Where the Avant-Garde and the vernacular converge: China’s Lv Shengzhong – artist profile

Chinese artist Lv Shengzhong revives the age old folk art of paper cut through an experimental practice rooted in a contradictory contemporaneity.

A major retrospective entitled “Last Century” at Beijing’s Today Art Museum (TAM), running from 8 November 2015 to 1 January 2016, spans Lv Shengzhong’s 30-year career and offers an opportune moment for Art Radar to profile the work of one of China’s veteran contemporary artists.

    Lv Shengzhong, ‘Life: ‘Ephemeral and Eternal’ (detail), 1987 original, 2015 revised, oil on canvas, 1800 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the author.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Life: ‘Ephemeral and Eternal’ (detail), 1987 original, 2015 revised, oil on canvas, 1800 x 300 cm. Image courtesy the author.

A major retrospective entitled “Last Century”, offering a comprehensive survey of Lv Shengzhong’s oeuvre over the past 30 years, is on view at Beijing’s Today Art Museum until 1 January 2016. The work on show represents Lv’s attempts to question “the fashionable notion of “living in the moment”, which is another illusion produced and constructed by a certain history”.

Oldies but goldies: reviving the age old folk art of paper cut

Starting in the 1980s many of Lv Shengzhong’s contemporaries embraced Western artistic styles and practices. However, Lv defied this shift and instead turned towards the rural tradition of Chinese folk art, causing him to often feel, in his own words, like “a misfit in the contemporary world” and leading to his work often being left on the sidelines rather than in the mainstream of the Chinese contemporary art world. He does not agree with the art world’s classification that excludes folk art from “high art”. Despite his immersion in his own cultural traditions, Lv is still able to find universal truths that apply to humans from all parts of the world, be it their fears or their hopes.

    Artist Lv Shengzhong speaking at the opening of his show “Last Century” at Today Art Museum, Beijing. 8 November 2015. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

Artist Lv Shengzhong speaking at the opening of his show “Last Century” at Today Art Museum, Beijing. 8 November 2015. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

The artist chose paper cutting, which is among China’s most ancient and popular folk art traditions, as his main source of inspiration. Lv was born in 1952 in a village in Shandong province, and as a child had seen his mother cut a variety of shapes and figures from paper. As an art student, Lv directed his research into the area of paper cutting and conducted cultural fieldwork in rural China, later incorporating his findings into his art. His immersion into folk art represented for Lv a kind of cathartic experience or as he explains:

I decided it was worthy for me to devote myself to learn from it, in order to nurture my fragmented sense of culture.

For his master thesis in folk art, he created a work “not so much a painting as a collection report of ancient symbols of life scattered throughout rural customs”, which he had found in his field research across the country. Right after completing his MFA in 1987 at China’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, he took up his teaching post at the same institution, and has since been instrumental in educating and teaching generations of young artists. Now he serves as the head of the Experimental Art Department of the same academy and has been involved in this department since its inception in 2000.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Chichu’, 1988, paper cut, 810 x 810 x 500 cm (restored in 2015). Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Chichu’, 1988, paper cut, 810 x 810 x 500 cm (restored in 2015). Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv’s work first drew critical attention when it was shown at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in a solo-show entitled “Papercut Art Show” (1988) and later at the seminal “China Avant-Garde” in 1989. Since then, his work has been exhibited extensively both at home and abroad.

The work that he exhibited then and now again at Today Art Museum was Chichu (meaning ‘walk slowly’). Here, Lv incorporated into his work the folk art of paper cutting in conjunction with a local custom of the Yellow River Basin held on Lantern Festival called “Turning Nine Curves”. He came across this tradition while conducting cultural field research north of Shaanxi province in 1985, which stipulates that by going through the rivers’ winding paths anything that one wishes for is granted, whereas a withdrawing half way through would bring misfortune. The artist further explains:

