The Word for the World — Liu Ding's Solo Exhibition
2022.08.27 - 2022.10.02
Artists: Liu Ding

In the past decade, Liu Ding's works demonstrate that the tradition of realism continues to thrive powerfully today, not in its formal language but in an absolute conviction of the individual's relevance to the world. In his recent works, he revives the spirit of realism rather than imitating or representing remnant phenomena. At a time in history when understanding reality and the world is becoming increasingly complex, more direct contact with all things and emotions are particularly urgent. All details of his life provide the raw material for his art practice, collecting traces from the news, the city he lives in, the art world he belongs to, and the historical archives, capturing the invisible inflections and asking questions about the motivations behind the phenomena. His works bear witness to his life, deep thoughts, and position. What Liu Ding engages in is representing reality through artistic means, to discover words that would reiterate and interpret the world. He confronts reality as much as explores many forms of its representation.


The theme of this exhibition, "The Word for the World," draws from an eponymous series of works created since 2020, continuing the artist’s consistent and up-close attention to and reflection on reality and history. In 2015, Liu Ding translated his profound perceptions of our time's seismic transformation into a series of poems with features of symbolism. These poems document his observations and reflections on the social scenes of the time. Since 2016, he has been making a series of paintings that integrate excerpts of his poetry, words, and news with collages of everyday images and painterly vocabulary. Liu Ding compounds news images, diaristic photographs, and texts with digitally drawn graffiti on a computer and prints this hybrid image on paper before applying a variety of painting materials such as crayons, oil sticks, and acrylics to draw, alter, and overlay directly on the printout to create a relief-like image. Like his poems, these works are replete with sorrow, pathos, melancholy, anxiety, and tension, while exhibiting changes of colors and shifting imageries. The flatness of the printed image and the subtle surface of the hand-painted marks overlap and obscure each other, dazzling like camouflage clothing. The formal language of painting and the meaningful content burst out continuously while stimulating one another to grow and multiply.


The Messenger at the Crossroad is the first endeavor of this series. Liu Ding’s passion for literature, especially his belief in its faculty to command the people's minds and the times, lays the foundation for much of his art practice. He began with the poetry of Chinese writers in the 1920s and 1930s who revealed their hearts and minds, facing a world of unrest and precariousness, combining them with digitally and hand-drawn graffiti, harmonizing verbal language with artistic language, mobilizing their inherent implications and emotions, evoking complex and contradictory feelings of doubt, absurdity, despair, hope, and so on. The individual's hesitation, uncertainty, disillusionment, and infinite thoughts have never been absent in any significant era. Liu Ding incorporates the expressions of personal feelings of different historical periods into his works, making them the dominant imagery of his works. On view is the latest of this series, The Sorrow of War, with text taken from Vietnamese writer Bao Ninh’s eponymous novel. The novel, written in 1987, tells the story of many ordinary people trapped by war. The passage excerpted in the picture is taken from the book, about a father's bitter advice to his enlisted son for the war. Unmoored by his father's heartfelt words, the enlisted soldier, only seventeen years old, witnesses his comrades die in battle and struggle to make a living after the war. Only then does he grasp the profound meaning of what his father said to him. Superimposed on this emotionally gushing and calm narrative are unbridled brushstrokes and colors, warm conversations between swan mother and son, scenes of war and explosions, and so on. These visual languages and messages tightly cover the whole picture, just as every word and every graphic detail in this phrase is worth lingering over.


Liu Ding reserves part of his lasting attention for the upheavals of the 20th century. The turbulent life, war, famine, disaster, and displacement posed infinite challenges for the enduring creative souls of that time. Their creative works are traces that configure the torrent of the times and the individuals floating in them. Songs of the Night was created in 2021 during the physical and mental lockdown of the global pandemic, dominated by the primary dark tone of this group of works. In this work that is comprised of thirteen images, Liu Ding pastes the image by artist Huang Xinbo's 1943 woodblock series Heart Song, produced at Eagle Mountain in Guilin during his exile. Using allegorical and symbolic techniques and the formal language of surrealism, Huang Xinbo was keen on conveying his destitution, displacement, and loneliness during the war in this group of woodcuts. In each work where Heart Song appears, Liu Ding paints an owl as the central figure. Although this icon recurs, he uses black marks to immediately interrupt and overlay on the imagery, as if to erase the figurative language as much as possible. Liu’s gesture enhances the uneasy and indolent semantics of the images. Out of the thirteen images, he smears three utterly black so that no concrete image would be apparent. These three "black screens" are like a series of unspoken words that are nothing but silence.


In his new work, The Word for the World, Liu adopts the montage technique for image editing that simulates how people perceive and describe the world today – showing and exposing while obscuring and fitting reality. For the testimony of the world, the visible and the invisible are equally well spoken. The Word for the World selects news images documenting the scenes of highly conflictual international political events. In processing these images, Liu Ding "masks" the news images from the scene through a series of destructive brushstrokes and superimposing them on one another. In these works, he prohibits various images, words, and strokes and lends shape to establish mutually negating or affirmative relationships. In a series of seemingly pictorially destructive techniques, the artist attempts to build a new language to portray social reality and to give the forms a sense of witness to the times.


In his latest work, Heaven Supermarket, Liu Ding has taken out figurative representations such as phrases and news images from the picture but directly applies diverse forms, thicknesses, and color strokes to the image. These paintings are simultaneously somber, precise, staid, and spontaneous, with a sense of control and sophistication in painted pigments and lines, while replete with expressive personal emotions, both subjective and honest. He invokes all the formal languages he has experimented with and developed in the last decade. Some come from studying other artists' painting methods, and others are his refinement and experimentation. The painting's abundance of lines and rich tones exhibit vigorous expression and unhinged passion for art. The artist has distilled his knowledge, cultivation, sentiment, strength, ideal, and passion. In Liu Ding's view, even though these are abstract images, their meanings are naturally inherent.  


The last work in the exhibition was created in 2011 when Liu Ding began to recover emotionally and resume feistiness from the attacks of his art world peers. The Gift appropriates a 1962 video of Marylin Monroe singing a birthday song to President John F. Kennedy; by extending the pause after each verse on screen, Liu Ding inserts his written words between them, which are akin to voice-over to the video and as commentary. When Monroe dedicated this birthday song to the President, she was at a low point in her life, and her emotionally charged vocals sounded defiant and poignant. In this work, Monroe becomes a vivid cultural symbol, conveying empathy with the individual's fate and the helplessness of the times.


The linguistic means by which the world of digital images communicates information has fundamentally impacted self-representation in the physical world. In this exhibition, Liu Ding introduces screen vocabularies and network visual effects by means of blocking, concealing, interrupting, and severing the appearance and dialogue between images in the exhibition. The expression of the entire presentation adopts a multi-layered format, presenting the way in which digital visual language has shaped the expression of contemporary art and culture.


Since 2011, Liu Ding has pivoted on the legacy of socialist realism to incorporate art history and individual experience into the investigation of contemporary art. He has reactivated many forgotten and banished aesthetic elements and artistic experiences in this legacy and continuously introduced a human perspective into the discussion of art, art history, and contemporary order. Taking the individual as the starting point and concerned subject, this humanist approach becomes a unified ideology inherent in Liu Ding's art practice, across multiple forms and varied creative phrases in his career. His works of art, in turn, attest to the infinite potential of realism to reinvent the world.