How to Contemporize Porcelain —Thoughts Inspired by Liu Jianhua's Artistic Explorations


By looking back over the artistic explorations of Liu Jianhua, I hope in this essay to reconsider a broad question of how contemporary art can strengthen its originality and experimental nature by unearthing traditional culture. Liu Jianhua’s artistic trajectory provides a focal point for the discussion of this question, and consideration of this question can provide us with a deeper understanding of the significance of his artistic experiments.

As this is a “reconsideration,” it is certainly not an entirely new question. In fact, the persistence of “experimental ink” in Chinese contemporary art is rooted in this very question. I have reviewed the rise and establishment of this field in a previous text, and will continue to watch its development. In this essay, I hope to move beyond this familiar territory and expand the field of vision to examine other points of contact between contemporary art and traditional culture.

The premise of this thinking is that experimental ink art takes place within the narrowly defined realm of “art,” and whether it is representational or abstract, “cold abstraction” or “warm abstraction,” it is exploring the relationship between contemporary art and traditional calligraphy and painting. The realm of Chinese culture, however, is much broader than calligraphy and painting. It touches on many different fields, including what modern academia calls “visual culture” and “material culture.” Have contemporary artists carried out any significant artistic experiments in this broader field? What are the traits of these explorations? What progressions have they gone through? What contributions have they made to the distinctive traits of Chinese contemporary art? There has not been much consideration of such questions in Chinese contemporary art research, in stark contrast to the many writings on experimental ink, and this makes it even more worthy of our attention.

As I see it, part of the essential significance of Liu Jianhua’s artistic explorations is in his extension of the contact point—or activation point—between contemporary art and Chinese traditional culture beyond art in the narrow sense into the broader fields of visual and material culture, which gives rise to many theoretical issues regarding such ideas as the “technical,” the “material” and the “visual,” and may even lead to rethinking of the definition of contemporary art. This basic understanding sets a basic direction for the discussion to follow. The core question is how Liu Jianhua’s explorations and practices bestow Chinese traditional visual culture and material culture—with porcelain as the example here—with contemporariness, and turn them into a wellspring for contemporary art. This is also the meaning of this essay's title, How to Contemporize Porcelain—with contemporary here referring not to some specific discipline such as “contemporary porcelain” or “contemporary crafts, but contemporary art in the universal sense.


Liu Jianhua is not alone in integrating contemporary art and traditional visual and material culture, but most of them enter into contemporary art first, and then unearth traditional culture, following a process that can be described as “from out to in.” Liu Jianhua’s abnormal life circumstances and educational background, however, set him on a path “from in to out”—he began by steeping himself in traditional culture and gradually broke through in the direction of contemporary art. Then, once he stood on the platform of contemporary art, he then looked back, and returned “from out to in,” to his original craft training. This cyclical progression thus entailed constant melding between traditional and contemporary until they formed a unique artistic experience with no distinction between “in” and “out.”

Liu Jianhua was born in 1962, before the Cultural Revolution, and grew up in the remote town of Ji’an, Jiangxi Province. Years later, he discovered that Ji’an was a major literati center in ancient times, producing such famous figures as Ouyang Xiu, Wen Yianxiang, Yang Wanli and Zhou Bida. His own personal experience, was of an impoverished cultural life and dull school lessons. In those chaotic times, every family had to think about their child’s future, and while he was still young, Liu was sent to nearby Jingdezhen, China’s capital of porcelain, where he studied painting under his uncle, who worked as a designer. They were quite poor, and in their free time, Liu Jianhua would follow his aunt and uncle into the mountains to collect firewood and manure. In 1976, the Gang of Four was broken up, and the nation enacted a new policy: the children of craftsmen could officially enter the workshops to apprentice under their elders. As their own children were still quite young, Jianhua’s parents decided to change his surname to Liu (it was originally Xie) and claim him as a hereditary apprentice. At age 14, he became one of 42 “little workers” to enter the workshop. Over the next few years, he studied porcelain techniques under his uncle at the Jingdezhen Sculpture and Porcelain Factory Art Academy each day from eight in the morning to six in the evening, learning everything from kneading to throwing, casting, glaze blowing and kiln loading one step at a time, alongside artistic modeling and design techniques. After eight years, he had become a well-versed porcelain craftsman, and alongside another of his uncle’s apprentices, received the “Jingdezhen Porcelain Art Hundred Flowers Award,” the highest honor in Jingdezhen craftsmanship at the time.

