Projecting Dreams -- Liu Jianhua’s Spiritual Things


      There is a picture occupying two pages of Liu Jianhua’s catalogue ‘Daily – fragile’ ( 2003) which has caught my attention. That catalogue documents his important series of everyday objects made of white porcelain; in this photo, a hand (his own?) lifts a porcelain crash helmet, revealing a skull made of the same material (1). In another image several white helmets are on display on a simple old-fashioned, wooden shelf, neatly lined up as if they were in a shop or in a storeroom. The  same  skull lies amongst them now (2). This work reminds me of all those ancient paintings where monks, thinkers, gentlemen are portrayed sitting in their studio with a skull clearly visible on the writing table. It was simply and directly called in Latin ‘memento mori’: something meant to remind us that  we, too, will die.

      In  contemporary life  ‘death’ tends to be generally ignored, it is not a subject for frequent thought, but rather something we try not to think about. We no longer seem to be able to deal with it naturally, either in speech or in behaviour, therefore the skull Liu Jianhua has placed beside the helmets strikes the viewer instantly. But while the renaissance skulls were real and carried the history and the heritage – and the bodily features – of the person who had been their ‘master’, Liu Jianhua’s skull, although highly disquieting, does not relate to any individual person; it has been cast from a mould like the other innumerable  objects in his work.

      We cannot deny the fact that ‘death’ is as ‘daily’ as those many things accurately reproduced in porcelain by the sculptor: shoes, bags, miniature cars, fruits, hats, vacuum bottles…. In another respect, though, we might find it problematic to juxtapose ‘concrete things’ to the representation of something which is so un-material and super-temporal as death. I believe that Liu Jianhua  has included the skull here alongside those everyday objects to remind us how important the ‘spirit’ is, despite the fact that it is nowadays overwhelmed by so many material things…


      I feel that this example synthesises well two major components of the artist’s creative process, and of his poetic. From the very beginning of his independent artistic career – just after his graduation from the Sculpture department of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute (1989) - he has striven to express a certain distress, an uneasiness of the ‘spirit’ when it is captured, contained, restrained within ‘matter’. We can imagine how this relation, this dilemma, becomes relevant, basic for someone who has to deal daily with ‘matter’ like a sculptor. Being a sculptor, one has to develop a special sensitivity towards ‘materials’, the  physical, concrete aspect of every work. One has to translate abstract ideas, concepts, into something tangible, heavy, three-dimensional – in a way, a paradox! This is nothing new, obviously: we all know that masters like Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova (just to mention some of the most famous) have managed to overcome the ‘prosaic’ aspect of sculpture, and have reached  incredible spiritual and emotional results.

      Liu Jianhua laments that the sculptural tradition in China isn’t nearly as relevant as in the West, and remembers that in the Eighties he agreed  with an essay published in the ‘China Art Journal’, where the writer was complaining about the low quality of the contemporary sculptural works, mainly limited to rhetorical, Pharaonic, kitsch city sculptures, which were spread out throughout the country.


Conjugating spirit and material

      “Stranger” (1989) is the earliest sculpture by Liu Jianhua I have in mind. It is made of wood, a material the artist often experimented with, back then, although it was not taught in his department (3). “Stranger” has a thin, elongated shape with a vaguely African flavour, it is simple and essential in its volumes; the surface is left uneven  to reveal the cuts and gouges  inflicted by the tool. By doing so the very nature of the wood – its specific hardness and the fact that one has to ‘remove’ portions of material, bit by bit, from the original block – is revealed at its best. The head is small and the facial traits are rendered with few lines – thick lips, wide nose, round eyes. The trunk is slender, without arms, and it widens on the hips; at this point something protrudes, something in between a weapon (a stick ?) and a considerably-sized phallus. As a whole, the sculpture appears to be far removed from the Chinese style and taste, no wonder the artist has chosen the title ‘stranger’ for it. This figure, in its hierarchic posture, resembles a tribal totem and looks primitive, natural, strong, unsophisticated.

