The Art of Detachment


      Ever since 1997, the year in which we first met in Kunming, where the artist Liu Jianhua then lived, the dialectical discussion we have engaged in, and which centers on his artistic development, has continued without interruption. Year after year, he showed me his new works, at first with a certain hesitation and hoping for my approval, while later with a growing assurance and confidence, convinced as he was of the need to proceed on this path. I can say that, despite our being of the same age, in a certain sense I've witnessed his growth as he went from a [visual] language that was still somewhat “provincial,” or dated, to one that evinced his expanding sensibility, always open to new sources of inspiration. His extreme openness and curiosity regarding all aspects of life led him to rapidly evolve as an artist, thus reaching an ever greater [expressive] maturity. An essay I wrote about him in 2006 described his development up until that year; now Jianhua wants me to fill in the gap that brings us to the present date.

      In the meantime, I've also changed a bit; I've gotten older, in the sense that I am aware of the dwindling time that remains for me to devote myself to understanding and expressing what I myself am, in the most honest, fitting way possible. I think that, at a certain point, for those who find the sense of their existence in creativity and self-­‐expression, such an urge on becomes ever more pressing, to the point of blotting out the desire for all else. It becomes an all-­‐encompassing aim, albeit a multifaceted one.

      I sense, and know, that Jianhua and I are more attuned to each other than we have ever been, and this allows me to undertake the writing of this piece with the confidence that I shall be able to present his work, while at the same time fulfilling the need to write what I truly think of it. This has now become a conditio sine qua non of all my critical writings.

      One of the questions I directly, or indirectly, ask myself and the artists I'm in contact with, regards the very reason for one's making art, which, I think, coincides with its purpose. I've never considered it – or thought I could consider it – as a job, or a means of earning a living. For me, making art can only derive from a primary, deep-­‐seated need to do so, on the basis of which one decides what will be one's way of life, and which forges and goes hand-­‐in-­‐hand with existence itself. It is not a profession, not a means of biding the time, or a hobby. Even less is it an exercise in slyness, or petty cleverness. Life isn't long enough to allow oneself the luxury of playing with it, it's not made up of so much time as to have to “bide” it through futile activities, inasmuch as they are alien from one's very self.

      I'm under the impression that, for a period of about ten years, roughly from 2000 to 2010, many Chinese artists were swept up in the whirlwind of national and international success and praise that was showered upon them, and this made it difficult for them to maintain a disenchanted, sober view of the influence exerted by the market, art galleries, critics, and so on. I think the best, most serious, and truest among them, are now returning to their senses, like one who has come home after a long night of fun and mayhem. With the eyes of someone who has taken the time to reconsider everything and sum up what has been produced, one's work is sifted through with honesty, discarding those aspects that are flashy, but devoid of substance, while emphasizing those that are subtler, albeit less subject to public understanding and approval, but closer to one's own needs. I think Jianhua is now focusing on the profound nature of his being an artist, which is the unique, original fruit of his life experience.

East Versus West, Yet Again?

      This is a dichotomy that doesn't sit well with me, maybe because I've spent half my life going from West to East and vice versa. Or maybe it's because I know there are infinite easts and infinite wests, and it's hard to understand exactly what one is talking about, both geographically and historically. Lastly, because one is forced to always rely on the same commonplaces, and I think commonplaces have never served to promote the advancement of human thought.

      During my last conversation with Jianhua in Shanghai last November, he spoke to me about the moment in which he realized he had employed a visual language he considered to be “Western” when he created a number of large works that were linked to certain social issues. I'm referring to Can you tell me?, Yiwu survey (both from 2006) and Export ‐ cargo transit (from a 2007 solo show of his work, exhibited at the Shanghai Gallery of Art on the Bund's large open space). He very sincerely confessed that he had come to understand that those works, which were visually imposing and highly accessible, even to an audience as vast and varied as that of Shanghai's Biennial Show, where Yiwu survey was exhibited, were saturated by sociopolitical aspects that left little room for artistic ones. This feeling obviously derives from an intimate dissatisfaction on the artist's part, from a feeling of having neglected an important part of himself in favor of rendering his works more accessible and making them adhere to the not explicitly expressed, but quite evident, dictates of a certain kind of contemporary art.

