Superdry- The Art of Liu Jianhua


1342ºC is the highest temperature when firing ceramics. The exhibition title, 1342ºC is part of the series of case study research that has been undertaken by the OCAT Shenzhen, indicating how Liu Jianhua is working within and against the limits of “porcelain” as a medium, as well as the unpredictability of materials and firing process. This also invokes Liu Jianhua’s years of ongoing artistic experimentation with the process and results of “melting points” and relating to his active “igniting point” within the context of contemporary Chinese art. Liu Jianhua’s solo exhibition comprises the technical means and methods of porcelain firing, specific forms, his use of media and visual language, the exhibition space, and display. It is an exploration of the intrinsic logic and multidimensional realization of the relationships between tradition and the present, as well as between material and visual cultures. 

In Chinese traditional culture, the five elements are metal, wood, water, fire and earth, with "earth and fire" simultaneously constituting and symbolizing the material world. As specific manifestation of “earth and fire”, porcelain has always been closely related to Liu Jianhua’s experience of survival, growth and creation. Liu Jianhua's sensitivity to, awareness of, and mastery over porcelain derive from this understanding of porcelain as elemental matter. The current solo exhibition manifests the concepts and visual turn that have characterized Liu Jianhua's art in recent years. These works have long since escaped the exaggeration and irony of gaudy expression, and turned from his previous work in realism and sociological investigation. Although there seems no clear and realistic cultural orientation, nevertheless the traditionally shaped porcelain utensils, such as Container, Filled, Blank Paper, Rope, and The End of 2012. In particular, works such as Fallen Leaves, Rime, and Sand reveal how continuous experimentation with porcelain firing technologies transforms raw nature into true-to-life quotidian objects and primal objects, realistically and naturally combining simple, rustic details, as well as love of the material and the object’s essential charm. As far as the theme structure of the work is concerned, it is not a grand narrative, nor is it something outside our ordinary social life. It seems that form is casually bestowed, without leaving traces of cultural orientation, creating the illusion that the artist's work is inaction, so that all that remains is delight in the texture and transformation that is porcelain art and the surprises that are caused by hands that shape and reshape the clay. In fact, these works Liu Jianhua neither intentionally pursued the glazed appearance of artifacts, nor succumbed to personalized taste.

In terms of artistic expression, the inadvert is actually a force, giving people the feeling of returning to nature and being natural. Wang Xiaosong has said, “An important source of Liu Jianhua's art is the experience of everyday life. He uses the materials that everyone is familiar with to carry out the 'reincarnation' of ordinary things in life, creating a special 'meaningless' in a strange space (Wang Xiaosong, ed. (2019). Clinging to the Surface: Liu Jianhua, 2008-2018. Shanghai: Sanlian Bookstore, 64.)” In my opinion, replication and restructuration as means of effecting transformation has changed the function and essence of porcelain as a material and exceeded the unique product of traditional porcelain, becoming an identity that records traces of nature, time and memory. This process directly corresponds to and measures the vicissitudes of nature and ecology. At his Jingdezhen porcelain factory, for example, apprentices repeatedly beat clay into colorful forms that comprise Color. Perhaps this constitutes the visual simplicity, purity and extreme dryness of his work. The tangible items in Liu Jianhua's works are gradually changed by invisible things into intangible insight and unfolding. In other words, Liu Jianhua neither limited the unfolding of time and space to the level of record, nor was he satisfied by converting the medium into a simple visual image, instead he precipitated his attitudes and feelings about nature and life into the “object’s” background color, transcending the dust of time to discover and rethink how we know our situation. Therefore, he has realistically expressed the interiority of the real world, giving us an abstract expression of inner refraction.

To say that one has not deliberately sought the meaning of things and phenomena, is not to say that things and phenomena are meaningless. An art rooted in nature and the quotidian is first of all the ability to discover meaning in the most meaningless things, the ability to elevate anything that is casual and important everywhere. In Sand, Fallen Leaves and Rope, Liu Jianhua uses a process of reproduction that eliminates our usual understanding of and judgment on sculpture art concepts, or rather changes the attributes of the original object through porcelain media. This attempted simulation results in different textures in the original and copy, function as the handwriting of a manuscript. This is of course not a copy in the ordinary sense, but a transplant and misappropriation of the postmodernist approach. To be precise, Liu Jianhua uses his artistic transformations to display his thinking and cognition of tradition, uncertainty and multiple meanings of porcelain, and thus the disappearance of the sense of distance between artificial objects and natural objects. This sense of distances produces beauty in the aesthetic sense that postmodern artworks no longer hold value and meaning. It also points to the disappearance of the originality and uniqueness as the ultimate value and eliminating the value of judging authenticity. At the same time, if we acknowledge that Liu Jianhua's practice is postmodern, then the purpose of this method is to eliminate the explanatory oppositions between surface and interiority, real and and non-real, signified and signifier, such that the “depth” of value appears on the surface. The disappearance of depth is what allows traditional thinking about depth to be broken and flattened. Natural and daily subjects have been sublimated by the artist's choice and processing, but this kind of treatment does not impose meaning on the object, but instead reflects the relationships between the specific life situation of people and their objects. Perhaps the meaning or value is generated and obtained from this most inconspicuous, neutral, ultra-daily interval, just as the audience walks in and listens to the fragile sound of porcelain fragments of Discard. It also gives the viewer a relationship between the real and non-specific boundaries of nature, and in this separation seeks a new interpretation of people and objects as well as a way of enlightenment by way of transcending the ordinary.

