How Does the Body Adorn Itself with Clothes?: The Everyday Nature of Post-Political Society -- Liu Jianhua's Post-Modernist Sculpture Series


1.Self-Analytical Post-Modernist Sculpture

An important trend in contemporary Chinese art of the 90s is the use of realism as a means of revealing the angst and spiritual decay within modern society. By reflecting on the transformation of the self in a materialistic age, Chinese artists have been able to engage in a kind of psychoanalytical dialogue with their changing environment.

Since 1998, Liu Jianhua's series of polychrome ceramics have reflected the artist's acknowledgement of the mind-body debate that underlies the schism between classical Materialism and Idealism. As a metaphor for consumerism and materialistic desire, Liu places torso-less cheongsam in life-like poses on sofas and in bathtubs. From a Materialist standpoint, the artist's work uses posture and colour to convey the sensual pleasures associated with the body, but at the same time distances the viewer by means of props such as the sofa, bathtub and cheongsam, so that what results is a dichotomy in a state of flux. On the one hand, it is Liu's intention to identify the sort of interior scenes portrayed by his work with an idealised version of "real"life,but on the other hand, the sofa, bathtub and cheongsam act as symbols for the artist's own anxiety and uncertainty, because these items have already lost their old meaning as signifiers of 1980s capitalism but have yet to acquire a new one. For this reason,they are seen as a new ,symbolically inchoate"other".

This symbolically inchoate"otherness"arises from the intellectual block that prevents the artist from explaining his subject, which mainly involves the self's predicament in being unable to grasp the representative or symbolic meaning of persons or objects. In fact ,the re-employment of realism in contemporary art-by which I mean the reintroduction of traditional realistic techniques of representation into comtemporary art-is related to the need to convey the predicament and fragmentation of the self. In the transitional phase when the artist's personal attitudes, desires and interpretation have yet to cohere and become stylised in a visual form of his own, realism offers a suitable method of self-expression which not only maintains critical distance by suspending judgement, but also reveals the original background to the self's fragmentation as well as the displacement and uncertain knowledge found in real experience.

The adoption of a post-modernist pop art approach by young sculptors like Liu Jianhua, Li Zhanyang and Xu Yihui represents a major shift in the direction of contemporary Chinese sculpture at the end of the 90s. In reusing and re-combining motifs like the female body and sofa, Liu Jianhua has made them a kind of allegorical metaphor for the moral uncertainty of today's materialistic society. Li Zhanyang's works, which combine neo-realism with pop art, are at once re-creations and records of real scenes to be found in new social spaces such as dance halls, karaoke bars and massage parlours. The gaudy polychrome ceramics created in the late 90s by Xu Yihui, who did not originally graduate from the Faculty of Sculpture, are also undoubtedly important works of post-modernism.

The emergence of a pop style in many sculptures of the late 1990s is inextricably linked to the development of Chinese society and art. The social and cultural structures ofChinahave entered an era of pluralism, when commercialism, consumerism and popular culture have become very much a part of everyday life, and this has provided a new visual experience and context of meaning for post-modernist sculpture. For the sake of realistic representation, the fresh employment of the modeling and colouring techniques of traditionalist sculpture is necessary; at the same time, the resort to neo-realism and pop art by contemporary Chinese sculpture at the end of the 90's represents an attempt, on a visual level, to engage in moral reflection and self-analysis of the social revolution that occurred during the decade.

Innovative in their use of colour and materials, contemporary sculpture of the 1990s has in fact surpassed avant garde painting as manifestations of the pop art style. Liu Jianhua and Xu Yihui, in particular, deserve special credit for combining the traditionalist ceramic techniques ofJingdezhenwith pop art, and thus moving contemporary Chinese sculpture towards a truly meaningful concept of post-modernism.

After embracing conceptualism and pop art in the 90s, contemporary Chinese sculpture not only became truly cutting-edge but also a genuine part of the international cultural scene. This is what sets it apart from the 20th-century modern Chinese sculpture that came before, and signals that contemporary sculpture has finally come of age.

2.Revealed: How the Body Adorns Itself with Clothes

How the body adorns itself with clothes, Liu Jianhua's main theme, is concerned with the way in which the inner self is revealed via the exterior: it is concerned with how the body has been transformed in the 90s, and with how clothes and accessories extend to everyday experience. The nature of this transformation during the decade is revealed allegorically through the visual contemplation of changes of clothes.

Allegory was considered by Walter Benjiamin to be a kind of inorganic rearrangement of fragments. The purpose of an allegory consisting of a traditional memento mori, or a landscape reclaimed by the wilderness, is in showing that the object remains even after life has flowed out of it Having lost the ability to signify anything, the object is invested with the meaning of death by the artist, and thereby becomes allegorical.

