Unharmonious Variation — Liu Jianhua, Who Will Never Compromise


      Born in 1962, Liu Jianhua had a very unique childhood. At 12, he was sent to Jingdezhen to study after his uncle, Liu Yuanchang, the prestigious industrial artists. At 14, he was accepted by Jingdezhen’s Ceramic Factory, and in the following eight years he received regular education in the workshop of ceramic technique. With his talents and his efforts, he won China’s top “Bai Hua” (a hundred flowers) Prize when he was 20. But it was just a beginning of his career as an artist. Since then, he has been trying to surpass, not the older generation, or his peers, but himself. From then on, he would never compromise.


      In 1978, when at his uncle’s place reading, Liu Jianhua was touched by Rodin L'art.  From then, he made up his mind to explore in the field of fine art. In the following three years, he dedicated himself to studying in the best fine art school. Everyday, he had to ride bicycle to study charcoal drawing. At 22, he left the factory and was enrolled by the Institute of Jingdezhen Ceramics majoring in sculpture. The Institue of Jingdezhen Ceramics only admitted two students from Liu’s Jiangxi Province, and Liu was one of them. Liu cherished this opportunity and worked very hard in college. He subscribed a number of major domestic fine arts journals, from which he got to know about the Stars Fines Arts Association, and was able to learn something about foreign arts. While he was digesting all these new information, he tried hard to go beyond the ceramic-making techniques which he had been so familiar, and to experiment with different materials and styles in all areas of fine arts. As a student, Liu Jianghua already demonstrated his unique personality and style. Back then, it is a period when everybody tried to conform, to be identical and harmonious. But Liu was indulging himself in an inharmonious style, and kept challenging himself.

      Liu Jianhua entered college when the so-called “85 New Trend” movement was on its peak. When he graduated in 1989, he was assigned to work in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, where the cultural elites of Southwestern United University had left an very liberal atmosphere for artists and scholars alike. Among the artists in the Southwest are some 85 New Trenders including Mao Quhui, Zhang Xiaogang, and Ye Yongqing in Kunming. These artists are full of ideas and are ideal about fine arts. They later formed the Southwestern University School, which are well known in the history of Contemporary arts of China. During this period of time, Liu Jianghua’s art activities are relatively pure and free, since there is nowhere for him to sell his works. Therefore, the artworks he created are purely for his own enjoyment and satisfaction. From 1989 to 1997, he made quite a few bold experimental works, which he still keeps for himself.


      However, to earn a living in Kunming, Liu Jianhua was hired to make copies of some city sculptures. In 1994, there came a turning point for Liu’s career as an artist. Firstly, he got a son and became a father. Secondly, he examined his artist career retrospectively. He questioned the meaning of city sculptures and started to raise question about it, both theoretic and practical. Along with Li Ji and Zeng Xiaofeng, Liu Jianghua organized the “Attention to Southwestern Arts Exhibition”, in which he showed two installation works in response to the questions regarding the topic of city sculpture. These works showed the popular culture back then. Before the exhibition, Liu Jianhua has followed the normality of the modernists’ approach, and held a relative pure view that “the art is the art for the sake of art.” After the exhibition, Liu Jianhua’s interactions with artists in Kunming became more frequent. The topic he related to in his works also extended to humanity, society, reality and all the contradiction and conflicts among them.


      In this year, Liu Jianhua started his Dissymmetry color sculpture series. The series show various combinations of Sun Yat Sen's uniforms, military uniforms and female body parts, naked lower body parts in particular. Liu Jianhua may look gentle and cultivated, but in these works he shows a black humor with compulsive and intense visual impact. For instance, in one of works, a broken hand of an aged man was laid on a white, tender and spread-out thigh. You can hardly relate his works to himself in real life. In this series, he employs some ready-made materials, including the color sculpture structure used in grotto arts. On the surface of the sculpture, he put paints directly in order to minimize color tones. This technique was quite unusual in China at that time.

      Liu Jianhua’s earlier works to a large extent are a response to the economic reform and economic development. Since the economic reform, the capitalist economy has created unprecedented impact to every corner of the society. However, while the external living conditions are under rapid transformation, people’s inner heart can not catch up with the fundamental external change, which leads to an unstable society. That is the information Liu wanted to deliver in his “Dissymmetry” series. His criticism and satire on the society is obscure and indefinite. He conceals his revolt against tradition and paternity violence under elegant outer wears. Deep in the bottom of his inner heart lies his anxiety and alienation from the society , which are completely concealed by the noisy symbols in his works. Thus, Liu Jianhua planned a long way of exploration and adventure. His artworks, manifested by his life experiences, are now waiting for us to decipher.


