Porcelain chips and fragments produced by kilns across hundreds of years accumulate in piles along the banks of the Chang River in Jingdezhen, creating a tableau akin to an archeological dig of a manufacturing site. These piles are washed, rinsed, and sometimes exposed by the rise and fall of the tides in a perpetual water burial. But Liu Jianhua is not keen on cultural nostalgia. In “Discard,” he has brought Jingdezhen’s ceramic waste to an environment of commercial real estate designed by foreign architects: Shanghai’s Pujiang Overseas Chinese Town. The desired effect of accumulated quantity is similar to “Yiwu Survey,” the 2006 exhibition in which Liu tipped an entire shipping container of sundries made in Yiwu onto the f loor of a gallery. But unlike the direct complaint represented by Yiwu Survey, Discard employs a more subtle rhetoric.
Specifically, this project comprises two adjacent, square outdoor pits. One pit, formerly the central lawn of Pujiang Overseas Chinese Town, is filled with the smashed remnants of everyday articles made of pale shades of porcelain; the sloped floor of the other pit, formerly the central fountain, is covered with fragments of replicas of historic colored porcelain objects from Jingdezhen. The water level in the latter pit is maintained so that about half of the porcelain remains submerged. Thus, on the one hand, in this pit, the artist uses simulation to reproduce a scene from Jingdezhen; on the other hand, in the pit of pale porcelain fragments, he is also referencing his ten-year project, Regular, Fragile (2001-2010), which is transplanted here in its totality.
In this version, the scene representing Jingdezhen is counterfeit, and the scene representing the “artwork” is exposed by the absence of both water and the accoutrements of a formal exhibition space. In the dry pit of pale porcelain, the artist not only continues his narrative of the fragility of everyday objects, but also emphasizes people’s abandonment of such objects. The sight of the remnants of these broken objects scattered upon the bare earth seems slightly brutal. These fragmented porcelain objects include teddy bear figurines, a favorite motif of Liu Jianhua that evokes images of airplane crash sites, as well as human skulls, associated with Zhuangzi in the East and with oil paintings in the West. They reveal a longing to be discovered and to express themselves, and this emotional cry seems to exert pressure on the viewer.
In the pit of partially submerged colored porcelain, the ruthlessness of abandonment is diluted by water (the waters of time), enabling the viewer to look on with empathy. However, it is the cheapest kind of empathy, because these remnants of objects, having lost their practical and economic value, are transformed into objects of observation, and thus imbued by their abandonment with the aesthetic value of waste matter. Therefore, in addition to the contrast, there is a kind of reversal: due to the very existence of the viewer, the pale porcelain “artwork” is closer to reality, whereas the colored porcelain “Jingdezhen” seems more suggestive of art.
In recent years, Liu Jianhua’s work has gradually shifted from a thematic critique of globalized reality toward a situational approach that focuses on the experience of the viewer. Correspondingly, discussions of the artist’s work have grown softer and more philosophical. Having demonstrated the fragility of the everyday, Liu now begins to address the cruelty and exquisiteness of abandonment. In so many words: all abandoned objects are waiting to be discovered, and the observations and emotions of those who encounter them provide further food for thought.
As a response to the theme of “Vanished Boundaries,” Liu Jianhua’s work is also a collaboration with Edwin Zwakman, the other artist in this joint exhibition. The collaboration consists of Liu’s pit of pale porcelain fragments of everyday objects and Zwakman’s symbolic construction vehicle, which bears the insignia of the United Nations. The combination of these two fabricated realities sedulously echoes the loss of authenticity experienced by people in a global environment in which images are omnipresent. Aimee Lin (Translated by Daniel Nieh)