      It's not easy to describe what's “artistic” about a work of art, precisely because of the fact that art cannot be defined; in other words, it cannot be circumscribed. It is instead very easy to identify its social and political implications since these may be readily described, both rationally and linguistically. To discuss works like the three I mentioned above does not entail running into any complexities or problematic aspects, it leaves nothing unsaid. This is perhaps a sign that the works lack that something “extra” that belongs to the realm of art, whose absence Jianhua was struck by and which made him think about his work and change it.

      Jianhua used the term “Western visual language” to refer to the kind of scheme that an intelligent, well-­‐ informed artist can easily apply to social issues, thereby crafting a work that is custom-­‐made for a specific space, and, I would add, a specific commissioner, in order to generate a visual and cognitive impact that may be identified as an expressive mode imported from abroad and with which the artist no longer feels at ease. Inasmuch as I am a “Westerner” by birth and culture (although after twenty‐five years of lengthy, frequent contacts with China, I consider myself a mongrel of sorts), I would instead call this process a “predictable, politically correct technique” that belongs to a certain way of making art (I'm referring to site ‐ specific installations in particular) that has held sway for several years now. Notwithstanding its place of origin (which is surely the Euro-­‐American West), this is a mode of making art that, in my view, above all embodies and denotes the general loss of a subtler, more refined, less explicit sensibility that is more difficult to attain and explain. Art's “conceptualization,” which has almost utterly predominated during the last fifty years, has, as the term itself evinces, allowed conceptual aspects to prevail over both a work's execution and its aesthetic, or ineffably artistic, aspects. This may be said to be currently just as true in the West as in the East (China), essentially because this era of worldwide materialism has made us focus on “facts,” on “objects,” on “signifiers” at the expense of “sensations,” of “subjects,” and of “signifieds.” By saying this I only wish to point out to Jianhua that those formulas artists use, including Chinese ones, did indeed originate in the West, but they now mirror a climate that is no longer limited to a Western ethos. It would be like saying that oil painting and photography, which both first arose in Europe, are [visual] media that are not suited for the Chinese people of today. I think this would be an anachronism. By saying this I don't mean to justify or approve the choice many artists make (which is relatively freely made and relatively forced upon them) of entering the realm of “trendy” contemporary art, which is supported by galleries and groups of galleries, auction houses, and (scarcely) independent critics. A choice in which the artists who make it align themselves with “that” type of visual language, which, despite its being individually tailored to each artist, betrays a pattern that has already been tacked.

      This being said, I wish to commend Jianhua for his subsequent choice: that of seeking out those aspects of ancient Chinese culture that run deeper and more closely reflect his way of being. He doesn't feel he is an expert on his own culture, but he claims he feels its influence slowly flower within him. This is what lead him to create the works Untitled and Horizon Line, in which, among other things, he started to make use of porcelain again, the material he knows best and which allows him to express himself in a more sophisticated manner. I also would like Jianhua to know that his turnabout pleases me, not because he has chosen to rediscover ancient Chinese culture, which I have a great love and admiration for, but because he felt the need to acquaint himself with a tradition as such, in the sense of its constituting a heritage that has sifted through the ages and has been recognized and admired by generations of people for its depth, timelessness, evocativeness, and ability to move them.

