Pastel-coloured frames signed by Liu Ding hung salon-style on the walls of the artist’s solo show, ‘Three Performances’. The landscape paintings, figurative drawings and floral textiles they surround, however, are not Liu’s own; rather, they are found works the artist has collected over the years. By presenting them here in signed frames, Liu not only renders their original makers unintentional collaborators in his show, he potentially raises the works’ commercial value. These framed images comprise one component of The Un-erasable (2012); the other is a video of the artist having a (mostly inaudible) conversation with an art historian during the installation of an exhibition. This interest in the framing devices, both literal and figurative, which mark each art object as a commodity, is characteristic of 1960s and ’70s Western conceptualists, who were working during an era of self-reflexivity and market criticality of a kind that China has never experienced. While from a Western perspective it may seem redundant for an artist to revisit this kind of institutional critique, the terrain is different in China, where such criticality of the country’s own ravenous market seems all but non-existent and Western-imposed clichés of Eastern art are abundant.
‘Three Performances’ was a series of installations concerned with the artist’s role in the production and reception of ideas in a globalized art world. Three monitors mounted on industrial black shelving showed documentation of the performance I Simply Appear in the Company of … (2013), which depicts Liu’s partner and frequent collaborator (and contributing editor of frieze) Carol Yinghua Lu and Tate Modern curator Marko Daniel in a public conversation about the artist’s work at the Tanks at Tate Modern. While the piece emulated the form of the traditional panel conversation, it was actually a performance, in which Liu showed up 15 minutes late, in the guise of a mysterious ‘Mr. Liu’, who can’t speak English and supposedly isn’t the artist. It’s difficult to discern how aware Daniel and the audience were of the staged nature of the talk. At one point, Daniel cautiously mentions his own convoluted participation in the piece: ‘When an artist asks others to perform, it’s with a certain degree of persuasion, and to the extent that Liu Ding’s work is so much about social and political practices it is interesting, I think, that to some extent, the delegation of performance also becomes a delegation of conversation in that others take part in conversations that the audience is either not aware of or conversations in which the artist is absent.’ Liu categorizes I Simply Appear in the Company of … as ‘weak performance’: a loosely defined practice (or ‘sub-practice’, as he and Lu have termed it) in which, like in performance art, the artist plays a version of himself, rather than another character. According to Liu, this allows him to speak plainly, and sometimes confrontationally, about the art industry within public contexts such as talks and exhibitions. Liu satirizes traditional formats by staging artist talks in which the artist is absent.
The final ‘performance’ on display, Almost Avant-Garde (2013), originally took place at Tate Modern, where it was only viewable via live stream. Liu festooned Tate’s Performance Room with cardboard cut-out versions of art works in the museum’s collection, told a DJ to play some slightly altered baroque music and invited Tate’s curatorial and installation teams to come in, drink and converse. On a wall in the Performance Room, the artist also projected a video comprising bits of text taken from taped conversations with his friends and colleagues about the state of Chinese art. ‘Chinese artists believe that having an attitude is not important but having an aesthetic signature is very important’, the text states at one point. Other lines are more cynical, ‘I don’t believe that art can change anyone’, or confessional: ‘Artists who worked in China before the Ming dynasty might not have to worry about what was Chinese’. The exclusive art world gathering at Tate Modern, with its classical music and inaudible cocktail chatter, might seem like a dystopian bourgeois nightmare – everyone seems to be playing a character and, for the viewer, these conversations remain impenetrable and alienating. That the truisms projected on the performance room’s wall evoke frustrations with the expectation that Chinese artists should adopt Western language and decorum speaks to the artist’s discontentment with art industry systems that perpetuate problems of omission, miscommunication and Western cultural imperialism, and which prohibit cross-cultural understanding. It remains to be seen whether Liu’s conceptual methodologies, which notably have already been commodified in the West, can act as corrective measures in an increasingly globalized Chinese art world.