      One year later Liu Jianhua started  the series called ‘Life series’ (1990) (4), in unpainted terracotta. Here the shapes are even more simplified and geometric, in between anthropomorphic (but if there are human beings, they have no head) and  zoomorphic. They even borrow some patterns from the vegetal world. A few of the works are made of two components, facing one another, as if to express the feminine and masculine principles, whose combination generates ‘life’: a clever sculptural way to express the ‘same old yin-yang’ Chinese principle. The surface of the rounded figures is scratched all over with free-hand-lines; again, beside some hints to the masters Liu Jianhua was looking at in that period (here I think of Arp), the feeling is of some raw material, like the huts made of mud mixed with straw one can find in African rural architecture, something very basic and deeply imbued with its  original energy. At that time Liu Jianhua had already moved to Yunnan, and it is very possible that the local character – the exuberance of natural forms, the genuine and unpretentious yet forceful traits of the local artworks and handicrafts – had started to influence his taste. The sculptor is very quick to catch the atmosphere of the places he visits, and to encapsulate it  into his own creations with great delicacy.


      The next  series I am aware of is entitled ‘Natural series – green life’ (1991/92) and it is mainly realised in fibreglass. Here the artist stresses the phytomorphic aspect: parts of the human body are mingled with tree branches as in a hymn to a pantheistic sentiment about  the world (5). The fibreglass is chosen because it is a cheap material which stands for the extremely expensive bronze, and is therefore painted in a dark green with ‘rusty’ details.

      These works are even more slender and long-limbed, almost without volume: they refer to pictorial lines rather than to three-dimensional sculptures. Suspended between symbolism and abstraction, they pay a lot of attention to the treatment of the surface, which is at times smooth and shiny, at other times rough and uneven.

      Liu Jianhua has always been very well-informed about what was going on in his country since the ’85 movement, even though when he was working in a porcelain factory in Jingdezhen (from 77 to 85) and in the following years, when he was studying sculpture at the local Academy (1985-89), the environment did not allow him to explore his own need for a new artistic expression, different both from socialist realism and from the traditional iconology inspired by Buddhist and Taoist figures (luohan, Guanyin…). I have the impression that during his first years in Kunming he had the chance and the need to go through a process of synthesis and personal elaboration of what he had been seeing in books (amongst others, he was so lucky to have access to a book on Rodin when he was fourteenth) on Western masters, and of the new possibilities emerging  in his country: to give expression to personal, intimate feelings.

      This period’s works are spontaneous, honest in their naivete, careful in their approach towards the different characteristic of materials and subjects.

      The series that followed  – we know by now that Liu Jianhua feels the need to express his ideas through several works, which, when seen together, can better illustrate them – has a more complicated title: ‘A Spiritual Direction – leaving the mainstream’ series (1993) (6). These sculptures, made of dark green fibreglass, continue the previous themes and become more abstract, resembling slim totems suspended on exiguous supports (like filiform legs) which make them gravitate towards the sky rather than down to the earth. Their centre of gravity is dangerously unbalanced, their equilibrium is precarious and it seems to rely on a sophisticated calculation of static forces. Considering the fact that this series is meant to be ‘striving for a spiritual goal’, we understand how difficult it must have been to express the quest for lightness, for immateriality, having to deal with volumes and textures.


      There is a single work dating from 1994, larger than the previous ones, entitled ‘The dream’s body’ (fibreglass) (7): in it, the sense of disequilibrium is accentuated, and so is the feeling of a ‘burden’ concretely represented by a block of rectangular material, which does not recall any organic morphology. The  block seems to suffocate, to weigh down a human being whose only visible parts are the legs (dangerously leaning on the footboard) and the arms, spread out towards the sky in a desperate attempt to free the rest of the body from the thick, suffocating  solidification of bust and head.

      We have noticed how Liu Jianhua makes the best use of materials and techniques according to his expressive needs: here, legs and arms are realistically rendered, with polished surface, while the block of raw material is rough, irregular, disquieting, resembling the ‘chaos of origin’, when the single existences had not been shaped yet.

