The young sculptor Liu Ruo Wang’s works all have a different look, but they are all bursting with virile energy. I think that the unceasing masculinity of these works comes from the artist’s own aspirations, and also reflects the sudden rise of China’s people. In an age that lacks faith, this is one type of precious energy. As Mr. Liang Qichao once said: “Belief is vital. In the spirit of one person towards another, in the spirit of one society towards another.”
Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s line: “The spirit soaks through silk and leaves it damp”, can describe the effect of the type of Chinese art that is full of pride, and has a magnificent, free-spirited air. I look at Liu Ruowang’s sculptures and think of the folk music of the Northwest on the Loess Plateau. Liu Ruo Wang comes from that place; his face carries the dignity of the Loess culture’s long traditions, the unaffected innocence that reflects the hardships of the life there, but mostly a burning passion for an ideal future. Hence, as a Chinese artist born in the 70s, Liu Ruowang does not have the superiority and carefree attitude of the youth born in the big city, though he understands history as a surpassing of cultural and regional boundaries. This kind of thinking about history pierces through historical narrative from the perspective of modern Chinese, and recollections of history are one of the present feelings in Liu Ruowang’s work. The face of the Chinese spirit is portrayed afresh in his sculpture.
Although they are sculptures, Liu Ruowang’s works are not limited to the oft seen forms of Western sculpture. Instead, in colour, texture and even composition, he draws on elements from Chinese traditional art, which provides a fresh Chinese manner. The peasants in Liu Ruowang’s sculptures have red faces, like the character Guan Yu in Chinese ancient literature, the colour of a jujube. This not only signifies that they are full of vital energy, but also carries the festive and lucky significance of red in Chinese culture. The clothes they are wearing are the grey colour that one can often see people wearing in Northern Shaanxi Province. In the ‘Horse and Carriage Guard’, the figures are soldiers of modern warfare, but they have an earthy colour and texture as if they have been dug up from the ground. They have all come from the earth and their implied return to the earth is something that is worthy of contemplation. The crowded arrangement of the work, which picks up on the artistic and cultural aspect of the Qin Emperor’s terracotta warriors, gives fresh expression to the idea of a powerful and unified group.
In Liu Ruowang’s works, the “hero” is not only a life ideal, but also acts as an echo of history, and is the artist’s main theme. No matter whether it is the ‘Heaven’s Soldier’, ‘The People’ or the ‘Horse and Carriage Guard’, all of the figures morale and posture, whether tranquil or in high spirits, have a focus on heroism, beyond the limits of life and death. It is worth noting that the heroes in the works are not special, high-status people, but the directly created ordinary people of ordinary history. By “ordinary history” I mean not those great exploits that shake heaven and earth, but the history of ordinary life which is of the widest possible significance. In his use of materials and in the posture of his figures, Liu Ruowang preserves an ordinary and unaffected simplicity. For instance, he very rarely uses modern industrial stainless steel, and he does not excessively flaunt the antique expensive feeling of the bronze. The figures in his works are not in complicated poses or making exaggerated gestures, but rather like Chinese classical Buddhist cave art, have an unmoving and upright tranquility and steadiness; even the stitching on their clothes is of the simplest style. These methods give the figures an amiable and approachable demeanour, pulling in the spectator, and revealing Liu Ruowang’s knowledge of ordinary people and his belief that heroism comes from the people – the people are the heroic conceptions of art and history. Liu Ruowang puts the hero back in the ranks of the people, and allows history to assume an honest appearance. Though one of his works is called ‘Heaven’s Soldier’, yet the figure is still a soldier not a general, this is a detail worth noting.
The concept of “ceremony” in Liu Ruowang’s works is also something worthy of our appreciation. Throughout the ages, we have seen the appearance and disappearance of innumerable ceremonies. Though innumerable, they all express a group or a nation’s spiritual and cultural values. They are often a society’s festivals, organized and designed by society to transmit its cultural values over time. In the life of a people, ceremonies are popularly thought to be a means of changing beliefs into something “actual” and “individual”. Through ceremonies, people can find the pulse of their ancestors, from this realize their own status and place, and then establish their own spiritual existence within the meanings of traditional culture.
Liu Ruowang’s works seemingly depart from the lifestyle of today’s industrialized cities. He is not expressing current city life; rather he looks to shelter in history, and on the fringes of today’s society, particularly with the marginalized peasant groups. This reflects a trend in contemporary art of the possibility of finding a people’s original consciousness that, after the sudden but bloodless rise in the strength of the Chinese economy, is part of the inevitable revival of the people. The Northern Shaanxi people in Liu Ruowang’s works, shouting and singing on the Loess Plateau, are not only narrating the joys and sorrows of the Chinese peasants, more so they are expressing the artist’s deep-seated feelings of his youth, transformed into a profound and ambitious reflection on history.
From Liu Ruowang’s sculptures, it is as if I can see him standing on a high bank of the Yellow River, welcoming the plateau’s strong winds, while deep in thought. He uses his own consciousness from a tired and flat daily life to emerge free, and conjures from the dust these ancient iron clad horses, to the sound of a bugle call. The souls of these ancients enter into his consciousness and gradually, a fresh set of modern heroes emerge. Liu Ruowang, in this fantastical composition, establishes the image of the modern group, and recovers a connection between us and people’s history. As I see it, the revival of the image of the hero in Chinese contemporary art is related to the people’s developing self-confidence. It reflects the peaceful rise of the great country of the East, and the yearning towards the new generation for heroic figures.
The “monumental nature” of Liu Ruowang’s works is another feature that is worthy of attention. To have a “monumental nature” means that something commemorates a state of affairs or an intension, it not only has the meaning of enduring greatness and being above the common run among the art world, but also points to those things in history that are notable, important and of lasting value. It is very obvious, in the artist’s own sizing of his works that he wants to go beyond life-size dimensions, it is especially valuable to judge and stress these focal points. In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger says in praise of Greek temples: “They act as an art work opening up a new world, at the same time and on the contrary, they establish this world on firm soil.” With regard to the figures in Liu Ruowang’s works, they can without exception stand alone, and are often exhibited outside where, surrounded by buildings and the modern environment, they become a place of monument (for instance, the figures in ‘The People Series’ stand tall in the golden winds of autumn). Using Heidegger’s words, they: “gather together every way of life and type of relation, to form one body, in the middle of these possible relations, life and death, fortune and misfortune, honour and disgrace, they reveal the shape of man’s destiny before our eyes. Furthermore, the scope of this system of relations is the world of this historical people.” Liu Ruowang has provided a definitely public sculpture and a shared space, in passing through this shared space, everyone with their present state and their ties to history, can find their place in history and society. Liu Ruowang’s works summon us out of our everyday lives, from our recollections rises the idea of ourselves as valuable members of society; they summon us to look towards a better – closer to an ideal – way of life.
Of course, Liu Ruowang is still fairly young and his understanding of history is not the same as that of an historian. His analysis is built on the foundation of his individual experience, and so his works are not the result of deep and careful academic research. Among their number there are many random and accidental elements. His view of history still has difficulties and misunderstandings, blind spots and fatalisms. But none of these influence the core reality and sincerity of his works. In short, his works, within the context of contemporary sculpture, carry a much needed simplicity and dignity – a type of grass roots persistence and self-confidence. He is genuine to himself and to his creation.
6th March 2008
Yin Shuangxi, Doctor of Arts, Art Critic, Head of the Chinese Sculpture Research Centre