Liu Yonggang

Standing Life


The return of Liu Yonggang was one of the most exciting events of contemporary Chinese art in 2006. He brought the new message that a number of artists who have studied abroad have acquired a cultural horizon different from that of those who stayed in the country, and that they have found their own ways of expression. Those ways differ from both the imitation of western biannual exhibitions that has been widespread since the 1980s and the success-oriented styles conditioned by the commercial operation of galleries. Specifically speaking, they have created a truly valuable contemporary Chinese art that blends Chinese and western cultures. Though it is not yet mature, it is based on a rich culture, and its way is sustainable. When critic Deng Pingxiang said that Liu is capable of finding the common ground between Chinese and western cultures, he was actually voicing his judgment that in the age of globalization, to develop a contemporary art with real value for artistic history, one must made an in-depth study of eastern and western cultures, instead of catering to sponsors of international exhibitions or art merchants by cobbling together some ‘Chinese pattern’ composed of an array of superficial signs of politics, commerce and pop culture. Liu’s abstract paintings are undoubtedly excellent, with the passion of de Kooning, the freedom of German expressionism, and acute formal awareness in colors and composition. Those were what he acquired from over ten years’ careful study abroad. However, I prefer the compositional paintings similar to the structures of characters and drafts of sculptures, with composite materials, to those expressionistic ones with heavy use of colors. In the former kind, the importance of color is replaced by the painter’s study of space and structure. That contains grand monumental wills, and reflects a passion that extends in space, a passion that is related to soil and growth, like a plant, or life. As observed by German art historian Dr. Frank, it is full of the drive of life. That is in full agreement with Liu’s personality and spiritual pursuit; it reflects some classical quality of his art, or the humanistic tradition embodied in classical buildings and paintings. The understanding of the dignity of human life and the desire for communications and feelings are by nature part of the humanistic tradition since the Renaissance, represented by Michelangelo. It was from the grand perspective of human history that Liu discovered the dignity of classical humanism represented by Chinese culture. His special way of expression, based on the Chinese and Mongolian written languages, demonstrates a great multi-ethnic nation’s past glory and aspiration for the future. Therefore, when I saw his grand work composed of 102 stone sculptures at the National Art Museum of China, the first thing I thought of, to my surprise, was the terracotta soldiers. His standing characters have a silent dignity. ‘Monumentality’, which may be defined as ‘the state or meaning of commemoration’, requires not only artistically unusual, enduring size, but also prominent, important and lasting values in history. What Liu intends to convey is his veneration for the eternal love and care of mankind. In this sense, Liu used characters, widespread and familiar to ordinary people, to break through ethnic and national boundaries, expressing fiery passion with cold rocks, and fusing material and spirit in special spatial compositions. In traditional Chinese art, the monument and the calligraphy were inextricably linked, but characters were subordinate to meanings, and calligraphy and carving were no more than mediums of artistic expression. What was special about Liu was that he broke the line between the monument and the calligraphy, so that the two are united into one. When we see his sculptures, we simply forget that line, because the two are blended into a symbol of human life and spirit. Here is involved the discussion on characters, language, calligraphy and contemporary art. Since the 1980s, Chinese characters, as well as calligraphy, have become an important public artistic resource in contemporary Chinese art. However, focus on characters differs greatly from focus on calligraphy. For instance, the artists who first used Chinese characters in their creations, such as Gu Wenda, Wu Shanzhuan and Xu Bing, tend to analysis characters and use them in the manner of conceptual art. That reflects the difference in attitude towards the written language. Focus on form and focus on meaning are different approaches to using traditional culture in contemporary art. That may be a frame of reference to put Liu’s study and use of Chinese characters and calligraphy into perspective. In terms of culture, Liu’s study of characters tends to be historical and humanistic; in terms of visual art, it tends to be spatial and compositional. As observed by critic Jia Fangzhou, instead of being legible like written language, his works are visual like plastic art. That indicates the intrinsic connection of his art to the humanistic tradition and classical art of China. The return of Liu and his exhibition drew my attention to the group of overseas Chinese artists, especially those who returned from their study in Germany. Many of them have adopted the way of abstract art. Liu is one of the artists who studied in Germany, such as Xu Jiang, Ma Lu and Tan Ping who returned earlier, Su Xiaobai, Zhu Jinshi, Zhang Guolong, Liu Ye and Ma Shuqing who are recently active in both China and Germany, and Miu Xiaochun who specializes in video and image medium. We may examine his art with respect to German culture’s influence on Chinese art. Liu’s works reflect the blending of different cultures under different cultural environments (though material life is becoming increasingly similar because of the growing exchanges, cultural traditions do not change fundamentally). In my opinion, as far as Chinese art in the 21st century is concerned, the new generation of artists who returned from abroad is promising new blood. During their long stay in overseas cultures, they have acquired the capability of creative cultural exchange and blending. They have deeper and more complete understanding of culture than those who go abroad occasionally. As for material life, since they have long been free of financial troubles and are aware of both the positive and negative effect of market on artists, they are capable of more intense concentration on creation. Meanwhile, Liu’s works proved my opinion on the differences between French culture and German culture that I mentioned when I was criticizing Xu Jiang in the early 1990s. That will be helpful to further understanding of different western cultural backgrounds, solving the general, binary opposite ways of thinking between the east and the west, and creation of contemporary art which is closer to personality based on individual cultural background. The special thing about Liu’s art is that his works are not expressions of general emotions (what is commonly known as ‘follow the feelings’), or graceful skills, or utilitarian interpretations of practical questions (the latter is originated from France in the 18th century and its revolutionary tradition, namely political and utilitarian behaviorism tradition. French didacticism philosophers in the 18th century, just like the early renaissant civic humanists, advocated active and vibrant way of life and fought against ruminative way. They were not interested in metaphysics, and cared about practical issues—moral, mental and social--in their lives. They were confident of human future and held undoubted faith in history progress.) As a thinking artist, Liu has an oriental broad horizon. His oriental way of thinking has one thing in common with the Hegelian tradition—greater value attached to unity and wholeness than to accomplishment. Its defining feature is wholeness and speculation. What Liu is concerned with are not particular social issues of a particular period, but the holistic thinking of human history. In his works I feel critical examination of human civilization and history, and the angst at the bottom of his heart. In our time, traditional beliefs are deeply troubled by the experience of contemporary life, and everywhere there are conflicts between capricious fate and people who stand up to it. Deep inside, Liu stands by his belief in humanistic values. Liu’s works produce a powerful, sweeping effect similar to that of terracotta warriors. We may imagine the scenario where his sculptures stand like a formation of warriors on a prairie or a desert. It is certain that instead of confining himself to such traditional mediums as painting, calligraphy and sculpture, he has blazed a broad new trail in comprehensive materials and comprehensive art. For such an excellent artist, all has just begun.

Text by Yin Shuangxi