Interview | Liu Yefu × Leo Li Chen

This post is also available in: English

Leo Li Chen = C

Liu Yefu = L


C: Let’s talk about the featured video work in this exhibition, Fool’s Paradise(2022). How did you meet the protagonist Liu Huiqing? What qualities in him attracted you and motivated you to create this work?


L: A few years ago, my father heard the true story of Old Liu (Liu Huiqing) from his old high friends, who then told me about it. I traveled to Xinjiang for leisure in 2018 and returned on the newly built G7 Beijing-Xinjiang Expressway, which happened to pass by Old Liu’s place, so I paid him a visit. He lives in Shan Dai town, Tumd Left Banner of Inner Mongolia, located at the junction of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia. To the South is the Yellow River, and the North leans against the Yin Mountains; other than rotten corn in the field, there was nothing. I revisited him two or three times in the past few years. Let me tell you a few of his stories.

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.


C: You have incorporated many threads in this work that parallel the state of Liu Huiqing’s life that you filmed, such as Elon Musk, Alexis Carrel’s Man, The Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld, and Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. Can you talk specifically about why they are in the film?


L: Except for Musk, the others are tied to the right wing in one or another. Carrel writes man is literally made from the dust of the earth. For this reason, his physiological and mental activities are profoundly influenced by the geological constitution of the country where he lives, by the nature of the animals and plants on which he generally feeds; what real progress will be accomplished when aircraft takes us to Europe or to China in a few hours? Galileo reduced the earth, the center of the world, to the rank of a humble satellite of the sun, while his contemporaries had not even the most elementary notion of the structure and the functions of the brain and liver; Junichiro Tanizaki discussed the ease with which people in the East take shadows, who accept the natural occurrence of light and darkness without deliberately pursuing illumination; while the palest skin of the Orientals mixed in the white people party, still looks like ink on paper; Yukio Mishima’s view on the lack of funerary rituals of the modern people and his fever for classical aesthetics… I tried to align these figures on old Liu’s side while they face Elon Musk.

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?


C: This exhibition includes many clay pots, paintings, and performance pieces. How do these components play a part in rendering the ideas of this exhibition? 


L: These works are as important as the video. They can be perceived as objects of the dream in Fool’s Paradise, complementing the materials I quoted above. The materials I’ve used are relatively natural and commonplace, old-fashioned materials, such as clay and excavated earth, as well as aged rice paper, found in the warehouse, which had been re-imported from exports. They are “self-sufficient” things that do not require me to bother others or get out of my way to make them (not including my leisure travels). Their color, material, size, etc., are all measured by the size of a natural person. Exceeding these standards would be inappropriate and wasteful for a human being. In this sense, it is a conceptually pessimistic, environmentally friendly exhibition about subtraction and the flipside of globalization.


C: The question about East and West, inside and outside, seems central to your works in recent years. And you have chosen a context and narrative language close to Chinese secular life. This approach is, in fact, challenging and, to a certain extent, not easily “internationalized.” Can you tell us how you perceive this issue? And why did you choose this direction?


L: Usually, we are against nationalism. But only in aesthetics and language, nationalism is everything. Aesthetics doesn’t have to be global; neither does language or the mother tongue (but there can be translators).

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.


C: There is a shift in your practice from when you studied and worked in the United States to after your return to China regarding subject matter and visual language. How do you integrate your works with current social circumstances? Is the core of this shift a change of position?


L: I think it is better to try to become something before criticizing it and understand it the same way as becoming it. Otherwise, there is always a disconnect, a sense of strategizing on paper. This is where the gap between the elite and the grassroots lies. I often imagine if my chef, driving school instructor, fitness instructor, and park ticket salesman friends could hang out with my artist and curator friends, would they get into fights? Would my San Francisco, New York friends hang out with those in Louisiana, Texas? Would those playing black metal hang out with those playing post-rock? I often jump to a far-right video for comparison immediately after watching a staunchly leftist commentary. These imagery questions left me to wonder for a while if the so-called critique is still worth believing.

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.


C: As an artist whose primary medium is the moving image, your works neither adopt the story-telling format nor address academic views and rational thinking but are mobilized by a fragmented, ironic visual language that emphasizes perception. Why have you chosen such a visual language?


L: Just because something is invisible to us doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Here is a quote from Guo Degang: Can you perceive Wi-Fi? But can you claim that it doesn’t exist? Reasoning is thinking once one wakes up, but people spend nearly half of their lives sleeping. Why must you believe in what happens after you wake up?

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.