The art world is currently swamped by an overload of bad art, some of it deliberately deskilled in an attempt to offset the depredations of the art market. And by art world, I really mean the global situation, whose homogeneity has been developed and intensified by the Internet. Fortunately, a small number of sculptors, both in the West and in Asia, are maintaining a sense of craft and a belief in commenting on social behaviors that seem frivolous and vain. In the West, we have the examples of Rachel Whiteread and Anthony Gormley, while in Asia, one of the major examples of technical and spiritual integrity is Liu Ruowang, a sculptor whose work searches for allegorical meaning to describe the advance in power, to the point of decadence, of the Mainland Chinese art world. Born to a poor family in the 1970s in Shaanxi, Liu describes himself as as someone continuing to search for meaningful values in a culture that has become increasingly materialistic and devoted to superficial cultural habits—this in contradistinction to Liu’s upbringing, which included care by a conservative grandfather, who had him read the great Chinese classics.
As a result, Liu’s far-reaching art is both open to new influences and evident of traditional culture. He is currently making important sculptures and installations at a time when the Chinese are taking stock of themselves. This is evidenced in the return of interest in traditional Chinese ink painting, which wisely asserts a contemporary connection with ink—as a way of expanding artists’ identification with the history of their culture. While the quality of such work may be variable, there is no doubt that the intentions of current Chinese artists are based on moving beyond the materialism being recorded in the new cultural upsurge, linked to high prices. Liu himself specializes in group sculptures as well as individual figures, which offer an allegorical commentary on the state of the Chinese spirit in postmodern times. In Original Sin (2012), Liu has placed a crowd of ape-like humans—or human-like apes—who look upward and outward, as if to establish harmony with the outside world. It is clear from the title—how Western it is!—that the artist is establishing his view on the human condition; but it is also true that the figures are looking skyward, toward what may be a spiritual insight that may or may not elude human beings’ apelike natures. Whatever Liu’s intention may be, it is relatively easy to read the installation as a cautionary, but possibly hopeful, tale of our fallen nature and the chance for redemption.
The complex story of people’s mixed nature is literally embodied in Liu’s striking arrangement of humanlike apes. In the field where the piece is standing another work exists: a very large open book, its pages punctuated with holes. In the center of the volume a demon rests, almost a skeleton, which directs its malicious gaze toward the viewer. It is clear that, at least in Original Sin, Liu takes a mostly negative view of our sensibility, suspended between sin and redemption. Given our animal nature, Liu appears to be saying, nothing can save us from ourselves. Indeed, the demonic figure resting in midst of the brass book’s pages, shows us that depravity is a concomitant to being human. For all we know, the book may be a bible, so that the sacrilege is made greater by the fall of humankind. It is a dangerous position to be in, one that demands we recognize our inadequacy as people in the matters of ethics and spirituality. Liu has brilliantly found that the moral complexity of lost innocence is written into everyone’s story, no matter whether it be private or public. He offers little solace besides a vertical gaze taken up by ape-men just barely human. As a statement of our dual nature, Original Sin is powerfully compelling.
The works of Liu demonstrate a knowledge of Western art even as they propose a dominantly Chinese origin and identity. Original Sin suggests, in its lineup of figures, the headless torsos created by Polish-born sculptor Magdelena Abaknowicz, often placed outside on field grounds; additionally, the giant book with torn pages, also placed outdoors by Liu, recalls the leaden tomes produced by Anselm Kiefer, the noted German artist. Other works refer to China’s great past, for example, the Chinese terra cotta warriors found and still being restored in Xian, a city in the southwest of China. Clearly this is an artist who has done his homework, although his allegiance to contemporary culture is strongly felt and maintained. One of the challenges facing Chinese contemporary artists is to determine just how much Western influence is acceptable in their work. The artists who work today rely on a cultural eclecticism and even embrace appropriation rather than transforming the influence of an artist from another geography. The boldness of the cultural theft is not seen as plagiarizing because the borrowing is so open to the artist’s audience. In any case, Liu’s quotations seem generally minor; he gives the nod to other sculptors in ways that support his own art. The influences are therefore subsumed within a framework that supports him effectively as a Chinese, rather than international, artist.