In the work of Liu Jianhua, clothes and the body are not related to realism; that is to say ,his work does not take the kind of subtle social realist approach that presents social relationships abstractly, and then uses art to cover up the sublation involved in that process of abstraction. Evoking the death of the intellect and the body's inherent physical desire which are both contained in the idea of clothes, Liu's sculptures from 1994 to 1997 reveal, through an insolent and discordant visual collision, the raw experience and delirium resulting form the meshing of intellectual death and the release of the body in the 90s. Since 1998, Liu Jianhua has placed the body in interior scenes which combine the sofa or the bathtub with the female form dressed in a beautiful cheongsam. An allegorical effect is achieved by putting the body within a dramatic version of an everyday setting, and it is through this kind of dramatic presentation of the mundane that the reason for being and life-course of the self are revealed. The contemporary nature of Liu's work is seen in the way he frees the body from the ideological symbol of clothes and moves it towards a life of sensuality, materialism and the everyday. The evolution of the body and clothes and moves it towards a life of sensuality, materialism and the everyday. The evolution of the body and clothes is a theme of social relevance, and Liu Jianhua's sculptures reveal a new historicism through the basic style and content of post-political society in the late 90s: contemporary art is inevitably a by-product of the social structures in place, and throughout the 90s, there has been no fundamental change in the definition of what art is in a political society. A relationship on the level of linguistic evolution exists between the historical background of the 80s and how symbolic objects, the body and style are interpreted,and this relationship exists regardless of whether the historical background in question has disappeared or still underlies the present. The sofa and the bathtub, the titillating poses adopted by women while sitting or lying down, and the cheongsam so in vogue inShanghaiduring the colonial era of the 1930s, are all symbols of capitalism which have been denounced while society was still undergoing the political phase. In the 1990s, however, they reflect a post-political society's new understanding of the proletariat's mundane nature, and its dreams of a new Utopia unifying leftist revolutionary ideology with consumerism and the free market. This sudden, incredible change has causedChinato become rapidly globalized and commercialized in the 90s, and possibilities seem so endless that whether we are talking about political centralisation, capitalism or classical thought, all hold out the possibility of transportingChinainto a new era of peace and prosperity. In Chinese society of the 90s, street-politics, moral debate and social pessimism no longer exist-just countless transactions, the daily pursuit of indoor pleasures, and loathing for abstract thought. It is difficult if not impossible to articulate what the future holds. There is nothing seriously wrong with present social attitudes, but never again will they reach the kind of fervour to be found during the time of revolution. All these hidden sapects are revealed by Liu Jianhua through the transmorgification of the body-both in its corporeal form and as the embodiment of the spirit-which exposes the release of the senses and sensual pleasure under capitalist consumerism from the everyday nature of the indoor life.

Its is not known whether the changing of clothes is meant to signify an identification of the 90s with 1930sShanghai. The 30s, however, do represent a brief ten-year experiment in peace and prosperity in modern Chinese history:conspicuous consumption in the foreign settlements; passionate social life; private existences preoccupied with interiors; exquisite interior decor, fashion, discourse and recreation;matters of the heart between the sexes; amusing conversation, emotional introspection; or orchestrated nostalgia. The shifting of attention by the Chinese people from public spaces to interiors in the latter part of the 1990s is an everyday phenomenon that Liu has concerned himself with. He demonstrates the serenity, inebriation and sense of insatiable freedom that the Chinese have discovered anew; and hints at the important effect this feeling of ease has on the shaping and stabilzation of post-political society in 1990sChina. No condemnation of the political society of the 1980s lies behind the indolent, somewhat pretentious, and affected romance, for the body possesses its own direction and a perceptive power that comes from itself. The body that acted in accordance with its symbolic clothes has died by the 1990s, when another kind of mass-consumption politics arising out of the depths of desire has come into being.

3. Allegory: The Everyday Nature of Post-Political Society

The everyday nature of post-political society and its new characteristics have become an important theme for contemporary Chinese art in the late 1990s. As a motif, this represents a conclusion to the relationship between art during the era of political society and the dualistic effect of visual symbolism and pure formalism within the social fabric. Chinese society, now characterized by its post-ideological structure, is also fast becoming globalized as a result of mass media, commerce, international trade and entertainment culture. The unprecedented nature of this socio-cultural setting has come to be a favourite theme in contemporary Chinese art, and through direct means which portray the external appearance of objects as they are-whether by means of language, realist painting, sculpture and photography-the latent power of new subject matter is allowed to shine through, in much the same way that the depiction of budding youth is also an affirmation of the promise that it holds. Liu Jianhua's post-modernist sculptures are like photographic reproductions, in that they are photographlike impressions in terms of their visual effect. The relatively small size of his models and props intensifies the allegory's visual drama, and the use of lustrous ceramic as the material is also a means of putting sculpture on the level of concept art. The return of contemporary art to the everyday has breathed new life into realist techniques,which are no longer confined to pure social portrayal against a backdrop of critical realism, but may be used to unravel the agonies of the everyday suffered by the current generation. Fantasy, the games the masses play, and the freedom of self-release are all included within the great politico-cultural transformation of the 90s,and as a result contemporary art has found a mode of expression suited to a culture of mass-consumption and politics concerned with finding a equilibrium. On the broader level, it is an intrinsic requirement that this mode of expression should belong to a form of post-political artistic concept, based upon a moral and political legitimacy appropriate to the here and now.

As it heads toward the future, the art of post-political society must move in the direction of self-revelation to have any hope of discovering a new moral centre. Just like the allegorical scenes in Liu Jianhua's work, we are leaving behind the uncertainties of the past in a time of social transition,and as the resultant inner turmoil causes our bodies to be ill at ease even in repose, we need to step outside our bodies and treat them as objects for detached observation. This is the point of Liu's allegory.

Zhu Qi

6 March 2000


Translated by Trevor morris