Liu Ding – Painting as Archive

Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Oil on canvas, 230 x 280 cm, 2016 The painting depicts the backs of two middle-aged man and woman Both naked and slowly receding into the far horizon. It seems they Are faced with the endless hurdles ahead of them.
Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View
Liu Ding, Message (details), painting installation, dimension variable, 2016
Liu Ding, Talks of Ten Figures, video installations, ten-channel video, 2016
In Talks of Ten Figures, ten short texts about art run like “bullet subtitles” (comments inserted by viewers across films and TV series) across ten screens. These paragraphs that are like celebrity quotations consist of excerpts, as well as rephrased and rewritten texts put together based on a close study of the discourses and tones regularly found in historical cultural narratives. Similar to 1999, a sound installation presented in the Shanghai Biennale in 2014, this work reveals a collective narrative in history through anonymous commentaries.
Liu Ding, Apolitical Figures series (details), acrylic on canvas, 70 x 55 cm each, 2016
Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View
Liu Ding, 1988 Language as Issue, oil painting on the canvas, brass sticks, documents, dimension variable, 2016
Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View
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ART Power HK

Liu Ding must be one of the most theoretically-driven painters working in China today. Working with his partner Carol Yinghua Lu, his work seems to summarize the state of his research into Chinese pasts — ideological, aesthetic, and representational. This work was on display on a recent show《Li Jianguo Born in 1952》 at Shanghai’s Antenna Space, where an extremely powerful set of references didn’t quite cohere into an easily explicable show, but was nonetheless one of the more provocative gallery openings of the season.


TEXT : Jacob Dreyer
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Installation, painting, photography — Liu’s work spans formats, and is unified by the central position that text and research occupies in all of it, as well as an engagement with transformations within China and even more particularly, Beijing, in recent decades. Intriguingly, virtually all of Liu’s work includes texts of some kind, whether they are photographs or paintings which feature propaganda banners, snippets and Rauschenberg-style collages of collated texts, or hidden within the pieces like hieroglyphs, such as his painting of clouds (reminiscent of Bulatov’s Caution) which has the message《所有的艺术家希望你有健康的身体》hidden within clouds — itself an allusion. Liu writes art history as well as participating in it, and the melange of references made reading his works a dense and complex process. COBO interviewed the artist to understand his process, the theoretical foundations of his work, and more — thanks to Carol for her translation of the artist’s replies.

Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View
Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View

What is the relationship of Socialist Realist practice and time’s passage?Your work in previous exhibitions has sometimes seemed rather nostalgic; the Li Jianguo show, evoking with its title as it does the passage of time and anonymity within a changing society. In this respect, although your work does engage with the forms of socialist realism, it seems rather at odds with the future-oriented platform of socialist realist practice; if within Mao’s notion of art expressed in the Yan’an talks, the artist should imagine a world of the future on behalf of the common people, your work often seems to rather document the passing of time in an elegiac and private manner. What’s the significance of nostalgia in your practice, particularly vis-a-vis ideologies which remain immanent as possibility and materiality? 

Since the term “socialist realism” came into being in the artistic and cultural discourse, it has been through many transformations during varied periods of history and historical atmosphere. Since the mid and late 1970s, members of the art field have carried out artistic innovations with an anti-socialist realism gesture. The most direct consequence of such a gesture is that viewers that emerge after that period and some of the participants from that period consider such an antagonistic gesture as a default format when they judge art made after the Cultural Revolution. Such a default format has led to oversimplified pre-assumptions with which one perceives the connectivity between history and the present. Such oversimplified assumptions prevents close and precise analysis of details in the development of contemporary art.

Based on the tone of the works in this exhibition and the narrative structure of the exhibition, I would rather use “serious and pessimistic” to describe my attitude. I try to sketch the complex ideological characteristics and historical structure that shape and define the generation of Chinese born after the Founding of new China, as well as the following generations, by telling a series of “anecdotes” and through the name of “Li Jianguo”.

Liu Ding, Message (details), painting installation, dimension variable, 2016
Liu Ding, Message (details), painting installation, dimension variable, 2016

As a post-70s artist, how does your work differentiate from artists of older generations, some of whom you documented in the “New Man’ show in 2015, who were submerged within the social conditions that accompanied socialist realist practice? How does your work situate itself vis-a-vis these art histories — are they archive for you, subject matter? Your work has repeatedly interrogated the formation of subjectivity in post-1949 China, as in this new show as well. What is unique about your generation’s approach to Chinese social realities? Is your interest in socialist realism nostalgia for what has been lost, or for what you have never truly known — a school of art from the past, or an archive offering possibilities to the present?