Tradition and the Spirit of the Times

      Jianhua thinks that a fundamental aspect of a given work is that of expressing and representing the spirit of the times, by the very fact that artists live during specific eras, of which they are the offspring. I agree with him, although I think it's difficult to determine in detail what embodies a given Zeitgeist and what doesn't. I've also often questioned the value and impact of contemporary times, especially since they seem so scarcely worthy of being represented when one compares them to our past's valuable heritage (which our ancestors, or we ourselves, have already carefully sifted through so as to decide which elements to keep). The past, by virtue of its having passed, often has the advantage of appearing to be more fascinating in our eyes. Yet for Chinese artists such as Liu Jianhua, who were born in the sixties, the specific context in which they were raised meant that they could have but very limited contact with their country's ancient culture. There was no daily exposure to it in the schools, and, upon completing his secondary school education, Liu Jianhua felt the need to seek a personal mode of expression, which would differ from academic, institutional standards. Like his colleagues, he opted for the visual language of Western modern contemporary art because it was perceived as the one best suited to unleash his expressive urgencies. His was a natural, understandable, choice, and I don't think Chinese artists should now feel guilty just because they adopted a “foreign” expressive mode, which is somehow tantamount to “renouncing” their own birth. It's normal that certain commonly held needs, ways of thinking, and feeling should exist among more or less coeval peoples in various parts of the world, especially now that countries may rely on far swifter means of communication (the sixties were marked by “cultural revolutions” both in China and the West, for instance). Moreover, the fact that certain visual languages were first codified in one country with respect to another is due to specific historical motives, but it doesn't mean that those who later adopt those languages must in turn necessarily be considered to be “derivative” artists. Certainly not if they deeply feel such modes as theirs and are able to transform them into a personal means of expression with distinguishing features. I also think one can no longer speak of truly creative acts nowadays, but only of interpretive ones, or of a certain originality in associating diverse elements.

      I realize that the problem lies in the fact that the Chinese artists born in the fifties and sixties (I think that for younger artists things have somewhat changed) were deprived of a familiarity with their own cultural heritage, while, on the other hand, they have an “outsider's” knowledge of western culture. They must “invent” a visual language of their own, without having any solid, tried and true, points of reference. Theirs was, and is, thus a very difficult task.

      But let us go back to the path that led Liu Jianhua to that rather important turning point in his career as an established artist, which led him to leave such works as Yiwu survey and Export -­‐ cargo transit behind in order to try his hand in completely different realms, both in terms of aesthetics and content. Wuti (untitled) is an ambitious work signaling a radical change, in which the artist wishes to divest himself of the excessive use of “signifiers” that he feels burdened his prior works. His decision to leave the work untitled symbolizes this. I think it's the only one of his works that lacks a title: the artist does not want to direct the viewer's gaze, also because he himself, I think, is not able to rationally formulate the reason that lead him to create such a work of mysterious stillness. The piece comprises, as is typical of the artist, a certain number of “works” that are collectively and adeptly arranged within a space that was set up for this purpose (in this case the Beijing Commune, whose group of artists Jianhua belongs to). This creates a rarefied atmosphere, which completely differs from those he had gotten us used to. There's a return to the use of porcelain, the material the artist originally worked with, along with an unwillingness to explain those flat figures, which, although quite different, recall the porcelains of the Song Dynasty (his favorite). The figures are simultaneously both abstract (and bearing no practical use) and figurative (because their contours delineate vases or human heads). The rarefied, suspended, atmosphere that pervades the space made up of dimly lit red walls suggests, more than affirms, a desire to stop and think for a moment, to venture into the realm of an artistic sensibility, which, albeit modern, pays a tribute to the aesthetic and, I think, also spiritual, values of the great tradition of Chinese art (or of works of high craftsmanship). I think the message of the work is to be found in its constituting an affirmation on the artist's part of an intention and inner need that he will attempt to more fully express in subsequent works.

Porcelain's New Potential

      I have the impression that Liu Jianhua has a complex relationship with porcelain. Having grown up in Jingdezhen with his uncle, who also taught him how to masterfully work with this material, turning him into an expert on the subject, the artist turned away from it when, in response to the emergence of more complex expressive needs, he became a full-­‐fledged sculptor and professor of sculpture, becoming attuned to developing trends in contemporary art, both at home and abroad. Obsessive Memories, a series of porcelain works featuring women wearing qipaos, first brought the artist fame, and his subsequent work, Daily – fragile, led to his becoming a renowned artist. At that point it became important for him to demonstrate that his abilities were not limited to, and limited by, a given material; a material, among other things, which has always been the prerogative of artisans rather than artists. Thus in several subsequent works, Jianhua wished to demonstrate to himself and others that he was able to work with the most varied materials, while also emphasizing their characteristics: hence that he was a sculptor and not just as an assembler of “ready‐mades.”

