Anthropic landscapes of urban environments / Liu Wei

BY ALICE ZUCCA

Liu Wei’s artistic stance can be very briefly summarized by saying that the idea of art should not be intended as a creative action but rather as a “product” of extrapolation. Wei extracts from what already exists, new ways of interaction and fruition, capsizing the perspective and allowing us to see reality from a different angle. In doing so, Liu Wei experiments with several ways of expressing himself through the various disciplines of figurative art, producing his works by using diversified physical supports, in constant research for the best approach which would let him convey his message in the most efficient manner. He challenges us, provoking us to investigate our ability to grab the essence of reality, suggesting that our very attempt to comprehend it might disturb it due to the effort we put in trying to understand. The artist works with everyday objects which he re-elaborates and reorganizes converting them into complex installations. This process is never the result of pure chance, instead it is thoroughly thought out and consciously contextualized in a semantic stratification with the aim to deliberately induce in the viewer an instinctive and unavoidable reaction.  When it comes down to reproducing reality the key features of Wei’s work point inevitably to architecture and urban planning, in his analysis he has a positive opinion of the city as a space full of vital energy but he criticizes the structure and organization of life in urban areas. Growing up in Beijing during a period of strong urbanization, he was a witness of the uncontrolled expansion of the Chinese capital city and he found himself spontaneously driven to make buildings and cities as subjects of his works identifying them as a concrete and effective model for reality. 

Liu Wei, Purple Air 2016 No.1, 2016, Oil on canvas, 300×300 cm , © Liu Wei, Courtesy  Long March Space

In the “Purple Air” series, geometric shapes and digital lines recall vibrant urban landscapes, here Liu Wei makes use of digital techniques. The digital world is an infinite set of zero and one, which can be anything and its opposite, where everything already exists. Therefore, here, the choice has to be considered the only creative action possible. This is not meant to diminish or limit the artistic creativity since the digital realm offers a virtually unlimited number of options and, as the artist himself says, “this makes it more real, because life is a constant choice”.  The investigation of reality and existence are the keystone of his research, so urbanization and its consequences establish themselves as a fundamental part of Liu Wei’s art. 

Liu Wei, Discovery, No.17, 2006, Lightbox Dimensions variable © Liu Wei, Courtesy Lehmann Maupin 

In his 2006 series called “Property of L.W.”, here the artist, through the application of a label which recalls the title of the series, claims property of the debris coming from buildings which were demolished following the hectic urban growth which affected the city of Beijing amongst others. Taking inspiration from the practice of Duchamp’s ready-made objects, he goes a step further, also approaching a social connotation. Through labeling the objects with his name he wants to expose the fast obsolescence of goods in the age of consumerism and the human labor which is closely intertwined with it and it’s subjected to the same fate. Liu Wei’s art takes the ordinary, the usual, what is familiar and we gather almost unaware, and turns it into something to view from another perspective, detached from the eye of the common consumer but still linking it to the reality surrounding us which remains his preferred field of action.

Liu Wei, Panorama No.3, 2015-2016, Oil on canvas, 300×180 cm , © Liu Wei, Courtesy  Long March Space

Liu Wei’s work cleverly mixes fantasy and rationality. Comparing the unruly chaos of the contemporary urban landscape with the strict order of rigorously controlled political and social structures to accomplish a peculiar standard of artistic transposition. His multifaceted compositions (of digital lines, geometrical structures, found objects and so on) inevitably end up always evoking the urban layout of the contemporary city and the values, laws and feelings regulating the life of the inhabitants that animate it. And it is from the urban context and its being intertwined with the life of men, that his compositions arise, transporting the observer in the midst of a lively daily environment full of architectural structures and stimulating social interactions.

Liu Wei, Panorama No.2, 2015-2016, Oil on canvas, 350 x 800 cm, Installation view, Al Riwaq, Doha, 2016
Photograph: Wen-You Cai, Courtesy  Long March Space

Liu Wei’s paintings in fact depict architecture and urban life but, according to the artist, this is not a theme that he intentionally decided to explore, but he does so because buildings and cities are the model of human existence in itself. He transfigures urban architecture to describe anthropic life by using the buildings of the city to represent a model of the human condition. The large amount of objects found and used by Wei such as wood, various metals, water pipes, fixtures and other waste, is used to create large-scale structures that connect to the surrounding landscape becoming an integral part of the place where they come from. There is an evident creative correlation between the physical mass of objects and the function they had in the context from which they were extrapolated. In this perspective, it is easy to understand how the study of the development of the urban landscape leads the artist to inevitably analyze complex socio-political topics. According to Wei, art and politics are not connected in an abstract manner but they are concretely linked and always affiliated to the human existence, conditioning our lifestyle and our reality.

Liu Wei, Love It, Bite It No.3, 2014, Ox-hide, wood, steel, dimensions variable, Installation view, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 2015 © Liu Wei, Courtesy  Long March Space

Love it! Bite it! is a miniature representation of a city with some of the most representative buildings of western society. It is built entirely from dogs chews and eloquently expresses the artist’s critical position regarding wealthy in society. Each building appears as decadent, evoking a sense of total destruction. When the artist happened to see his dog licking an ox’s ear (the ox’s ear in China is a metaphor for authority) he thought of removing from the city all the buildings that represented a symbol of the power. He compares man’s desire for power and with the dog’s desire to chew in order to present his spectacular and grotesque view of the world. The 25 buildings, from the Pentagon to St. Peter’s Basilica, from the Colosseum to the Guggenheim, from Tiananmen Square to the United States Capitol in Washington and the Tate Modern, are evocative emblems of political, cultural or military power. By showing us these buildings the artist encourages our disorientation, they are famous symbols of power deliberately made with fragile and malleable materials, they have their details distorted as if they were to crumble together with what they represent. The result is an impressive, emblematic and decadent post-apocalyptic scenario.

Alice Zucca