By then it was the early 1980s, and the waves of the reform and opening, and subsequent “cultural ferment” had reached Jingdezhen. A book on Auguste Rodin showed him the meaning of “pure sculpture,” while magazines such as Fine Art and Jiangsu Pictorial brought a stream of information about the state of art outside. The hope to “become an artist” began to take root in his heart. Not willing to spend his life as a craftsman in the workshop, he decided to go to college as a path to high art. He studied hard, and though he failed the entrance examinations twice, in the third year, 1985, he finally tested into the Jingdezhen Porcelain Academy Fine Arts Sculpture Department. Before he left the workshop, he gifted his tools to a coworker friend—there would be no place for them in the palace of art he yearned to enter. He did not imagine he would return one day to pick them back up.

He entered the academy in the midst of the “85 New Wave,” and his experience was very similar to that of conceptually active students at art academies all over the country. The basic situation was that though the courses continued to follow the rigid academy model, information about modern Western art was still flowing in through sources such as The Trends of Art Thought, Jiangsu Pictorial, Fine Arts in China and other periodicals and publications, providing a powerful stimulus to the artistic imagination of these youths. More information about Western philosophy and art was spread by newly released books in translation, and by images passed around between students. His thesis work was mainly influenced by such modern sculptors as Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp and Alexander Archipenko, and the consideration of questions of shape, form and concept became the main line of questioning in his artistic explorations (fig. 0).

Four years of academy training turned Liu Jianhua into a professional sculptor. He went on to teach at Yunnan Arts University, and held his first solo exhibition there. The fifty to sixty works he exhibited there mainly followed a modern style, and were made in the fiberglass material popular at the time. But he then encountered a confluence of events that would have a major impact on his artistic development. While in Kunming, he came to know a group of young contemporary artists from the “Southwestern Artists Group,” including Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing and Li Ji. They were all roughly the same age, and all passionate in their quest for independent artistic language. One outcome of his entry into this contemporary art group was that Liu Jianhua began to step away from the influence of such “classical” modern sculptors as Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti, and rapidly pivoted to Pop art, with his content directly referencing social reality. Between 1993 and 2001, he created four colored sculpture series in this new style: Disharmony (fig. 0), Secrecy (fig. 0), Memory of Infatuation and Merriment. These works, exaggerated in shape and color, and satirical in content and tone, were virtually in lockstep with trends unfolding in contemporary art at the time—such as the Chinese Political Pop and Cynical Realism, and the international New Pop represented by Jeff Koons. In this way, Liu Jianhua found his place in the newly rising field of Chinese contemporary art. But it would be his return to porcelain that would truly bring him to the fore.


This return was visual at first, and gradually deepened to become conceptual and aesthetic.

After creating various works of colored sculpture, Liu Jianhua began in 1996 and 97 to grow increasingly dissatisfied with the widely used material of fiberglass: its crude, cheap and dull character formed a stark contrast with refined and exquisite porcelain, and having begun with porcelain, he was particularly sensitive to this. In 1996, he decided to pick up his old craft. He returned to Jingdezhen and produced his first batch of porcelain works, Memory of Infatuation and Merriment.

The reason this shift in material was visual rather than conceptual was because this new batch of works was no different from his earlier colored fiberglass works in terms of image or content. The main difference was the brightness and texture of the porcelain. Though they did absorb some traditional patterns from Jingdezhen porcelain, this absorption was merely on the level of visual appropriation. Of course, a switch in material implied a shift in technique—molding in porcelain is fundamentally different from that of most sculpting materials, with the process of casting, painting and firing being much more complex and requiring collective efforts. In this first batch of colored porcelain sculptures, however, the shift in technique had yet to be pushed to center stage. Here, “porcelain” served as a neutral representational medium, tasked to serve as a carrier for the literary content and dramatic images of the artworks.