      Liu Jianhua attended the sculpture exhibition held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in 1995, which was organized by Wang Lin. Liu’s works received nationwide attention in this exhibition. After the exhibition, the vulgar and amputated female body parts replaced the Sun Yat Sen’s Uniform and became the symbol of his artworks, making him a rising star in China’s contemporary arts world. Once showed, his Merriment series, which he started 1998, became very popular both in the market and in academic exhibitions. Liu also made headless and armless beauties in cheong-sams on ceramic plates. He believes that the image of head often limits views of imagination. On the contrary, armless bodies can remind us of female bodies’ passivity and helplessness when consumed, and also described the irreversible trend that female bodies become more and more materialized since the opening-up policy and the economic reform.


      The sofa chairs appeared in his Infatuated Memories series, along headless and armless beauties in cheong-sam. On one hand, cheong-sam stands for the traditional Chinese women in the feudal periods. At the same time, it also implies the sexual fantasy and the possession desire of Chinese males. It represents the corruption of the capitalist class, and reminds people of the notion of bad girls. On the other hand, sofa chair is a symbol for the western modern life, implying those men who enjoy power, money and status. Combining it with sexy bodies, the works definitely implies sex and sexual fantasy. It may be taken as the artist’s memory of his immature and repressive youth. As one of the 1960s generation, he grew up in an repressive environment where the relation between boys and girls are often awkward and unnatural, which made the youngsters even more curious about sex.. In the ceramic plates, there are a lot of females, who sit or lie with sexy postures in sofa chairs, which to some extent reflects Liu’s repressive sexual desire and imagination when he was young.


      Liu Jianhua has developed experiences and skills in ceramic making in Jingdezhen in his earlier years. It seems that in his whole life he has been trying to get rid of the perfectionism which is embedded in the ceramic making industry. In doing so, he kept employing different media and material, to challenge the conventional beliefs about ceramic arts. One example is Where Are We Today? in 2000. It is a conceptual video work. With scenic settings, this work reflects the ridiculously high cost for rapid urban development and the tragedy of the helpless ordinary urban dwellers. The photographic work is independent from his color sculpture series. Liu’s criticism against over-urbanization in this work is obvious. In a colorful and festive environment, there lies crisis everywhere. At the same time, Liu shows a strong desire to reduce ordinary people to technical ceramics. Starting from 2001, Liu began his White series, which turned a lot everyday items into many hard but fragile ceramics. In 2002, the number of air crashes was unusually high. From those images of the chaotic and fragmented scenes, Liu got his inspirations for more creations.


      In 2003, when Liu Jianhua was working in Jingdezhen, the city was celebrating its one-thousandth anniversaries with massive urban development projects. Bulldozers and rooters were all over the places, turning the old city into shambles. A lot of big old trees were chopped down, lying in every corner of the city. Witnessing the destruction of a two-thousand-year old historic and cultural city, Liu was deeply shocked. Taking as models the trees that had been chopped down, he made ceramic trees, which are very fragile. It is the work Transformation of Memories. With the rapid development of national economy and blind expansion of many big cities, it’s the first time for Liu to present a personal and unharmonious interpretation as a critical artist. It reveals people’s apathy and heartlessness in front of the destruction of traditions and living environments. In the pursuit of constant transformation, the fundamentals of a five-thousand-year culture have been lost. The rotting trees in a world of desires and lusts are replaced with empty broken ceramic trees, which reflect the melancholy deep in his heart.


      Although Liu Jianhua is bettern known for his ceramic works, he is also a social critic, and a researcher who is not afraid of experimenting with different materials. In his works, concepts and ideas always come first before he actually starts the creation. For him, it seems that the final artworks are just byproducts, while the process is more significant. One typical example is “Donation”, in which he presented during the Express Exhibition in 2004. Cooperating with Shanghai Charity Federation, who helped to find the needy ones, Liu tried to raise funds through express delivery staff. Although the result was not as satisfying as he had expected, he still felt content with it, because a work’s meaning lies in its process.


      In Sustainable Trapezoid Scenery, an installation work, Liu Jianhua employs mortise and tenon connection which has been widely used in traditional Chinese architecture. It creates a strong sense of primitiveness as if there were hand made. The ladder represents people’s desire to climb up in social status. On the ladder are transparent glass container, with gravel, sand and dirt inside and used everyday items on the top. These everyday items are replicated with white porcelain. All these ladders are placed vertically in a closed space, look like architectural urban forest. The white porcelain items are sealed in fragile glass containers, representing samples from human’s world. It is obvious that Liu Jianhua is trying to portrait the living tragedies of ordinary people in urban development. 


      While Liu is experimenting with different materials, he is also creating color sculpture series. From 2000 to 2002, he worked in Kunming and Jingdezhen, replicating all kinds of everyday items using green and white porcelain in high temperature. Everyday, Fragile, for example, is a combination of installation series interacting with each other. One of the series was selected to represent the China sector in Venice Biennale 2003. However, because of the SARS crisis, the work didn’t make it in Venice, but was showed in the Gallery of Guangdong and participated in Venice Biennale on internet. As a variation of Everyday, Fragile, Reflection in Water replicated symbolic architectures of China’s most developed cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, with green and white porcelain. With different sizes and light effects, Liu creates a mirage-like fantasizing effect.


