Next Leap


      I have seen Liu’s work in Europe, China, and Japan. It is always clear in concept and makes a simple and strong impression on me. However, the content behind this impression is not simple; it is diverse and complex. I would like to consider the cause of both the simplicity and complexity.


      One element of complexity is the diversity of style in Liu’s work. He has gone through many stylistic changes in the last 15 years, changes that probably reflect changes in Chinese society. These changes in his work also represent changes in his thinking, ways of developing ideas, and sources of inspiration.


      Early works showing women wearing a qipao seated on a sofa or in bathtubs or on plates are based on a curious gaze directed toward pop culture and kitsch in current Chinese society. They illustrate both the charm and ugliness of the materialistic culture and strong attention on the Chinese style fashions in the traditional medium of ceramic sculpture. Liu had studied the techniques and modes of expression of traditional ceramics in JingDeZhen, the most famous city for ceramic production since the Min dynasty, since he was fifteen years old.  He applied these techniques to comment divers visions on present Chinese society.


      In the early 90’s, young Liu watched the changes taking place in society with surprise and curiosity.  He accepted the challenge of integrating everything he saw in front of him - traditional culture, the idealist culture of the Mao Zedong period, and the new consumer culture imported from the West - and  successfully and decisively formed a new style of ceramic art. According to the artist, the concept of these works is the conflict and confrontation between tradition and modernity, consumer economy and spiritual life, a culture that is disappearing and a newly created daily objects. This art gives spectators profound insights into the reality of the society that surrounds us. They also make us think about the relation between art and politics. In most modern countries, people believe that art can and should be free and independent from any conventional systems of morals, common sense, or esthetics.  In China, however, art is often inseparable from political or moral ideas.  It deals with the same issues from different points of view, different mode of thinking.  That is why it is necessary to consider the relationship between daily life and pop art, questions about an ideal society, and social commentary in art. 

      In 2001,the artist shifted from his early colorful ceramic figures to large, flexible installations containing ordinary everyday objects made of white ceramic. The white porcelain seems to be a tool for freeing the reality of daily life and giving more diverse meanings to its existence. The use of white porcelain is an extension of Liu’s already familiar techniques and modes of expression but is an even more metaphoric medium than the types of ceramic material he has used in the past.  The objects are scattered on the floor or hung on the walls. They sometimes take concrete shapes, sometimes abstract, but always portray a whole and independent subject. By this means, Liu freed himself from the small scale of individual ceramic pieces and the limited connotations of realistic colors. Regular Fragile(日常・易砕), shown at Mori Art Museum in 2005, is an example of this style.


      One of the large scale installations with blue-white ceramic sculptures, dream, was first seen in Chinese Contemporary Art Biennale in Montpellier, France in June, 2005 and won the First prize MC1, and then at the Singapore Biennale in 2006. The work consists of a news clip video of the explosion of the space shuttle “Challenger” and “Columbia” projected on the front wall and, under it, a number of ceramic daily objects broken by the artist and spread out in the shape of a space craft on the floor. This tragic accident is remembered throughout the world. The work first tells us about the human dream of a positive future but then brings us to the moment of its collapse. We discover here fragments of our daily life which have lost any positive aim or implication for the future of mankind. This art teaches us about the tragedy, collapse and impossibility of human effort in the reality of this world yet also tells us that only way to survive is to continue to dream and project positive visions of the world may be. The meaning it creates is far deeper than any simple arguments we might make and its significance may transcend our own time and history.  


      In 2004, Liu showed a painting titled Struggle for New Aim, commenting on the desire of China to hold the Olympic games. In 2006, he presented an installation called YiWu Survey, which did not contain any ceramic objects, in the Shanghai Biennale.  It was made up of real daily objects overflowing from a red cargo container, creating an image of the Chinese economy expanding throughout the world.  These works represent a major turning point. If an artist is bound by particular materials and methods for making art, he will never be able to get away from the conventional academic approach. Since the basic condition of contemporary art is a reliance on concepts, artworks must not be limited by materials or methods. Liu has come a long way from his starting point as an artisan in the process of becoming an artist, and has now reached the most extreme level of artistic practice.


      This observation brings us to two fundamental questions: What is art and what is the identity of the artist? It is not easy to answer these questions, but all of Liu’s art is tied to them. This is especially evident in the recent work, Will you let me know? It consists of 100 questions concerning the city of Shanghai and the life of people living there. The questions are engraved on metal books spread open on long tables. Through this work, Liu explores the identity of China and himself. It recalls that famous phrase found in a title of a painting by Paul Gauguin, Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?


      The charm of Liu’s art lies in its integrated and dynamic use of materials and its well-defined subject matter and perceptive questions. It sets out across the endless sea of signs that comprises the reality of society and human life today. The meanings of signs are never unitary or definite; they fluctuate and change. Liu’s vision of political, social, and esthetic subjects gives a distinctive quality to his work. He sees reality from an elevated, bird’s-eye point of view. For him, seeing is thinking and the speed of change is the only way to capture today’s reality.


      Liu Jianhua is now standing in middle of a terra incognita where he has never been before, He is exposed and naked, no longer protected by the  simple identity of a ceramist. He is exploring a new way of being and working in a new arena of art. The result, which appears in this exhibition, is truly fascinating.

Fumio Nanjo

18th Jan, 2007. in Tokyo