In my view, after the Yan’an Forum, the intellectual logic emerged alongside the formation of “socialist realism” has never really disappeared throughout the reality under the ruling of the Communist Party. Especially since the mid and late 1950s, “socialist realism” evolved into an important component of the formation of cultural subjectivity, the logic of socialist realism was no longer just about the techniques in paintings and in writing. It has been dispersed and internalized into habitual gestures in everyday life. In China, the period from the mid and late 1950s till the end of the Cultural Revolution was a process of speeded up and closed-up construction of subjectivity. Too many customary perspectives acquired through this process are indismissable for us in the present. Our generation and the next generation of artists still place too much emphasis on pragmatism and have oversimplified conviction of the power of liberal economy. One either places too much hope on the power of capital to enable the possibility of participating in a dialogue with the world, or closes the door to become an extreme nationalist. These extreme positions negate the possibility for an open and independent spirit towards idea and thinking.

I always think that history could be an archive to reveal the possibility for the present, but at the same time, many archives are not reliable ones. I make efforts to explore and describe in depth the intellectual textures of these histories, hoping that they can be of some assistance to art in the future.

Liu Ding, Talks of Ten Figures, video installations, ten-channel video, 2016 In Talks of Ten Figures, ten short texts about art run like “bullet subtitles” (comments inserted by viewers across films and TV series) across ten screens. These paragraphs that are like celebrity quotations consist of excerpts, as well as rephrased and rewritten texts put together based on a close study of the discourses and tones regularly found in historical cultural narratives. Similar to 1999, a sound installation presented in the Shanghai Biennale in 2014, this work reveals a collective narrative in history through anonymous commentaries.
Liu Ding, Talks of Ten Figures, video installations, ten-channel video, 2016
In Talks of Ten Figures, ten short texts about art run like “bullet subtitles” (comments inserted by viewers across films and TV series) across ten screens. These paragraphs that are like celebrity quotations consist of excerpts, as well as rephrased and rewritten texts put together based on a close study of the discourses and tones regularly found in historical cultural narratives. Similar to 1999, a sound installation presented in the Shanghai Biennale in 2014, this work reveals a collective narrative in history through anonymous commentaries.

Is the contemporary subject (e.g. Li Jianguo/yourself) one that defines himself in terms of the others — e.g. collectively? What led you, in “New Man” and this new show to show images and motifs of individuals, rather than collectives?

When we look back upon the history after the founding of new China, “collectivity” has been the dominant feature of the protagonists in all kinds of narratives. The interaction between the individual and the collective is the subject that I am interested in the most. Only when we study collectivity from a microscopic perspective, we are then able to give a vivid account of the collective.

Is critique of the art market, a market which enables the proliferation of forms of representation by funneling resources towards art, Marxist? How does an artist like yourself situate yourself vis-a-vis art historians, the art market, and the institution? 

In the current cultural conditions where the power of “marketability” is so much imbedded in everything, it is hard to use the term “critical” to address certain issues.” The “critical” posture is constantly being weakened. I would rather borrow the term “empirical study” to reflect on this reality. As to my own situation, I always prioritize practice and believes in the potential and necessity of self-practice at all time.

Liu Ding, Apolitical Figures series (details), acrylic on canvas, 70 x 55 cm each, 2016
Liu Ding, Apolitical Figures series (details), acrylic on canvas, 70 x 55 cm each, 2016

What is the role of text in the presentation of visual art — or is it even logical to differentiate art forms by the mode with which they are expressed? To what extent do writers whose subject is late socialist subjectivity, such as Wang Shuo or Victor Pelevin, engage in parallel commentaries to the ones present in your own work? The same question vis-a-vis art historians, whether that be your partner Carol Yinghua Lu, Boris Groys, or others with whom your work has engaged — what differentiates the archive-driven artist and the art historian?

For me, to incorporate texts and writing in my work is a very natural thing, just as both images and lines are present simultaneously in films and theatre. In my works, Chinese characters tend to play multiple roles. Especially as I am conceiving of the composition of an exhibition, I give a lot of thoughts towards what kind of forms and to what effect I can present Chinese characters. In my practice, I consider the use of archives as a medium or as materials no more than a channel. I am not obsessed with archive itself. Archives are numerous in history, yet to look among numerous materials for the very archive that can shake up the present and the future is where my real interest lies. In your question, you mentioned late socialist subject, the 1980s and 1990s in China could be seen with certain late socialist symptoms, but today the situation seems to have changed. For now, globalized liberal economy has hit a bottleneck, terrorism spreads all over the world, global conservatism is rampant and iron-fisted politicians are in power in China. Under these new circumstances, there is a lot of room to explore in terms of how to re-define the current situation in China.

Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View
Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View

Relatedly, what is the role of theory in art — democratic or undemocratic? What do you make of less clearly theory driven work that nonetheless alludes to the same historical trajectories as your own, for example the painting of Liu Xiaodong? Moreover, how does living in Beijing — itself a vast physical archive of socialist architectures, socialist subjectivities, etc. — impact your work (particularly in that many other researchers and art historians, such as Groys or perhaps even French Philosopher Alain Badiou, choose to live in capitalist Western cities)? 

Beijing is a city that easily offers political illusion. Few places in this city would provide the gentle atmosphere of the petit-bourgeois lifestyle. This city sculpts a kind of hardness out of people. This hardness has a certain impact on my practice. The term “theory” is merely the perception of the researcher. It can hardly contend with political and historical will. Theory is usually imbedded in politics and history. Especially in China, theory is utilized. Chinese “socialist realism” is the product of political history and everyone can hardly break away from it whether one chooses to confront with it or not. Liu Xiaodong’s work as you mentioned is one of the perspectives grown out of the academies in the atmosphere of the grand discussion surrounding the topic of “purifying language” in 1988.

Liu Ding, 1988 Language as Issue, oil painting on the canvas, brass sticks, documents, dimension variable, 2016
Liu Ding, 1988 Language as Issue, oil painting on the canvas, brass sticks, documents, dimension variable, 2016

Lastly, Groys has described the socialist subjectivity within Heidegger’s term ‘the community of fate,’ a group whose trajectory, for better or worse, was historically linked. What defines Chinese socialist realism and your own practice as Chinese- or indeed, Chineseness as a motif within globalized art practice itself? Is it of significance to say that an artist is Chinese, or is this just a detail? Persons such as Qi Baishi, for example, clearly engage in a geographically and culturally specific context. This is less obviously the case within the socialist tradition, one that defined itself as international and universal. So, can we talk about Chinese artists, or is “Chinese” as a frame irrelevant?

The fact that socialist realism is directly linked to China when discussed in a globalized context is an over-simplification. Chinese modernism has certain closeness and peculiarity. The dynamic texture internal of this process requires more people to study. My interest has always been to look closely at the recent and modern history of China and to contribute my observations as relevant value references for the discussion of global culture through thorough exploration from an artist’s perspective. On one hand, we need to acknowledge the larger reality of a “community of shared destination,” on the other hand, I do think that individual narratives of microscopic politics could provide valuable insights towards the present and the future of the intellectual development in China.


About Liu Ding

Liu Ding was born in Changzhou, Jiangsu province in 1976. He’s now based in Beijing and is both an artist and a curator. His work has been shown at a number of art institutions including the Tate Modern, Turner Contemporary, both London, UK; Arnolfini – Contemporary Arts Center, Bristol, UK; the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria; the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo, Norway; the São Paulo Muse­um of Art, São Paulo, Brazil; the ZKM, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe (ZKM), Germany; the Centre PasquArt, Biel, Switzerland; the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy; the Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul, South Korea; the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco, USA; the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, USA; the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China; the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai, China; and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, China. He took part in the 2012 Taipei Biennial, the exhibition at the Chinese Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennial, the 2008 Seoul International Media Art Biennale, and the 2005 Guangzhou Triennial. With Carol Yinghua Lu, he exhibit­ed Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art in September 2011 at OCT Contemporary Art Termi­nal, Shenzhen, China. In 2013, the work went on tour and was exhibited at MUSEION in Bolzano, Italy. In 2012, Liu Ding served as a curator of the Seventh Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale – Accidental Message: Art is not a System, not a World. Works which he has written and published include Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary Art (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2011), Little Movements II: Self-practice in Contemporary Art (Walther König, 2013), Accidental Message: Art is not a System, not a World (Lingnan Art Publishing House, 2012), and Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000 (Lingnan Art Publishing House, 2013).

Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View
Liu Ding, Li Jianguo Born in 1952, 2016, Antenna Space, Shanghai. Installation View

 

LIU DING
Li Jianguo Born in 1952
03.18 – 04.25.2016
Antenna Space, Shanghai, China

 


Jacob Dreyer is a Shanghai-based writer and editor. Recently, he has edited a special issue of LEAP magazine, and contributed to The Atlantic City Lab, the Architectural Review, and Domus. His book The Nocturnal Wanderer has recently been published by Eros Press; he is researching a second book about urban space and the creative economy in China.

 
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