How We Become Who We Are: On the Oeuvre of Liu Guangyun
Release date£º2020/10/25

I am. But without possessing myself. So we first come to be.

¡ª Ernst Bloch


How We Become Who We Are: On the Oeuvre of Liu Guangyun


Michael Stoeber



Time and Space  Time X, a work from 2010, could not be more characteristic of the oeuvre of Liu Guangyun. Like the artist, Time X moves back and forth between two continents, languages, and cultures, emphatically raising the question of human identity. In particular that of its creator, followed by that of us all. Liu Guangyun, born in 1962 in China, has been living in Germany since the early nineties and is married to a German woman, with whom he has a daughter. Yet he has never given up the country of his birth, time and again traveling to China to live and work for several months out of the year. He has flown back and forth between China and Germany so often that he can no longer say how many times or how many hours he has spent in a plane. This is indicated by the indefinite variable ¡°X¡± in the title of the work that branches out to develop varying features. However, what the artist does recall perfectly well and what plagues him each time he travels between the widely divergent time zones is the jet lag he experiences. The sleeplessness under which he suffers after his transcontinental travels means that not only is his sleep-wake cycle disrupted; above and beyond this it symbolizes the difficulty, however temporary, associated with his having to constantly adapt to his home country or to his country of choice, which during his absence have become foreign to him. This sense of foreignness, a sudden cognitive and emotional dissonance, affects his entire person, causing him to regularly ask himself ¡°Who am I when I say ¡®I¡¯?¡± in the balancing act between China and Germany. While Liu Guangyun has no doubts that life in the interim is enriching, in his artistic works he directs our gaze toward the price of a bicultural existence that all too eerily ignores a view that is prone to idealization.


Google Earth  One day, while thinking about his journeys between Germany and China, China and Germany, it occurred to Liu that he had only traveled between the two countries by plane and never with another means of transportation. With the aid of a computer and Google Earth, he calculated an overland route that might connect his home at the time in Germany, in Kempen, Behringstrasse 11, and his home in China, in Shanghai, Jufeng Road 1589. From door to door, so to speak, on negotiable roads. The route he discovered with the help of Google Earth leads from Germany via Poland, Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan to China. According to information provided by the computer, the route covers exactly 11,071.96011 kilometers. If he drove to Shanghai by car nonstop and traveling 120 kilometers an hour, he would need a total of 92,258 hours for the journey. Just tracing it using Google Earth is fascinating. Instead of brutally immersing oneself in another country and a foreign culture by swiftly overcoming space in a jetliner, we experience a relatively slow and leisurely approach to Liu Guangyun¡¯s destination in the form of constantly new and different sequences of images. They show us how landscapes, types of settlements, infrastructures, and population density invariably change between Germany and China. In a second step, the artist eliminates all of the specific features of the landscape in the images he has photographed off of Google Earth, leaving only a white line that marks the route between both destinations. Presented as a film on two adjacent monitors, it traces the outward and return journey from Germany to China as an arresting abstraction, free of any singular or accessory features.


Communication  In this form, the line also typifies a perfect communication model. Its starting point and final destination, Kempen and Shanghai, are at once transmitter and receiver, or vice versa, while the path between them is at once channel of communication and code. There is no interference whatsoever in the sensuous radiance of the pure line, not even ambient noise. However, it is more probable that this kind of communication belongs in the Platonic universe of ideas; it does not occur like this in reality, except as simulation and simulacrum, descending from the womb of the digital, to which it owes its existence as a product of Google Earth. And yet the line is nevertheless based in the mundane, in much the same way Platonic ideas also have their concrete counterpart in reality. Liu illustrates this in a striking way when he represents the 11,071.96011 kilometers between Kempen and Shanghai by means of a fiber optic cable that is exactly one tenth as long as the distance between them. During the exhibition of Time X, all of the images and data that digitally illustrate the transcontinental journey between Kempen, Germany, and Shanghai, China, were transmitted via this cable. This is why the artist had not only his name but also the distance between the two destinations and their respective latitude and longitude engraved on the black cable. It reads: ¡°Liu Guangyun 11 071.96 011 km Shanghai 31.287363/121.616960 Germany 51.377735/6.405731.¡± Because the cable also bears the name of the artist alongside the precise geographical information as a kind of self-confident branding, it becomes apparent how powerfully the subjective and objective elements define the character of this work created in the spirit of Conceptual Art.


Number and Ink Pictures  Places, spaces, and distances integrate themselves into structures in an objective way. During his search in the Internet for the travel route between Kempen and Shanghai, Liu Guangyun identified more than fifty thousand locations in the form of degrees of longitude and latitude. They fill dozens of pages and are reminiscent of the number pictures we are familiar with by Roman Opalka or Hanne Darboven. While there is no doubt about the dimensions of space and that they depict the constants in this work, so to speak, time represents the subjective variable. The title of the artistic body of works, Time X, also points to this. The time mode in which Liu negotiates distance, whether at a dizzying speed or at a meditative snail¡¯s pace, is his decision. While he cannot change anything about the distance itself¡ªKempen and Shanghai remain in their positions under all circumstances¡ªhe can change something about the way he approaches them. In order to alleviate the subjective shock of encounter from one place to the other, from one country to another, from one culture to another, not only might a gradual approach be of use but also a form of mental anticipation. Oscar Wilde once wrote that ¡°Only he who knows how to dream is a realist.¡± It seems as if Liu Guangyun wants to follow him in this respect. For his large-format ink drawings of The Unknown Road (2010) testify to his will to accommodate path and goal in an imaginative way and open up his own travel route through painting. The beautiful faces of young women, not unlike the sirens of Odysseus, surreally float in his darkly shaded, abstract colorscapes, while the upthrusting white line unwaveringly makes its way. It stands metonymically for the traveler, the artist, all of us. Small, white paper airplanes accompany it on its journey over land. They soar over the clear line in the dark sky. As symbols of departure and breaking out. They nurture spheres and dreams of freedom in equal measure.


