From Fragments to a New Entirety


      ‘Liu Jianhua: Regular/Fragile’ is the first UK solo exhibition at a public venue of an internationally recognised Chinese artist, Liu Jianhua. First shown at the Chinese Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2003, Liu’s installation work ‘Regular/Fragile’ has been received enthusiastically by the international art world, and perceived as one of the seminal works created by contemporary Chinese artists. It contains around 1,000 pieces of white porcelain ceramic sculpture that are replicas of everyday objects such as hats, shoes, toys and books amongst many other. These seemingly mundane yet visually remarkable objects are the fragments of daily life that encapsulate personal memories as well as cultural references.


      The loss of memories and the predicament of lost traditions are the dilemmas universally experienced in many parts of the globe where economic and social changes force its inhabitants to abandon their existing values. In a society like China, where these changes happen at an extremely rapid pace and to a great extent, the reminiscence of the past seems to exist only in distant memories. Several artists living and working in China have commented upon this issue, expressing their concerns over the uncertainty of such an intense and rapid transformation. In the case of Liu Jianhua, a thoughtful observation and realistic, yet poetic, description of this transformation convey the artist’s unease about current dilemmas which his country is experiencing.


      White porcelain, the material Liu employs in ‘Regular/Fragile’, has rich historical implications as well as strong visual presence. Made of the finest clay and fired under high temperature, white porcelain has a pristine and almost translucent surface that transforms what it depicts into a somewhat abstract entity. For an artist like Liu Jianhua, who has experimented with a diverse range of materials and methods from fibreglass and steel to photography and video, the choice of white porcelain is nothing less than a decisive statement. It is not accidental that his uncle is a renowned ceramic artist accredited as a National Master and that he started his artistic career at Jingdezhen, China’s historical capital of ceramic production since the Ming dynasty. However, Liu’s use of the material seems to be particularly purposeful, emphasising its contrasting characteristics of purity and fragility. Used in the context of social commentary, in particular, the material, with its serene and poignant quality, enriches the artist’s perceptive views on the human cost of capitalist developments and the instability of ordinary life.


      However, the significance of Liu’s work extends beyond his chosen material. It is the artist’s intricate yet unrestricted representation of his subject matter that encourages viewers to create their own interpretations and narratives. Rather than imposing certain views or confining the work’s meaning, Liu often presents the fragments of reality as they are, creating a rich matrix of open-ended narratives. Shown simultaneously at Oxburgh Hall, a 15thcentury Tudor manor house managed by the National Trust, and at King’s Lynn Arts Centre, a ‘white cube’ contemporary art gallery, ‘Regular/Fragile’ extends such narratives into a wider context of cultural difference and historic distinctiveness. What we regard as history and heritage is juxtaposed with contemporary life and current affairs, and the tradition of the West is contrasted with the modernity of the East. Meanwhile, the newly commissioned photographs show the endless rows of high-rise flats in today’s Shanghai, reminding us of the Hall’s history as a family home. They also raise the question as to whether a home could become a sign of status and vanity beyond its domestic function. Highly stacked casino chips look as precarious as these flats, and they transform the artist’s cautious observation into a considered critique. Together with ‘Regular/Fragile’, Liu’s work enables us to view and interact with the contrasting yet inter-related elements of daily life in a new and thought-provoking way.


      As with any site-specific art projects, the characteristics and cultural milieus of exhibition venues have been considered carefully for this exhibition. It was not the case of finding a suitable backcloth for ‘Regular/Fragile’. Rather, the initial aim was to find a meaningful contemporary art work for Oxburgh Hall to extend its existing programmes and audiences. My choice of this particular body of work was appreciated by both Oxburgh Hall and King’s Lynn Arts Centre, who were developing a collaborative project titled ‘Contemporary Art at Oxburgh Hall’. The project consisted of two exhibitions – a group exhibition of emerging artists, ‘Fresh Interventions’, which happened from April to June in 2007, and this exhibition, ‘Liu Jianhua: Regular/Fragile’.


      My curatorial intention was to have two very distinguished yet symbiotic exhibitions, emphasising different approaches to site-specific art projects. ‘Fresh Interventions’ focused on presenting new talents in the region, providing the participating artists with more opportunities and resources for their artistic developments. The four artists, Wil Bolton, Joy Layton, Alexander Paterson and Diana Stickley, were encouraged to research the history and collection of the venue for several months, and they created new commissions that responded directly to their research. For the exhibition of Liu Jianhua, the curatorial mediation centred on the contextual siting of the artist’s well-known work, ‘Regular/Fragile’. The expectations were to create a new layer of the meaning and interpretation of this work, as well as to add a new dimension to the visitor experience for the site.


      Liu Jianhua made a research visit to Oxburgh Hall in April 2007, and agreed to produce a series of new photographs for the exhibition, along with ‘Regular/Fragile’. His original plan was to show around sixty small to medium photographs, but he later acknowledged Oxburgh Hall’s concern over the lack of available space, and decided to exhibit nine large format photographs instead. At this stage, the intention was to replace a selection of the Hall’s existing paintings with these photographic works, in order to create a physical and artistic integration of the original collection and the new commission. However, this plan also faced difficulties in terms of the unfeasibility of any kind of hanging and of replacing paintings, as well as of the impact to the continuity of the Hall’s painting collection. In the end, the framed photos were leaned on furniture and walls across the Hall’s ground floor rooms. Unfortunately, however, these works were withdrawn from the display immediately after the opening day by Oxburgh Hall. Despite the unilateral and extraordinary nature of such an act, Liu Jianhua embraced the Hall’s concern over losing its ‘regular’ visitors’ support, and decided not to object to this somewhat hasty judgement.


