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Art is a form of “resistance”: In conversation with Liu Wei at the Oxford Union

Anya Biletsky reports on an interview with the influential artist, covering everything from his political messaging to his perspective on the purpose of art.

Pioneering artist Liu Wei gave an exclusive interview at the Oxford Union as part of the Union’s Michaelmas Art Festival on the weekend of Sixth Week. Born and based in Beijing, Liu Wei employs a remarkable number and variety of visual media in order to produce his artworks, which are often skeptical commentaries on the socio-political situation in post-Cultural Revolution China and beyond. As discussed in the Union interview, however, much of his work branches far beyond this, and has more recently taken to exploring ideas about social media, urbanisation, and what the future may hold in store for humanity.

With Union Treasurer Sharon Chau translating from Mandarin, Liu Wei told the Union about his creative practice, his artistic and philosophical inspiration, and the impact of current affairs on his work. The interview, led by Union Librarian Daniel Dipper, began with a discussion of the “pandemic themes” Liu touches on in his work in his 2021 show at White Cube. Artists have been variously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; for Liu, the pandemic, although a “massive catastrophe” worldwide, helped to facilitate a “massive space for art to be created”.

Liu feels that the pandemic exposed the abuse of power by governments, exemplified through the notable increase in surveillance of people, as he experienced himself in China. For him, art is a form of “resistance” in response to such repression – “we all should have the freedom to commit crimes”, he tells the Union. This attitude of subversion is seen in many of his artworks and the media he uses to create them; his sculpture Indigestion II (2004) is a mound of excrement teeming with half-eaten toy soldiers, whilst Love It! Bite It! (2005) is a model city made out of dog chews, both commentaries on grotesque consumption.

Indeed, Liu is particularly conscious of the influence of urbanisation and technology on our lives in the modern day, and seeks to examine this through his art. He points out the duality of the need for art to both “incorporate and transcend” this increasing dependence of humanity on technology and social media, and believes that the purpose of art is not merely creation, but it also functions as a “salvation” in our modern world, to change the way we understand and live our lives. Liu’s inspiration comes not only from observing the world around us, but also from a deep engagement with philosophical writings, especially those of 80-year-old Italian humanist philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Liu refers to Agamben’s influence multiple times during the interview; he explains that he sees the philosopher’s work as “poetry”, and that it has encouraged him to think about the beauty and aesthetics of art.

As well as exploring the effect of distinctly modern phenomena on humanity and the world, Liu’s work is striking and recognisable for its depiction of the human body, seen in works such as his painting It Looks Like a Landscape (2004) and his video installation Hard to Restrain (1999). He tells the Union that he is concerned with the “disappearance of the body”, which, he explains, is caused by the rise in social media and concerns over data privacy. Liu is pessimistic about losing the body to a wholly technological future civilisation, and this comes through in the fusion of sculpture and the human body in pieces like his Nudity series (2021). Referencing the story of Adam and Eve, Liu emphasises that “everything in art is about the body” and that the naked body is not something which ought to be hidden or considered shameful. Liu’s depiction of naked bodies coincides with the rise of the portrayal of the uncomfortable nude across the art world in the last century, as seen in works by his Western counterparts such as Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville.

Although based in Beijing – he flew to the UK specifically to deliver this interview – Liu’s artistic reach is worldwide, with his work exhibited in places including at the Venice Biennale, at MoMA New York, and even here at Modern Art Oxford. When asked how he feels about the fact that his art is now exhibited all across the world, Liu’s response is modest and brief – “really dumb”. Whilst he is grateful for the exposure his art receives, Liu believes that the context an artwork is seen in is crucial to its reception and for a piece to have maximum impact. Indeed, Liu is a distinctly self-aware artist, revealing that he constantly asks himself questions when creating his artworks; what is art? What is beauty? How can he improve his art?

Speaking on the significance of art in the modern day, Liu’s sentiments are similar to those of other artists. He insists on the ability of art to make our lives unique and to distinguish us from each other in a capitalist world bound up in the rapidity and homogeneity of the 9-5.

An artist who is manifestly conscious of his own practice, Liu Wei creates compelling and perceptive works of art responding to the contemporary nationwide and global state of affairs. He wants his art to “surprise” people – and it can be safely said that he has succeeded in doing so.

Image credit: Jim Linwood (CC by 2.0)

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