In a recent discussion, Liu Jianhua said, “When people saw these works at the time, they were perhaps more focused on the cultural semiotics, the traditional Chinese material, the use of Chinese and Eastern properties to please the West... Later on, I used porcelain because I wanted to engage in this kind of material transformation, but when I used it, I also wanted to bring it onto the level of contemporary art and culture for consideration.” The artwork that marked this new level was the large scale porcelain installation Regular—Fragile.

The first batch of this artwork was created in 2002, and took part in an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It was later selected for the China pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, but that was thwarted by the SARS epidemic. It appeared in many exhibitions around the world between then and 2010 (figs. 0–0). Regular—Fragile was of landmark significance in Liu Jianhua's artistic explorations, mainly because it established a great distance from the four colored pottery series of the 1990s. There are five factors that determined this distance. First is his casting of readymade objects, deleting the process of “modeling” to achieve the concept of anti-sculpture. Second is that most of the readymade objects he chose were common items found all around us, which turned the private space of everyday life into the direct object of artistic reproduction. Third is that he did not color any of these replicated objects, the porcelain's original white with a touch of blue highlighting the alienation of these objects and the sense of unfamiliarity that arose from it. Fourth is that these monochrome porcelain pieces often had flaws in their casting, the warping and cracking serving as a record of the transformation in the porcelain production process and highlighting the fragility of the material. Fifth is that the concept of the “artwork” here is no longer a single sculptural shape, but has now shifted to a large scale “installation” assemblage, with the arrangement changing according to the exhibition space.

These five factors reflect two basic tendencies, the first being the departure from classic individual sculptures and traditional concepts of representation, and the second being the highlighting of the material and technical properties of porcelain. The shift in the late 1990s from fiberglass to porcelain sculpture is described above as mainly a material change, but Regular—Fragile already encompasses his internally conflicted thinking on porcelain as a material, and also reflects his thinking and experimentation on this material in the contemporary art context. Other white porcelain works he created in the early 2000s, such as Shadow in the Water, Boxing Time and Transformation of Memories, all entail this element of artistic experimentation (fig. 0)

This new goal orientation is clearly reflected in the title Regular—Fragile. In multiple interviews, he has connected the idea for this artwork to his state of mind at the time. As he recalled recently:

This idea was rooted in two things. First was my son being born in 1994. He has asthma, and would have to go to the hospital every two weeks. I would be quite surprised if he went more than two weeks without a hospital visit. Every time he went to the hospital, he would go on an IV drip, and as I sat there watching over him, I thought about the fragility of human life. The all white environment of the hospital is also quite suffocating. It really affects your mood. I felt helpless on a very deep level. The second thing was that China had three aviation disasters in 2001, one in Taiwan and the other two on the mainland, with the most serious being the one at the beach in Dalian. I saw on the news that there was a child on the plane who was returning to Dalian with his parents for his birthday, so there were a lot of toys floating on the water. I found this quite chilling. I wanted to use this mood in my creations, and selected many objects used by me, my family and my friends, objects intimately connected to life, to copy. Porcelain has a rigid surface, but it is very fragile. I wanted to bring this trait into the creation of an artwork.

This passage demonstrates that in Regular—Fragile, the physical properties of the material had been conceptualized and pushed to the fore. “Porcelain” was no longer an undifferentiated medium of representation, and its role was no longer merely as a carrier for literary and social meaning. Instead, its physical properties directly expressed the real anxieties the artist felt in contemporary life. The constant accumulation and heightening of this anxiety led him to further develop these physical properties, which eventually led to his award-winning work Dream in 2005.

