TEXT & IMAGES: Luise Guest
He’s the man who paints inside bottles, appropriating the ancient Qing Dynasty art of ‘nei hua’ or ‘inside snuff bottle painting’. A new exhibition of his work is currently showing at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, where his departure from previous imagery focused largely on the natural world – beautifully painted fish, birds, insects and plant forms inhabit many of his glass vessels – have made audiences look anew at a suddenly much more hard-edged artistic practice. The artist is careful to point out that his work is not about China in particular; in fact these misuses and abuses of power could be – and are – happening anywhere in the world. And with a painting of prisoners and guards behind barbed wire he could just as easily have been depicting unfortunate asylum seekers trapped by Australia’s viciously cruel border security program in the offshore prisons of Manus Island or Nauru. Here is an extract from my catalogue essay for “一個人” (One Man).
One Man, With Courage…／Liu Zhuoquan
Beijing-based artist Liu Zhuoquan is best known for beautiful installations of glass vessels in which delicately painted objects, animals and people are captured, suspended like specimens floating in formaldehyde. The walls of his Beijing studio are lined with shelves; on every shelf is an array of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Inside their curved surfaces the artist has depicted every conceivable aspect of his world. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities or a museum of specimens: as you turn your head your vision fills with crawling insects, leaping fish, fluttering birds and a vast panoply of flora and fauna. More disturbingly, though, other bottles contain coiled black snakes, human body parts and internal organs, screaming faces, and images of beaten or executed prisoners.
A debate earlier this year at the National Gallery of Victoria asked whether artists have a moral responsibility to speak out about political and social issues. Should artists actively address issues of power, of corruption, of oppression? Can art actually make a difference? The omnipresence of social media and technology allows ordinary people to access information on an immediate and unprecedented scale, even in highly censored societies. Many citizens, artists most particularly, feel an obligation to address the uncomfortable truths thus revealed, bringing to the surface things that would otherwise remain hidden. In a measured and nuanced way, Liu Zhuoquan does exactly this. Since his earliest childhood in Wuhan he has witnessed and experienced the misuse and abuse of power, and he applies a unique ancient Chinese craft practice to reveal some of the most troubling aspects of his world.
On my first visit to Liu’s studio some years ago, amongst a profusion of painted plants, insects and birds, I noticed a pair of bottles slightly set apart on a small shelf. The larger of the two contained a portrait of a pony-tailed young woman in jeans and T-shirt standing awkwardly with her hands behind her back, the smaller contained just her head. I asked the artist about their significance. He told me the bottles belonged to a series, portraits of executed prisoners. The awkward young woman had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to death, her photograph published in the newspaper. It has been estimated that up until 2010, almost 5000 people were executed each year in China; since 2014 that figure has halved, although the precise statistics are a state secret. Liu Zhuoquan’s growing disquiet about the state apparatus of crime and punishment in China resulted in a recent series of bottles featuring police and their prisoners, but his preoccupation with the subject is not new, and one may look to incidents in the artist’s own life and family history for an explanation.
A saying attributed to Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, has particular resonance in the context of this brave body of work: ‘One man with courage makes a majority.’ The notion of the singular brave individual wielding the moral power to create change is, of course, highly problematic in China today, where the authoritarian collectivism of the socialist past collides with a new aspirational individualism. Tensions and conflicts are the inevitable result, seen in recent covert Smartphone videos showing rebellious villagers protesting land seizures or potentially toxic industrial developments battling armed police. Other videos circulating on Chinese social media show the violence of the feared ‘Chengguan’ municipal law and order cops against marginalised street vendors and rural migrant workers on construction sites. Together with the recently renewed phenomenon of nightly televised ‘confessions’ from human rights lawyers, journalists – even Hong Kong book sellers – these images are a significant aspect of Liu’s world and contribute to his sense that there is a darkness at the heart of Chinese society.
Liu’s painted glass vessels reveal these often-hidden aspects of today’s China, as well as stories from the past. He has adapted the ‘nei hua’ (inside bottle painting) technique, an exquisite tradition dating from the Qing Dynasty, used to ornament decorative snuff bottles. Tiny curved brushes inserted into the bottles apply mineral pigments to the roughened inside surface, reversing the usual painting technique by painting from front to back. Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this was largely forbidden during the years of Mao’s rule. Appropriating this imperial tradition, often using images sourced from newspapers or social media, Liu combines his contemporary sense of irony with acute observation of people, and the fragile beauty of nature. He once described his studio as a scientific laboratory where he is recording the ‘ten thousand things’ of Taoist philosophy. In ancient China this phrase meant ‘everything that exists in the world’, the simultaneous sameness and difference of every element of the universe, the beautiful and the terrible alike.
A work such as Bullet (2016) recalls stories from the not-so-distant past – maybe urban myth, or maybe not – of families sent a bill for five fen to offset the cost of the bullet used to end the life of their husband or wife, son or daughter. Liu’s painted bullet, floating in its stoppered bottle, evokes forensic science and the aftermath of violence. A narrative told with such economy of means emphasises rather than diminishes the horror. Two miniaturised police officers stand with their backs to us inside similar bottles, suggesting that they too are trapped in a system over which they have no control: they are just obeying orders, a chilling phrase we have heard too often before. These anonymous authority figures also make an appearance in Two policemen (2007), an earlier oil on canvas work, but the larger scale of the painting changes the meaning – seen from behind, against a loosely painted, greenish-white background, we are starkly reminded of their power.
I love the glass bottles, but I think after long consideration my favourite work in the exhibition is a painting on more conventional canvas. Two policemen in ill-fitting baggy uniforms are seen from behind, in the characteristic bored pose of soldiers or police officers with sore feet who’ve been standing for a long time. They are also victims of a system that seeks (and sees) dangerous dissent everywhere.
To read the rest of the essay, the catalogue is available from Niagara Galleries: HERE
Read More: An Art Teacher in China
Liu Zhuoquan: One Man
Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
Educator, writer, blogger, researcher, Sinophile and (sadly) bad student of Chinese, Luise Guest worked as an art teacher in Sydney before being awarded a NSW Premier’s Scholarship in 2010 to research contemporary Chinese art and art education. Whilst in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong she interviewed more than twenty artists, curators, and artworld figures. Since that first trip she has been writing regularly about Chinese art for numerous print and online journals, returning often to China. Her first book, “Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China”, was published in 2016 by Piper Press. She is currently Director of Education and Research for the White Rabbit Collection of contemporary Chinese art, and her current research is focused on women artists who subvert the conventions of ink painting.