Transformation of the Everyday


      In 2000, when the Chinese artists duo Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi relieved themselves on the Tate Modern’s edition of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Fountain of 1917 as part of an unauthorised performance, interesting issues were highlighted. While the two artists described their act as a homage to Duchamp, it was generally perceived as a publicity-seeking act, very much in line with their previous performance-based works and highlighting the spectacle that characterises certain aspects of contemporary Chinese art. What this also serves to underline is the complex relationship that Chinese contemporary art has with art in Europe and America, which revolves largely around issues of influence and contextualisation. With understanding and perceptions of Chinese art still based on European and American perspectives of contemporary art development, much contemporary art in China still revolves around attempts toeither explain away or affirm their belated adoption of artistic styles or modes of expression derived from the West. The work of Liu Jianhua, however, makes no apologist attempt to do so. While Liu’s work reflects the contemporary situation that China faces and its relationship to the West, it also reveals the complexities and intricacies underlying this relationship. This can be seen in the relationships that Liu’s work has with that of Duchamp, specifically Fountain, one of the most significant works in the development of art in the West, a relationship thatgoes beyond their similarity in the use of porcelain.


      Trained as a ceramicist in Jingdezhen, China, Liu’s work has employed ceramics and porcelain in waysthat challengetheir use in traditional techniques of Chinese ceramic production. In Liu’s work, there is a shift in sculptural language away from moulding and forming to copying and appropriating. This is evident in Regular/Fragile (2003), which consists of countless whiteporcelain replicas ofvarious objects, such as locks, hammers, bottles, telephones, etc., random objects that are related only by their use in daily life. Liu’s work has often been interpreted in relation to China’s rapid economic development and industrialisation and its role in the globalised economy. This aspect of Liu’s work draws attention to how much of the consumer goods that are produced in the world today originate in China, due primarily to its low labour, capital and other costs of production. This, however, comes at the expense of detrimental effects for China’s society and environment in terms of pollution, social effects, etc.,. The use of porcelain in Liu’s work, meanwhile, alludes to the precariousnessand insustainability of this situation, porcelain being a visually compelling but fragile material. While this interpretation of Liu’s work is significant in highlighting the position of China in relation to the global order, there is yet another more significant aspect to Liu’s work, which reflects the complex ontological relation between the production of consumer goods in China and the international art system, thereby also reflecting upon the recent, rapid growth of the Chinese contemporary art market.


      Cai and Jian’s act of relieving themselves, even if it was not onto Duchamp’s Fountain directly, but onto the perspex casing of the work, highlights the fact that despite Duchamp’s attempt to remove the industrially-produced urinal from everyday, real-life context and its insertion into an art context, it can still be used as a urinal and has functional value as a urinal if properly installed. Its removal from its daily context has not eliminated the urinal of its use value, and that it is possible for it to return to the realm of the everyday if ever the decision was made. Duchamp’s gesture of nomination and transformation of everyday objects into works of art, although one of the most significant developments in art of the 20thCentury, however, did not remove them from their everyday context in a sense. By contrast, everyday objects in Liu’s work undergo a different ontological transformation, as well as a transformation in cultural significance. In Regular/Fragile, through Liu’s transformation of everyday objects into white porcelain surrogates, the objects are standardised and their differences eradicated. Being made of the same material, they also become visually similar. Their use value as objects is expunged and they are no longer able to function in the same way as the objects on which they are modelled. Instead, they are transformed, literally, into art objects through traditional Chinese methods of art making and reinvested with value, not use value but economic value. In their new guise as art objects, they are made to acquire cultural and economic value as such through the art system. Therefore, whereas Duchamp’s readymades also subverted the art system and structures of its time, Liu’s work embodies a reflexivity which knowingly transforms everyday objects into objects for cultural consumption, for the art system. Liu’s Regular/Fragile can therefore be seen to reflect the complex and intricate relationship between art and everyday life, particularly in the context of contemporary Chinese society.


      Regular/Fragilehighlights how economic progress and financial rewards have become the overriding concerns of contemporary Chinese society, at the expense of everything else. This is, furthermore, a sensibility which has even infiltrated the art system and has led to the position where art is seen as another more lucrative form of investment and acquired for its speculative potential, which has resulted in the phenomenal growth of the Chinese art market in recent years. Liu’s work pertinently reflects the situation where due to the intricate relationship between art and life that now exists, development of art and culture in China is now being driven in undesirable directions, which will have detrimental and lasting effects upon Chinese culture and society.


Eugene Tan