Along the same lines as Regular—Fragile, the idea for this artwork also came from anxieties about the contemporary world, especially two major international aviation disasters, namely the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986, and the crash of the Columbia in 2003. This artwork first appeared at the First Biennale of Contemporary Chinese Art in Montpellier, France, and was restaged at the Singapore Biennale the following year (figs. 0–0). The artwork included over 6,000 white porcelain objects based on everyday items as well as mechanical and high-tech elements such as car parts and computer components. These porcelain replicas were shipped to France and Singapore in pristine condition, and then personally broken by the artist onsite, and piled in the exhibition space as the remains of a crashed space shuttle. Footage of the disasters and people's reactions were projected onto a wall (fig. 0). Facing this work, the viewer sees, within the physical properties of broken porcelain—in its technical complexity and fragility—the ambitions of humanity and their limits.


Liu Jianhua understood that once he smashed his artwork, Dream marked the end of this line of artistic experimentation. To further develop ceramic, he would have to change direction. This coincided with his move to teach and work in Shanghai. Compared to easygoing Kunming, this international metropolis felt like “Living each day in a blender, with forces constantly pushing you around and never stopping.” This stimulus led him to create a series of installations without ceramic, with the largest in scale being Yiwu Survey and Export—Cargo Transit. The former was exhibited at the seventh Shanghai Biennale in 2006, and the latter at his solo exhibition at the Shanghai Gallery of Art (figs. 0–0). Both deal with the globalization and commodification of contemporary China, and utilize mass quantities of readymade materials including cheap products and “foreign garbage.”

Though Liu Jianhua did not produce any new porcelain works for a few years, he did not stop thinking about this artistic medium and craft technique. In fact, he was quietly preparing for his next transformation. In his discussion with me, he said:

I didn’t work in porcelain during those years, but I was always thinking about it, and I read a few books. From about 2004 to 2007, I was a bit overloaded by the pace of life and work in Shanghai. By the time I finished the large scale work Export—Cargo Transit, I was dealing with some physical issues. By 2007, I wanted to slow down the pace a bit, and I was also thinking about what language and form I could use to face the world as a Chinese artist. In my previous installations with readymade objects, I felt I was using the language of the West to discuss social issues. Such works were quite effective at the time, meaning that viewers and the media were able to understand them, and the medium and form were things that interested the outside world. But it felt too diagrammatic to me. I was using existing expressive forms to talk about Chinese issues. It wasn't original enough. When placed within the long term development of Chinese art, what we needed was creativity. This was something I was constantly thinking about. Chinese contemporary art needs to have its own creativity and language. It must form its own unique traits through which to convey its inner spiritual nature. I was reading some books at the time. I had always been interested in Zen, but didn't know much about it, so I read some books to better understand it as I was pondering my next creations. I didn't feel the need to avoid porcelain. Of course, after 2005, it wasn't that I was avoiding the material, it was just that I was thinking about what to do now that I had smashed it. Thinking about these issues, I felt I still wanted to work in porcelain. That's because I have a personal connection to porcelain. I’ve never lived abroad, and deep down, I’m more connected to the culture, philosophy, religions and traditions of China, so I should use a medium with which I was familiar and able to express with to convey my own sentiments and ideas. But I could not return to the methods of the past. I had to find a new possibility.

The outcome of this thinking and reading emerged in a series of works created in 2008 and 2009. Untitled from 2008 was the first of these. Comprising a series of flat white porcelain shapes, the artwork blurs the boundaries between people and things, forms and objects by flattening containers and faces (fig. 0). The exhibition Horizon held in 2009 at Beijing Commune included four sets of works he made that year: A Reed Raft, Bone, Container and Blank Paper. The latter two are particularly noteworthy, because they reflect a new direction in Liu Jianhua’s melding between contemporary art and porcelain, and show that this melding had reached a new aesthetic level. 

