By Laura Shen
This article was first published on a.m.post magazine, Hong Kong, Nov 2015
I met artist Liu Jian Hua in a bright summer day of January in the outdoor café of Singapore Art Museum, the eclectic architecture combing western dome and Nanyang style arcade. In spite of the hot tropical weather, he shook his head and smiled, saying: “it’s not too hot.” Comparing to the hot pot cities along Yangtze River of China, including Shanghai, his current residence, the tropical Singapore Island is much comfortable. After ordering food with the waiter, he said: “One of the merits in Singapore is that, you can speak Chinese here.”
Liu Jianhua’s artwork Trace has just won the Juror's Choice Awards in Asia-Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2014, and it is currently exhibited inside Singapore Art Museum. The porcelain installations emulating trace of Chinese ink calligraphy flow from top of the roof down to the bottom along the walls surrounding spiral staircases. It is highly recommended by an Australian Juror, as it creates great interaction between artwork and space, and the trace is a symbol of human being’s soul. Born in Ji An, Jiangxi Province of China, Liu initiated his art career in Jing De Zhen, the breeding field of Chinese traditional porcelain craftsmanship. He worked in porcelain workshop in 1977 and studied in Jing De Zhen Ceramics Institution majoring in sculpture since 1985. “During the pioneering period of my career, I was largely influenced by western art. I looked forward to following it and despised ceramics, frankly speaking.” In this period, Liu created a series of works inspired by the social environment of China, reflecting its rapid social
transformation, high speed, pressures and problems: Regular Fragile presents the scattered and dispersed ordinary stuff, Shadow In The Water is a twisted and fuzzy Bund of Shanghai, Boxing Time is filled by clenched fists ready to fight, while miscellaneous products from manufacturing industry in Yi Wu, Zhe Jiang Province, flooded from the gigantic container in Yiwu Survey. Export-Cargo Transit imitates the busy scenario of ports, where products Made In China wait to be exported overseas.
The year 2008 is the turning point for Liu. Nameless has discarded social critics, and provides a tranquil space for limitless imagination. “Since then, I gradually clarify my art language. I notice that human beings nowadays are depleting their energy and wisdom, and ceaselessly consuming themselves. With Internet, smart phones, Apps, human relations are diluted, and distance between hearts is driven far. Under the seemingly affluent and rapid surface is the constraint of human being’s power, it is extremely hard for people to calm down and think. I want to provide a quiet space outside the ordinary life, a bright art space where people can rest.” He discovered his new art language by exploring Chinese traditional culture. He admires the Song Dynasty. “It is the zenith for the evolution of Chinese culture and a miracle of Han people, its art institutions and ceramics technology are unsurpassable hitherto. However, this return is neither a repeat of the past, nor a borrowing from the ancestors, but a new interpretation, a reflection of what is happening right now, what confusions people are facing currently.”
Merriment created around 1998 is perhaps the most known work of Liu Jianhua. The sexy female bodies in cheongsam without heads sitting, leaning, lying in sofas, beds and bathtubs are inspired by Liu’s personal experience. “My generation grew up in Culture Revolution period during which sex is a taboo. These images come from the female spies in the movies I watched that time, they usually wear cheongsam, a silhouette depicting body line in a sexy style. They have become our generation’s sex icon, its incarnation. My works represent the impulse for women.” The porcelain-made cheongsam bodies lying in plates look like food ready for eating. His works choose a third road between the post-colonialism and gender critics, an integration of both. Externally, he express his dissatisfaction for the western’s Orientalism contempt, and domestically he points out the powerlessness, materialization, lack of self-determination of Chinese women, or rather, people of China.
Our conversation happed in Singapore, a place where East and West meet, the destination for Chinese immigrants for centuries. Liu claimed to me that he was not good at English, therefore it was really convenient for him to order dish with the Singaporean waiter who can speak Chinese to him. When he talked with me about China, he was using folk and knife to eat his Italian breakfast. This image is no strange to me. In today’s Singapore, it is easily spotted that people with Chinese physical appearance get accustomed to use folk and knife, enjoy western food and fluently speak English. Or rather, this is a globalized scenario everywhere in the world. Perhaps the first generation Chinese in Nanyang are just like Liu Jianhua, eating western food while holding Chinese heart. Among the 15 finalists of Asia-Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize, there are several young overseas-Chinese artists, such as the Grand Prize Award winner Singaporean Chinese Ho Tzu Nyen, Singaporean Chinese Robert Zhao Renhui, and Australian-born Chinese Owen Leong. “It is hard to purely depend on artworks to define the identity of its creator. It is unclear in what cultural environment these artworks are developed. They are very global, the author may come from anywhere in the world. Especially for the younger generations, they are already the fourth-generation locally born Chinese in Singapore, the Chinese tradition has largely faded and substituted by western culture, modernity, globalization, new science and technology,” Liu said. In comparison, artworks of Liu Jianhua and Peng Wei, both from China mainland, and Yao Jui-Chung from Taiwan, are highly recognizable and contain strong cultural characteristics and local features.
An interesting discovery from the biographies of the 15 APBF Signature Prize artists is that most of them have overseas, or western, education background, such as artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh receive education in U.K and U.S, Singaporean artists get educated in U.K or Australia, while Indonesian artists chose to go to Europe and so on. On the contrary, artists from China and Japan are mostly locally educated, for which, Liu Jianhua is an example. Education background reflects the diverse culture and social trends of different countries. “Today, more and more Chinese young artists study overseas. It is owned to today’s economic and social condition, and it is a good phenomenon. In fact, I do not have much chance to get touch with these new generation young artists. I look forward to communicating and cooperating with them.” Liu Jianhua said.
To what extend does an artist’s nationality and identity influence your judgment to his or her artwork? Especially if you read foreign art, will you be influenced by the prejudice on culture and nation to evaluate it? I ended our conversation with the last question. He thought for a while and answered: “Fundamentally, the value of art is that it can touch your heart. Heart-touching art will be appreciated, whatever the background it comes from.”
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