Sunday, 20 September 2009
Liu Jianhua is one of contemporary China’s best-known artists, and also one of its most acute social critics. Some of the reactions to his recent exhibition in Britain, split between the Fermoy Art Gallery in King’s Lynn and the nearby National Trust property Oxburgh Hall, indicate that the sharp edge of his social commentary can also make its effect in a non-Chinese context.
Liu Jianhua is best known for his work in porcelain, though he does not work exclusively in this medium. The choice of porcelain as a medium is closely linked not only to his own life-experience, but also to the history of China. Born in 1962, he was sent at the age of twelve to work with his uncle Liu Yuanchang, an industrial designer, in the city of Jingdezhen. This has a history of porcelain production that goes back nearly two thousand years. Just after the year 1000, the Northern Song emperor Zhenzhong decreed that all the porcelain made for the court should come from Jingdezhen. The kilns there continued to supply the court throughout the rest of China’s imperial history. They also made immense quantities of porcelain for non-imperial clients, and these wares traveled throughout the world - to Japan, to Safavid Peria and Ottoman Turkey, and of course to Western Europe. Porcelain, together with silk, became a symbol of China’s technical and industrial superiority. In fact, when we speak of the Industrial Revolution that began in Europe just after the middle of the 18th century, we now tend to forget that important aspects of industrial production had existed in China for many centuries before that.
When he was fourteen, two years after his arrival in Jingdezhen, Liu Jianhua went to work in the city’s main Ceramic Factory. He stayed there for eight years, learning every aspect of ceramic technique and receiving China’s top prize for ceramic work.
The years he spent at the factory were those that immediately followed the Cultural Revolution, which came to an end with Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. Not coincidentally perhaps, 1976 was the year in which Liu first came into meaningful contact with western contemporary or near-contemporary art. He discovered a book that illustrated the work of the great French sculptor Rodin and was inspired by it.
When he was 22 Liu transferred to the Jingdedzhen Ceramics Institute and began to study fine art, as opposed to industrial design. It was a time when the first Chinese contemporary art groups were beginning to make their appearance, notably the Xing Xing [‘Stars’] group that burst on to the scene in 1979, when its members hung their work on the railings outside the National Gallery of China in Beijing. Chased away by police, they set up again in a nearby park, and by unofficial count attracted nearly 40,000 visitors. Liu subscribed to a number of the Chinese-language fine arts journals that appeared at that time, from which he learned something about western contemporary art. Though there was still strong pressure to conform to officially approved styles, he began to make experimental work in his own time.
In 1989 he graduated, and was sent to Kunming, the capital of the Chinese province of Yunnan. Situated to the far west of China, Yunnan shares frontiers with Myanmar [Burma] and Vietnam. Kunming is traditionally one of China’s gateways to the West. In recent decades, it has been famous for its bohemian life-style, with a number of small restaurants and clubs that also function as unofficial galleries. In Kunming Liu encountered a number of Chinese contemporary artists who have since become well-known internationally, among them Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Quhui and Li Ji.
One formative experience in Kunming was a humdrum commission to make copies of some pieces of public sculpture that stood in the city. As Liu had already realized, China does not have a great record in this department of art. The failure has been due to several factors. The most obvious is that landscape, not the human body, occupies the central position in the history of Chinese art - certainly from Song times onward. Often in China where one might expect to see a statue, what one gets instead is a ‘scholar’s rock’ - supposedly natural rock formations that act as metaphors for landscape. Another factor, shorter term but still powerful, was the proliferation of Soviet-style heroic sculpture fostered by Mao’s regime. These monuments were artistic failures that tended to give Chinese sculpture a bad name.