Globalization  The white line, the abstraction that in Liu Guangyun¡¯s work steadily runs for 11,071.96011 kilometers between Germany and China while in reality the conditions of the route and thus its ontological and phenomenological status constantly change, can also be read as a symbol of an egalitarian modern era and as a dream of globalization that increasingly brings different people and spaces closer to one another. There is no doubt that these universalistic tendencies primarily express themselves in the manifestations of an architecture that is making itself ever more visible worldwide in a more or less uniform way, as well as in the products and practices of an economy and financial business than spans the entire globe, but above all in forms of information and communication such as the Internet and the World Wide Web. However, it is still not yet only the differing nationalistic cultural and intellectual capacities but also the regional and particular ones that are asserting themselves against these tendencies. On the one hand, they prevent the desolateness of global conformity that incorporates and abolishes any ethnic difference, but on the other the fulfillment of the dream of a networked, conflict-free global community as well. In any case, it has to be reconsidered whether this is firstly a realistic dream, and secondly if it is one even worth dreaming if it is done at the expense of the specific difference of the singular and the individual. In this sense, based on his own, very particular biography, Liu Guangyun¡¯s complex work Time X describes sensitivities that concern not only him but all of us. And apart from that, coming back to the title it not only takes the present into account, but our future as well.


German Breakfast  Just how much Liu Guangyun appreciates national and regional fruits and detests uniform global mush is demonstrated by a work for which he invited artist friends and fellow artists to a German breakfast in his studio in Shanghai in 2010. He had not only placed German food on the table¡ªbutter, sausages and cold cuts, cheese, bread, and jam produced in Germany¡ªhe also matched the time of day for having breakfast to German standards. The guests were invited to come at 2:00 p.m. local time; taking the time difference into account, this corresponded to 8:00 a.m. Central European Time. The film that Liu shot of this German breakfast clearly shows the delight and amazement of his guests over their encounter with unfamiliar food. In a second step, the artist left the deserted table to its own devices. Those who are reminded of a snare picture ¨¤ la Daniel Spoerri are mistaken. Liu was not concerned with presenting the hyperrealistic portrait of a meal as a snapshot in time of a gathering at the table sealed in synthetic resin. He did not want to document a specific moment during the course of this meal but rather to depict a process of decay. The table, abandoned but still full of leftovers, was left to go to waste, which he portrays in the film. The artist did not want to create a vanitas still life but to show in a drastic way what happens when people are gone, when there are literally no people left to maintain or practice a specific culture and keep it alive. Be it the culture of eating with its variety of food and table manners or another culture. Then it declines and dies, and its disappearance makes people¡¯s lives poorer. As difficult it may have been, considering the circumstances, to reside in it, live in it, and maintain it.


Beginnings  Liu Guangyun studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Beijing from 1983 to 1987. During his studies he was particularly interested in traditional Chinese ink painting. Even though it no longer appears to play a major role in his contemporary work, this fondness radiates yet again in the ink drawings in The Unknown Road, which were produced in connection with the Time X body of works. After the artist married his German wife, a Sinologist, in 1991, he lives for several years in Germany. In 1996 the couple leaves for Shanghai, where Liu resumes his study of ink painting at the art academy there. In 2002, he and his wife return to Germany, where their daughter Leonie is born the same year. Liu keeps his studio in Shanghai and sets up a second one near Mainz. His existence between two continents, languages, and cultures begins, whereby his encounter with Western art radically transforms his artistic production beginning in 2002. It is the year with which the look back at the artist¡¯s oeuvre in this book begins. Instead of continuing to concern himself with traditional ink painting, Liu now turns to other media and materials. Installations, performance, film, photography, and object art now become important means of expression for him. At the same time, for him there is no hierarchy of artistic means; rather, any medium is acceptable if it adequately transports his ideas and concepts. Influenced by Western art, the ink painter becomes a conceptual and multimedia artist. Yet the meditative gesture based in Taoism, which defines the nature of Chinese ink landscapes, has stayed with the artist to this day. And what has stayed with him as well is the didactic portrait character of this art. In much the same way that its depiction of landscapes is never art for the sake of art but always an existential allegory, Liu has never ceased to tell us something about himself in his art, and in doing so means us.


Material Pictures  This is also a characteristic of the material pictures that Liu Guangyun produces in 2001 assisted by his mother. He had already been making them in 1998 with the use of old fabrics, bearing in mind the strategies of the French decollagists. However, he does not find his material in the way Raymond Hains, Jacques Villegl¨¦, and Fran??ois Dufr¨ºne went about pulling down posters in the hustle and bustle of the city, but in the surplus outlets and storehouses of fabric merchants and manufacturers in Shanghai. And his works are not objets trouv¨¦s but compositions in their own right. The cloths and fabrics he values most have already had a life before art. They were used to wrap merchandise or like paper to add up numbers or write notes. Liu rips and cuts, glues and sews together these fabrics, and adds calligraphic traces of paint and ink until they constitute harmonious ensembles. In doing so, in a certain way he gives them the ambivalent character of art at the same time, which is also always a product. That the artist produces his works from material is rooted in a childhood memory. He vividly recalls how, during the Cultural Revolution, his mother made shoes for the family, which was too poor to buy new ones, out of old remnants of fabric and flour-based glue. She glued the material to a wooden board layer by layer, which Liu thought was very nice even as a child, before removing it after it had dried and using it to make shoes. This memory motivated the artist to invite his mother to his Shanghai studio in 2001, where he asked her to devote herself to the process of creating fabric collages in the same way she had once done. This resulted in a collaborative work of art. Liu¡¯s mother pursued her traditional craft and told stories about the old, hard times under Mao Zedong, while he informed his wide-eyed mother about the Western art concept of the collage. And that there were people in the West who in relation to the production costs were willing to pay a lot of money for works like the one she was about to produce.


