK.’
Liu Wei is one of 79 artists participating in the Venice Biennale’s central show, May You Live in Interesting Times, 11 May–24 November