Press Room Details

Liu Zhuoquan

August 2012
Sarah Vandepeer

Artist Profile magazine, Issue 20, p.93 - 6

For those of us who lived through an 80's childhood, the notion of a viper's pit is a cinematic one. The snake put was a key device in the exploits of screen hero Indiana Jones, and the spectacle of writhing serpents never failed to elicit a collective chill amidst a dimmed room of huddled children. Paired with the soothing whirr of the VCR fan, the idea of drowning in snakes was a quasi-horror, a thrilling precursor to supper aand Chinese-whispers after lights out. But for young children such as Liu Zhuoquan, growing up in the political hotbed of 1960s China, the snake was not a pop-cultural figment and being Chinese was no game, it was a somnabulist terror.

Liu Zhuoquan is a rising international star and his work Where Are You? (2012) is the talk of the 18th Biennale of Sydney. This installation is made of 1800 recycled glass bottles of varying scale and shape, each module carefully hand-painted to convicingly suggest a segment of a snake's body. Collectively arranged, the bottles give the impression of a coil of black snakes teeming across the floors and pillars of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

 Where are you? is a powerful and moving expression of personal trauma. The mineral interiors of Liu's bottles convey a dark void - a ropeable beast, sealed tightly within, yet threatening to escape. The latent menace that it posits exudes the anxieties of a generation who have endured vast lateral shifts from the poverty and iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution, to the economic opening up of China during the late 1980's and its crescendo in the heady capitalism of modern-day urban dwelling.

Liu was born in Wuhan, Hubei Province in 1964. His practice spans painting, photography, film and sculpture but he is best known for collections of bottles painted with exquisite and convincing realism.

Liu's proclivity for glass bottles dates to early childhood. The family home was near a university chemistry department and he recalls an early affection for the specimen bottles as well as a fear of the forbidden laboritory site. References to pharmacology are omnipresent throughout Liu's oeuvre as the bottles he uses invoke medicine - pharmacy tonics or self-medication via alchohol.

Liu regards his practice as a form of catharsis. With the precision of a surgeon, he uses his work to incise and heal. "My recent body of work - the bottle painting series - reveals the developing phenomenon of current China. I liked it to a human body and strategic surgical medical practice. My aim is to use a traditional technique but while doing so to reveal and also strip away issues of personal, social and cultural importance."

Liu's childhood was dramatically ruptured in 1970 when he was six. His father was a factory manager and a man with an elementary school education. As the Cultural Revolution swept the country and he failed to join the Communist Party, the family members were identified as potential agitators and forcibly relocated to the countryside. Liu declines to elaborate on these painful years, but it is clear that life was anything but bucolic.

Among his memories from this passage are two encounters with snakes. Both times he stumbled upon the reptiles surreptitiously hidden in crevices: once in a classroom and aanother time in the mountains. Neither glimpse revealed the snake in its entirety  and Liu's terror has never been quelled. He tells us: "What is unseen and unknown assumes imagined fear." The reptile is a symbol of abject fear for Liu: a missing head and tail are analogous for duress.

The European Englightenment impulse to categorise and contain was perhaps an attempt to grasp and explain the world, and Liu's early practice, too, is defined by this archival tendency. The 'World of Thousands' series, shown at Art Stage Singapore in 2011, consisted of rows of uniform-scale bottles sensitively painted with medical and botanical imagery. Each bottle was replete with a miniature image of an article of clothing, a body part or forlorn object such as a loose button. Evoking the specimen shelves of the laboritory and the ramshackle objects of a market, Liu posed a complex world view. Suturing Western systems of taxonomy, which are based on delineation and categorisation, which a Buddhist tendency to understand the world holistically, he attempted to decribe the world via a library of images.

Liu is among a second generation of Chinese contemporary artists who have foresaken the cynical tropes of political pop in favour of an introspective visual language, one that rewards quietude and technical acuity. He is a skillful practitioner of a folk-art tradition that he looks to both interrogate and elevate.

Liu's work and his technique is pregnant with cultural memory. He has adapted the laborious artisanal craft of snuff bottle or 'neihua' painting whereby bent, longhaired brushes are used to painstakingly render motifs on the interior of bottles. The tradition behind this technique is one that reflects the caprice and sometime iconoclasm of modern Chinese history.

The 'inside painting' technique dates back to the Qing Dynasty in China when it was used by craftsmen to decorate ornamental snuff bottles. With the onset of the communist regime, Chinese society and traditions were ruptured and artisanal crafts such as snuff bottle painting were forbidden as part of an attempt to expunge material expressions of wealth or status. In recent times, the techinique has experienced resurgence as commodity culture has burgeoned in China, and has been adapted by impoverished artisans trying to eke out a living from the tourist trade.

Breaking with convention, Liu ornaments discarded bottles with irregular shapes. Even raw, these vesels convey the tensions within Chinese society. Many of the bottles are embossed with liquor logoes; they are often culled from the streets of his studio near the 798 art district on the edge of urban Beijing. Otherwise they are salvaged after a night of drinking with friends. These discarded forms speak of the mass waste that litters many an inner city gutter with decadent abandon. 

On first impression the monochrome interior of the bottles in Where are you? suggests a restrained classical sensibility. The liquescent residue of the top of the bottles where stippled paint gives way to transparency of the glass rims echoes the formal qualities of the mist-shrouded hills that we see in traditional scholar paintings. By contrast, the lustrous exterior of glass bottles evokes the glaze of shop facades of the mega malls that dominate the Bejing landscape with pacifying ubiquity. Their pearly surface qualities emulate the glitzy visual language of present-day Chinese urban society.

Although Liu insists his practice is predominantly introspective, the city where he works informs the themes of his works. Destruction and development surrounds him in Beijing - a shifting landscape where little prevails thanks to 24-hour construction and a canabalistic hunger for expansion. The tender desire to record ephemeral objects and nightmarish beats is part of the psychosis of dwelling in a rapidly changing urban context.

There is something dark, too, suggested by the collective imagery of Liu's more recent installations. Liu says: "In China, the word 'independence' has a special meaning. Independent thinking and individual behaviour has a potentially confronting meaning when living in a collective society and absolute political centred nation."

Like Indiana Jones, Liu Zhuoquan is an intellectual maverick seeking a greater truth. "I regard Chinese society as an arena for my art to experiment within," he says. "Any subject, domestic, political, cultural, historic is a topic for me to use and be inspired by."

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