Leo Li Chen｜Liu Yefu: Untimely
This post is also available in: 简体中文 (Chinese (Simplified)) English
By Leo Li Chen
The antiquated makes an attempt to re-establish and maintain itself within the newly achieved form.
— Karl Marx, Marx to Friedrich Bolte, 1871
Before discussing Liu Yefu’s artistic creations, I would like to list a few incidents about language relevant to this work. In April 2022, CIA Director William Burns said in a speech at the Georgia Institute of Technology that the CIA plans to double the number of Mandarin-speaking employees in the coming years. Since 2006, the U.S. has spent more than 4 billion dollars on 72 seats on the Soyuz spacecraft from Russia. Since the U.S.-Soviet space race, the U.S. space program has long been set back by budgetary limitations. Therefore, learning Russian would accelerate American astronauts’ careers. In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX to reduce the cost of space transportation and colonize Mars. Foreseeably, learning Russian no longer seemed necessary for American astronauts. In 1977, Guan Pinghu’s version of “Flowing Streams” played by a guqin was selected by NASA to represent the sound of China for the Voyager Golden Records and sent into space with the spacecraft, representing the phonographs of cultures and life on Earth and symbolizing the human desire to communicate with the universe.
These types of information are always awe-inspiring but not rare. They are initiatives derived from a new wave of Cold War thinking and competition between powerful nations. It’s apparent that languages and regional cultures serve here as political instruments and manifestations of cultural colonization. They constantly swing and evolve in shapes and forms, seemingly resorting to exploring the new but wrapped in pedantic and covetous conservative thoughts. These new initiatives and signals are woven into Liu Yefu’s latest video work Fool’s Paradise, using the “latest” as allegories of the “old.” In juxtaposition, the “old” that has been so resolutely discarded is now another clue that runs throughout the film: Liu Yefu visited the border of Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Inner Mongolia several times and filmed the protagonist Liu Huiqing’s life. Despite the old man Liu Huiqing’s extenuating life circumstances, he insists on practicing traditional painting and calligraphy and writing about local vernacular culture. His adherence to the traditional Chinese society’s village-based culture seems particularly contradictory to the current trend of seeking novelty with new benefits. While pointing to the ancient Chinese character for meaning, Liu Huiqing said, “Parents are one’s relatives, teachers are masters,” and drew the “Tesla” logo with a brush, underscoring the price we pay in the pursuit of rapid development, and that civilizational values based on conscience and rationality are gradually being lost. In the work’s moving images, underneath the grandeur of rocket launches and space exploration are the ruins of the ancient Great Wall in a state of desolation and decay, where the quest for new energy is concealed in the name of perpetual contention. Three meals a day meet the basic needs of humans of sustenance, but unfitting for the evolutionary thinking of the survival of the fittest. Liu intersperses the seismic changes in the world with the simple everyday life, compressing the paradox of progress and backwardness into an implosion of sensory experiences and emotions with fragmented audiovisual language. At the heart of his work lies the conceit and conserve of conventions, along with greed and prejudice of the unknown.
Liu Yefu’s recent works revolve around the proposition of the imagined interior and exterior, and ask the question: whether in the frameworks of global, scientific, evolutionary and radical, or local, secular, ancient and conservative, what is “new”? Liu chose to respond to the current global divisions by insisting on the everyday life experience in China. This also reveals a phase shift in his art practice.
In Liu Yefu’s early works, the experience of studying and living in the United States led him to choose outsiders and minorities in Western society as his subject matter: 3013: A Space Lover (2013) portrays a woman who leads a double life in a futuristic world. She works in an art gallery during the day and is a debaucher by night. Behind these falsely contradictory parallel lives, the work embodies confusion about the Western world and identity. Such a subjective contradiction is even more pronounced in York News (2014), where Liu Yefu huddles as a cross-dresser on a bench in New York’s Central Park, who watches the social elites jogging with indifference or intrigue. American social news is fragmented throughout the moving images, presenting a capitalist landscape where distortion, violence, and hierarchical order coexist. Works from this particular phase became Liu Yefu’s representative works for a long time. They are easily accessible, possessing relatively straightforward objects or stereotypical images of duality; they deal with the internal symptoms of the capitalist world; and to a certain extent, they satisfy the self-critical demands of the global discourse centered in the West. They may also be conceived as the artist’s test or commentary who lived at the center but remained an outsider.
With Liu Yefu’s return to Beijing, his work began to address local Chinese experiences from 2015 onward: Linda (2016) responds to the official audio guides of Western art museums with images and rhetoric from Chinese history and art textbooks, blurring the boundaries and authority of geography and information; Ad, Proposals I, II, III, IV, V (2017) features five fictitious advertisements in which international politics and racism permeate the entertainment and consumption model, presumably re-emphasizing its inherent absurdity and antagonism; in his 2021 work, Hehemeimei, the perspective from within China reaches an apex. Based on scenes of Beijing’s urban life and historical references, Liu Yefu fictionalizes a future landscape of globalization, geopolitics, and economics. The images are mostly taken from China’s Northwest regions, and the city of Beijing, calligraphic writing and painting in ink are interspersed throughout the film. Local visual aesthetics and the context of secular life reveal how the concept of “glocal” is imagined. Its aim demonstrates the ineffectiveness in attacking the universal solutions to the conflicts inherent in the contemporary world between conservatives and liberals, elites and grassroots.
It’s evident that Liu Yefu’s practice is explicitly grounded on local Chinese experiences provoking thoughts beyond geographical and regional limitations. This is also the case in this exhibition, Fool’s Paradise. Still embracing elements of playfulness, humor, fragmentation, performativity, or a cynical-realist quality in his practice, Liu has neither abstracted this subject into a specific trope, let alone pander to the West, nor a local Chinese image in the established intellectual context. In addition to the formal language, I would like to emphasize that Liu Yefu portrays real-world strife by approaching vernacular life and local experience. It refers directly to the centrality of the West and the resurgence of global conservatism.
It is true that we don’t have to acknowledge the differentiation of East and West and that such a binary perspective would undoubtedly put itself in antagonism. But it is undeniable that even if we do not adopt that viewpoint, worldly conflicts are still ubiquitous. In recent years, I have been working closely with Liu Yefu, and we continue to share our confusion about working in the contemporary art world and the choices and directions we should take. How do we understand the land and culture we live in in this increasingly divisive time and geopolitical environment? How do we face the social reality that is not homogeneous? How do we deal with our identity? In this sense, I have always appreciated the choice made by Liu Yefu. It is clear that he has abandoned the Western world’s expectations of the established impressions of Chinese artists and subject matters, a rejection of globalized landscapes, and regionalized sampling. He is even fearless in attacking and questioning the conservation and conceit of the Western center through his works. For this reason, Liu Yefu’s choice of objects to work with imbues his work with a kind of self-criticality, even at the risk of being held hostage by nationalism. However, he firmly bases his artistic practice on his life experiences. This honest and straightforward expression challenges the barriers to the perception and awareness of the viewer. When we look at Liu Yefu’s artworks, they make us aware of present issues that are not only present here. They are all around you, no matter where you are. We cannot be omniscient and omnipotent, but we should acknowledge our ignorance, perhaps the premise and meaning of why change happens.