Memorial  The following year, Liu Guangyun addresses the political situation in present-day China with the same measure of historical awareness. As a resident of Shanghai, probably the most important industrial city in the People¡¯s Republic of China and one of the largest metropolises in the world, the artist attentively registers the changes that had taken place there over the years. What is most palpable is above all the city¡¯s architectural transformation, concurrent with a steadily increasing population. Today, Shanghai is China¡¯s most modern city and the one that most resembles cities in the West. Its historical center only exists in a homeopathic dose as a tourist attraction. Impressive high-rises grow out of the ground everywhere, built by day and by night in twenty-four hours of uninterrupted construction work by hosts of migrant laborers that are for the most part without rights, have no social security coverage, and are paid miserable wages. Liu memorialized this anonymous armada of people in art with an assembly of hundreds of pictures of objects. The bricks that the construction workers work with day in and day out became the basis for a moving memorial that Liu created in honor of these people. The artist placed passport photos of migrant laborers in his Bricks (2002) fashioned out of construction waste, preserving them by means of synthetic resin and causing them to glow by applying color pigments. The impression they make on the viewer is extremely contradictory. On the one hand, the workers seem to be metaphorically imprisoned in them, which is what they actually are in reality. To use the words of Karl Marx, they are ¡°appendages¡± of a gigantic machine that devours them time and again like the revolution does its children. On the other hand, their pictures are sealed in the semitransparent synthetic material a bit like fossils in amber. What makes them look precious, thus wresting them from the anonymity and meaninglessness to whose dictate they are currently mercilessly subordinated in their life at the construction site.


Continuation  The artist¡¯s Bricks do not restrict themselves to an existence in a museum; rather, they become the material for and elements of further artistic acts. When Liu Guangyun is invited to exhibitions in Mishima, Japan, and Poznan, Poland, in September 2003, he presents his bricks with the photos of the migrant laborers. He not only displays them, but they become the subject of two spectacular performances with the title Plan for Exchange of Space (2003) in which the artist briefly slips into the role of those he has portrayed, so to speak. Except unlike them, he does not erect buildings but instead performs a small structural modification on an existing building within the scope of the respective exhibition. Equipped with a power drill, Liu begins boring a hole in the interior wall of a building that has been assigned to him until it is large enough to insert one of his bricks into it with the portrait of a worker. The migrant laborers now actually appear to be part of a columbarium, mummified for eternity. The rubble that the artist produces during these performances becomes the source material for further portrait bricks. In doing so, Liu brings home the message that the abuse he is attesting to is not a phenomenon that is limited to Shanghai or China, but that the exploitation of human beings by human beings is a social ill that exists and can be witnessed the world over. The artist also points out the global character of the problem by having himself filmed during these performances and showing the resulting films in other international exhibitions.


Time and Eternity  Andy Warhol once explained his preference for Coca-Cola by stating that it is available all over the world, always tastes the same, is low-priced, hence affordable for everyone, and that when an ordinary worker buys a Coke he gets the same product as the president of the United States of America. Thus a democratic product through and through? The fact that, unlike in its country of origin, Coca-Cola operates imperialistically in the world by potentially eliminating traditional beverages wherever it is sold may only be apparent to minds sensitized to the advantages of regional products; such a consideration would hardly occur to the enthusiastic advocate of uniformist globalization. Liu Guangyun is one of these sensitized minds, who in his migrating and commuting between two cultures, between East and West, is almost predestined for a refined sense of sight, hearing, and taste, empowering him to perceive the specific taste, contour, and color of things; their differences, nuances, and very individual character. Hence like hardly any other contemporary artist, his works time and again record the price paid by a culture prone to uniformity, wherever in the world it occurs. His keen awareness of history helps him to scrutinize and categorize contemporary social and aesthetic phenomena. In his video installation Fictitious Monument (2004), for example, he borrows the long-living tortoise from Chinese mythology as a symbol of endurance for the purpose of lending expression to his reservations about more short-living social trends such as karaoke. He could not have chosen a more appropriate animal. After all, according to the scientists who study them, there have been tortoises on the earth for more than 250 million years. They are therefore older than the dinosaurs, and most certainly older than humankind.


Tortoises  In the cosmogeneses of numerous Asian peoples, the earth is a round surface that drifts on a primordial ocean. So that it will not sink, it is carried by a tortoise. The Hindu deity Vishnu lies on the ocean floor and guards creation. In a second incarnation he is transformed into the tortoise Kurma, over which towers Mount Mandara, the axis of the world. The gods and demons fighting against one another for domination of the world create their soldiers and weapons on the back of a tortoise. For the Mongolians, a golden tortoise bears the world mountain that rises in the center of creation. For the Buddhist Kalmucks, the bodhisattva Manjusri is transformed into a giant tortoise, which, lying on its back, holds the earth above the surface of the water. When the tortoise moves one of its toes, this causes an earthquake. For the Buryats and Tungus, the earth quakes when one of the tortoises carrying it trembles with fatigue. The motionless Buryat tortoise initially looks at the water until the creator deity turns it over and plants the earth on its belly. In contrast, the Chinese goddess Nuwa cuts the tortoise¡¯s feet off to use them to fashion the four heavenly columns and cardinal directions. In China, Ao, the mythical tortoise, is a symbol for the entire universe. Regarded as sacred animals, tortoises swim in the water basins of Buddhist temples, and visitors feed them in order to be rewarded for doing so with a long and happy life. Tortoises made of stone are also popular in China, which bear memorials, likewise made of stone, and into which important historical dates and events have been inscribed. This serves the purpose of lending expression to the eternal value ascribed to them. However, in Liu Guangyun¡¯s Fictitious Moment, the stone tortoise is carrying three monitors clad entirely in cardboard except for a kind of vision slit through which the displays featuring lines from pop songs can be viewed. A fourth monitor is broadcasting a karaoke event at which amateurs can read the lyrics they are singing to the instrumental playback from a teleprompter. As Andy Warhol once said, in the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes. This kind of fame finds its perfect translation in karaoke. Eternity is spelled differently.