In the sculptural installation entitled Wolves Coming (2008-10), Liu looks again to allegory, perhaps in a perspective that acknowledges the international strength of art as political analogy. In a wide-open field of the Hills Golf Club in New Zealand, Liu has created a powerful environment, in which hostile, snarling wolves surround a single figure, a Chinese soldier who raises a sword In order to protect himself. In fact, the situation seems hopeless because the warrior is alone and surrounded by dozens of animals. Like much of Liu’s allegorical pieces, the meaning of Wolves Coming is only too clear—we are at the mercy of antagonistic forces bent upon destroying the individual. This may be a realist point from an artist who comes from China’s communal mindset, but the truth is that the installation can be read as politically as well. Does the work indicate that the country of China is surrounded by aggression? Or does it ask whether it is possible for a single person to stand up to overwhelmingly hostile attacks? Perhaps, too, it is a reading of the government converging on an individual of integrity, although such an interpretation, made by a Chinese art critic, might well put the writer in trouble with political authorities.
So Liu, despite his freedom to make art that possesses social commentary, must be careful not to make his allusions too specific, lest those in power crack down on him, as they have done so often with the members of the Chinese intelligentsia who are critical of the status quo. The fear of imprisonment is real—we remember Ai WeiWei’s disappearance a couple of years ago into the depths of the Chinese prison system. As a result, Liu may be turning to allegory in order to hide social criticism of his country. But because the allegory is so large, it can extend to the broad history of people generally rather than the specific situation of the Chinese. While it is deplorable that Liu cannot openly say what he thinks, the situation also forces him to create larger allegories than those particular to his circumstances. This in fact gives his art its broad power, which stems from an actual state of affairs in China and transforms itself into visual axioms that can be seen as indicative of people in general. As a result, Liu is both true to himself, in the sense that Chinese affairs spawned the two projects described, and to his position as a global artist, which is strengthened by a genuine identification with the larger issues—justice, ethics, aggression—found in humanity generally.
Sadly, but likely inevitably, the lessons drawn from Liu’s art suggest a pessimism about our current situation. Within the boundaries of a broad-based allegory, it is possible to say many things without particularizing the point being made. Whatever globalism occurs in Liu’s work finds its origins in Chinese culture, and this happens even when we use the art to comment on the human condition. But the interest in his sculptures lies in the movement outward from Chinese sources toward a statement applicable to all of us, no matter who or where we are. Liu’s identification with classical Chinese culture makes good sense as a platform from which to put forth his ideas, which are usually couched in a vernacular that makes speculation attractive and accessible. What he does is not exactly populist; rather it bridges different backgrounds and classes among viewers by posing questions that lead to parables whose range is extremely wide. As a tale of natural savagery, Wolves Coming remains distinct in the minds of Liu’s viewers. The initial impact, like the group of wolves about to attack a single person in a square in Beijing’s 798 art district is visceral; it is only after such a reaction that the members of Liu’s audience begin to contemplate what it means. The two tiers of response—shock first, followed by reflection—is central to the work of art.
Legacy (2008-09) consists of seven bronze IS THE MATERIAL BRONZE OR IS IT WOOD? busts sitting on tall pedestals of wood without bark, so that Liu’s audience meets the heads at eye level. The heads seem to have been taken directly from the heads of the terra cotta warriors, an insight supported by the installation’s title. The heads vary slightly, just as they do among the Xian figures, but it is clear that they are ferocious in aspect: wide open mouths; fierce, scowling eyebrows; and so on. This is a work whose orientation is clearly Chinese; Liu is referring to the great horde of clay warriors who were buried in the earth in the first emperor Qin’s tomb; as many as eight thousand statues may exist, each with their own features. Here Liu is determined to pay homage to one of the great cultural achievements of early China; his heads visually quote the earlier Xian works in recognition of their extraordinary presence and vibrant realism. This installation openly embraces Chinese cultural history, and bridges the gap between work made by Liu and the terra cotta portraits in ways that promote his heritage rather than embrace an international public. It is clearly a statement favoring Chinese accomplishments, and so can be viewed as being supportive of Liu’s own culture. This means that the beginnings of most pieces of Liu’s art are best seen as originating within his milieu; only later (but not necessarily in this case), after the expression of Chinese mores, does the broadening of his insights commence.
