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Issue 232

Li Nu’s Degrees of Liberty

A set of interrelated conceptual, text- and body-based sculptures and video works at Today Art Museum, Beijing, allows the artist to meditate on individual freedom and geopolitical tensions

BY Nooshfar Afnan in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 01 NOV 22

On the red-brick facade of the Today Art Museum, the words ‘WHAT’S THE DATE TODAY?’ are spelled out in massive stainless steel lettering. The eponymous piece puns on the museum’s name, but also places the artwork at the unstable juncture between a turbulent past and a desired future, signaling that the artist’s new exhibition ‘As if Sand Were Stone’ will address urgent contemporary social questions. Through an impressive body of twenty artworks, all but one of which were produced in 2022, Li Nu troubles our familiar ideas about liberty and the individual’s place within larger geopolitical tensions.

A horizontal thermometer against a dark wall and an eleven-point marble pillar in the foreground
Li Nu, ‘As if Sand Were Stone’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Today Art Museum

Though trained as a sculptor, Li’s first museum show goes beyond conventional media, often incorporating unusual materials that enhance the narrative potential of the works. Pillar Imperfect (all 2022) is an eleven-point star-shaped marble sculpture, inspired by Fort Wood, the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York, USA, which was ironically once used as a military fortification. Its core is an aluminum column containing a small amount of mercury, only the tip of which is visible as a decorated disc. Should the mercury and aluminum ever come into direct contact, they would react in a process known as ‘flocculation’, clumping together in large flakes, as if representing a degraded image of the missing statue. However, the artist has isolated the chemicals with glass; the reaction only occurs in theory and the pillar remains ‘imperfect’ or incomplete.

A set of six yellow-tinged figures with their bare backs exposed, facing a wall.
Li Nu, Waterfall, 2022, beeswax, torch tip, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Today Art Museum

Themes of liberty persist with a small installation entitled Thermometer, which contains a row of the titular instrument set into a kind of display case. Considered democratic in their affordability, ubiquity and consistency, during the pandemic, they have at times become curtailers of liberty, restricting the public from entering stores or transportation. Hence, the temperature markings have been replaced by the words ‘THE MEASURE OF LIBERTY’. Warm/September, a large text installation, displays Li’s interest in language through nickel-chrome wire that intermittently glows red hot to spell the word ‘warm’ – or ‘war’, as the last letter is disconnected – in a large dark gallery. Viewers stand behind a half-wall to protect them from the strong emitted heat; we not only read the words, but powerfully experience them upon our skin.

In a further exploration of the body, in Waterfall, six identical life-size human figures, molded after the artist, lean against a gallery wall with their arms over their heads. Their exposed backs project a vulnerability accentuated by the beeswax they are shaped from, a material prone to melting. Remnants of torch tip nozzles from which wax was sprayed are found on various body parts; reminiscent of navels, they nod to the sculptures’ making.

A set if six puckered bumps across a flat surface, wrought out of some sort of metal
Li Nu, Mundus Is Mundus Is Mundus, 2022, bronze, 99 × 99 × 2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Today Art Museum

Indeed, the navel, a universal symbol of the origin of life, plays centre stage in a series of works that share the title Mundus. A short video shot by the artist focusses on a model’s navel and back. A large white marble sculpture shows in magnified detail the opening of the artist’s navel, and several reverse casts of it protrude from two flat bronze plates hanging on the wall, the short thorn-like objects subverting the idea of a single centre, hinting at competing world powers.

Mundus – Latin for ‘world’ – suggests that the deeply personal intersects with the universal. Though many of these works start with Li’s own body, seeming to stress his work’s introspective orientation, the artist’s meticulous yet strikingly visceral body of new work compels us to meditate on our own place within the world, reflecting on the pandemic and the ever-shifting tides of geopolitics, as well as our shared humanity and inextricably intertwined future.

Li Nu, ‘As if Sand Were Stone’ is on view until 15 November. 

Main image: Li Nu, ‘As if Sand Were Stone’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Today Art Museum

Nooshfar Afnan is an art writer and critic based in Beijing, China.