Yin Yang  A video from 2005 demonstrates how deeply traditional Chinese philosophy is anchored in the artist¡¯s thinking and time and again directs his gaze when contemplating our current day and age. During a visit to his hometown of Jinan in the Chinese province of Shandong, Liu Guangyun is introduced to a social problem. Lamb is not only sold at numerous stalls on a busy commercial street in the city¡¯s Muslim district, it is also immediately prepared and consumed on the street. The municipal authorities are skeptical about these goings-on and believe that they violate safety and hygiene regulations. On the other hand, they are apprehensive about intervening, afraid that they will be accused of being hostile to foreigners or even racist, even more so since the atmosphere on the street is altogether festive and cheerful. What Liu is interested in is the lifeward atmosphere in the form of convivial eating and feasting. He believes that it embodies a fundamental life principle that focuses on people¡¯s bodies and corporeality, their senses and sensuality. Occidental philosophers such as Ludwig Feuerbach, who became famous for his statement ¡°You are what you eat,¡± tended to make this principle one-sided and absolute in materialist doctrines, while their counterparts from the idealist faction, such as Georg Friedrich Hegel, defined people based on their minds and placed their main emphasis on intellect and consciousness, that is on their spiritual side. In his video Yin Yang (2005), Liu Guangyun combines both principles by adding the celebrating and feasting individual to the tableau, which is still absent. He achieves this by means of a strategy that, at first glance, is as simple, disconcerting, and irritating as well as it is, at second glance, eye opening. He places a t¡¯ai chi ch¡¯uan master among the crowd of people celebrating who performs his prescribed, rigorously ritualized and apparently ascetic exercises. A cult of the body in the service of the spirit. In this video, the camera¡¯s gaze is twofold: on the one hand, guided by the artist it captures the movements of the t¡¯ai chi ch¡¯uan master and the people celebrating, while on the other, a camera bound to the man¡¯s arm records the occurrences in unison with the rhythm of his exercises.


Taoism  The images produced by the camera on the t¡¯ai chi ch¡¯uan master¡¯s arm are defined by the gentle and flowing rhythm of his slowly developing exercises. Because their gestures are transferred to the character of the images that show what is happening on the street, the pictures of those celebrating are also aesthecized. They lose anything coarse or ordinary that normally accompanies celebrating the body. Thus the video reestablishes the lost union between body and mind and in doing so corresponds to one of humankind¡¯s primordial desires. In Chinese Taoism, it is expressed in the combination of the principles of yin and yang, an alliance of polar yet intimately interconnected forces. In Occidental philosophy and mysticism, the term for this is coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence of opposites, which in its pure form and as a last consequence only occurs in God. In Taoism, the t¡¯ai chi symbol, the taijitu, which is not by chance translated as ¡°the supreme ultimate¡± and represents the highest principle of the cosmos, this intimate connection of opposites. In it, the white yang, which is understood as being light, hard, hot, male, as well as active, and the black yin, which is considered dark, soft, cold, female, and passive, form a perfect union. The yin yang pictogram features a circle that is divided into two identical halves, one black and the other white, by an inverted S-shaped line. Each contains a dot, like an eye, the black half a white one¡ªthe seed of the yang¡ªand the white half a black one¡ªthe seed of the yin. The symbol is reminiscent of two fish with head and tail snuggled up against one another, as similar as they are different, both of them the contrary alter ego of the other. Hence they embody a perfect union. It is an image of desire behind which stands the conviction that all things are ultimately harmoniously interrelated. Where that is not the case, it has been lost, which is why we have to aspire to reestablish it. In much the same way as the man practicing t¡¯ai chi. In his physical choreographies it becomes visible how Chinese philosophy has always attempted to improve life through practical doctrines of behavior.


Puppet  In 2005, Liu Guangyun presents a spectacular work at the Videonale in Bonn, a video entitled Losing My Face, which he will also show in other exhibitions, whereby the particular venue and the projection conditions change the meaning assigned to the work. It is a kind of self-portrait and can also be read as such. In any case, Liu is his own protagonist in the film. Like in a play in which the actors apply makeup and get dressed on an open stage, in the beginning of the video we see how the artist prepares himself for his part. We watch how his long hair is tied back and attached to a rope suspended from the ceiling. The camera shoots the scene from an extremely low angle. Suddenly, out of the blue, without a recognizable cut, Liu¡¯s head becomes a pendulum and swings in a steady rhythm across the screen. As it moves, it becomes blurred; its contours dissolve. His face seems grotesque and deformed, as if Francis Bacon was performing the camerawork. While Shakespeare¡¯s Hamlet, in powerless rage over his mother¡¯s betrayal, sighs, begs, and wishes ¡°Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,¡± Liu Guangyun¡¯s video demonstrates what it would look like should it actually occur. In other sequences, the camera closes in on his face. Together with a remnant of rope, it fills the entire screen. At such moments, in which the scene is reminiscent of a man who has been hanged, the thought of death and that we have to die is there. Ultimately being at the mercy of death experiences an early form in the pendular movement of the head. The head is a metonym for the artist; the artist is a symbolic representative of us all. Encased in a mechanical clockwork, the work not only makes it clear that the hour of death has come, but that our supposed freedom is a highly questionable thing. When someone¡¯s head is so mercilessly swung back and forth, one might recall Georg B¨¹chner, who in his drama about the French Revolution has the freedom fighter Danton, who has been disillusioned by the course of history, say: ¡°What is it in us that whores, lies, steals, and murders? We¡¯re puppets on a string, played upon by unknown powers. It is nothing, nothing in ourselves.¡±


Variations  The impression of the same film is entirely different when, in an exhibition in Vellano near Florence, the artist has the video projected onto a medieval church tower. In these surroundings, while the man may still seem to be controlled, what happens to him seems to fall in line with a Christian process of salvation. By contrast, the effect is very different when Liu Guangyun shows his work Olympic Countdown at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The uniform semper idem of the pendular movement of his head is at odds with the Olympic motto of ¡°higher, faster, farther.¡± Within the context of the contests, his work develops a subversive power that is similar to the sweat-inducing performance to which Timm Ulrichs submitted himself at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. In a huge exercise wheel, he ran the marathon distance of forty-two kilometers every day. This feat, which was deliberately meant to be reminiscent of hamsters, not only made a mockery of the athletes¡¯ efforts, but also presented life itself as a Sisyphean task. The performance documented in Ulrichs¡¯s film actually took place in this self-torturous form. That it did links it with other performances that likewise took place in reality, such as the in part auto-aggressive activities by the Viennese actionists in the sixties, above all those by Rudolf Schwarzkogler. Or with performances by artists who expose themselves to the arbitrariness of the audience, such as Gina Pane (Le Lait Chaud), Valie Export (Touch Cinema), and Marina Abramovic (The Lips of Thomas). As well as with the masturbatory fantasies of Vito Acconci (Seedbed) or the self-injuring performances by Chris Burden (Shoot). While there is a realistic translation of an idea in all of these performances, Liu acts out his artistic ideas in the style of a Conceptual artist. The pendular movement of his head with all of the associations it arouses in the viewer¡¯s mind is not the result of a breakneck stunt but of a simple reversal, without the work losing any of its impact. The movement of the head does not originate from the person, but from the camera¡ªthe camera is moving, not the artist.


