From Obliterating the Individual to Understanding through the Everyday
Liu Jianhua creates small-scale sculptures from fibreglass and porcelain. Trained as a ceramicist from the age of fifteen, he is well-known for several series of works of headless and armless female figures dressed in cheongsams and high heels and lying in erotic poses. His works comment on attitudes to women as well as the place of China on the contemporary art scene and political world stage.
‘The absence of the individual makes Liu´s works more like a visual orgy that is more extreme than reality itself … all the doors of memory open to material things and culture, while the existence and experience of the individual are deliberately ignored.’
— Pi Li, art critic and curator
Liu Jianhua is perhaps best known for his small-scale ceramic sculptures of cheongsam-clad, high-heel wearing women draped suggestively across brightly coloured sofas or, quite literally, ‘served’ up on ‘Oriental’ porcelain platters. The figures, adopting erotic poses, lying supine among a bed of blossoms, bare thighs revealed and legs spread, are both headless and armless.
Since the early 1990s, Liu Jianhua has used a variety of traditional Chinese clothing from Sun Yat-Sen jackets to cheongsams as symbols in his work to allow him to contemplate not only the ideologies of his country but also China’s position on the world stage.
The many individual pieces that make up these series of cheongsamed women, ‘Games’ (2000) and ‘Obsessive Memories’ (2000), ‘Plate Scene’ (2001) and ‘If You Need, Please Choose’ (2001) may appear as criticisms of modern sexual attitudes towards women. Already served up in provocative positions for visual delectation, the miniaturisation of the female figurines contributes to the diminishment of their status into mere playthings. Their lack of arms heightens their powerlessness and the absence of heads renders the women anonymous and completes their objectification. Yet the work remains ambiguous, for without heads, we are deprived of their facial expressions as a basis for judgement and must rely only on their seductive poses.
The works could, however, equally, also be interpreted as comments upon the relationship between the western art world as the domain of judgement and marketplace and the contemporary art of so-called developing countries such as China. For in ‘Game’, in which luscious dishes have been prepared from a staple of ‘femininity’ and laced with exotic ‘Chineseness’, the artist invites us to ask, ‘What is in the dish, who enjoys the meal, and who was the chef who prepared it?’
At first glance, these series may appear to play up to or invite the charge often levelled at contemporary art in China – that it caters too much to western tastes. Yet, as art critic and curator Pi Li has pointed out in his article ‘Presence of Matter and Absence of Personality’, Liu assumes ´the guise of a cunning court jester´:
´He pretends to do his best to conform, but all the while utilises the constant shifts from sculpture to multi-colour-glazed ceramic object to make the creator (a Third World artist) disappear from art (Third World art). Ultimately, he serves up the de-personalized outer shell of culture on “blue and white” and “famille rose” porcelain, creating in the name of culture an exotic feast at which there are no individual entities – not even the artist himself as an individual – but only “culture" and the nominalism of culture.’
Liu Jianhua trained in ceramics at a very early age, inheriting his skill from his uncle, a kaolin artisan who runs a factory in Jingdezhen. He worked for eight years as a ceramicist. Studying sculpture at the Institute of Ceramics in Jingdezhen, however, and coming under the influence of the dynamic ‘New Wave Art’ movement, Liu soon abandoned the traditional techniques of ceramic production.
In early works such as the ‘Cryptic’ series, he began using fibre-glass which allowed him to detail every fold of fabrics and every muscle of his figures. Yet, with ‘Obsessive Memories’, Liu found that it was difficult to achieve a smooth elegance with fibre-glass and he returned to the techniques he had gained at the ceramic factory. In one of his latest pieces, ‘Regular Fragile’ (2003), Liu has shifted away from fashioning figurines and has instead produced a series of everyday objects from traditional white porcelain. Randomly chosen, there is no intentional relationship between each of the objects and they share only a former functionality. Yet decontextualised from their original surroundings, the specifics of even their function is denied. It is left to the viewer to create his or her own imaginary or realistic connections according to individual life and cultural experiences.
As Pi Li has pointed out, in this work, Liu Jianhua shifts his practice from politics to culture and from culture to the experience of everyday life. Li writes, ‘Unlike many contemporary Chinese artists, he no longer directs his questions to party politics or the political system, but extends his sight to the issue of individual existence, and combines it with the western right of cultural choice and such issues as diversity, pluralism and viewing. In Liu Jianhua’s art, we hear a voice that hints to us that only by studying issues of Chinese culture from an individual angle can we break down the stereotypical view of Chinese culture, novelty-seeking vision and opportunist mentality within contemporary art. Here the most effective method is analysis of “everyday life”.’
Sources include Pi Li, ‘Presence of Matter and Absence of Personality’ on www.shanghart.com and Dream 02 catalogue, 2002
Liu Jianhua was born in October 1962 in Ji’an, Jiangxi province. When he was fifteen, he went to work at the Jingdezhen Pottery and Porcelain Sculpturing Factory, Jingdezhen, where he stayed until 1985. He then went on to study sculpture at the Department of Fine Art at the Institute of Ceramics in Jingdezhen, graduating in 1989. He currently teaches as a co-professor at the Art Academy of Yunnan in Kunming, where he lives. He has had solo shows in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China and has participated in several group exhibitions worldwide.
SELECTED EXHIBITIONS 2001–2005
Exhibition / Installation,
2005 Good Girls, Bad Girls, group exhibition at Red Mansion Foundation, London, UK
2003 50th Biennale di Venezia, China Pavilion, Italy
2003 ‘Alors la China?’, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
2002 ‘Money and Value’, an exhibition of the Swiss National Bank, curated by Harald Szeemann
2002 ‘Art 33 Basel’, Basel, Switzerland
2002 ‘Paris-pekin’, Espace Pierre Cardin, Paris
2002 Exhibition of Chinese Art, Museum Kuppersmuhle Sammluang Grothe
2002 ‘Dream 02’, The Gallery OXO, London
2002 ‘Made by Chinese’, Navara Gallery, Paris
2001 1st ChengDu Biennale, Modern Art Museum, ChengDu
2nd prize in the exhibition of Yunnan arts, China, twice
Creative Prize of Yunnan Literal Arts, China
Imiaapion Award by Chinese Morden Arts, CCAA