      Interior Space, showed in the 20th anniversary of Hanart T. Z. Gallery in Hong Kong, is another variation of Liu’s experiments with green and white porcelain, and another peak of his non-compromising self-challenge. In this work, bricks of white porcelain are placed on the floor. Some of the porcelain bricks are broken or bear obvious blemishes. Thus, by creating broken ceramics, he completely abandons the tradition that ceramics must be perfect. During this period, Liu continued his white porcelain works and proved that he had already abandoned the colorful tradition in ceramic making. By using white porcelain, he followed the modern Minimalism which prefers to use the white color. With the abstract vocabulary implied in Interior Space, Liu does not delivery his concepts by narrating anymore, but deliver his message directly. Thus, he embarked on the field of conceptual art.


      In 2004, Liu Jianhua participated in Shanghai Duolun Youth Grand Fine Arts Exhibition, under the name “Xie Wang”. In the exhibition, every participant, under fake names, presented works of a variety of styles. Liu selected a newly-graduated fine art student to draw an oil painting named “Struggle for the New Goal”. He specifically asked the student to use the illusionary and misty style of Germany Artist Gerhard Richter, to mock the fashion of copying Richter’s style in China’s art field at that time. The work describes the moment when Beijing won out in the competition of hosing the 2008 Olympic Games. Liu studies the video in which Wang Qishan, Mayor of Beijing swung the Olympic flag at the closure ceremony of Athens’ Olympics and Liu counted that the mayor swung for exactly 12 times. It gave him the inspiration to create the “Struggle for the New Goal”. Illusionary Scene in 2005 is yet another video work, in which Liu put gambling chips into piles on Waitan and Pudong of Shanghai. It implies that Shanghai has become the major battle ground for global capitals to gamble in China. Shanghai has taken this role since 1920s, and when it is described in such a large size, there is a perplexing attraction and behind its magnificence, there are a lot uncertain factors. Another work, the Floating Object which will be displayed in Taiwan is a crystal-made model of Taiwan Island and a cute little ceramic panda, symbolizing the barrier of communication between Taiwan and the Mainland.


      In January 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia crashed on its way returning to the Earth, which shocked the whole world and Liu Jianhua as well. In 2005, he created an installation work called Dream using the fragmented ceramics, and tried to incorporate it with video clippings. In 2006, he was invited to present his Dream installation work in Singapore’s first Biennale. In the same year, he was also invited to the Shanghai Biennale and the documentary exhibition in Shanghai Contemporary Arts Gallery. The work Will You Let Me Know? was presented in Shanghai Contemporary Arts Gallery, which summarizes the two-year period since he has relocated to Shanghai. In 50 book-like steel boards, he engraved 100 questions in Chinese, English, French, German, and Japanese relating to a variety of topics such as why the viewers think Shanghai is attractive. As you can imagine, there are all kinds of answers to these question, and you can hardly find the standard one.


      The Investigation of Yiwu, which was presented in Shanghai Biennial, is Liu’s first installation work that is created with ready-made items completely. He bought dozens of thousands of cheap goods from Yiwu, and poured them from a container, representing China’s large exports of cheap commodities and the chain reaction and tension it has caused for the global economy, capital, merchandise, asset and energy. The practical goods that are made in Yiwu are piled up in the work remind us the popular culture, the low cost machining, and the cheap labor-intensive manufacturing. It is representative of the popular aesthetics and the configuration of China in its economic and social transformation. Now, there are about 6,000 to 8, 000 foreigner businessmen in Yiwu, with more than 1,000 container shipped everyday to 212 countries or regions in the world, which created complicated and unpredictable interaction between China and the whole world.


      Ceramic has a history of thousands of years in China, and was exported when China was powerful. Therefore, it bears significant symbolic meaning for Chinese culture. Trained with traditional ceramic making technique that has focused on perfection, Liu, on the contrary, has kept overthrowing the ceramic tradition as well. He has been constantly experimenting with different forms and materials. Even when his style is praised widely, he still keeps challenging himself and exploring in new frontier. With his non-compromising spirit, his bravery and originality, he is pushing himself to an extreme. While trying to establish a new paradigm, he incorporates it with traditional techniques of ceramic making and provides contemporary arts with more possibility in materials. The core value of Liu’s works lie in his attitude towards life. He has been trying to reach the high-point no matter what kind of issues he is dealing, society, gender, humanity, environment, nation or culture. He does not only criticize and analyze these issues, but also raise new ideas and provide new insights into them at the same time.

Lu Rongzhi