The Daughter¡¯s Face  We have largely isolated the reception of Losing My Face from the artist and first and foremost highlighted its meaning for the viewer. This is no doubt in the spirit and the interest of the artist. As far as the viewer is concerned, according to Aristotle art should deal with a classic aesthetic norm. Yet Losing My Face is also interesting in terms of its autobiographical aspects, for we can likewise read the difficult story of the artist¡¯s existence symbolically in the deforming back-and-forth of his head. In the current version, it does not present itself as an enriching experience but as the biography of someone who is torn between two cultures, continents, and languages. Whereby the artist would have lent expression to the ambivalence of his situation and his search for identity as if in passing. He also stays very close to this theme in another film, although this time it is his daughter Leonie, not yet three at the time, who is the protagonist, and not the artist. In this case too, the camera, which is being worked by Liu Guangyun, concentrates on the child¡¯s face. In its radiant purity it is reminiscent of the wonderfully clear face of Gerhard Richter¡¯s daughter Betty (1977), who is, however, considerably older when her father paints her. Liu shoots the video of Leonie while she is sleeping, making use of the same technique as in Losing My Face¡ªthe camera moves while Leonie rests. Not with the metronome-like regularity of pendulum swing, but in a way that causes the child¡¯s sleep appear to be restless, as if she is tossing and turning, to which the paradoxical title Unquiet Sleep Is Quiet (2005) makes reference. The video is essentially a portrait of the artist¡¯s daughter dreaming. One does not learn anything specific about the dream, but it is obvious that ¡°undigested residue¡± (Sigmund Freud) is active in the small girl¡¯s subconscious. The artist amplified the film¡¯s soundtrack in such a way that Leonie¡¯s sleep is covered with an acoustic aura of the uncanny. The impression is intensified by the pillow freely hanging in space, thus unsecured, onto which Liu projects his film. Here, too, it is about demonstrating how one becomes who one is. And that this is in no way an easy but a painful process, full of struggles, suffering, and initiations.


The Family¡¯s Faces  Hamlet was already wary of sleep, or better, of dreams. In his famous monologue ¡°To be, or not to be,¡± he contemplates suicide. He compares death with eternal sleep, dreams with another reality: ¡°To die, to sleep / to sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there¡¯s the rub, / For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause. There¡¯s the respect / That makes Calamity of so long life: / For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time, / The Oppressor¡¯s wrong, the proud man's Contumely, / The pangs of despised Love, the Law¡¯s delay, / The insolence of Office, and the Spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes, / When he himself might his Quietus make / With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat under a weary life, / But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn / No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will, / And makes us rather bear those ills we have, / Than fly to others that we know not of.¡± In contrast, Liu Guangyun presents himself wide-awake together with his wife and his daughter in his three-channel video installation with the title Plastic Surgery (2006). The camera again concentrates on the protagonists¡¯ faces, each of which can be seen on a separate monitor. We see the artist¡¯s wife on the one to the left, his daughter in the middle, and the artist himself on the right. Our eyes follow the sequence of images in a kind of dialectical triad, as described by Hegel: the man and the woman operate as thesis and antithesis and represent the different cultures from which they stem, and their daughter combines these as if in a synthesis. The ensemble shows us the disengagement from ethnic segregation that has become a physical reality, and becoming a member of a world community that bands together in the spirit of the Enlightenment, as once praised by Friedrich Schiller in his ¡°Ode to Joy.¡± This portrayal might also bring Plato¡¯s ¡°Symposium¡± to mind, in which Aristophanes expounds on his notion of the imperfect man who only experiences perfection in the love for another, which he once possessed in primordial, blissful times, when he constituted a self-sufficient entity, yet lost again due to the wrath of the jealous gods.


Plastic Surgery  However, Liu Guangyun¡¯s video does not stop at these idyllic impressions. They only constitute a prelude. Hands wearing the kind of rubber gloves we are familiar with from surgeons reach for their faces and knead them, pull at them, and press them together, thus causing them to be transformed into something monstrous, grotesque, deforming. The ¡°plastic surgery¡± they experience is a haunting metaphor for the fact that reality does not always mean well for people, regardless of how big their ambitions are to pit themselves against it and change it for the better. Man is a social being, according to Aristotle a homo politicus. In this quality he is influenced by the society in which he lives as much as he attempts to exercise an influence on it. Liu¡¯s family makes a particular attempt at this by setting up house in two cultures. At the end of the film, their faces have regained their shape and countenance. They have withstood a storm of changes and ultimately come back to themselves. It is not always easy to find the golden mean. For Aristotle it is the path between the extremes that he describes in his doctrine of virtue. It requires moderation in order to find it. Modus in rebus. There is a proper measure in things. Hence greed and squander are to be avoided, while generosity is desirable. Applied to sociopolitical behavior it means that it is necessary to harmonize social and personal standards with one another. Those who indiscriminatingly subject themselves to politics, the economy, and society easily become the plaything of foreign interests without ever having experienced their own. This is also the meaning of Liu¡¯s video installation Plastic Surgery. Dozens of crumpled up and discarded pictures of faces are scattered over the floor among packaging waste, while two hands on a movie screen knead a facemask like clay and seem to squeeze it like a lemon. A haunting dystopia that reduces people who do not know how to defend themselves to disposable articles. ¡°In¡± today, ¡°out¡± tomorrow.