An earlier work, entitled ‘Dream’ (1991) (8) displays a similar technical skill, but is more classical, devoid of expressionistic tension: a young naked woman is sitting pensively  on… nothing: the support is left to our imagination.

      It is interesting to notice that one of the more important recent works by Liu Jianhua is also called ‘Dream’ (2005) and actually the terms he has used, although they differ slightly in Chinese, both carry the feeling that those ‘dreams’ are illusory. These subtleties cannot be rendered in English with a single word.



      While the early works are rather personal , the artist tends to show more and more clearly his concern for social and global  problems; the series of works ‘Disharmony’ (1994-97) is a clear example of this.

The artist has started this series in the year 1994. By that time he was well acquainted with the local artists, who had become his friends and colleagues; amongst them Mao Xuhui, Li Ji, Tang Zhigang. In 1994 they held an exhibition together in which Liu Jianhua built his first ‘installation’ work, made of magazines, plaster casts and iron structures.

      As he said, the atmosphere of the show was more successful than most of the works on display, which were very experimental and therefore not so mature artistically. He recalls that the artists  decided to hold  a show together solely in order  to communicate, to create a debate and an event which could arouse some attention: a very ‘genuine’ approach quite difficult to find nowadays.

      The ‘Disharmony’ series has been, as the artist himself admits, one of the first works where his deep concern towards social issues is expressed clearly and strongly. In it, he uses some lower parts of naked female dummies juxtaposing them to some ‘official’ men’s outfits, namely those jackets worn by cadres, called ‘zhongshanzhuang’ from the ‘father of the motherland’, Sun Zhongshan  (Sun Yat-sen) who was very fond of them. When I first met Liu Jianhua in Kunming, in September 1997, he was taking pictures of this series. The juxtaposition of the two elements (again, male and female) and the exposure of the most intimate parts of the female body, life-size, make these works very strong and controversial. Sculpturally, it is interesting to see how Liu Jianhua has given the women’s legs and limbs a very plump, sensual feeling, while the men’s world is represented by blue, greenish or dark-grey jackets, standing stiff and martial, like empty shells. I think he has glued and processed the jackets to make them stand in the posture he needed. These technical virtuosities have never been a problem for the artist; rather, he likes the challenge of making the apparently impossible possible.


      Another similar series, slightly more demure, is called ‘Concealed’ (1994) (10): in it, naked female arms emerge from men’s garments, embracing them. I believe these works precede the ‘Disharmony’ ones.


      I remember that when I saw the work I wondered why Liu Jianhua was so deeply influenced by issues which have a very strong impact in the Chinese society – namely corruption, and the abuse of  power by people who use it in a very authoritarian and often discriminatory way: those who wear the ‘official’ garments often  do  that. “Are these problems so relevant to his personal life and artistic creation?” I wondered. In a recent conversation he confirmed how deeply he cares for the society he lives in, and how its development affects him, especially after he has become a father and he has started to be concerned for his young son’s future.

      When I asked him whether he thought that artworks could change or influence society, he admitted that this is beyond the artist’s power; however, being more alert, sensitive and critical, artists can become aware of problems earlier than the ‘man in the street’, and point out the shortcomings, speeding up the process of self-consciousness.


      Forgetting about this never-ending issue, I would like to point out that here men and women’s torsos are  headless; a characteristic we have already found in some previous works and which will be carried on. The head is considered superfluous for the communicative and aesthetic aim of the works. I believe Liu Jianhua deliberately avoids making the same mistake of the protagonist of the famous Chinese proverb “to draw a snake with legs”: he won’t use any element which isn’t strictly necessary.



      The following series is the one which showed Liu Jianhua to be one of the leading emergent artists in contemporary China, and has allowed him to take part in many shows abroad. The title is ‘Obsessive memories’ (from 1998 on).

