Liu Wei. Painting Without Colour ( de )

ABOUT PAINTING. Positions from the Wemhöner Collection, Kerber Verlag 2016

In his photo series It Looks Like a Landscape (2004), Liu Wei, born in 1972 in Beijing, where he now lives and works again, still makes it clear that he is a Chinese artist. But in his Super Structure installation (2005–2007) the issue of his origin is no longer raised. Yet his cultural resonance chamber is in no way irrelevant when it comes to opening up the various dimensions of his works that can be interpreted narratively.

Naked men, bent over at the waist, form a traditional Chinese mountain landscape (It Looks Like a Landscape); fictitious, prestigious-looking buildings are made from dog chews (Super Structure); books are turned into building materials (Density, 2013); and computer-generated diagrams, on closer inspection, turn out to be meticulously executed paintings (Truth Dimension, 2013). In his Jungle series (2012–2014), Liu Wei stretches a sheet of rough canvas over commercially available stretcher frames and folds the material into several waves around the edges of the wooden supports. In the first work of this kind and again in some of the subsequent works, the artist used iridescent canvas in shades of olive and green, conveying the impression that the material had already been used. Some of the seams also point to an earlier function.

The first work from the series, Jungle 1, signifies the conceptual intention of the series: Liu Wei is expanding the scope of painting. By a systematic gathering of the material, something resembling a lozenge-shaped elevation forms in the middle of the space from which a number of darts emerge as folds; others extend across the back of the work, with the result that all that remains visible are branch lines, radiating out to the outer edge of the picture. ‘It may be that painting needs to leave the frame and become sculpture’, wrote Gilles Deleuze in his treatise The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque (London, 1995, original French version: Paris, 1988). It is an ‘infinite spiritual force’, which causes the garments of the protagonists – painted by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, for example – to surge.

Displaying a similar euphoria to that of Deleuze, some proponents of the Zero artist movement, established by Otto Piene and Heinz Mack in Düsseldorf in 1958, had already blurred the boundary between painting and sculpture. Thus Lucio Fontana slashed the canvas to uncover the depth of the space behind it. His compatriot Piero Manzoni pleated the untreated canvas in his extensive Achrome series, which he started in 1957 and which comprised over 600 works; he subsequently coated some of the canvases with plaster or kaolin.

The titles that Liu Wei attributes to his works and various comments made in interviews are testament to how confidently he approaches the idealist Zero spirit in order to travel his own artistic path. Something that appears abstract from a Western perspective – and that, at a visible level, actually is – intentionally has a completely narrative component. This is where we come full circle to Liu Wei's earlier works, mentioned at the start of this essay. While in It Looks Like a Landscape, the artist assigns a significance to the individual human body in traditional Chinese art that was never granted to it, in Jungle he takes us into spheres that are uncharted or barely developed. This becomes even clearer in the works for which he uses stained canvases and canvases that have not been dyed, such as in Jungle No. 13 (2012).

How can art refer to that which exists behind the scenes, is displaced, forgotten or concealed, is lost, has disappeared from the surface or is no longer there at all? Since Classical Antiquity, the fold has been a frequently used and viable metaphor in the visual arts, literature and philosophy. In this cross-media Western discourse, Liu Wei focuses on a naturally neglected place of action – the periphery. After all, while we see more or less geometric shapes and lines on the pictorial surface, the excess material extending beyond the frame culminates in a build-up of densely packed folds. Bearing in mind Deleuze’s words, the viewer can now imagine what is actually resisting the unfolding.

Liu Wei tells a story with placeholders that need to be filled individually. Thus, there is the option of filling these either by drawing from the delicate balance between the public and the private sphere – biographically, there is a differentiation between remembered and repressed events – or by choosing temporal coordinates and seeing the space in the picture as our present and the bulges in the material as the sea of the past or the uncertain future.

In Chinese philosophy, the waves and the water's mutability replace the metaphor of the fold. How close these pictorial worlds can come can be seen in the first lines of Deleuze’s book: ‘[...] fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque fold unfurls all the way to infinity’. A little later, Deleuze talks explicitly about the manifoldness of the elements, about wind and water, before rising into metaphysical spheres: namely those of the spirit and the soul.

But to what extent does an additional component of meaning reveal itself, if we include the Chinese reality of life in the reflection on the Jungle series? The reference to the Density series of installations, in which countless book pages were layered, compressed, glued and cut into sculptural structures, is quite revealing. While the folds of the Jungle pictures hide something, the slightly changing colour of the cut edges of the Density objects can only give an abstract idea of what has been snatched from the cultural memory by the misappropriation of the books. There is hardly a place on earth where, with even higher speed, something that is still valid today disappears in the folds of tomorrow: in which tried and trusted life strategies within a very short span of time prove to be no longer in keeping with the times. Artists and intellectuals can either join this roller-coaster journey or counteract the obvious disintegration of meaning and the rapid devaluation of one’s own lifetime.


I would like to thank Dr. Li Shuangzhi (University of Nanjing) for information on the meaning of the fold in Chinese art, literature and philosophy.

ABOUT PAINTING. Positions from the Wemhöner Collection