Liu Wei is one of China’s leading contemporary artists widely acclaimed for his diverse practices across painting, sculpture, installation and photography. Breaking away from a generation of artists who were subversively referencing politics, he forges a uniquely abstract style that alludes to his experiences in the chaos and disorder accompanying the ever-shifting material landscape.
A compelling example from the seminal Purple Air series, Purple Air IV-4 conveys a fragmented vision of a congested and gridded city. Evoking a rapidly rising cityscape, the work beckons the audiences to consider the constrained visual plane at the ground level amid towering vertices, or hidden structures in a city with much restricted mobility. The complex and varied human experiences within a vast and opaque space is articulated by this highly compressed composition of sharp and invasive lines and geometric shapes. The work conjures up a bizarre image of bustling metropolis that echoes Marco Polo’s description of cities as 'fantastical, beguiling spaces where things are never as they seem.'
"[Beijing is] …possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth." —Edmund N. Bacon
Inspired by the City
Born in 1972, Liu Wei came of age during a period of rapid industrialisation in China, it was a destabilising time for the artist as ‘things were constantly changing, and nothing seemed stable.’i Executed in 2007, the sprawling urban landscape in this work subtly speaks to Beijing’s relentless ambition for change manifested in its rapid gentrification programs, which reached a climax in the run up to the 2008 Olympics as the host city embarked on a ‘national pride’ vanity project in an effort to present a more sophisticated image to an international audience.
There is brutal modernity to the systematic, grid-like composition - a perceptible homage to Gerhard Richter (see for example Lot 8 Abstraktes Bild (682-4)) , it also borrows from the flattened perspective of Chinese shanshui (mountain and water) paintings. The artist’s working method consists of first creating a design generated digitally on a computer then transposing the patterns onto canvas. This process of execution is a way for the artist to find a personal sense of order, still it resonates with the growing sense of social anxiety aggravated by the rapid development of technology. The work recalls his fellow abstract artist Jiang Zhi’s computer error paintings that expresses an obvious frustration with system malfunctions triggered by a minor gesture, but also questions the computer as a source of reliable information. Similarly, Liu Wei’s digitally executed lines resemble the saturation of data transmitted through the internet, probing into the increasingly needs for hyper productivity in our contemporary urban life dictated by connectivity and the many aspects of life legitimised by digital trails.
Purple Air comes from the East
In Purple Air IV-4, stacked columns rendered in black and white are punctuated by bands of yellow, blue, purple and red against a crimson red background, the enveloping hazy greyish air is suggestive of the capital’s poor air quality. But the series in fact has a more auspicious ring to it, emanating from the Chinese saying ‘purple air comes from the east’ (紫氣東來). In the artist’s own words: 'In the Chinese classics, this idea of purple air refers to a state of haze, a lack of clarity, but actually full of vitality. There are so many problems, but it is still lovely.'ii Perhaps expressing a complicated sentiment towards the homeland, this work forges a link for the viewers to ruminate on the invisible truth beneath the rapidly transforming urban reality that is actually shaped by a hopeful vision for a better future.
With an unparalleled and multifaceted oeuvre that remains highly sought after and revered throughout his career, Liu Wei’s unique visual language exudes an influence that confirms his position in the lexicon of Chinese contemporary art. In addition to exhibitions at both the 2005 Venice Biennale and the latest 2019 edition, and in prestigious institutions worldwide, recently at MoCA Cleveland (2020), Liu Wei’s works are also included in numerous museum collections, including the M+ Sigg Collection in Hong Kong, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
i Liu Wei quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews Liu Wei’, The China Interviews, March 2012, online.
ii Liu Wei, quoted in Jerome Sans, ‘Liu Wei, an interview’, China Talks, 2010, online.