“Invisible Cities,” Liu Wei’s ambitious two-part exhibition, took its name from Italo Calvino’s poetic novel recounting an imaginary conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, who asks the explorer to describe the cities he has seen on his travels. Like those fantastical, impossible places conjured by Marco Polo for an attentive, if not completely believing emperor, Liu’s works, which bring visual accounts of the 21st-century metropolis from China to Western audiences, are not documentary, nor are they bound by locality. Instead, abstracted three-dimensional forms and digital painted patterns convey the psychic toll of urbanization, globalization, and the dynamics of transformation. As Jill Snyder, former director of moCa Cleveland notes, “The exhibition achieves an arc from the specificity of Liu Wei’s time and place to something magical and universal, which is referenced in the title ‘Invisible Cities.’” Journeying through Liu’s terrain, viewers discovered either the limits of personal provincialism or the expanse of a shared commonality with the rest of the world.
At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Liu filled a gallery with Love It, Bite It (2014), a dystopian collection of world monuments—a broken temple, a skewed cupola, a tilted tower—created from rawhide dog chews. Resembling ruins from a fallen empire, these oversize sculptures convey the passage of time, as well as the struggle to maintain power endemic to all political institutions, without referring to specific countries or targets. Watching his dog munching on a rawhide chew, Liu realized the potential metaphor in the animal’s desire and passion: “After being gnawed on by the dog, the chews became really gross…melted by saliva and really dirty. But for me, it was very powerful.” In the sculptures, we see what’s left. The dog’s hunger for food is the same as the insatiable human lust for power. The first version of Love It, Bite It (2004) was made for an exhibition curated by China’s “bad boy” Xu Zhen, and they planned to release a pack of dogs to devour the work at the opening. The exhibition never happened, but a visceral sense of violence remains in the anti-monumentality of the work, reinforced by the amazing skill behind its fabrication.
At moCa Cleveland, a survey of works from the last five years began with Library V-III (2014), an unwieldy configuration that from afar seems to be made of marble. A closer view prompts the painful recognition that it is really carved out of hundreds of compressed books, their texts destroyed. New World (2006/2019) is even more personal, with its eerie graveyard of Chinese household appliances from the 1980s—a refrigerator, a microwave, a washing machine, and a television—each cut in half to expose its inner workings. The condition of these machines speaks volumes about the conditions experienced by Liu while he was growing up.
The high point of the exhibition came with Microcosm (2019), an astounding assemblage of monumental forms, practically bursting out of a floor-to-ceiling glass enclosure. Terrifying and seemingly unstable, Microcosm forms a futuristic spectacle of spheres and curves, reminiscent of propellers and spiraling architectural elements. For moCa chief curator Courtney Finn, “Microcosm is the building block for a new future or a new world, almost like an idea of what a futuristic quest for a place might look like.” Liu chose the title because he wanted to convey atoms colliding in a microscopic world. He says, “We can’t truly experience this micro world. But somehow, we are unflinchingly convinced of its existence.”
Liu represents a generation, born in the 1970s in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, which grew up to see China shift dramatically with the Open Door policy and the advent of globalization. His work conveys the instability and chaos of those changes. After graduating from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, he gravitated toward a group of young Beijing artists who challenged the Political Pop and Cynical Realism trends that had launched the Chinese art market. In 1999, he participated in the landmark show “Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion,” which featured “shock art” installations with a human cadaver, a fetus on a bed of ice, and a live goose glued to the floor and dying of starvation. Liu contributed a video, Hard to Restrain (1999), depicting a group of naked friends running in circles in an enclosed space resembling the bottom of a well. Five years later, he achieved instant fame in China with his contribution to the 2004 Shanghai Biennale—the photographic wall mural It Looks Like a Landscape in which a foggy mountain range is actually a depiction of naked backsides. Swiss collector Uli Sigg immediately acquired the work, and New York dealer David Maupin made a visit to the studio in Beijing. It took Lehmann Maupin another eight years to represent the artist.
According to Phillip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center of Contemporary Art in Beijing, Liu’s “was a generation who had already to some extent given up on the idea that art could achieve the revolution, but they also still understood that they were embedded in a society that was in the midst of a thorough and sometimes violent transformation. Even if that violence was not state violence toward individual people, the scale, the speed, and the depth of urbanization was uprooting people and beliefs and remaking spaces so there was this really raw energy.” Tinari sees Liu’s achievement as, “in comparison to many of his peers, that he was able to deduce and extract a formal language from the chaos.”
More recently, Liu has pursued an ongoing investigation of architectural forms and urban landscapes in both painting and sculpture. Often depictions of depleted Communist power, these works also sum up Beijing’s transformation, as traditional and historic buildings are ripped down daily to make way for new architectural wonders. In the studio, which involves hundreds of assistants, Liu prefers to work with untrained laborers, rather than skilled art students—a decision that draws attention to mass production and mass marketing as a fundamental element in his fabrications. In his paintings, he uses computer software to generate patterns of pixels that can be meticulously transferred to canvas by assistants knowing little of the final overall composition.
Talking about these works, Liu says, “I regard computers, with all their displays, software, and hardware as a reality, and I scrutinized the way computer programs struggled with producing images. So all my paintings come out of images automatically generated by the computer and the mistakes it made.” Admitting that there are many images that he finds unattractive, even awkward and clumsy, he insists that the issue is not important to him. “What’s important is that my presentation is beautiful, not the computer’s presentation. The beauty resides not in the appearance of these images, but in the process of making and selecting. It is exactly the same as the way I observe reality and build systems to interpret it.”
Liu’s work is much more than aesthetic experience, as powerful as that is. “When I talk about an artwork’s power or its sense of beauty, it doesn’t just come from beautiful visual stimulation. I care more about a spiritual sense of power, a struggle of some kind, a decision made,” he says. “Art is about these struggles, about questioning reality. For me, a sense of beauty comes from psychology, from culture. Beauty isn’t visual, it has to do with questioning the world.” Bringing “Invisible Cities” to Cleveland, a city as affected by globalization as Beijing, made perfect sense. Liu could have made a didactic installation about parallels between the two, but instead he relied on artistry and skill to convey a deeper, more psychological landscape—one in which we all live but can’t really comprehend.