This puts new demands on the current artistic creation. In the past, we paid too much attention to the pertinence of art and the symbolism of works. It was if the only communication possible between an artist, his work and its audience was via critique and revelation. In Liu Jianhua's works, he uses a low-material perspective to burn through the complex porcelain process to present the natural state of daily “materials” such as Bone and Blank Paper. From traditional cultural resources and his personal creative experience, he abstracts or cuts fragments express his concern for the humanistic ecology, as in Container and The End of 2012. In some cases, a preference for porcelain materials and visual language replaces the object itself as in Trace and Lines. This subversion and dismantling of the original material expression occurs through “mutual shaping.” I have always thought that in the field of contemporary art creation, sensitivity to contemporary society and culture would lead to changes in old ideas, and sensitivity to materials and media would lead to variations in the language and form of the works. Liu Jianhua's practice, on the one hand, provides a heterogeneous creative consciousness that re-recognizes our daily experience, allowing us to re-recognize the life comprised by our reality and nature. On the other hand, processing matter via its interior, destroying the control of material through its own energy, and thereby transforming inherited use trajectories reveals the limitations of accepted visual patterns, and deconstructs the single form of matter, making the standards provided by these familiar materials short and unreliable as well as providing a more intriguing perception at the intersection of the familiar and the strange. Liu Jianhua has said, “What I want to express is not a realistic scene, but rather via natural states and familiar phenomenon to help people think about the aspects of life, time and individual emotion. Everyone’s feeling when when seeing Fallen Leaves is simultaneously familiar and strange. It is familiar because we have seen fallen leaves before. It is strange because the method of display in a museum and in different spaces reminds people to go out and have new experiences (ibid, 250).”

If we look at the transformational form of Liu Jianhua's creation within and against the contemporary period, on the one hand, we see that is a rethinking of the projection of “reality” that characterized previous work, leading him to have a new understanding of the expressive complexity of artistic materials and resetting the relationship between art and reality. On the other hand, his work pays attention to the specificity of real life, causing a kind of natural material and characteristics of everyday life to emerge. This has only become possible in the context of China’s economic rise. The meaning of everyday life is emphasized so that a natural state which has been neglected and suppressed in the grandiose narrative of modernity becomes one of the main concerns of artistic expression, enriching the project with unusual value and meaning. This rediscovery of nature and daily life, as well as the writing of natural objects, highlights the trivial details of daily life and the value of consumption. The history of natural life and the writing of individual life are given increasing significance. This is not the development of the traditional “humanist” macroscopic “subject,” but rather is an expression of the individual's survival experience on the material form. This kind of experience is not a complete rebellion against reality, but a dialectical relationship with the natural world. Therefore, Liu Jianhua not only expresses a “materialized” complex, but also has a concrete measurable space, in the form of a non-politicized, universal fashion and custom, as well as personal development, instant gratification, and chasing change in which specific values are rationalized as free choices in individuals' daily lives. Therefore, although he does not directly express the complexity of reality, nevertheless this may actually make his creation. The reality of reclusiveness makes his art retain the fine details of the lingering truth, highlighting the texture and mystery of his visual language. We often encounter such fine subsections when viewing his works. Of course, this is also related to the new logic of capital that is shifting from the “materialization” of the real economy to the abstraction and virtual “materialization” of the “new economy” of the virtual economy. However, its essence reflects the “material” satisfaction and happiness of obtaining a broad concept, which is precisely the loss of the sense of security of natural existence, as well as the feelings of emptiness such as anxiety and entanglement, as the ruins set in his Discard. Therefore, the works of Liu Jianhua’s exhibition have upset many of the grand imaginaries about artistic creation, and formed the basic attitude and standpoint of his artistic creation in the context of purer or “superdry” context. 

Of course, this is my interpretation of the relationship between the understanding of low-substance concepts and the actual logic in Liu Jianhua's new work. Or perhaps it is the elevation of and rumination on the banality of ordinary substrates—a rediscovery of everyday life. Therefore, Liu Jianhua’s art practice is not to continuously enhance and enrich the language and style of sculptures and installations, but rather to continuously think through boundary issues such as artistic expression, media, and visual language in traditional porcelain art and even the contemporary art scene. The hope is achieve mutual impact between traditional cultural resources and expressive and aesthetic taste, and even anticipating influence on future artistic creation. Wu Hung has explained, “The essential significance of Liu Jianhua's artistic exploration lies in his extension of the contact point between contemporary art and traditional Chinese culture—or activation point—to the visual and material culture outside the narrow sense of art. The field has introduced theoretical issues with respect to technique, materiality, and visuality, and can even lead to rethinking the definition of contemporary art (Wu Hung, “How to Contemporarize Porcelain - Thoughts Inspired by Liu Jianhua’s Artistic Explorations.” ibid, 2).” Therefore, Liu Jianhua’s experimental art, which arrises both within and outside tradition is not only the aesthetic or language perfection of a certain traditional category and style, but also a breakthrough effect achieved through constant experiment, challenge and subversiveness. It even constitutes a visual sample of his personal or Chinese experience in the contemporary art system. Just like he intentionally left the page blank in Blank Paper.

Feng Boyi 


Translated by Mary Ann O’Donnell