Globalization has wrought many changes in the world, not least of which is its impact on artists’ practices and aesthetics. Once, curators and others feared that the chaotic collision of global cultures (accelerated by the accessibility of the internet) would result in bland homogeneity or a facile mash-up of East and West. But in recent years, many artists have developed sensibilities that transcend cultural limitations, replacing exotic stereotypes with a transnational outlook. Liu Shiyuan, who divides her time between Beijing and Copenhagen, is a member of this band of travelers and her work demonstrates the exciting possibilities of making art from the perspective of what could be called a post-passport identity.
For her first major solo show in the United States, Liu has filled both floors of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery with works of art that may be confusing at first glance, but on further reflection reveal their many layers. Those expecting that a China-born artist would make works dealing with her own culture are sure to be baffled by the film, photographs, and installation on view. Instead of mirroring a specific locale or history, Liu delved into the culture of the internet, seamlessly weaving digital images together from a combination of original and found footage, mimicking the sensation of swiping through a dating app or going down a Google Image Search rabbit hole.
The heart of the exhibition is the intriguing film “Isolated Above, Connected Down” (all works 2018), which starts off with dreamy views of white clouds and blue skies, as if to instill a contemplative state of mind in viewers. After quick cuts between scenes of nature scenes — bees sipping pollen, koi fish in a pond — the film veers into a collage of 1960s gender stereotypes that anticipates the action soon to follow. After a fade-out, viewers encounter a dinner scene between a husband and wife who are having a conversation riddled with tensions and disagreements. Chewing on duck and sipping wine, the man performs a kind of sexist superiority rooted in what he believes are rational arguments and political opinions. The woman responds with a plea for “entertainment,” yet she is equally incapable of enjoying her spouse’s company. In their conversation, wittily peppered with titles of historic art exhibitions — “Primary Structures,” “Your attitude follows form,” “Magicians of the Earth” — the husband and wife (who are both European) articulate the miscommunications and misinterpretations that are often compounded by cultural differences. (Liu’s husband, Kristian Mondrup Nielsen, who is Danish, wrote the dialogue.) The final section of the film is footage of a honey bee bulging from gluttonous overconsumption of nectar and dying.
Views of nature are also recycled and rearranged in Liu’s photographic compositions, uniquely shaped constructions presented in custom-made white frames that the artist covered in an obsessive pattern of lines. In “Almost Like Rebar No. 1,” she juxtaposes images of rotten apples from an organic farm with grids of bees and jellyfish. In “Almost Like Rebar No. 3,” film footage of a couple arguing is broken down, frame-by-frame, and paired with squares of fabric and shards of pottery. While handsome and well-crafted, these works border on incoherence, resisting any easy interpretation. But of course, that is precisely Liu’s point: that in an age when we are accustomed to sorting through millions of images at the speed of light (or at least the speed of sight), we lose our ability to discern meaning and to integrate random thoughts into an expressive statement.
Reaching a similar conclusion by using a different tactic, Liu filled a room of the gallery — floor to ceiling — with flesh-colored felt rugs woven with texts and phrases. In this installation, “Fuck It, I Love You,” snippets of conversations, paragraphs from unknown short stories, and descriptions of feelings and emotions commingle. Most of the words in the installation were written by the artist in collaboration with friends and seem heartfelt, free of irony. Rather than confrontational or cacophonous, the installation feels homey and comfortable, presented under dim lights and replete with an array of used furniture. But here, too, viewers are immersed in an experience that challenges their abilities to interpret language and makes the impossibility of a singular narrative abundantly clear.
Taken together, Liu’s works stimulate free association in ways that defy Freudian interpretation or any other formal explanation. She knows how to anticipate her audience’s desires for clarity and defy those expectations with perplexing and mystifying works that never seem muddled or meaningless. By negotiating this territory, she serves as a guide through contemporary civilization. The work here demonstrates that the traditional signposts of nationality and ethnicity are no longer necessary when engaging with the art of our time.