Liu Wei's Postmodern Ruins Explore the Limits of Perception
Liu Wei's Nudità (9 July–5 September 2021) at White Cube Bermondsey continues the artist's explorations into the limits of human perception while considering the body's behaviour amid the decaying ruins of contemporary urban life.
Liu Wei, Dimension (2021). Exhibition view: Liu Wei, Nudità, White Cube Bermondsey, London (9 July–5 September 2021). © Liu Wei. Courtesy White Cube. Photo: Ollie Hammick.
The exhibition's title references a collection of essays by Giorgio's Agamben titled Nudities (2009). Liu connects Agamben's theories of 'nudity' to the current emptied state of the urban landscape and how this reveals a new truth about the nature of a city.
A series of large-scale fibreglass and aluminium sculptures painted with car paint alongside delicate oil paintings position the body within formal constructs and constrictions while making propositions for a future without rigidity.
Presented alone in a small room is the show's first work, Speculation (2021): a large sculpture centred around a bone-like fossil, in which two egg-like objects reside. Other forms hang from this central form: a portion of a lion's body appears cantilevered and submerged on one side, while on the other a chrome orb seems to float.
Hovering over this structure, an elongated, off-white form glistens like an apple of temptation: out of reach, and yet inviting touch. Perhaps this invitation to curiosity places the viewer in the biblical narrative that frames the exhibition, casting spectators in the role of Eve.
Beyond this singular room is the main gallery, where the central narrative of the exhibition and the conditions of Agamben's text unfolds.
Vanguard (2021), which resides behind a large crescent cage, is an aluminium piece that, as its title suggests, defies expectations and resists singular understanding.
In this serious contemplation of what materials can do, the hardness of the industrialised world is rendered soft and malleable.
An entanglement of cones, cylinders, orbs, and pyramids is tied together with a silken chrome patina. A testament to the power involved in industrial process to shift and move materials, this piece has been hammered, sucked, bent, shifted, and restructured in time, to produce shapes that become unified and harmonious. The work makes reference to early 20th-century modernism, whether constructivism or suprematism, and the utopian visions embedded therein.
In contrast to Vanguard's universal shapes is Allegory (2021), a collection of specific figures drawn from urban architecture set in a more concrete tone of grey: motorway blockades, construction site hoardings, architectural ornaments, and what seem to be debris from buildings themselves.
These objects are guarded by mythical creatures: a large snake, dog, cat, turtle, crow, and owl. Their faces are set in expressions that appear sad and forlorn, calling into question the level of protection they might offer this site, which takes on the aura of a graveyard. A transitory space that has allowed time to end.
At the back of the gallery, beyond another cage, are four brilliant colour paintings that comprise the series 'East 2021' (2021): works that shimmer like LCD screens, with thin, delicately painted strips moving between gradients from purple to blue to yellow.
Between these three works there seems to be a clear distinction. Vanguard and 'East 2021' resist representation and feel formless, while Allegory exemplifies the type of obstructions and constrictions that exist in the built environments that shape so much of human experience and existence today.
If Agamben writes about nature being corrupted in the moment that Adam is clothed, and in this room, then Allegory is an embodiment—or entombment—of this corrupted nature. This is why the work is centred in the space while Vanguard and 'East 2021' exist behind two cage-like structures, constricting both attempts to what Agamben considers a return to a 'graceful life'.
Installed in the final room is the monumental aluminium sculpture Dimension (2021), which spans three quarters of the length of the floor.
The work shapeshifts between rounded forms of sheet aluminium, punctuated by two spherical objects painted in bright yellow car paint that electrify the silver expanse and harmonise the composition. Invoking a sense of constant motion, the composition recalls the movements of planets in the distance that grow closer as you move around.
A series of mesmerising oil paintings surround the scene, each a singular study of a body that refuses to be a body anymore, in which globes of paint become like oil in water, all jostling for space.
Nudity No.6 (2021) compresses the grey architectural forms we experienced in Allegory's post-modern ruins, squashing them once more into circular compressions and adding dense blocks of orange, light green, and shades of blue, while Nudity No.3 (2021) brings to mind rock formations embracing.
These paintings feel like an invitation to examine how the world of ruin can become physical, liquid, and reformable, much like Nudità as a whole, which encapsulates Liu Wei's political and material thinking.
In this serious contemplation of what materials can do, the hardness of the industrialised world is rendered soft and malleable. —[O]
1 Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, trans. by Stefan Pedatella and David Kishik (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).