Lot 1092
  • 1092

Liu Wei

1,800,000 - 2,500,000 HKD
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  • Liu Wei
  • Purple Air
  • oil on canvas
  • 220 by 220 cm.; 86⅝ by 86⅝ in.
signed in Chinese and Pinyin and dated 2010 on the reverse


Galerie Hussenot, Paris
Acquired by the present owner from the above


This work is generally in good condition. There are areas of hairline craquelures throughout, with the most obvious being near the bottom left and right edge on the black impasto. Having examined the work under ultraviolet light, there appears to be no evidence of restoration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The Fragmented Cityscape
Liu Wei

Among the many Chinese artists who established themselves since the 2000s, Liu Wei is without a doubt one of the most prominent icons globally. Having been frequently invited to international exhibitions in recent years, he is particularly insightful on the intricate relationship between art and society. Art critic Gunnar B. Kvaran once commented on his works, “Liu’s entire practice can be seen as a fragmented cityscape whose social structure is reduced to an essential state for the sake of clarity of message.”1 The artist’s most iconic series Purple Air is precisely his regenerated images of the Beijing cityscape, mirroring its impactful cultural system. The present work Purple Air Series was created in 2010. Measuring 2.2m each side, its monumental scale creates a sublime presence effortlessly. Behind the interlacing linear structure is a spherical shape formed by red, pink, green and black, representing both the sun and the moon. This distinctive composition makes it a truly unique piece within the Purple Air series.

Colors, Liu Wei’s exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing earlier this year was the largest solo show in his career thus far. It was an ultimate exploration of his artistic form and marked the rise of the “Post-Sense Sensibility” group in contemporary Chinese art. As Liu Wei’s most famous creation, the Purple Air series was centrally featured in Colors. Liu Wei gives an ultimate expression of visual creativity. Transcending traditional understandings of conceptual art and employing such tools as architecture, geometry, and space, he transforms the enormous space into a single visual-sensorial installation, encouraging the visitor to sense, vaguely and yet clearly, the social context of this visual experience. From his experience as an urbanite, Liu Wei distills a unique set of visual elements; his artistic vocabulary is close to that of Minimalism, but is infused with the special, hybrid character of Chinese cities. Like other young artists participating in the show “Post-Sense, Sensibility, Alienated Bodies, and Delusion,” Liu Wei refused the exoticist gaze of the West on contemporary Chinese art and refused the over-interpretation of “meaning” in conceptual art. Instead, he hoped for intuitive responses for viewers, demonstrating the young Chinese artists’ radically different artistic vision.

Comparing to earlier works from the Purple Air series, his paintings from the2010s see a more dynamic colour palette and more versatile compositions. The unique composition of the current lot Purple Air Series (Lot 1092) makes it an extremely rare piece.  A myriad vertical and horizontal lines form an epitome of the endless information and competing high-rises in modern Chinese cities. Not only is it a metaphor for skyscrapers, it is also a magnification of the digitalised data and pixels in the virtual world. Behind this intertwined façade, a large black circular form appears at the centre. It is an amalgamation of the sun and the moon. Its circular shape creates a sharp contrast to the linear structure, imbuing an Eastern spirituality. By juxtaposing the Zen ideal with the chaotic cityscape of Beijing, different elements interweave and intermingle, generating perpetual energy. Embodying the core essence of the series, Purple Air Series is unquestionably a defining piece from Liu Wei’s oeuvre.

Speaking about the Purple Air series, Liu Wei is explicit that his subject is Beijing: “There is an ancient Chinese saying about a place having ‘purple air’, that it is enshrouded in gray. In fact this means that the place is full of life. It has many problems but also much vitality at the same time.”2 Purple Air Series lets us enter the Beijing of Liu Wei’s mind, as well as intertwined truths and fictions taking place on its stage. As a young witness to China’s urbanisation, Liu Wei captures this state of being through a shift in creative strategy. This is the significance of the Purple Air series.

A true Beijinger, Liu Wei was born in 1972 and graduated in 1996 from China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, which was formerly Zhejiang Academy of Art and has a strong tradition of trend-setting innovation. Liu Wei and other Academy artists collaborated on the exhibition “Post-Sense Sensibility,” a response to the excessive idealism of the 1980’s. They wanted to free themselves from the grand lessons of social responsibility and showcase a radically different kind of art. Liu Wei’s contribution was a video installation. Although the exhibition lasted only a day, it had a tremendous impact.

Liu Wei breaks away from traditional artistic language in his paintings, which, more than the work of an earlier generation, are influenced by Western conceptual art. Duchamp’s notion of the “ready-made,” Minimalism, and Deconstructionism have all left their traces in Liu Wei’s works.  Ranging widely in medium, creative strategy, and subject matter, these installations, sculptures, videos, and paintings at first may seem scarcely related to each other. Yet we can still sense the vague presence of a city and its inhabitants in his mid-career works, such as the famous Love it! Bite it! (2007), China (2006) (Fig.1), Outcast (2007). In them a social consciousness inheres, albeit in a concealed manner. Liu Wei is the most authentic observer of society. “The city is reality. All of China exists in a city under construction, which in the end has an impact on you. You cannot avoid paying attention to it. You wonder: why should one do this? It’s all related to the system.”3

Indeed, many of Liu Wei’s works from his middle period allude to the social system. Some of them are even explicitly political and contain unmistakable social satire and critique. In China of 2005, he assembles porcelain bowls into military weapons, in a barely veiled reference to the country famous for its “china.” Love it! Bite it! is an important series begun in 2006. Here he uses edible dog chews as his medium to construct installations of buildings of different cities, revealing that the urbanite’s desire for power is as untamed as a dog’s desire for food.  The same series also contains a controversial replica of the Potala Palace of Lhasa, a testament of Liu Wei’s daring criticality.

From the late 2000’s onwards, Liu Wei’s works have been invited to various large-scale exhibitions abroad, including the Venice Biennale of 2005 and the Lyon Biennale of 2007, and in 2008 he won a Contemporary Chinese Art Award (CCAA). At this time, his art underwent a change in direction, abandoning his earlier, more explicit satire and critique in favour of understated meditations on society. To open a new creative path, he returned to the formal aspects of art. In Purple Air series, for example, he replaced the painting brush with the computer mouse and painting with graphic design to explore the formal possibilities of painting. “I use a mouse to create all my paintings as an instinct and as a continuation of painting.” Purple Air was a milestone in Liu Wei’s conceptual reorientation, which also witnessed many installations of pastiches and juxtapositions. Doubtlessly as a representative major example of this series, the lot on offer, Purple Air Series, documents a crucial turning point in Liu Wei’s career.

1 Gunnar B. Kvaran, Liu Wei: The Creative Gesture, 2011
2 Jerome Sans, Interview with Liu Wei, Duihua Zhongguo, 2009
3 Interview with Liu Wei, “I always keep myself in a state of instability,” Hans Ulrich Obrist interview with Liu Wei, Liu Wei, Trilogy, 2011