Blank Paper is a unique fusion between contemporary minimalism and classical illusionism (figs. 0–0). As stated in the title, the work takes the form of a blank piece of paper. Most viewers are deceived by this work at first glance, thinking that an actual piece of blank paper is hanging on the museum wall. When they realize it is actually rigid porcelain, people begin to wonder how these two very different materials have come to conspire together: how have the lightness and pliability of paper, and the rigidity and weight of porcelain come together so seamlessly? Further questions follow: how was the artist able to fire such large, flat sheets of porcelain (in the large version of Blank Paper, each piece is two meters tall, but only 0.8cm thick, a ratio of one to 250)? What energy was behind him as he pursued such a meaningless shape? When I asked these questions of Liu Jianhua, this is how he responded:

I had the idea back in 2008. I wanted to use porcelain to present something, something simple and pure, but it had to have a certain level of difficulty. This difficulty couldn’t be too obvious; it had to be encompassed within the work. One day I was drawing in my sketchbook, and I started wondering if I could make a blank piece of paper. A quiet piece of blank paper sits before you. It contains no visible writing, but everything is there in your heart. This idea actually stems from my understanding of porcelain. You can present a blank piece of paper using fiberglass, stainless steel, wood, or stone, but when you do it with porcelain, the result of over a thousand years of developing the firing process, it will certainly be different. So I started thinking about how to realize this, and carried out some experiments, thinking about whether I needed glaze, or the technical aspects of how to present its form. I tried rolling it out and shaving it down, but it would always crack in the drying process. Then I thought about using the method of flat porcelain plates, a technique dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, but it has always been done on a small scale, making small porcelain plates and adorning them with landscape, flower-and-bird or figure paintings. The porcelain plates in those days were made for painting. I went to a workshop dedicated to flat porcelain plates to learn about it and have a look, and to talk about this possibility with the craftsmen there. They had never thought to do it this way, and I said we could try it out and see. This process of experimentation demands patience. The first ten pieces all cracked, and the craftsmen didn’t have faith it would work.

The experiments eventually succeeded, however, and they produced three different sizes. One set was collected by Tate Modern. Particularly worth noting in this passage is that he had begun thinking about how to use porcelain to “present something.” He was no longer following his previous logic, thinking about how to convey the urban spectacle, his state of mind or social events in large scale installations. What he pondered was how to present the inner, abstract properties of porcelain—properties that are reserved and unexposed, and can only be expressed through the material itself. Here, text and images become superfluous signs, and their cleansing became one of the aims of the artwork. This new goal orientation shows why he would want to use porcelain to convey a blank piece of paper, and explains why he only used bare porcelain base with no glaze.

On this conceptual level, Container shares many things with Blank Paper, but it is also quite different. If Blank Paper simulates a blank piece of paper in porcelain, Container presents only porcelain itself—it includes 37 pieces of imitation Song dynasty porcelain. “Imitation Song porcelain” isn’t an entirely fitting term here, because the vessels presented here are actually the abstraction and purification of Song porcelain. The pots, jars, cases, cups, bowls, basins and plates Liu Jianhua chose are the most common types of containers, their shapes the product of centuries of refinement, and here they are simplified further. Through formal correspondence and subtle differences in proportion, these containers compose a delicate fugue of “things.” Another means of abstraction and purification is with color: the pure celadon glaze porcelains are filled to the brim with blood red glaze. Insiders immediately recognize this red glaze as “langhong” glaze from its texture and hue, but this glaze has historically only been used on the outsides of the objects. No one has ever presented it as a solidified liquid material. Thus, what Liu Jianhua is experimenting with here is “glaze” as a material and as an aesthetic essence, and for this reason he has made it independent and shifted it from the outside of the container to the inside. 

In traditional craft, “glaze” and “porcelain” never exist independent of the “object.” The three naturally come together to produce the function, texture and decoration of the object, and the infinite variations between them are what give rise to the most celebrated craft in China's history. The contemporary artistic experimentation Liu Jianhua carried out in Blank Paper and Container are active negotiations with this tradition rather than passive inheritance and transmission. The significance of this experimentation lies primarily in the selecting and discarding of practical function, as well as the distancing from the artistic sculpting of the medium, shifting the object of artistic expression from the image to porcelain itself. Another point of significance is in the division between “glaze” and “porcelain,” which highlights the independent material properties and aesthetic potential of each medium. This experimentation demonstrates that Liu Jianhua has set out on a new journey in the exploration of “how to make porcelain contemporary.” Such works as Filled (fig. 0) and Black Flame (fig. 0) mark his latest steps on this journey.

Wu Hong

July 2018, Chicago