From the era of feudal monarchy to the present day republic, Tiananmen Square has always been a symbol of authority. It bore witness to wave after wave of political movements that challenged the status quo, and has been inextricably linked to the critical moments in China's recent history. This deep cultural lineage and historical association has made Tiananmen Square a significant subject matter for Chinese contemporary art. Art historian Wu Hung pointed out that after 1993, the emergence of photography and performance art broke new ground for different expressions of the Tiananmen Square to be realized. Such forms of expressions can be summarised into three categories: rationalising and objectifying Tiananmen Square, positioning Tiananmen Square in the contemporary context as associated with the artist's personal experience, and finally, stripping away the political agenda from Tiananmen Square.
POWER BEHIND THE ARCHITECTURE
Compared to other works on the same subject matter, Liu Wei's Tiananmen (Lot 55) appears dispassionate and detached. It does not carry the same dramatic narrative or intense social criticism as other works by the artist’s contemporaries, nor does it emphasises the towering walls, portrait of Mao Zedong, or the enormous banners bearing slogans of the Party. The gaze of the viewer begins at the street lamps in the foreground on the right, and then progresses across Chang'an Avenue finally to discover Tiananmen on the left. The composition gives this painting the framing of a candid camera shot. The sense of significance Tiananmen bestows upon this quotidian scene with its geometric composition is reminiscent of American Pop artist Edward Ruscha's Standard Station (Fig. 1). The majestic walls and square of Tiananmen are cropped from the painting. In this monumental painting, mass production in contemporary society has replaced political architecture as the protagonist. The irony in this work redefines the values of the society simply by shifting its perspective.
In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The most powerful human beings have always inspired architects; the architect has always been under the spell of power. His buildings are supposed to render pride visible, and the victory over gravity. Architecture is a kind of eloquence of power in form.” However, the metaphor for the ruler's power must be acknowledged in the collective understanding of the public in order for it to be made apparent. Jasper Johns represented the American flag in the format of a painting (Fig. 2), detaching this symbol of authority from its original context. In turn, his treatment of this object dissolves the traditional meaning with which it is associated. When the artist deliberately manipulates Tiananmen Square as merely a component of the landscape, the ambition and lust for power that Nietzsche spoke of can no longer establish itself within the painting. By visually changing the perspective on this symbol of power, Liu Wei prompts the viewer to rethink how structures and systems are formed – he emphasises the individual's power to determine the value and legitimacy of the system. Similar displacement of perspective was also employed in Liu Wei's Love it, Bite it (Fig. 3). The artist used dog chews to knit together important political buildings from around the world. This work associates the human desire for power with the primitive instincts of an animal.
Urban planning is an integral part of modern society, and as a result, the idea of public space was born; the square is a part of this concept. The word “public” seems to suggest that citizens can freely use this space, but in fact, these seemingly open spaces are often policed by government agencies. Inspired by the conflict between graffiti artists and the government, American artist Sterling Ruby created largescale paintings with spray paint (Fig. 4). The artist repeatedly painted over the original surface with geometric shapes-an intervention echoing the way in which governmental agencies paint over graffiti. Art critic Gao Shiming draws parallel between the horizontal lines that traverse the entire width of Liu Wei's painting with the graphic glitches you see on computer when it malfunctions. Gao describes this phenomenon as “a state of deficiency”. In their works, both Liu and Ruby consciously make apparent the battle between construction and deconstruction in order to reveal the invisible violence in our everyday lives that is inherent to the system.
CONTEMPLATING THE REAL WITH THE VIRTUAL
The idea of ‘vision’ is an overarching principle in Liu Wei's oeuvre. He opines that art cannot solely be expressed as concepts, but rather needs to converge with visual elements that resonate with the sensibilities of the viewers. Tiananmen is a rare example of representational work from his Purple Air series. Although the subject matter is an iconic landmark taken from real life, the visual effect of computer graphic glitches mesmerises the viewer in its power to transform an ordinary scene into something that is uncanny. Within the visual realm of Liu Wei, all doctrines are revoked. This allows the viewers to arbitrarily accept or interpret the imagery in front of them. Liu Wei questions this so-called “reality” as perceived by the naked eye. What he seeks is the underlying principle that governs the universe. He proclaimed, “I am concerned with a reality that is deeper, hidden-a more concealed reality. This includes the reality that I have constructed myself.” Tiananmen oscillates between the real and the virtual and thus, it’s strong visual vocabulary broadens our scope.
Tiananmen thoroughly demonstrates the Liu Wei’s confidence as a mature artist. By using his highly-stylised visual language, he reinterprets this landmark. By interrogating the universal subject of authority, he also guides the viewers to consider the fundamental question of reality, yet he does not attempt to provide the viewer with an ultimate solution, instead advocating that “the most important aspect of art is freedom- the freedom to observe, interpret, and comprehend.”