[…] human beings have a recorded history of building labyrinths of 5000 years…. [M]azes have attracted people to move forward insistently in advances and get through obstacles in search for the truth of life goal and of oneself.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Human Brick’, 2015, main body, 1350 x 300 cm, 5 pieces. Attachment- diameter 99cm, thickness 18cm, 5 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Human Brick’, 2015, main body, 1350 x 300 cm, 5 pieces. Attachmen – diameter 99 cm, thickness 18 cm, 5 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv’s work is perhaps most associated with his paper-cut “little red man”, a primitive looking human figure cut out of red paper that touches the ground with his toes and holds the sky with his lifted arms. In the rural northwest of China, the artist saw old women cutting out these “bun dolls” that were to ward off against evil spirits, a very ancient tradition. Lv noticed that this type of frontal symmetric human figure was not only found in China but was a worldwide phenomenon of early civilisations.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Human Brick’ at opening, 2015, main body, 1350 x 300 cm, 5 pieces. Attachment- diameter 99 cm, thickness 18 cm, 5 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Human Brick’ at opening, 2015, main body, 1350 x 300 cm, 5 pieces. Attachment – diameter 99 cm, thickness 18 cm, 5 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

His current installation at TAM entitled Human Brick is perhaps a culmination of the use of these red paper-cut figures. For this exhibition, a total of 600,000 paper men were cut by craftsmen using needles and then a group of students helped to paste them to the paper background, always using both the positive and negative forms. This labour intensive work took over half a year to complete. What the artist wants to convey with his work is summed up best in his own words:

The collective sub-consciousness grows out of the shared experience that humans have or always had, its content is the same to all human beings in essence…. If the long centuries of calamities descend upon us once again, would individualism, the liberation of individuality and right standard still seem as so important?

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Record of Emotion’, 1990,
 finger drawing, ink on paper, 97 x 230 cm, 30 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Record of Emotion’, 1990,
 finger drawing, ink on paper, 97 x 230 cm, 30 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Turning to a new medium almost by luck, Lv shows his versatility and skill in ink. While dying a large batch of paper black for another work, the artist’s fingers accidentally made streaks of white that looked as if beams of light had emerged and the artist continued to draw lines. Drawn freely by hand, these gestural lines came out when the artist found himself in a dark mood and helped him to lift himself out of it.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Square Earth, Round Heaven’, 
2007, paper sculpture, 100 x 100 x 100 cm to 35 x 35 x 35 cm, 6 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Square Earth, Round Heaven’, 
2007, paper sculpture, 100 x 100 x 100 cm to 35 x 35 x 35 cm, 6 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

In 2000 the artist started working with the then newly established Chambers Fine Art in New York, which also has a branch in Beijing and specialises in Chinese contemporary art. This gave the artist greater international exposure and a chance at commercial success. For their inaugural exhibition, they showcased the work of Lv. In his third exhibition at Chambers in 2007, entitled “Square Earth, Round Heaven”, Lv showed that he could use paper-cutting in a sculptural way with minimalist aesthetics.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Landscape Study’, 2003, cultural ready-mades, books, ancient painting, etc., 800 x 600 x 300 cm, adjustable. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘Landscape Study’, 2003, cultural ready-mades, books, ancient painting, mixed media, 800 x 600 x 300 cm, adjustable. Image courtesy the artist and Today Art Museum.

In his multimedia installation Landscape Study, Lv has taken over a thousand books from all the various fields of human knowledge, different countries and time periods and covered them with an image of a well-known ancient Chinese landscape painting. It is an interactive work that invites the audience to engage with the work and alter it.

As the audience reshelfs the books, chaos is created out of order, which according to the artist, “becomes a metaphorical replay of what traditional Chinese culture went through the past century”. Yet the individual elements of the installation remain intact and can be organised again at a later point. This wok, originally commissioned for the Chinese pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, was cancelled due to the SARS crisis. The work was later shown at the Guangzhou Museum of Fine Art.

Lv Shengzhong’s “Last Century” solo show opening at Today Art Museum, Beijing. 8 November 2015. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

Lv Shengzhong’s “Last Century” solo show opening at Today Art Museum, Beijing. 8 November 2015. Image courtesy Today Art Museum.