Models  They are pictures of the faces of young, attractive women scattered over the floor, labeled, so to speak, as hazardous waste. They are only good as long one can use them for advertising purposes and earn money with them. Capitalism instrumentalizes them according to the profitable motto: ¡°Sex sells.¡± Contrary to Immanuel Kant¡¯s categorical imperative, in such processes people are not seen as an end in themselves but abused as a means to an end. We were already introduced to these faces in Liu Guangyun¡¯s oeuvre in another version of Plastic Surgery. Preserved in synthetic resin and hung on the wall like icons. To a certain extent in a state during which their beauty still made an impact and was good for seduction. The erotic appeal that they radiate is uniform and adheres to an ideal of beauty that is prescribed by the market. All of the women are young, their faces oval, their mouths slightly open; they have full lips, small noses, and if they are Asian women the eyes have been artificially enlarged. In those place where nature did not measure up to conventional norms, the cosmetic surgeon had to lend a helping hand. This, too, is a phenomenon that can be found the world over, much like the capitalist logic of exploitation that meanwhile more or less spans the entire globe. The ubiquitous appearance of these women corresponds with our encountering them in very different series by the artist as a kind of constant, as a work in progress, if you will. We come across them in the ink drawings The Unknown Road, where they swim, siren-like, out of the synthetic resin that seals them in grand artificiality as a bright and radiant promise, and have delightfully conjoined with the dark coloration and the white line that runs through them. Between 2010 and 2013, Liu produces more pictures with the images of the faces of these young women sealed in synthetic resin in the form of large-format portraits. They are accompanied by handwritten additions by the artist, notes and drawings, that cover their facial features like a delicate, white network of roots, and in this way partially individualize them and break up the uniformity of the portrayal.


Madame La Mort  We encounter the faces of these women adrift in synthetic resin in 2014 in collages in which Liu Guangyun combined their images with old fabrics. The misprinted material from a bankrupt textile factory was partially soiled and moldy when the artist purchased it. He had it dry-cleaned before incorporating it into his pictures. For him, its metamorphosis, its second breath in art, is a touching metaphor for how something beautiful, valuable, and desirable can ultimately ensue from something ugly, disdained, and discarded. A colorful butterfly out of an unsightly chrysalis. The impression of the women¡¯s faces he has preserved is similarly ambivalent. Beautiful and desirable and at the same time distant and aloof. A fleeting promise. One of Marcel Duchamp¡¯s pseudonyms was Rrose S¨¦lavy. When said aloud it sounds like ¡°Eros, c¡¯est la vie,¡± which, of course, is quite in the spirit of the master from Rouen. Eros as ¨¦lan vital that also makes the blind see and the lame walk. A lovely wishful dream. In the company of Liu Guangyun¡¯s young women, who are as enticing as they are mummified, death is constantly present, as if the artist is a Frenchman for whom death is female: Madame la Mort. Yet death is also never far away in other ways when the artist is working. It is not always immediately visible, but serves as a subtle primer in many of his works. Perhaps most strikingly and drastically in the document of an obliteration, the performance Bullet Channel (2013), in which his old Chinese-German dictionary, which accompanied him for many years, plays the leading role. Liu stuck personal documents between its pages¡ªvisa, passport, residence permits, certificate of good conduct. He attached it to a wall and approached it, naked to the hips, like a duelist. A lamp behind him, whose cord was also plugged into the wall, cast Liu¡¯s shadow on the dictionary. He then fired three shots at it. They obliterated his shadow and perforated the dictionary and all of his personal papers three times. That same moment, the symbolic murder of an existence shaped by two languages, countries, and cultures, experienced a no less symbolic, optimistic resurrection. In the artist¡¯s real acceptance of and thus triumph over this existence as his condition humaine.


Karl Marx  We are shaped by language, history, and borders. Our identity develops in their coordinates. The Inuit live in perpetual ice and snow. In Inuktitut there are more than three hundred adjectives for the color white, because it is of vital importance to them to precisely distinguish its nuances. When our language, history, and borders change or expand, so does our identity. This is the story of Liu Guangyun and his art, in which our own history is reflected, that of those who view his art. When the more than seven hundred pages of his dictionary spread out before our eyes in the form of a frieze, the formative power of language and culture becomes as striking to him and is does to us. We are also shaped by great minds. The artist dedicated one of his works to a thinker whose ideas transformed the world like those of no other. In the country of Liu¡¯s birth, the doctrines of Karl Marx continue to define the course of history, even though Chinese policy surely no longer rigidly adheres to them. Thus it is no wonder that the artist is interested in him. Hence in 2012, Liu also sought out the museum dedicated to Marx in his parental home in Trier, where the philosopher and economist was born in 1818. The famous portrait of Karl Marx by John Mayall, Jr., served as the basis for Liu¡¯s work Ein Gespenst (A Ghost, 2013), which is dedicated to the great man. The video, which alternately shows sharp and blurred images of the thinker¡¯s head, perfectly illustrates how his image oscillates in history and has as many admirers as it does opposers. The visual work has a complementary text inspired by Liu Guangyun¡¯s perusal of the visitor¡¯s book at the Karl Marx Haus. In it, the artist assembled quotes by Marx as well as opinions of him and his works. The typographically highlighted texts, white letters on a black background, are rendered in four languages¡ªChinese, German, English, and French. They reflect the multilingualism of the visitor¡¯s book, which in turn reflects the internationality of the visitors. They demonstrate how controversial Marx and his works continue to be to this very day.


