In years past, the work of Liu Shiyuan (b. 1985) has allowed itself to wear many loose-fitting forms. She has held a bar of wet soap in her hands for a prolonged period (One Day With A Soap, 2011); “directed” a “play” (Secondhand Stabilization, 2011); filmed the interactions between actors she has prompted but who do not know what the other are about to do (Evidence, 2009); asked a male friend to put on a wig and, bearing a toy pistol, knock on an unsuspecting female friend’s door (Hi!, 2011); and so on. As disparate as these actions may seem, they all share one unifying trait: a foothold in uncertainty. This uncertainty, however, also takes on many different forms.
The largest and most prominent work on display at her first solo exhibition, “The Edge of Vision or the Edge of the Earth,” leverages the indefinite in two ways. Using a technique acquired from one of her SVA professors— the artist Penelope Umbrico, whose Flickr-sourced photography installations of suns perhaps helped to legitimize the use of the Internet search in artistic practice— A Conversation with Photography turns to Google for source material. The search parameters used include: “cliché flowers”; “disgusting flowers”; “flower throw up.” Contrary to expectation, the results form an entire wall of colorful, exotic flora densely and beautifully superimposed on one another. But contrary to whose expectation? Type nearly any combination of words into Google image search, and you will find what the world has deemed relevant. The results are objective truth. With her keywords, Liu here challenges the way we preconsciously define objects. And with her composition, she proposes a reevaluation of our perception of these. At a distance, the wall enters into silent conversation with the viewer, proposing a pas de deux between its petals; should the viewer accept its premise, the wall begins to shift and undulate almost imperceptibly. The optical disorientation effected by superimposing flower upon flower is due to discrepancies between each image’s unique elemental qualities: slight disruptions among lighting, focus, and depth form an obstacle to cohesion. Of course, this is a shared trait of all collage. What Liu explicitly sets out to do is in exploration of the “distance” between 2D and 3D, or rather, the presence of boundaries in the two-dimensional, and their absence in the three. To emphasize this, perhaps, installed at eye-level are three frames adorned with the same floral pattern that contain nothing more than tinted black glass. Through these, the dance is interrupted and the wall ceases its engagement with the viewer, shielded and brought fully into the third dimension.
If it wasn’t follows a similar logic, albeit on a much smaller scale. One horizontal row of found landscape prints disengage the viewer from themselves first by their miniaturized 8 x 6 cm size. Layered on top of each of these is another found image, of fruit— a bunch of grapes here, a peach there, and so on, all grossly over-proportioned with respect to the scenery they propose to at once conceal and reveal. This improbable pairing then re-engages the viewer as Liu outlines each piece of fruit with a thin boundary of golden film. The technique, curiously spellbinding in its affect, seeks a transcendence of spectatorial norms. Yet for this transcendence to be realized— ergo, for the artwork to achieve its aim— the viewer must be cognizant of her relationship with the act of seeing the artwork, and of other distances: those between object and viewer, and representation and expectation.
For nearly its entire duration, Liu Shiyuan’s first video work, Sunrise, appears to be a long take of the pre-dawn sea— complete with oceanic sound effects and all— only for the lens to pan out and betray this: what we see is not the horizon, but a television screen transmitting infinite feedback from the camera, which is set on the screen. A very similar twist, albeit less surprising, closes the six-minute The Edge of Vision or the Edge of the Earth. This new film is another actual collage, of moving and still images alongside spoken narrative culled from a BBC documentary. Liu has a friend do his best imitation of David Attenborough, and rearranges the order of the lines to the point that they read as abstract nonsensicality. An unsuspecting, non-perspicacious viewer might not perceive the falsity of this mockumentary until the very end, when a conspicuous gap briefly appears on the horizon between sky and sea. Suddenly, we are uncomfortably but pleasantly aware of the rules and regulations that govern stereotype and perception.
In Re-en-act, Liu Shiyuan again entrusted Google to source her material, which this time comprised an assortment of the world’s most expensive pieces of jewelry, something that is functionally useless aside from its ability to please the eye. Compound this fact with how Liu utilized the cutouts of these diamonds, sapphires, these emeralds— following her “gut instinct” to render brand-new forms and shapes without any association, she seemingly randomly layers a few or more stones on top of one another and exhibits these assemblages bare, on top of green casino felt— and Re-en-act truly is a pure homage to vision and vision alone. Of course, the money-minded connotations borne by precious stones mounted on a gambling table in a commercial gallery cannot be ignored, but instead of serving symbolic roles, they seem to exist in this artwork more as a test of the spectator’s visual perspicacity, and of the artist’s own creative processes. If her instinct in piecing together each assemblage is correct— i.e. if she successfully re-enacts the useless aesthetics of the jewels— then the viewer should not be distracted by any supra-visual factors.
Other elements consistent to Liu Shiyuan’s practice, such as the inclusion of self-governing amateur actors (see Secondhand Stabilization; Evidence) and highly stylized sound design (she consistently collaborates with a musician who is also given rather lax prompts) also work to undermine our sense of epistemological boundary. From the methods used to re-sculpt her source material to the logic of the resultant dimensionality, uncertainty reigns over the viewing experience. Left without the consolatory delineation of these borders, we have no choice but to surrender to our hesitation, invited to instead relish simply viewing the artwork and allow our judgment to collapse alongside the pedagogy and logic it defies.
The press release for “The Edge of Vision or the Edge of the Earth” defines the visual language Liu Shiyuan pursues as “culturally transcending”— culture here being visual culture, the understanding and appreciation of all observational relationships. Simultaneously, her work exists in a search to strip film and photography of all narrative quality and return them to their most elemental state (for a good example of this, see her portrait photography of the “essence” of theater, Too Many Words). The artist’s preferred terms of “camera-less photography” and “footage-less video,” exaggerated as they may be, strive to encapsulate the terms of this endeavor. Of course, film and photography cannot actually “happen” without the lens. What Liu refers to here— and which has come to define her work— is a trained photographer’s slow and suggested abandon of the definite and of the expected. At the edge of her vision, certain boundaries are coming nicely into focus.