After Mao’s death, the rulers of China embarked on a new economic policy whose success has led to the financial boom that now impresses both the Chinese themselves and outside observers. At one point in history, under the Han and Tang dynasties, China probably represented 25% of the whole global economy. Many Chinese intellectuals would not be sorry to see that situation return. Yet they - and this applies to leading Chinese artists as well as to writers and theoreticians - are aware that this success has been achieved at a considerable cultural cost. China has suddenly become a consumer society, besotted by all the toys and trinkets that this kind of society has to offer.
It is this situation that Liu Jianhua examined in the installations made for the Fermoy Gallery and for the public rooms at Oxburgh.
Porcelain is a material that can be used to replicate almost any other substance with uncanny fidelity. In the 18th century, for example, both Chinese and European artists made pieces for the table, such as tureens, which were deceptively faithful replicas of various vegetables and fruits. These forms - cabbages for example - are part of Liuís repertoire. But he makes replicas of many other objects as well. There are items of clothing - straw hats and women’s boots - also items so familiar in our daily lives that we hardly notice them:: everything from hammers set out in rows on the floor to a baby’s bottle planted on an Oxburgh centre table.
In the installation made for the Fermoy, the tone was openly critical of modern existence, not merely of the new situation in China. The objects were heaped up to form a kind of funerary monument, while in front of this there was a skull resting on a porcelain cushion and accompanied by a model airplane .- the traditional emblem of death accompanied by an emblem of the new internationalism, a symbol of global travel and global trade. At Oxburgh, things were more ambiguous - drifts of white objects were placed under the furniture and in front of a fireplace. In the library, a group of porcelain books were placed in front of the shelves that held their real counterparts.
Surprisingly, it was the installations at Oxburgh that touched a nerve. Visitors protested, takings at the gift shop fell, and the run of the show was unilaterally cut short by the National Trust’s manager of the property.
The National Trust has been struggling for some years to rid itself or a reputation for narrow-minded elitism and conservatism. Indeed the presence of Liu’s work in one of its most celebrated properties could be seen as part of this effort. The fuss the exhibition aroused tends to indicate why the effort was necessary. And why it continues to be necessary.
There are, however, wider and more interesting implications. Liu’s work is ‘democratic’, in the sense that it avoids the monumental, and relies on the multiplication of replicas of everyday objects, which can be shown in a wide variety of different configurations. The replicas do not set out to deceive. In fact, they cannot deceive, simply because they are white. In metaphorical terms, they function as ghosts of the things they imitate. They appear to be useful but are in fact fragile and without utility. They speak of the way in which we clutter our lives with possessions we don’t need. The repetitions of the same object, the same form, reinforce this. Not just one porcelain hammer but dozens of them.
At Oxburgh this took on a strange resonance. The house was built in the late 15th century, but extensively altered in the 19th, to accord with Victorian ideas about what was ‘baronial’. Much of the house, and especially the suite of state rooms where Liuís interventions were made, is historical fiction rather than historical fact. I suspect this fiction deceives many visitors - it offers a dream of the past, and an escape from modern industrial society. Liu’s work challenged their expectations in a way that apparently aroused real anger.
In the circumstances, it was perhaps a good thing that no room could be found at Oxburgh for a series of altered photographs that Liu originally intended to show there, in addition to the items in porcelain. They consisted of a series of views of Shanghai, with piles of gigantic gambling chips obstructing one’s view of the buildings. These images are another metaphor for the Chinese economic boom. They can also be seen, in a more detached sense, as metaphors for things that have happened in England. The 15th century saw a boom in the eastern counties of England based on the success of the English wool industry. This created the wealth that led to the creation of an ambitious house - castellated but not really a functional castle. The re-handling of the building in the 19th century was funded by the British industrial revolution. For a while this made Britain as central to the global economy as China had been, some centuries previously.
Liu’s interventions at Oxburgh aroused irritation, and sometimes anger, because they created a mis-match of expectations. Visitors expected a comfortable historical fairy story, and what they got, instead of this, was something resembling an economic and moral lesson. Perhaps this was too much to take from an outsider - a Chinese.
This site was last updated 20-09-2009