      I think one of the most important events in the artist’s career is the fact that eight years after having left Jingdezhen, the domain  of porcelain, where he felt somehow suffocated by the traditional heritage of consolidated patterns and techniques, allowing him no creative space, he found  a new opportunity. The artist had by then achieved a certain self-confidence and a break from his former environment for a while enabled him to realize that porcelain, a material he mastered so well, had so many more new techniques and themes for him to explore.

      In a few words: he has gone back to Jingdezhen and to the factory where he had been working, carrying a well-defined idea in his mind, that of juxtaposing traditional patterns from different backgrounds (pottery and tailoring, for instance) combining them to express very powerful concepts. He has taken advantage of his knowledge of porcelain and of the skill of the local craftsmen. Here the women bodies, in the past symbolised by naked parts of dummies, are sensuous naked legs wearing high heeled shoes, and an armless, headless torso dressed up in the most precious qipao. (11). Everything is made in the most exquisite, shiny, preciously decorated porcelain.

      The qipao is a very feminine dress, usually made to measure, that follows the body curves closely and reveals a great part of the legs through two side-cleavages. They are the symbol of a modern, westernised Chinese era, which had its golden period in Shanghai of the 30s, where women were explicitly using their sex-appeal to attract men in a way definitely different from the traditional Chinese one.  Nowadays, the qipao is worn by waitresses in good restaurants and in similar venues, by the bride in weddings and on special occasions.

      The first headless (and arm-less) women are, similar to the young girl in the 1991’s ‘Dream’ and to the 1994’s ‘The body of dream’, sitting on imaginary chairs, in precarious balance, sustained only by the back wing of the qipao (12).

      In Liu Jianhua’s ‘obsessive memories’, those symbols of lasciviousness, of corruption, of sensuality, become more and more allusive: from the sitting position they are stretched out on plates, sofas, even bathtubs. The combination of colours and patterns is very accurate, and extremely detailed in the decoration, which makes use of all the traditional motives mastered through the centuries in Jingdezhen’s factories.

      The males (in the earliest works of the series they were still represented by a stiff zhongshanzhuang jacket) are no longer there: that part is now played by the viewer who is the one to enjoy such triumphs of masculinist imagination. I think it is not relevant whether he is Western or Chinese: the visual pleasure is very much the same .

      I find it very interesting that in the catalogue which illustrates this series of works, and which is entitled ‘Delight and illusion’, the first two-pages of pictures in the book offer a panorama of ‘today’s Kunming’, followed on the second page by a portrait of the artist shopping for food in a supermarket, pushing a trolley. I think Liu Jianhua wants to stress the fact that globalization has changed the appearance of many places in the world so much, that even some of the most local, national symbols (i.e. the qipao) have lost their original meaning. One could also say that traditional China, with its morality and codes of values, has been reduced to several empty symbols and offered as a tempting dish for world consumption. It is a concept similar to the one outlined  by the Chinese art critic Li Xianting few years ago, that Chinese contemporary art, being celebrated and enjoyed in the West is like ‘spring-rolls’, a kind of food which is now more popular abroad than at home.


      What I really appreciate in the  catalogue ‘Delight and Illusion’ is the way it has been designed by the artist, as a part of his artistic production: the photographs he chooses are central to his point. There is an important section in which he carefully  illustrates  the concrete realization of the works. This is long and complicated because of the high level of technical skills involved in his work: many craftsmen and craftswomen are invited to concretize the artist’s idea. Some paint, some control the oven, some give the final retouches. The whole process, which passes through several hands, is conscientiously documented, and this makes us understand that Liu Jianhua does not consider himself as a merely ‘conceptual’ artist, someone who uses his mind only: his hands, his eyes and his ‘belly’ (as we say in Italy) have a major part in the creation.


Addition of all the colours = white

      I believe the next series is ‘Reflexes in the water’ (2001-2002), a humorous skyline of Shanghai’s, Beijing’s, Guangzhou’s, Shenzhen’s most famous buildings on the Pudong bank of the Huangpu river. The porcelain work, a long line of repeated buildings (it can be several meters, depending on the exhibition space), is to be hung on the wall at about 1.5 meters from the floor. The distorted buildings are wavy as if they were reflected in the water, and, being lit from above, strangely enough, project a straighter shadow on the wall underneath, creating a kind of paradox between a ‘drunk’ reality and its surprisingly ‘sober’ reflection (13b).

