Interview | Liu Yefu × Leo Li Chen
This post is also available in: English
Liu Yefu = L
Old Liu said he once wrote many village history and manuscripts that were stolen. He chased the thief and saw them hop onto a van, but he stopped there. Once he got home and calmed down, he wrote a couplet (I only remember the top line), “Kong Yiji stealing books is not considered stealing.” He stuck them on the pillars at home, and then he felt at ease.
Old Liu is careless of personal hygiene and almost never brushes his teeth and washes his face. Leftovers are considered precious to him, urinating and defecating anywhere he’d like, and he has never been married. Old Liu stressed to me at the dinner table: that it suffices for people to pursue spirituality. Then he talked about the Medieval? and the Renaissance, Sun Yat-sen, and the Three Principles of the People, and he didn’t bother to eat his meal.
The village promised Old Liu to preside over the construction of a shrine but put it off repeatedly. In the meantime, he painted countless murals and wrote several cabinets of novel manuscripts for this matter. Later, the shrine project was aborted, and he had to move out of the village home for the elderly where he had been living. Old Liu had to go home to continue his work. He wrote “Filth-ridden Thatched Cottage” to his dilapidated house on a plaque.
These are the tip of the iceberg. Old Liu contradicts urbanization, elite education, and middle-class aspirations. It seems that the will he embodies is at odds with modernity; isn’t that amazing? Although Old Liu pursued democracy and freedom, his life was nevertheless filled with nationalistic sentiments: he was motivated to restore the Qing Dynasty’s territory, reclaim Vladivostok, and so on. Every time I look closely at Old Liu’s face, I can see the irrefutable appearance of older men of the past; on the contrary, I feel that he is a weakling in modern society. Incontournable historical conditions certainly shaped old Liu, but even then, his actions went against the White Leftist championed hypocritical humanitarian concerns, vegetarianism, hippie, bohemian, environmentalism, petty capitalism, and a large number of social activists. But, but, but (important things had to be said three times); please note that Old Liu is also an artist.
Sometimes I wonder about the immigrants living in a suburban school district in the United States who brag with one another about their offspring’s acceptance letters from Stanford, Cornell, and Yale. When their kids enter the workforce, they find desirable spouses and repeat this process for future generations. They are unconsciously perfecting the eugenics experiment while opposing it.
I also don’t understand why many artists form cliques and play together to initiate movements and promote certain ideologies together. Artists are primarily dictators when it comes to their work. What’s so bad about solitude? What’s wrong with coming and going alone?
What I mean here by opposing the globalization of languages is not that I am against linguistic development and evolution or even networks, but that in the process of development we need to know what should be preserved. Our unfamiliarity with language is similar to not understanding the internal structure of our bodies. Although people are about to land on Mars, they panic when a little virus comes. It’s not easy to get themselves together and figure it out.
The work The Stolen Mandarin/The Missing Mandarin(2022) in this exhibition addresses the loss of language. Mandarin (official language) means both the language and the fruit in English, and stolen is another pun, so I made a lot of small but straightforward orange peels. They are familiar native fruit, peeled and dried, easily stolen and ignored, which is similar to the situation of language at the moment. Furthermore, I’ve seen many exhibitions addressing various local issues, but behind which pertain to stories of globalization, for example, early immigration, colonization, trade, study abroad, smuggling, and so on. These stories seem unanimously explainable by a globally understood language as if they are more empathetic because of their mobile, nomadic nature. However, stories on the Mainland do not come from such a background. Many people have lived in one place for generations and are narrow-minded, closed-off, and even very ignorant. Their understanding of the outside world relies on personal imagination, and everything they know happens on their same patch of land. Yao Erga as Gurunmu in In the Heat of the Sun, the foolish Erdou in the TV series White Deer Plain, or maybe Quasimodo, the clock tower freak, all share this characteristic.
Whether a work of art would circulate internationally is not a question for the artist to consider.
I feel like a fool living in Beijing these past few years, not from the logic of my thinking but from a lack of experience. Especially since I am from the North, without haipai culture, some of the conservative streaks are still obvious. Why do I consume this food, and how do the carbohydrates from flour-based food differentiate me from rice-eaters? Why is it that the North brags and the South speaks and works with efficiency? Why do we go with the flow and foreigners go on strikes and demonstrations? Why is spiritual triumph applied clinically in contemporary psychotherapy? What are the deeper reasons for these phenomena? Although many of them are stereotypes, they exist nevertheless.
Had I to comment on a change in position, I think it’s probably similar to believing that playing rock and roll and electronic stuff is pretty awesome and advanced, but now I believe listening to comic songs and playing guqin, and the wooden fish is pretty amazing. Or maybe it’s a linguistic shift. In China, there is a lot of discomfort in applying the subject-object dichotomy in language to deal with problems, or that language and life here are always in conflict. I think it’s crucial not to use a fixed language to understand artworks. I think this kind of friction delays and postpones treatment. It would be much better to adopt a more conservative approach: dedicate some efforts to reviewing Chinese. Although I made many references to Western texts in this exhibition, they are empirical and sensory-oriented, not rational and speculative.
The paintings Dreamy Dreamy, Yummy Yummy, and World-Weary Family(2022) imply this. One is painted, the other collaged. I rip half off once it’s painted. Dreaming about shit in one’s sleep and then smiling; a family’s failure to commit suicide, but fails halfway make them embarrassed and annoyed, are the scenarios that come to my mind instantly. Would you consider them rational? The different quality footage mixed in my videos, sound pieced together since I made York News(2014), is my own filming and production. These are the characteristics of video art; unlike cinema, whose production requires a team, video work is not the outcome of an industrial process but more like drawing sketches. I’m not too fond of high-definition films, the human eye doesn’t need those superficially beautiful images, as evidenced by watching Tiktok and Snapchat, and your childhood videos, you’d giggle all the same.