artslant: Institutions, history, and Liu Ding's elliptical critique

Published in Artslant

By: Katherine Grube

May 22, 2014

In his current exhibition, Lake Washington, at Antenna Space in Shanghai, Liu Ding treats the objects of art history with absolute seriousness. To move through Antenna Space’s galleries is to move through time and place, from a lake in the western United States to an image created in Beijing in 1989 but held in an artist’s collection in the same city today. Liu’s associative leaps require reading meaning in ellipses, but it is within these ellipses that the play between history and historicization emerges and gives meaning to the collection of works. Organized when institutions have never been more discussed in Shanghai due to several high profile museum openings, Liu’s show prods and pries the substance of institutionality, ultimately returning attention to the objects that form the foundation of the art world.
Liu’s work has always thrived in the brackish waters where hierarchies of patronage and display collide with value systems. Having previously explored these ideas in the cycle of works titled Samples from the Transition (2005-6) and in the 2012 exhibition, Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art, organized with his wife, critic and curator Carol Yinghua Lu, Liu’s current show assumes the canvas is both material of art history and the materialization of discourse. The assumed gravitas of the object delivers great effect in Shanghai’s current climes where institutions now possess the space and goods to offer excellent exhibitions, but where the substance of art historical work is often diluted by the pressing pace of cultural capital accumulation. What Liu’s work ultimately registers is an imagined purpose and function of the museum as more than a repository for the recognized names and recognizable works of art history.
Lake Washington gathers paintings and installations created between 2012 and 2014 whose disparateness foreground a practice that oscillates between the problematics of knowledge production and the dislocation of meaning as symbols are routinized by ritual. This sensibility emerges most clearly in Marx in 2013 (2014), a video installation that documents Liu’s visit to Marx’s tombstone as the casual, but not unnoticed, observer of a Chinese tour group. The thirteen-minute video concludes at Marx’s gravesite with an altercation whose threats reveal the influence of Liu’s unwitting subjects, and suggests their practice of Marxism is as ceremonial as their snapshots in front of Marx’s oversized bust. Flanked by large oil paintings that recall history paintings in all but content, Marx in 2013 registers the transformation of history into symbolic currency. 
The displacement of history to the space of the individual emerges in the third, and final, gallery space. Here, two installations evoke the constellation of influences that informs individual practice. Evidence (2012) is composed of several stacked cubes densely populated with textual and visual sources illustrating socialist realism in pedagogy and practice. The neighboring installation, A Story Told to Me by Wang Luyan (2012), explores the interstices between the art historical canon and amateur artworks whose images linger in popular memory. 
Lake Washington seeks to expose institutional conventions through the autonomous actions and interventions of individuals. Liu’s work springs from the art-world’s coded winks and jargon, its prods and jabs potent precisely because of their enclosure within a specific, often elite, theoretical and institutional frame. Suspended within this framework, the works compel consideration. Outside this framework, the works appear as ellipses indicating the potential substance beneath. Liu’s work rarely departs from the hermetic world in and of which it was created, but his particular strand of reflexive criticality may not require such a departure. The question remains whether work that takes the institution as its fundamental conceit can ever achieve its subversive aims.

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