      Initially the artist produced this works painting the buildings in vivacious colours (13), but then for some reason – maybe the fact that colours anyhow fade in the water – the artist decided to use a clean, shiny, pure white porcelain, and the effect became aesthetically much more sophisticated. Moreover, due to its paleness, the resemblance of the skyline to a ghost city was even greater.

      The result  charmed the artist so much that he decided to stick to the pure white for further,  very successful series.


      The next work I am going to talk about was  chosen to be part of the Chinese Pavilion at the 50thVenice Biennale, but could not be shown there because of the SARS epidemics. It is the series I have mentioned at the beginning of this essay: ‘Daily – Fragile’. I remember when Liu Jianhua first showed me the photos of the earliest works. It was the 31stof December, 2002, and we were in Kunming celebrating with some good friends. The artist had not only re-produced a large number of everyday objects in white porcelain already, but had photographed them in the open air on a mountain near Kunming, making them become part of the landscape (14).

      Talking recently about this work, Liu Jianhua says that it was inspired by a strong personal concern, by fear – the feeling of how fragile our everyday life is - embodied by the objects which accompany us everywhere. He told me that in that period he was especially afraid to fly, although he had to do it often for his work, especially to go to and from Jingdezhen, because he had heard of several airplane accidents. In one of them, a child who was going back home with some pelouches he had bought, died, and a Teddy bear was seen floating on the sea beside the remains of the plane – a scary sight, indeed. Liu Jianhua’s strong  family ties, and his affection towards his young son, caused him many anxieties about the triviality of material needs and about the essential frailty of human life. Amongst the dozens of objects he has reproduced we will notice many toys and a Teddy bear.

      Other things have been chosen especially because the switch between their original material into one as easy to break as porcelain strengthens the paradoxical effect. For instance, hammers, crash helmets, guns, locks, boxing gloves, weights: these are all objects considered to be extremely resistant to strong impacts, and which are even designed to crash into other things. In this new state they lose all their traditional qualities, and become as fragile as the others.

      The artist has immortalized a very significant composition of three objects: on a porcelain pillow lies the skull I mentioned above, beside the small model of an airplane.  I consider it the artist’s self-portrait in that special psychological state  (15).


      Liu Jianhua has changed the display of the works many times in recent exhibitions, according to the venue and to the situation: the objects have at times been shown on shelves, as if paraphrasing the contemporary consumerist optic where everything is seen as commercial. In other cases, they were hung on the wall and from the ceiling, floating in the air, creating a destabilising effect on  the viewers, surrounded by a crowd of familiar yet very disquieting daily objects, which had lost their familiar role and become completely useless. In the project for the Venice Biennale pavilion, which was exhibited in Guangzhou and Beijing, the artist built up a three-dimensional map of Venice, where tall object such as boots and bottles were to represent Venice’s churches and towers. Venice itself, nowadays one of the most commercial cities in the world, where souvenirs and useless items are on sale at every corner, had been transformed into a display of pure white, shiny, but extremely fragile, beautiful objects.


Site-specific projects

      In the year 2004 Liu Jianhua received many invitations to exhibitions, some of which required artworks with specific spatial or thematic qualities. This attitude is by no means new in art: we know that some of the best works of the past were commissioned from the artists, whose skill was to be able to express their creativity even within strict limitations.

      The artist has chosen to go on using white porcelain: which, with its pure and frail appearance, proves to be really fascinating. The artist plays with the inner quality of the material, and with the fact that any object changes greatly after having been re-made, becoming aesthetically appealing.