      Jianhua considers changes and challenges, even technical ones, the salt of his being an artist, and difficulties as a necessary, stimulating aspect of his work. It is thus natural that he should always set new goals for himself and call into question those he reaches. However, porcelain has now ceased to be a constraint (because of its artisanal connotations) or an advantage (given Jianhua's masterful technique) with respect to the artist's innermost self. He instead perceives it as a material with countless unexplored possibilities, which he feels will allow him to thoroughly explore the infinite nuances tied to the visual and expressive effects he feels compelled to achieve. In short, this medium constitutes a visual “language” that the artist masters and which allows him to better and more freely express himself – other external considerations no longer count.

      On the other hand, it is a medium that also constitutes a possible link – and this time it is a deeply felt, internalized, digested one – with his country's tradition, which he intends to come to terms with. Horizon (which was also exposed at the Beijing Commune in December 2009) is the fruit of the new thoughts and observations that have filled the artist's mind for some time now. There's an awareness of the inconsistency of the many superficial, flamboyant aspects in the life of a successful artist, and a desire to instead focus on himself and on those profound matters for which room must be made to allow for meditation and seclusion. Such matters are in themselves abstract (the artist's ties to tradition and relationship to the west, as well as his role in the creative act and his use of a given material). The challenge here is that of maintaining their abstract nature, while expressing it through a concrete, physically tangible entity such as that of a sculpture. Horizon comprises several pieces: a series of vases assembled on the floor with a red liquid that looks like blood rising up to the surface; a long, solitary femur that divides the wall in two; a leaf hanging on the wall just above the floor; and fake sheets made of fake paper and real porcelain aligned in a rather sterile style (they're the least “organic” piece in the collection). These pieces all seem to be teetering on the edge, “between” one thing and another, and it is precisely here that lies their value: in their seeming to be one thing while really being another. In all these works the “horizontal” line prevails, which the artist considers to be abstract, yet which is in some sense one of the most frequent, “tangible” lines in our world.

      The artist's direction has now changed; Horizon proceeds along the path that was initially undertaken with Untitled, perhaps with less awareness and forethought. It is a path directed towards the search for rarefied atmospheres, stillness, and meditative, suspended states. I think the artist now wishes to be understood and appreciated by a different audience, one able to note the details, the minute aspects of a work, the sensations that are suggested rather than made explicit. He himself perfects his mastery of the visual language of sculpture and “porcelain” as a material, so as to express an artistic sensibility that words cannot describe or exhaust. That “surplus” that a work elicits, which is indescribable and will not bend to conceptual explanations, is an important aspect of Jianhua's latest works. He attributes it to an inner necessity, and draws a parallel between it and classic Chinese art or Zen thought, which he's gradually been approaching and gaining a greater knowledge of.

      I'm under the impression that those who feel oppressed by the obsessive, overflowing “fullness” of contemporary life, in which everything exists in “abundance” (I'm referring to images, objects, stimuli) except time, silence, and peace; find Zen thought to be an almost mandatory alternative, a true refuge, especially in places such as China, where it had its origins. I should also like to note that similar ways of experiencing and theorizing the notion of “silence” and “subtraction” are present and widespread in other cultures as well, which at this time are less well known and approached (for example, I'm thinking of Christian and Islamic ascetic traditions, along with Hinduism). It is nonetheless right and natural that Liu Jianhua should rediscover them as part of a legacy that is not that unfamiliar to him, and whose knowledge of he was denied during his youth. The artist's being inspired by certain precise references (the leaf, for instance, alludes to Bodhidharma's crossing of the river, after which he was able to spread his teachings throughout China) is not, however, explicit, but latent: he's not interested in using symbols that may be easily understood or identified because that kind of communicative immediacy risks being shallow.

