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Details
Liu Wei (B. 1965)
Swimming
signed in Chinese and date '1994.7' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
151.1 x 200.7 cm. (59 1/2 x 79 in.)
Painted in 1994
Provenance
Hanart T Z Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Private Collection, Europe
Literature
Hanart T Z Gallery, Chinese Contemporary Art at Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, China, 1994 (illustrated, p. 64).
Lin Gallery, Liu Wei-A Solo Painter, Taipei, Taiwan. 2012 (illustrated, pp. 48-49 & 53).
Exhibited
Brazil, Sao Paulo, 22nd International Biennial of Sao Paulo: Chinese Exhibitions II - Wakefulness and the Weightless Present, 12 October - 11 December 1994.

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Lot Essay

Sex is a perpetually recurring theme in the history of art In prehistoric times sex was was considered a gift from God, and fertility worship is characteristic of the art of the era. In ancient Greece, nudity and genitals were symbols of power. A large number of paintings and sculptures were created in celebration of the sacredness of sex and reproductive function. During the Middle Ages, the abstinence promoted by Catholicism greatly influenced art. Depictions of sex and nudity were restricted during this period of repression, which became known as the Dark Ages. With the Renaissance, artists drew on the anthropomorphism of the ancient Greeks, ingeniously incorporating elements of sex and lust into their mythological and religious works. While sexual and erotic themes were contrary to Confucian moral standards and prohibited in mainstream oriental art, erotic pictures have been common since the Han Dynasty. Their own sexual desire led the literati to express passionate love in their art, turning the subject into an alternative kind of mainstream art.
With the arrival of Modernism and the development of modern philosophy and psychology, the themes of sex and lust in art were no longer merely an instinctive expression of human desire; they became more overtly expressed as part of the real world and prevailing social consciousness. In 1866, Gustave Courbet provocative depiction of the female genitals from a daring angle in 'The Origin of the World' (Fig. 2). Courbet, as a materialist, considered everything in the world to be made up of nothing but substances and that all phenomena are interactions of these substances. Since human life is conceived in and issues forth from women, their bodies are part of one of the natural processes of the world. Courbet's realistic depiction of genitals in 'The Origin of the World' derives from his belief in the material origin of the world and his desire to 'seek the objective origins of materials'. Though painted in an era when scientific development and the philosophy of materialism were thriving, this work was long considered a shocking desecration of art, and it was more than 120 years before it was finally publicly exhibited in 1988. Nowadays it is regarded as an epoch-marking work of art and one of the most important exhibits at the Mus?e d'Orsay in Paris.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorised that the sexual instinct is a kind of energy, the libido, which is the origin of the forces at work in the human psyche that drive behaviour. This instinct is bound by no moral values of right and wrong. Freud believed that artists, through their creative work, are releasing their suppressed desires. The first goal of artists, he said, was to set themselves free and then to create works that would help others release their suppressed desires and thereby become free. The eroticism in modern art is dramatically incarnated, for example, in Picasso's Minotaur (Fig. 5), the impulsive nudes of Schiller and in the gorgeous, sensual works of Gustav Klimt. These works are not only depictions of individuals' erotic experiences or fantasies, but also embodiments of human desire and the psychological condition of humanity.
The young Liu Wei created his Swimming series in 1994. Swimming (Lot 55) directly challenges the viewer with its graphic angle and depiction. The woman is only wearing lacy bra but without any underpants. Is this her choice or has she been forced to go half-naked? The water sensuously envelops her body as if trying to suck out her essence. Floating next to her in the water is a piece of paper bearing the image of a political leader who looks as if he could be swallowing the swimmer. The partial glimpse of a person's foot hints at another participant - or perhaps just a bystander, like the viewer?
This portrayal is different from the direct, serious gaze the figures in Jeff Koons' Made in Heaven turn on the viewer. Neither of the two faces in Swimming (Lot 55) looks at the viewer; the swimmer's gaze floats off towards the edge of the canvas, and the politician's eyes are closed. The expressions on their faces are surreal, in contradiction to the explicit depiction of the swimmer's genitals. Is this fantasy or reality?
The detailed, realistic genitals and the seemingly casual, but actually deliberately arranged, appearance of the politician are meant to confuse, surprise and disgust the viewer; to mock traditional aestheticism; to make fun of the suppression of feelings and desires under traditional moral values; and to ridicule Chinese politics. Juxtaposing the uncovered female genitals and the image of the political leader in the same space sends the message that nothing is sacred. Greatness and filthiness only differ in the attitude that existed in the past called lie.
With his father in the People's Liberation Army, Liu was profoundly influenced by the military in his formative years. In his early series 'Revolution Family', Liu presents the image of the military father in a teasing, even absurd way to vent his feelings about a social ideology of conflict and exclusion. Zhang Songren commented on the work that 'Liu exposes and deals with a traditionally sacred institution with what he himself called a "new desecration".' As Freud said, art reveals the artist's subconscious. Liu's strict family background, education and the moral repression he experienced during adolescence caused him to question society's values and are revealed in his 'Revolution Family' series. In Swimming, Liu reaches a further state of catharsis with a burst of emotional and physical impulses released in artistic form.
Born in 1965, Liu grew up during rapidly changing times. He went through a very suppressive 1970s as a child and as a young adult witnessed the extraordinary social and economic transformation in the 1980s. The attitudes and interests of Liu and his contemporaries differ from the '85 new wave' artists of the older generation. They value not the discussion of philosophy and history, nor in building a new value system to counter the emptiness of contemporary society, rather, the focus in on themselves, their own hopelessness and their own salvation. They ridicule themselves as being plain and mediocre, bored, living absurd lives. This new trend of rebelliousness in Modernism is a historic development, which transformed the art of the era.
When the paintings of the Swimming series were exhibited at the 24th San Paolo Biennale in 1994, they created a sensation. It was unprecedented for an artist in communist China to use sexual metaphor to express his thoughts on the Chinese political system. Liu was using a new way of thinking and a new visual language, creating a new chapter in Chinese contemporary art, launching Cynical Realism as a new art movement.
You like smoking?, painted in Liu's 'pink' period in the late 1990s, has sex and lust as its main themes. During this period, Liu no longer composed figurative portraits, turning to a more twisted method of abstract expression. He uses nervous strokes to shrink the figure's face, which has no hair and looks like a dissolving piece of meat. The female sexual organ is also twisted, as if ulcerating, and floats eerily in the lower-left. A lit cigarette points towards the genitalia, its smoke hovering in a ghostly pall. The eyes look dismissively at the genitals and refuse to look directly at the viewer. The smoking gesture evokes an arrogant attitude as if to say 'I am like this'.
The extensive use of pink deepens the eerie atmosphere; blistered lips and deformed fingers symbolise physical decay; dripping of the paint forms an ulcerated texture. This surreal expression reeks havoc to our senses. Strong brushstrokes omit details and then deepen and mix with violence. When we see this picture, we feel as if we are the abuser but have no way out of this. In the upper-right are written the words You like smoking?, which seem to imply that 'you and I are in the same boat'. We cannot help but be reminded of Francis Bacon's work; he also depicts loneliness, taboos, pessimism and enthusiasm in distorted gestures and abstract forms, to show social crisis and the human state of mind.
The 1990s was an important period of change for Liu. He began switching from using strong political icons to employing erotic elements to imply his political tendencies. He turned his focus from politics to humanity. Both Swimming and You like smoking? are outstanding works that use erotic elements to convey Liu's subjective feelings, one via Realism, the other via Abstract Expressionism.

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