      Amongst the works he has realised in this profitable year, there is ‘Variation  of shape’ (2004, 3), where the artist has re-done some oil drums in white porcelain, imagining  them placed in a natural environment, a park (16). The surface of the object is not perfect; rather, it is cracked and lumpy. These drums pretend to record the ‘history’ of the fuel, but where the real ones are  dirty and have sullied our earth, during the years, in Liu Jianhua’s work ideally they become a ‘reminder’, a clean and shiny, innocuous monument to an era which we wish will end soon – the era of (black) petroleum.


      The work called ‘Transformation of memory’ (2004) was chosen for the 7th International Sculpture and Installation Exhibition in Venice (17); it conveys an experience shared by millions of Chinese people in the last twenty years or so. I often have heard stories of people going back to their parents’ house after no more than a week’s absence, and finding it difficult to recognise the location because the street had changed so drastically: all the trees had been cut and strewn on the ground. It is a really shocking experience, which leaves us with a sense of anger and of waste. Liu Jianhua has embodied this kind of collective, common memory into his porcelain trunks cast from moulds. Their fragile appearance hopefully stirs up strong memories and a greater concern for  the environment.


      Other ‘site-specific’ works of that year are ‘Indoor space’, a kind of mattress made of porcelain squares arranged diagonally on the floor and ‘To strive for a new goal’, a painting which was part of an unusual exhibition held at the Doland Musem in Shanghai. In it, many established artists changed their name and exhibited newly-made works under false names, pretending to be young, unknown artists. Liu Jianhua’s work is a painting which, I think, satirizes the major goal China is striving for lately, the Olympic games in 2008. Lately, these and the technique employed by the German painter Gerhard Richter have influenced greatly the Chinese artists in both the artistic and economic respect. Here the artist disguises himself under the name of Xie Wang.

      The amusing ‘Courier’ exhibition, which was put up by several artists from Shanghai and with the cooperation of BizArt, had to be booked by phone, and was taken to your home in a suitcase (every work had to be ‘portable’) by a courier who had been trained to perform and became a major protagonist. Liu Jianhua’s work, entitled ‘Donation’, aimed to draw the viewer’s attention to a humanitarian case and invited everybody to help through a donation, therefore starting an interaction between artist and viewer.


Another dream

      The latest work by Liu Jianhua I have seen is the large and complex  installation made for MC1, the First Biennale of Chinese Contemporary Art in Montpellier, France. (At the same time he had been invited to take part in the 2006 Singapore Biennale). This ambitious and successful work, which won the artist the first prize, is composed of more than 6000 objects of white porcelain, which arrived in France complete, only to be  broken into pieces on the spot, and amassed on the floor to create the shape of a missile (18), (19). On the wall in front of the missile’s head, there is the projection of a video with episodes of defeats in the human history of cosmic exploration.

      The documentary which records the installation of the work shows the opening of the boxes containing an enormous quantity and variety of those white porcelain objects we are by now acquainted with. I wonder what was the artist’s state of mind when he broke  all his own creations. The disquieting atmosphere created by the myriad of white crocks is augmented by the tone of the video projected in the background. This recalls two major tragedies: one in 1986 with the explosion of the missile Challenger, and then again in 2003 with the Columbus. The terrified silence in which hundreds of people got the news that all the 7 astronauts had died is eloquent enough to make us wonder about the sense of these experiments.

      The sentence which concludes Liu Jianhua’s video, referring to the ‘conquest of the cosmos’, reads:“is this the last dream we need to realize?”


      In this work the artist’s deep concern for human fate is expressed in both a universal and very personal way: the white objects, which have become,  in a way, his symbol, and have characterised his work for years, have become part of the history of the whole world.


      I have started this essay talking about death and now I realise that the last sentences are on the same subject. I do not mean that Liu Jianhua’s thought is circumscribed by it, but I definitely think his worries about recent developments in the world are seriously grounded and that a more self-aware approach towards‘modernization’ and all the material values which are now widely accepted is the sign of a mature and critical eye.

      Being an artist, and therefore a dreamer, Liu Jianhua transforms his fears and his wishes into works which are his personal suggestions, his‘projects’ for a better world.


Monica Dematté

Vigolo Vattaro, 27 July 2006                   

Special thanks to Catherine Marshall