Li Liao’s “Art is Vacuum” starts with a low-ceilinged vestibule housing documentation of a spat between himself, his pregnant girlfriend Yang Jun, and her brother and father. The father virulently rejects their relationship and derides Li’s career prospects by remarking, “You’re living in [a] vacuum.” Their argument is displayed alongside a torn sweater and a broken remote control, tantalizing indexes of a skirmish unseen in the dialogue.
Months later, Li was nominated for the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award, which came with a stipend of RMB 40,000. Li gave the money to Yang’s father, who then acquiesced to the relationship. Passing the award letter, the room then opens to a much larger, brighter space, an exultant shift that mirrors the conflict-resolution dynamic of the narrative. A wall text proclaims, “The first sentence she ever said was, ‘Art is [a] vacuum.’” In a video, the artist teaches his daughter to say the titular phrase by bribing her with milk tablets. A row of speakers plays the girl’s attempts at speech, one for each month of her life.
Li’s work spans a continuum of enacted empathy and sociopathy, often with an eye to discomfit. On one end, he has A Slap in Wuhan (2010), in which Li stands in a plaza waiting for a stranger to slap him. On the other there is Untitled (2015), where the artist viciously attacks a female acquaintance, the only context (for what one deeply hopes is a fabricated narrative) being his written assurance that “I am fair.” The strength of “Art is Vacuum” is to occupy both poles. Li at once proves the urgency of his art through its grounding in paternal love; he also made art out of the dissolution of his wife’s family, and trained his daughter with a Pavlovian reward system for an elaborate, triumphant middle finger to his father-in-law.
White Space, Beijing
2016.03.05 – 2016.04.11