View of “Liu Ding’s Store.” Foreground: Friendship No. 4, 2010. Walls: Conversations No. 3, 2010. Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing.

The first iteration of “Liu Ding’s Store” was conceived in the project “Take Home and Create Whatever Is the Priceless Image in Your Heart,” exhibited in 2008 at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, England. Liu Ding commissioned artists from the Dafen oil painting village outside Shenzhen to recreate a floating visual motif on a blank canvas: a tree, for example, or the cap of a snowy mountaintop, all signed and dated by Liu Ding. Collector-customers were invited to fill in the rest of the painting with whatever “priceless images” their hearts pleased, to augment the painting with the mehrwert (roughly translated from the German as “surplus value”) that Liu Ding had not provided.

Or had he? Two years later, the same series is included in “Liu Ding’s Store” at Galerie Urs Meile, but its mandate has changed. The earlier series was an invitation to purchase “INCOMPLETE paintings [original emphasis]” and “fill in the rest of the canvas,” but today, “Take Home” emphasizes the potential for Liu Ding’s signature to appreciate in value, allowing buyers to bet on the “possibility that the artist could become a legend.”

“Liu Ding’s Store” is by admission “not entirely or simply a store,” but rather “a platform for thinking and discussion centered around the creation of value.” The eponymous exhibition features four different “product lines,” the incomplete oil paintings being one. A second is called “The Utopian Future of Art, Our Reality,” with collections of physical objects installed in a glass vitrine. Each object, regardless of material value, is given the same price, a figure derived from the total cost of each vitrine. The third series, “Conversations,” documents conversations between the artist and his partner, critic Carol Yinghua Lu, staged with various actors in their extended professional circle, including Taikang Space artistic director Tang Xin, curator Biljana Ciric, and artist Chen Shaoxiong. The last, “Friendship,” is a series of installations intended to facilitate communication, each available for sale.

Each part challenges how value is defined and understood. The glass vitrines posit that objects can be stripped of hierarchical distinctions in material worth, craftsmanship, and even sentimental value by being priced in egalitarian fashion (ceramic frog: RMB 7,026.8, snowglobe: RMB 7,026.8, black necklace: RMB 7,036.8, etc.). The “Conversations” put a price on the experience of conversation itself, while “Friendship” is an attempt to create and then sell an installation as a psychological space.

In fact, the exhibition is highly concerned with theoretical texts included in the show’s hybrid catalog-reader, particularly German critic Diedrich Diederichsen’s concept of mehrwert, which assumes that “art … [operates] in the ‘bonus realm’ [of] things consistently adding up to considerably more than the sum of their parts.” The project is an exercise in creating Diederichsen’s merhwert, asking if Liu Ding is the mehrwert, and if so, what is the value of his works? It’s almost a direct equation in which the hypothesis can be proved so long as the works are sold at the prices listed. But whether or not Liu Ding is the mehrwert is ultimately a question most sought after by those involved in its barter and creation.

This theoretical framework can sometimes be more unwieldy than insightful, and as the project evolves, it bears this baggage. Take the central concept of the store for example. “Liu Ding’s Store” is exhibition as store, picking and choosing the store-like qualities it adopts. But it takes place inside a gallery, itself a store selling art, and it becomes difficult to navigate the implications of staging a quasi exhibition-cumstore under the auspices of another store. At each step, Liu Ding is complicit in the practice he seeks to illuminate, explicitly and tacitly participating in the valorization of the individual artist that Diederichsen argues contributes directly to the valuation of art. Angie Baecker