‘No Easy Symbolism’, Liu Yefu’s solo exhibition at Magician Space, is about semantics: how and what things mean (or don’t). Focusing on the language of advertising, the artist amplifies attempts to demonstrate that products are more than their simple functions to expose the ridiculousness and ineptitude of these promotional approaches. This is part of Liu’s broader engagement with the endurance of imperialist structures and their effects, especially as connected to the hegemonic power of language.
Bubba Goes Home, So Does Forrest (all works 2018 unless otherwise stated), one of three small, sculptural assemblages at the exhibition’s entrance, consists of a clay bowl one-third filled with a brown resin that partially submerges two clay spheres. ‘I wanna go home,’ are the dying words of Bubba, Forrest’s closest friend during the Vietnam War in the acclaimed Hollywood film Forrest Gump (1994). Installed opposite is Damascus 3 Days 2 Nights Only for ¥3500, comprising two bangles, reminiscent of the jade kind often worn in China, which hang off a curved nail just above the floor, covered in rubble and shards of pottery. Syria’s present state of ruin comes to mind and the assemblage becomes a parodic package-holiday advertisement. In the third sculpture, with the German title Er wird dich verwerfen als wärst du ein Stück Kartoffeln, das die Hände verbrennt verbrennt (He Will Reject You as if You Were a Piece of Potato That Burns, Burns the Hands), a twisted fork with a broken prong is stuck into an actual potato that sits beside a clay version in a bowl atop a splintered wooden shelf. A hot potato: a difficult problem or situation perpetually passed on. Via Vietnam and Syria, there are nods to foreign military and political interventions, while the works’ titles evoke the ways that the often-brutal realities of such actions can be twisted and elided through allusion and metaphor.
Eight videos are projected in the second room. Five of these, ‘AD, Proposal I–V’ (2017–18), show a series of black and white advertising vignettes that the artist created for products including Lucky Strike cigarettes and Japanese sex toys. These often-violent, leftfield videos follow the same pattern: a disorientating opening followed by the inexplicable and comical arrival of the advertised product. Most are also marked by hyperbolic references to different cultures: mumbled Arabic before a hanging; the Statue of Liberty and a messy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner; a man with traditional Manchurian Queue hair shot dead by a cowboy. The three longer films include Doubaner on the Grassland, in which two figures sit against a backdrop of US Civil War-era covered wagons and seemingly random video clips floating in the sky. Two voices, with American accents, engage in a sort of critical discussion of artworks, briefly referring to Kerry James Marshall, Susan Sontag, Slavoj Žižek and Chinese art (seemingly sufficiently covered by mentioning 17th-century painter and calligrapher Bada Shanren). Mostly, though, they talk about break-ups and sex. The dialogue is too scatty to be incisive, which is suggested in the title’s reference to Douban: a popular Chinese online platform used for reviewing and discussing almost anything. Confusion and disorientation likewise set the tone for the exhibition’s longest video, How Many Horses, which shows a group of friends playing and revealing the secrets of cryptic word games.
I’ve used words like scatty, oblique and confusing because the exhibition chimes with these adjectives. Liu’s approach allows for a reflexive engagement with advertising and, specifically, language’s ability to shape understanding – finding within this a counterpart to more pernicious forms of imperial intervention.
Liu Yefu: No Easy Symbolism was on view from 15 May until 20 June 2018 at Magician Space, Beijing.
Main image: Liu Yefu, How Many Horses (detail), 2018, single channel HD video still. Courtesy: the artist and Magician Space, Beijing