Waiting on the bench of yesteryear: heritage and modernity in Lv Shengzhong’s work

For his retrospective “Last Century” at TAM, which covers three floors of the gallery space, the artist made new works that reflect his thoughts about the last century and modernity. In the introduction to the exhibition the organisers explain:

While searching for the origin of the traditional culture, he reflects on concrete problems brought by the modernization of Chinese society […].

The artist’s thesis for this retrospective is summed up in these words

Right until now, (Chinese) people have been desperately rushing towards the goal of modernity, unwilling to spare their energy to mend their cultural context. Although many have realized the value of tradition, greed has oftentimes turned the flag of culture into billboards of commerce. Therefore I would rather wait on the bench of yesteryear, than having the heritage in my hands tainted by the smog of today. Thus we are left with a universal inquiry: For what purpose do we live? It is for everyone to explore in “Last Century”.

    Lv Shengzhong, ‘A Full House’, 2015, pottery, sculpture, furniture, 500 x 500 x 800 cm. Image courtesy the author.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘A Full House’, 2015, pottery, sculpture, furniture, 500 x 500 x 800 cm. Image courtesy the author.

One of the new works in the current show that has drawn much attention is his mixed-media installation A Full House (2015), consisting of a small but high room filled with dozens of small ceramic statues of Chairman Mao, as well as three armchairs which the audience can sit in. In this work the artist draws attention to the seat or chair as a symbol of social status. In the Chinese language zhuxi refers to the main position or the person who is most important in a gathering and over time this term evolved into the word also used for “Chairman”. In Chinese, Chairman Mao is commonly referred to as “Mao Zhuxi”. The artist notes:

Position defines perspective. This work is an attempt to create a visual space for looking and to be looked at, in which the audience is confronted with an indispensable international symbol of last century.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘A Full House’ (detail), 2015, pottery, sculpture, furniture, 500 x 500 x 800 cm. Image courtesy the author.

Lv Shengzhong, ‘A Full House’ (detail), 2015, pottery, sculpture, furniture, 500 x 500 x 800 cm. Image courtesy the author.

Another work that was specifically made for the current show is a large oil on canvas entitled A Big Rooster. In Chinese folk art, the rooster has repeatedly played a prominent role, either as a symbol for driving out evil spirits, harbinger of a new day or bringer of fortune. Lv’s rooster is based on a highly popular New Year painting that he originally saw in 1960.

Whereas in the original image the rooster sits amid an idyllic landscape with views of farming nearby and industry in the far distance, Lv’s big rooster overlooks a modern built-up city where traditional houses are being destroyed in the foreground. He uses the rooster as a symbol of the last century and to question modernisation, industrialisation and the destruction of traditional homes.

Artist Lv Shengzhong and Director of Today Art Museum Alex Gao at the press conference for the opening of the exhibition “Last Century”, in front of ‘A Big Rooster’, oil on canvas, 360 x 500 cm. Image courtesy the author.

Artist Lv Shengzhong and Director of Today Art Museum Alex Gao at the press conference for the opening of the exhibition “Last Century”, in front of ‘A Big Rooster’, oil on canvas, 360 x 500 cm. Image courtesy the author.

Lv Shengzhong says about modernity:

For China, last century marked the start of social transformation. It was the birthplace of the so-called new culture and the beginning of modernization. Issues that we have attempted to solve in the past hundred years, were issues of last century. Great hardships have been endured and great sacrifices made during this period and the results today are not what we yearned for. It could be said that the new century in its real sense has not yet begun. If we feel dazed by the illusion of arriving at “Modernity”, it is not due to a jet-lag of our biological clock but a dysfunction of the vegetative nerves. Where has the time gone? In my opinion, rather than dying after indulging in the nightmare that is called modernity, it is better to take a step back.

Nooshfar Afnan

969

(Note: The artist’s name was previously spelt Lu Shengzhong but according to now commonly used transliteration rules is now spelt Lv Shengzhong, pronounced Lü)

Related Topics: Chinese artists, paper cut art, museum exhibitions, artist profiles, events in Beijing

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