Terra King  The motto that accompanied Karl Marx throughout his entire life, the lovely phrase ¡°Doubt everything,¡± has also been included in Liu Guangyun¡¯s assembly of texts. It does not stem from Marx himself¡ªhe adopted it from the Greek Stoics and valued it so highly that he even wrote it in the friendship book of his daughter Jenny. Another phrase, ¡°Property is theft,¡± is likewise not from him but from the French economist, sociologist, and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, one of Karl Marx¡¯s contemporaries, but it sounds as if Marx had written it himself. It in any case does justice to his communist convictions, according to which it is necessary to prohibit the private ownership of means of production in order to bring about a classless society. These are wishful dreams from which today¡¯s world is infinitely far away from fulfilling. Yet there are political works, and Liu¡¯s Terra King (2010) is one of them that subtly, devoid of any agitation or propaganda, seems to cast doubt on the status quo simply by pointing it out. The work was created the same year that the artist produced Time X, which remind us of the more than fifty thousand locations in the form of degrees of longitude and latitude that were identified in the Internet and were part of the search for the travel route between Kempen and Shanghai. We now again have degrees of longitude and latitude defining the physiognomy of the work. They once more combine to form immense columns of numbers that the artist presents in the form of light boxes and number pictures. Only they make reference to something else. They meticulously indicate the most expensive building lots that were bought in China between 2009 and 2010. Beyond the abstract number columns, the artist gives them a concrete face by means of printouts from Google Earth in which they are distinguished by colors. The explosive power that lies in the pure facticity of the work is reminiscent of works by the documenta artist Hans Haacke that deal with land ownership and real-estate speculation, for example Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971.


Cologne Cathedral  The stage for Liu Guangyun¡¯s most recent work is the Cologne Cathedral. In many ways, he could have not chosen a better venue. For the Cologne Cathedral is not only one of the largest and most prominent cathedrals in the world, it also houses works of art that have been famous far beyond the city¡¯s borders for centuries. One of them is the Late Gothic Altarpiece of the Patron Saints of Cologne created in circa 1442 by the painter Stefan Lochner that is the centerpiece of the Chapel of the Virgin Mary. When the triptych is in an open state, the Blessed Mother, subliminally portrayed in the style of the Italian Maest¨¤, sits enthroned on the central panel with baby Jesus on her lap. However, modern art has also found its way into the cathedral with the stained glass window created by the painter Gerhard Richter for the southern transept¡ªthe artist randomly arranged 11,500 squares measuring 9.6 by 9.6 centimeters in 72 colors over a surface area of 113 square meters. When sunlight falls through the panes of glass, this part of the cathedral is filled with radiant colored light. In the film that Liu initiated in the Cologne Cathedral, his wife, Regine, is both the protagonists as well as the camerawoman. Like the t¡¯ai chi master in the video Yin Yang, a camera has been attached to her right arm that records images of the cathedral, visitors, and herself. And like him, she is performing t¡¯ai chi exercises. However, while the master performed his in the hustle and bustle of the street, she is doing so in the sacred space of a cathedral while Mass is being read in the background. While in Yin Yang the spiritual and the profane encounter one another complementarily, in K??lner Dom¡ªTaiji (Cologne Cathedral¡ªTaiji, 2014) two different forms of spirituality, not to say religiosity, meet in a no less correlated way. And while the paths in that direction differ, the goal is actually the same. The believer, regardless of whether he or she is Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim, wants to attain clarity. Pass through darkness into light. Per aspera ad astra. This is illustrated by the alternation between distinct and blurred images in the film.


Mea res agitur  The epigraph at the beginning of this essay on the oeuvre of Liu Guangyun consists of the first three sentences of Ernst Bloch¡¯s T¨¹bingen Introduction to Philosophy. They state their case like thunderbolts with the aid of three verbs: ¡°I am. But without possessing myself. So we first come to be.¡± The surprising thing about the concluding line is the shift from ¡°I¡± to ¡°we,¡± which becomes logical as the argumentation progresses. According to Bloch, the self only truly comes to know itself by communicating with the world. In the words of the philosopher: ¡°[O]nly . . . by virtue of what lies without does the inner self come to know itself.¡± And it is in this process that it finds its form and identity. This is what all of Liu Guangyun¡¯s works address. Whether the artist measures the geographical, political, and cultural differences between Germany and China, mummifies the images of migrant Chinese laborers or contemplates idealized models, thinks about Lao-tzu and Karl Marx or turns to his wife and daughter, filming them as they sleep or in a state of utmost attentiveness, in doing so he is always on a path to himself. His works are journeys to his own self. The continent he paces off in his art is himself, his own identity. Friedrich Nietzsche called out to ¡°Board the ships,¡± well aware of the fact that during the journeys he had in mind, the travelers not only discovered new seas but themselves as well. In this sense, all of Liu¡¯s works combine to form a chronique personelle. Yet although they may be based on his biography, they never linger in the personal. They leave the confined radius of the private by means of metaphors and metamorphosis, become transpersonal and collective and thus the concern and property of us all. In doing so, they magnificently adhere to a recommendation made by Aristotle. As early as two thousand years ago, in his Poetics he advised poets and artists to deal with what concerns the reader and the viewer in their works¡ªthe mea res agitur. That is, if they want people to be interested in their art.


What Is Art? In his assembly of multiple works of art from different times and cultures and which speak in different styles and languages, Liu¡¯s installation wall produces a d¨¦j¨¤ vu experience due to their iconic character. Art connoisseurs will recognize them immediately. At the same time, he creates a kind of confusion, as these works do not communicate well with each other, conveying not only divergent forms of expression but contrasting ways of looking at the world as well. For the artist, they unite in his installation in order to pose just one big question: What is art? And they compel us to believe that there is no single answer to this question. Art is as manifold as its various manifestations have been throughout time and cultures. Liu Guangyun¡¯s puzzling installation wall is therefore fundamentally an appeal for more tolerance and understanding for those artistic phenomena that are different from those we are familiar with.

Shooting How does the act of shooting fit in with the installation? (9) On their surfaces, Liu¡¯s digital remakes display a self-repeating structure of bullet holes. Before they were fired at, the artist separated the remakes on aluminum into a series of parts of identical format. These were then placed one behind the other so that they formed a single stack. In a next step, Liu Guangyun asked Chinese police officers to fire bullets at them, yet what they aimed at was only a target that had been drawn on their reverse sides. For the viewer, this aggressive act opens up a wide field of associations. In connection with police force, one might easily think of the repression of art by the state, although this is hardly plausible in this case, as the policemen did not know what was represented on the front side of the works.