The final work of art I would like to describe is “The People” series (2005-06), nos. 1 and 2. In the first work, Chairman Mao sits on a throne-like chair, dwarfing the smaller terra cotta figures who stand as representatives of the broad spectrum of Chinese society. The figures are individually modeled, wearing different clothes and possessing different features, so that it seems as though all representatives of Chinese vocations are shown. Here is a large segment of the general Chinese public open to view, valorized to a considerable extent. Farmers, soldiers, and workers are all seen in this tribute to Chinese people, which celebrates the collective nation. Unlike the earlier works described, The People No. 1 literalizes the reality of China rather than involving the artwork in metaphor or allegory. This feels like an irony-free allusion to the greatness of the Chinese people, so that their strength and revolutionary history are evoked with genuine respect. The sheer variety of the figures summons up a larger view of the complexity of Chinese life. In The People No. 2, we see large terra cotta figures in contemporary costume, some of them wearing the hat of the Chinese army and others dressed in the clothing of the farmer. The poses distinctly recall the stances recorded in Emperor Qin’s collection of statures: the statues wear the typical Chinese tunic, placing them in the historical past. Here there is little transformation of the original works; instead, Liu re-creates the past for contemporary times. The literal duplication can be seen as a sign that Liu deeply respects the terra cotta project, celebrating as it does the greatness of the first emperor, Qin.
The closeness of Liu’s statues to historic works of art rules out an allegorical reading, so that the Chinese past is glorified. Here the artist might be criticized by those outside the culture, who may well feel that the metamorphosis does not exist, leaving the viewer to look at mere copies. Liu is an artist who tends to work in series, fashioning groups of people in an attempt to convey social reality. But for a Western public, the literalization hampers the ability of his audience to see a transformed understanding of what life as a Chinese person might be like, not to mention expanding the sculptures’ meaningfulness to include people of different backgrounds, cultural and geographic. Thus, the allegorical aspect of Liu’s work in “The People” cannot be seen. We know from scholarship that the copy has a different meaning for the Chinese artist than for the Western sculptor; the former sees the copy’s visual similarity as an identification with the meaning of the original. But in the West, ever since the American poet Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Make it new,” we tend to look with some doubt at the copy as being insufficiently creative. Maybe the point here is political, not in a critical but in a supportive sense: Liu is emphasizing his country’s greatness by imitating past achievements. For the outsider looking in, the work lacks the bite of more recent works of Liu’s art, even as we are impressed by his treatment of earlier works of art.
In the long run, we can see that Liu is an artist who both criticizes and supports his society. It is possible to emphasize the negative implications of some of his work, but it is also possible to impute an endorsement in his other projects. To read the work as targeting the Chinese government is to go out on a limb, in the sense that a visual reading of the sculptures does not transparently indicate a judgment on Liu’s part. As a result, it is likely easier to view the representations of Chinese people as simply descriptive rather than critical. Even so, the idea of a hidden denunciation finding fault with Chinese society finds strength in the more broadly determined environment discussed in the beginning of this article. It is probable that both interpretations are correct—that Liu both attacks and supports China as it has existed and as it exists now. The allegory provides material for an imaginative inquiry into Chinese problems, while the literal honors the past. For this writer, the mere copying of the terra cotta figures seems too simple an activity for an artist whose imagination is capable of building wild installations with violent implications. At the same time, it would be hard for most contemporary Chinese sculptors not to acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishments that preceded them. In summary, whatever we make of these works, it is clear that they possess both new and scholarly interest, giving them an ongoing presence in today’s world of art.
Jonathan Goodman is a poet and art writer who regularly visits China from his New York base. He written extensively about Chinese art for thirty years. He teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.