The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Liu Zhuoquan's Wronged Ghosts

Liu Zhuoquan, Object Series, 2007, glass bottles, mineral paint, dimensions variable, White Rabbit Collection, Sydney.
Liu Zhuoquan in his studio, Beijing, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Beijing-based artist Liu Zhuoquan is best known for beautiful installations of glass vessels in which delicately painted objects, animals and people are captured, suspended like specimens floating in formaldehyde. Many contemporary Chinese artists reinvent traditional art and craft forms, from ink painting to papercutting; from paper lanterns to embroidery, and from bookbinding to kite-making, mixing them up in a glorious postmodern mash-up to create ambitious large-scale installations, performance art or new media works. But Liu Zhuoquan’s practice is something entirely unique. He knew about the ancient art of nei hua, the supremely difficult process of painting the inside of tiny snuff bottles, using curved brushes and working in reverse, from the front to the back of the image. The walls of his Beijing studio are lined with shelves; on every shelf is an array of glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Inside their curved surfaces the artist has depicted every conceivable aspect of his world. It’s like a cabinet of curiosities or a museum of specimens: as you turn your head your vision fills with crawling insects, leaping fish, fluttering birds and a vast panoply of flora and fauna. Some contain human body parts, foetuses or images of police and prisoners. By populating discarded glass vessels with miniature figures and objects, Liu is as much magician as scientist.
A wall in Liu Zhuoquan's Studio, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Liu Zhuoquan adapted the nei hua (inside painting) technique, to reflect on his own contemporary life as an artist in Beijing. Qing snuff bottles were painted with tiny landscapes, immortals, animals, flowers and birds. Traditionally, the artist uses a bent, hooked brush made with a few strands of yak hair to apply mineral colours with incredible skill and precise detailing.  In 1696, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the first state glass factory was set up to produce the bottles, which were presented to the royal members, senior officials, and foreign ambassadors. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, in addition to glass and porcelain, other materials such as ivory, amber, coral, agate, crystal and bamboo roots were also used for making snuff bottles.  Like many other art and craft practices seen as relics of the feudal past, this craft was largely forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.
Rows and shelves filled with painted bottles and the artist in his studio, 2015. Photograph Luise Guest
Liu Zhuoquan, 24 bottles, 2010, mineral pigment and binder on glass.
Photographed in artist's studio in 2011 by Luise Guest
In the 1970s a Beijing-trained painter returned to his hometown of Hengshui in Hebei Province. He was shocked at the poverty and poor living conditions of the locals and began to train some in this ancient art. Now it’s a centre of production of traditional inside-painted snuff bottles, mostly for the souvenir trade, and 20,000 people are employed painting the bottles – in China, nothing happens on a small scale! It is here that Liu Zhuoquan found his expert artisans. Working with a small team of these craftsmen as his assistants, Liu combines his contemporary sense of irony with acute observation of people, and of the fragile beauty of nature. He once described his studio as a scientific laboratory where he is recording the ‘ten thousand things’ of Daoist philosophy. In ancient China this phrase meant ‘everything that exists in the world’, the simultaneous sameness and difference of every element of the universe, the beautiful and the terrible alike.
Chang’an avenue, 2013
cast iron lamp stand, explosion-proof light globes, wire, mineral colour
dimensions variable. Image courtesy Niagara Galleries
In Seven Sparrows (2011), and Chang'An Avenue (2013) beautifully painted birds appear to flutter helplessly in their death throes inside glass light fittings. Sparrows have a very particular, personal meaning for Liu Zhuoquan – like so many others, his family was exiled, sent to the countryside in 1970, accused of being insufficiently revolutionary. As in many such cases, the farmers were understandably hostile to what they perceived as useless city people being foisted on them, more mouths to feed in a collapsing system of collectivised farms.  Liu’s father, a city tailor, was ill suited to farm labour and was given the task of chasing birds from the crops, chasing them around the fields with a stick until he dropped from exhaustion. The dying sparrows that appear in many of Liu’s paintings thus become a tragic metaphor for the artist’s father.
But as so often in Chinese contemporary art they also symbolise a larger field of Chinese history. The Four Pests campaign of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ started in 1958. The four pests were rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows – the last included because they ate the grain seeds. The masses were mobilised to eradicate the birds, and citizens took to banging pots and pans or beating drums to scare the birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Nests were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed, resulting in the near-extinction of the birds in China. By April 1960, Chinese leaders belatedly realised that the birds ate insects, as well as grains. Rather than being increased, rice yields after the campaign were substantially decreased. Mao ordered the end of the campaign against sparrows, but it was too late. With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. This ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Famine, in which it is now believed that more than 40 million people died of starvation.
Liu Zhuoquan, Seven Sparrows, 2011 (detail). White Rabbit Collection Sydney
In ‘Seven Sparrows’ the seventh sparrow is the figure of a hanging man, bound at the wrists. It has two meanings here, the first being a direct reference to the media reporting of condemned criminals, and the harsh punishments meted out to them. The ‘sparrow’ is a slang term for a method of interrogation. The second, coded reference relates to the artist’s father. When he died, after a lifetime of trials and tribulations, Liu Zhuoquan thought his frail body seemed as fragile and insubstantial as a dead bird.
In the artist’s own words, each glass vessel imprisons ‘a wronged ghost being cursed, a memory or an unsettling dream’.

You can find another article about Liu Zhuoquan HERE on COBO SOCIAL, based on the catalogue essay I wrote for his Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, solo show in 2017