Equality The aggressive act of shooing reminds us of the famous exhibition Who Killed the Painting? from the nineties that dealt with the fact that Conceptual Art has resulted in the neglect of painted pictures in our day and age. In Liu Guangyun¡¯s installation, however, Duchamp¡¯s famous urinal was also shot at with bullets. In a symbolic sense, the shooting abolished any hierarchy between the different works of art. And what is very important: the bullet holes did not destroy Guangyun¡¯s remakes, but instead decorated them with a kind of recurring ornament. This shared feature unites them despite all of their differences, establishing a sort of equality. The act of shooting has an ambivalent and paradoxical character, ultimately turning it into an act of love instead of remaining one of aggression. One might say that the common structure creates a sense of harmony between conflicting parties, to a certain extent causing them to appear to be equal to the viewer. In this respect, Liu Guangyun¡¯s work also carries political weight.

Warhol There is another new work by Liu Guangyun in this exhibition that occupies a space of its own, the Marilyn Series after Andy Warhol (10). As in all of his remakes, Liu used different colors and formats for them in the same way Warhol did after choosing his subject. When the American artist did his Marilyn Series, he discussed them in the context of Duchamp as if they were readymades. He used a still from Monroe¡¯s movie Niagara for his prints and commented on them in the following way: that he did not paint anymore, that the pictures already existed (that is, either in films, press photos, books, advertisements, or commercials), and that he was not an artist in the traditional sense. In addition, he liked to multiply and serialize his subjects, a gesture about which he liked to coyly say: ¡°I love to do the same thing over and over again.¡± When he did Mona Lisa thirty times on canvas, he called the work Thirty Are Better Than One, thus repeating an advertising strategy and rejecting the traditional artistic concept of singularity and originality.

Shooting Marilyn Andy Warhol¡¯s strategy reminds us of a famous saying by Karl Marx, who spoke about the ¡°transformation of quantity into quality.¡± This also holds true for Liu Guangyun¡¯s Marilyn Series, but not for the Mona Lisa that he presents in the same room with them, a gray diptych that concentrates on her famous face and hands (11). Liu gave the title Wiedergeboren (Reborn) to these works that focus on the faces of two beautiful women from different periods in different media. The title points toward two things: neither of them has ever really been dead, because they have been kept alive by art. Yet they have both been used so often in art, not only by Warhol, that they have become invisible due to their ubiquity¡ªa paradox we have already encountered in other works by Liu. Once again he uses a strategy of annihilation and extinction for the sake of revitalization and rebirth. The bullet holes, this time executed by the artist himself, ensure this. The shots may be equated with an act of shooting for which the French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle became known in art history¡ªshe fired bullets at an image of her father in an attempt to put an end to his authority, while Liu¡¯s bullets aim at eliminating the inflationary aspect of iconic images.

Appropriation Art These works by Liu Guangyun can also be seen in connection with appropriation art. While artists have cited and quoted other artists as long as art has existed, in a modern sense it means taking a real object or even an existing work of art and including it in another. Picasso once commented that ¡°Good artists steal, bad artists copy.¡± In this sense, both Marcel Duchamp as well as Andy Warhol can be regarded as appropriation artists. The practice of appropriation goes back to Cubism and Dadaism, continuing into forties Surrealism and sixties Pop Art. In the eighties, artists such as Sherrie Levine (who took pictures of photographs by Walker Evans) and Elaine Sturtevant (replicating famous works, such as Andy Warhol¡¯s flowers) made the act of appropriation itself a theme of their art. They challenged notions of originality, drawing attention to relations between power, gender, creativity, and the commodity value of art. In our understanding of appropriation it is important that the new work uses whatever it borrows to create a new work. This is achieved by the bullet holes, which give Liu¡¯s pictures a new structure and lend them new meaning.

Postmodernism The bullet holes provide reason to discuss Liu Guangyun¡¯s works in another context, namely that of postmodernism. In the seventies, postmodernism meant a new style in architecture that was directed against the doctrines of the Bauhaus and the modern style. While both of these preached pure, geometrical principles in building, the followers of postmodernism appealed for a revival of historical elements and techniques¡ªwhile modern style despised ornament, postmodernism loved it. Advocates of the former called for their famous ¡°Less is more,¡± and the latter responded with their no less famous ¡°Less is a bore.¡± Derived from architecture and the very influential theories put forward by Robert Venturi, postmodernism exerted an influence on modern art, teaching that all previous artistic styles, languages, methods, and strategies could be the subject of new creations. In reference to works by Jasper Johns, Mel Bochner defined postmodernism in art as the rejection of ¡°sense data and a singular point of view as the basis for ¡­ art and treat[ing] art as a critical investigation.¡±

Dictionary Bullet shots and a revolver also play an important part in Liu Guangyun¡¯s performance Bullet Channel from 2013. But this time, the leading role belongs to his old Chinese-German dictionary (12), which accompanied him for many years. Liu placed personal documents between its pages¡ªvisa, passport, residence permits, and a certificate of good conduct. The book and its contents testified to his existence between two countries, cultures, and languages. He attached it to a wall and approached it, naked from the waist up, like a duelist. A lamp behind him cast Liu¡¯s shadow on the dictionary. He then fired three shots at it, destroying his shadow and perforating the dictionary and all of his personal papers. He then presented the whole work on a pedestal, like a sculpture, and every single page of it on the walls, as he does here in the museum.

Death and Resurrection As is customary for Liu Guangyun, divergent strategies meet in this work. It is likewise marked by an act of aggression and appropriation. In other words, Liu kills and embraces his subject at the same time, the former made visible by the bullet holes, the latter by the fact that he adopts what he has just destroyed and uses it as an artwork. There is a push and pull in Bullet Channel, an attraction to and rejection of both Western and Eastern culture that is characteristic of Liu¡¯s oeuvre and his life. It is part of his struggle with and search for his own identity. We experience a symbolic death and a symbolic resurrection in this work. By killing the dictionary and his personal papers, Liu eliminates the necessity to opt for one language, one culture, and one country. He wants both of them. After putting an end to his political existence, Liu resurrects himself as a husband and father, man and artist who lives and works in both in China and Germany, and finds his soul and body marked equally by them.

Time and Space The question of identity is fundamental to Liu Guangyun¡¯s entire body of work. It is also raised by Time X from 2010. Like the artist, Time X moves back and forth between two con



Translated from the German by Rebecca van Dyck