      The process of installation as a whole was indeed a continuing series of proposals, discussions and compromises. Unlike ordinary contemporary art exhibition taking place at a conventional art museum or gallery, this exhibition had to be modified at every stage due to the nature and related limitations of a historic building. Of course, such a condition had been considered from an early stage of the project and it was not an entirely restrictive experience. The artist responded to limitations with a great understanding, and the Hall tried to accommodate artistic needs, despite their lack of experience in exhibiting contemporary art. After all, ‘Contemporary Art at Oxburgh Hall’ was the first contemporary art project taking place at the Hall, and everyone involved was expected to be fully aware, if not entirely welcoming, of such a challenge.


      It is true that there was a certain degree of unease about compromises throughout the cooperation. Oxburgh Hall was particularly concerned about the volume and impact of ‘Regular/Fragile’, and the artist subsequently modified his plan during his research visit in April and decided to divide the installation into two venues. This decision was welcomed by both Oxburgh Hall and King’s Lynn Arts Centre, being a practical solution for the Hall’s concern, and at the same time, creating an interesting artistic statement generated by the connection and contrast between the venues. Discussions and compromises continued to the very last day of installation, particularly in terms of conservation issues and visitor movements. Some agreements were more difficult to be made than others, but for the success of this experiment, it was evident that we had to make difficult compromises.


      It may not be very obvious that there were certain restrictions Liu Jianhua had to accommodate, and in turn, that Oxburgh Hall had to provide the artist with more space than they would have liked. The most serious challenge surfaced when the Hall requested an early closure of the exhibition, claiming that the response from its volunteers and visitors was largely adverse. Curator’s talks and guided tours were offered as ways of communicating with audiences who were unfamiliar with contemporary art, but these suggestions were never taken up by the Hall. The door that had just been open to experiments and new ideas seemed to be already closing, not being able to endure a long-term vision, let alone to honour a professional commitment. The exhibition only lasted six weeks, four weeks short of the agreed duration.


      The negative response from the audience was not entirely surprising. Controversy and debate had been expected from the outset, and one of the main aims of the project has always been examining, if not unnerving, the given frames and existing norms. Commissioning contemporary art for heritage sites has proved to be problematic in other cases too, whilst its value in terms of widening audiences and stimulating inter-disciplinary innovation has been regarded as particularly beneficial. For instance, we were very much aware of a collaborative project happened in the East region in 2005, titled ‘Contemporary Art in Historic Places’. This was developed by Commissions East, the National Trust and English Heritage to commission artists to produce projects inspired by some of the region’s most outstanding historic venues, such as Felbrigg Hall and Orford Ness. Although diverse in artistic styles, media and subjects, the new commissions all made great impacts on the visitor experience by both altering the way visitors view the sites and by enriching the venues’ history through new interpretations.


      By commissioning Chinese artist Liu Jianhua, furthermore, this project aimed to explore the question of cultural differences as well as of historic juxtaposition. The existing collection of artefacts at Oxburgh Hall, such as ceramic figurines from China and other ‘exotic’ objects, was a direct inspiration for questioning the problematic notions of Englishness and otherness. The burden of the nation’s colonial past seemed to have been lifted by glorified versions of memory, and the heritage of other cultures appeared to be reduced into the object of undifferentiated curiosity. ‘Regular/Fragile’ was an intentional interruption of a construction of history, since history itself could be perceived as the subject of idealisation and of both conscious and unconscious modification of memories. The non-contextual and random representation of other cultures could also be regarded as symptomatic of a kind of prejudice that undervalues cultural and ethnic differences. The main aim of the project was, therefore, to raise and share these questions with the Hall’s staff, volunteers and visitors, and to offer an alternative perspective for viewing English heritage that is appropriate for twenty first century Britain. When Oxburgh Hall agreed to hold this exhibition, I presumed that the heritage site was also trying to enliven its history and to engage with a wider audience.


      Marking our time in the Hall’s ongoing history may seem controversial in regard to the preservation of the site’s past. The negative response this exhibition has provoked could be understood in line with the question as to whether we should let the property speak for itself or whether we should interact with its present and future in an active manner. My belief is that art can help historic places resume the culturally dynamic role they had in the past, and in turn, history can help art expand its realm and further its appreciation. The mixture of different cultures, or the de-centring of English heritage, might have made this symbiotic relationship harder to be established than originally anticipated. Art often evokes unexpected confrontations and dilemmas, but it is precisely the reason why it is so enticing and valuable. Just like history does not stop with the last private owner of heritage properties, art does not cease with temporary hesitation or hostility. Conformity is one of the least favourable virtues for art and the artist – it is encouraging that Liu Jianhua’s exhibition has stirred certain views on history and culture and left a legacy that would become a history of its own in the future.

Dr. Sook-Kyung Lee

Exhibition Curator