      I was lucky to have paid a visit to the Beijing Commune while Horizon was being shown. I experienced some very powerful emotions as I was immersed in those few select visual stimuli. Despite their absolute aesthetic beauty, the single pieces (from the vases, to the sheets of paper and femur) conveyed a disquieting sense of death. I know this is a latent, yet often present, aspect of Jianhua's work; it's a mournful musing that accompanies his apparently well-­‐balanced, rational artist's personality, which is nonetheless emotionally richer and more complex by virtue of this hidden vulnerability.

      The same strong impression is also elicited by one of the latest of the artist's large works, entitled Discard, and shown at the OCAT in Shanghai's Sino-­‐Italian Center. It is an outdoor exhibit, one of those that may upon closer consideration, be called “site specific”; in fact, one of the best I've ever seen. It's true that, as Jianhua claims, most of his works derive from preexisting inspirations that are gradually modified and perfected until the artist is able to express them in concrete terms according to the given moment and context. I find that Discard is particularly evocative for various reasons. First of all, it makes use of porcelain in a simultaneously “traditional” and innovative way. Here the artist consciously and purposefully reproduces the custom in Jingdezhen and other places (even outside of China) where ceramics are produced, of carelessly piling up faulty pieces. The colorful shards, which may be traced back to Chinese traditional craftsmanship, are heaped inside a rigidly circumscribed pit that was excavated and covered with water, while the fragments (or even whole pieces) of white porcelain objects Jianhua copiously made use of for his Daily – Fragile series, are contained in another pit that was dug out for this purpose, but which is devoid of water. The two basins, which are quite different, evoke a feeling of “elapsed time” and convey the sense that all things are subject to decay. Yet if one wished to compare the two realms, I would say that, while the colorful underwater shards possess an albeit melancholy beauty; the remnants/replicas of industrial products, such as computers, tires, small appliances and tools, along with boots and bottles lying on the barren ground, summon up far more disquieting scenarios: droughts, famines, huge landfills, a planet ridden with non-­‐biodegradable litter; in short, they collectively constitute the quintessence of a foretold threatened and threatening sterility.

      The artist makes use of water, which in China is considered as the strongest of the five elements (the others are earth, fire, wood, and metal) for its potential to infiltrate anything and slowly, yet inexorably and ceaselessly, act upon it. This element might allude, along with the “classic” fragments, to the subtle, persistent influence of tradition, which is always ready to revitalize itself whenever contemporary unbridled passions leave some leeway for more moderate, well-­‐pondered considerations. When history is subject to closer scrutiny, one realizes that everything only apparently changes so that nothing may change – an observation common to every culture. Whether Jianhua thought of this or had something else in mind, I find that the contrasting juxtaposition of water on one side, and droughty earth on the other, is highly effective, besides being visually powerful.

      Traces, the last work I viewed, was exhibited in a large hallway within the Ullens Center for Contemporay Art in Beijing in November 2011. It is a work that is less densely packed with existential content and is instead focused on a desire to individually interact with Chinese tradition through the use of one of its most classic, essential elements: ink. Yet it is not that ink which, when paired with a paintbrush, constitutes the raw material that the human hand transforms into a sign expertly rendered on paper or canvas, but rather that which randomly drips off the paintbrush when it is drenched. The drops of black porcelain, shiny and thick, are vertically disseminated along the Ullens Center's high walls, at irregular intervals, but at the same angle, as if they had “rained” from an extended surface like that of a cloud, rather than from an extremely circumscribed one like that of a brush tip swollen with ink. I know Jianhua loves to experiment with porcelain and that he manages to obtain technically novel results. Mimicking a liquid by means of a solid material is certainly one of the fruits of the many challenges the artist sets for himself.


      I'm convinced that the direction taken by the artist in the last few years of delving more deeply into theoretical issues, which feature a timelessness that is nonetheless permeated by a contemporary sensibility; as well as his knowledge of, and use of, porcelain, which, despite its inherent limitations, has become as familiar and pliable in the artist's hands as a paintbrush and ink are in a calligrapher's, will lead Jianhua to find ever greater sources of fulfillment, both as a man and as an artist.


Monica Dematté

Vigolo Vattaro, 2 March 2012

Translated by Francesca Giusti