Magic and Acrobatics (Lot 151) was executed in 1988, a year of particular importance in the development of Lü Shengzhong's art when the practice of paper-cut began to supplant painting and drawing in his oeuvre. It is the first of his multi-panel works to display the dazzling virtuosity and dizzying multiplication of human and other forms that has characterized his work until the present day. As such, it is a uniquely important document in the narrative of Chinese contemporary art that began to emerge in the late 1980's.
Born in Shandong Province in 1952, Lü grew up in a rural environment in which various aspects of folk art were still a living tradition. Describing himself as "the son of Chinese peasants," Lü's respect for the innate creativity of these untutored artists seems only to have increased as he observed the teaching practices of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing and the enthusiasm of many of his contemporaries for contemporary art from the West. Field research in Shaanxi Province led him to the realization that the humble art of papercut could be the basis for his own practice.
Lü was among the first to graduate from the recently established Folk Art Department in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1987. His graduation project Life: Ephemeral and Eternal was to be among the last of his paintings, paper-cut assuming the primary role in the following year when Magic and Acrobatics was executed. Anticipating the present work, however, are four paintings on silk (fig. 1) inspired by the virtuosity of Chinese acrobats, leading to compositions of dazzling complexity. In preparation for his solo exhibition at the National Art Museum, Beijing in 1988 Lü began working on a larger scale, notably in the paper-cut installation Chichu and Magic and Acrobatics. In photographs of this exhibition, these panels can be seen flanking the central installation.
In these four large panels, each measuring 307 by 109 cm., Lü focuses on different types of acrobatic performance, using them as metaphors for philosophical reflections on the meaning of life. In Hoops swarms of red and black figures emerge from the multi-layered figure at the bottom of the composition, passing through hoops until they emerge like a swarm of bees, only to separate again at the top. In Bowls there are references to procreation and the notion of fertility. Fan Di'an has described how "in the work Bowls, taking its subject from folk art, the two bowls, one on top of the other, in form like a shell cracked open, imply a primordial state of human life suddenly erupting to form the most energetic life force in the world. The central image spinning around in the middle of the work suggests a symbolic eternity, the contrast between yin and yang, and the integration of male and female, timeless themes handed down from generation to generation." In Woven the white and black strips that emerge respectively from a white form at
the top and a black form at the bottom of the composition form a checkerboard pattern in the middle before assuming an independent
course. The witty use of positive and negative forms in Reverse is a precursor of Lü Shengzhong's exhaustive investigation of this relationship in his later work.
The late 1980's was a particularly exciting moment in the development of contemporary Chinese art. Only one year prior to the ground breaking "China/Avant-Garde" exhibition in 1989, Lü's exhibition at the National Art Museum, Beijing indicated another direction, one in which different aspects of traditional Chinese culture were modified and revitalized. Lü later recalled: "At the time, to study from the vernacular was considered
old-fashioned. Later, I felt that traditional folk art and contemporary art were only separated by a piece of very thin paper." Xu Bing's Book from the Sky, exhibited at the same time, is another landmark of contemporary Chinese art that looked to tradition for inspiration, although in his case it was calligraphy that was subjected to analysis.
1] First Encounter, Chambers Fine Art, New York, November 2000- January 2001, p. 5
 Fan Di'an, "The Restless State of Life: A One-way Conversation with Lü Shengzhong," excerpt from Pictorial Journal of Jiangsu, November 1988 in The New Emerging from the Old - Lü Shengzhong: Works 1980-2005, Chambers Fine Art, New York in collaboration with University Art Museum, University at Albany, 2005, p. 21
 Ibid., p. 14
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