Born 1989 in Beijing
Born 1989 in Beijing shocks, puzzles and provokes with the pulsating festering magnificence that defines Liu Wei’s works. The enfant terrible of Chinese contemporary art, Liu Wei was among the very first to be inducted into the pantheon of internationally renowned contemporary artists when his Revolutionary Family series propelled him into global superstardom in the early 1990s. Created in 1995, the year of Liu’s second participation in the Venice Biennale, Born 1989 in Beijing harkens back to 1989, the year Liu graduated from art school and a watershed year in the history of contemporary China. The “indescribability” of the time, to borrow the phrase of critic Huang Zhuan, is represented by Liu through an idiosyncratic arresting image of three flesh-pink babies of snowballing sizes, with macabre growths emanating out of their ears. The babies allude to Liu’s ‘birth’ into the Chinese art scene upon his graduation that year, with their exponential growth suggesting his explosive rise to international prominence as an artist, whilst also embodying the heaving tides of conflicting energies coursing through the nation during the momentous year. With the words “born 1989 in Beijing” inscribed in white on the top left, the work is a bold political statement and a pivotal masterwork that straddles history, daily life and self-introspection. The series consists of only two works according to published literature, with the other painting, entitled Born 1989 in Beijing (250%), belonging to the M+ Sigg Collection.
For Liu Wei, 1989 embodies extraordinary personal and political significance. In that year, the young artist graduated from the Department of Printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The ’85 New Wave ended in that same year, which coincided with the seminal “China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition” curated by influential critic and curator Li Xianting, which showcased 297 works from 186 participating artists. From Li’s perspective, such currents in Chinese contemporary art “took the Maoist model and its value system as their target of opposition” (cited in Chia Chi Jason Wang, in Liu Wei: A Solo Painter, Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei, 2012 p. 13). “China/Avant-Garde” represented the first and only time that avant-garde artists appeared as a large group at the National Art Museum of China, and is widely regarded as a seminal moment in the history of Chinese contemporary art—not least because the exhibition was shut down just two hours after it opened, when artist Xiao Lu shot her own work, Dialogue, with a pellet gun. When the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre occurred merely four months subsequent, these shots were dubbed “the first shots of Tiananmen” by the media.
What subsequently emerged in the early 1990s was what Li called the “cynics”: a new generation of young artists who came of age in the post-Cultural Revolution (or post-1979) era. Liu belonged to this generation, which Li called the “Third Generation” – a group of artists “born in the 1960s and graduated from university in the late 1980s, and whose works reveal a striking sense of malaise or a cynical humour” (Ibid.). Together with fellow artist Fang Lijun, Liu was hailed as one of the two strongest proponents of Cynical Realism and exhibited at the 1993 and 1995 Venice Biennales and the 1994 Sao Paulo Biennale. In these early works, Liu appropriated motifs of historical images such as Chairman Mao and other Communist Party heroes whilst expanding the strictures of realistic depiction with a unique stylized technique that employed what Li called “expressionistic deformation” (Ibid.). Li explains: “Seen in the eyes of those familiar with the history of traditional Chinese art, Liu’s use of the deformation tactics reminds some of a group of late Ming and early Qing painters of human subjects whose style is similarly referred to as “Transformism” […] Liu intentionally crafts grotesque characters but his intent is not an homage to his forebears but rather to highlight his misgivings to history or something even more specific, i.e. the Mao Model’s institutions and attendant value system” (Ibid., p. 15).
In the mid-1990s, just when Cynical Realism and its related movement Political Pop were poised to become the new vogue, Liu was already moving ahead of the crowd. Quietly, he began leaving behind political leaders as creative material, turning instead towards everyday motifs. Jason Wang writes that at this point, “what interested him was no longer the recreation of events but getting to the core of an idea and injecting a deeper consciousness into his painting” (Ibid., p. 19). The You Like Pork? series, unveiled at the 1995 Venice Biennale, revealed further developments in Liu’s signature deformation aesthetic, which by the time of Born 1989 in Beijing had reached towering virtuosic heights. With matured painterly skills and consummate brushwork that rendered extraordinary texture and atmosphere, Liu’s visual vocabulary became more grotesque and unearthly than ever, featuring swollen faces, festering, oozing complexions and disintegrating forms that seem to purposely incite the viewer. Such works appear to be no longer dealing with social and political reality but a broader existential significance of the human condition. As Wang writes: “From this point forward Liu seemed to be more definitively cutting ties with the collective and political nature of Chinese contemporary art. As if in self-exile, Liu returned to the personal, becoming much more of a full-blown individual artist” (Ibid.).
Created in 1995, the present lot is positioned at the very cusp of the artist’s transition from socio-politically charged works towards broader existential motifs, being amongst the last of Liu Wei’s works to reveal blatant political undertones. After the hype resulting from his participation in the Venice Biennales and the São Paulo Biennale, Liu moved out of the raucous Yuanmingyuan and settled in a private space of serenity and sanctuary in Songzhuang. Executed in this meditative new environment, Born 1989 in Beijing represents the pinnacle of Liu Wei’s unique expressionistic deformation painterly style whilst also epitomizing an important turning point in the artist’s career—shortly afterwards, towards the late 1990s, Liu Wei moved progressively away from hitherto socio-politically charged themes towards more mellow explorations of his internal landscape. Going forward, he steadily broke new ground in his art, never confining himself to any particular aesthetic or motif and constructing one of the most singular and distinctive oeuvres in Chinese and global contemporary art history.