The Forms of Social Forces: The Work of Liu Shuiyang
City: Beijing
Curator: Wu Hong
Duration: 2018-07-14 ~ 2018-08-14
Opening: July 14,2018,4 PM
Forum Date: July 14,2018,2 PM
Venue: Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive (2F, 3F)
Address: South Lake Arts District, Songzhuang Town, Tongzhou District, Beijing
Participating Artist(s): Liu Shuiyang
Host(s): Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive

Producer:Hu Jiebao

Curatorial Assistants:Li Xiaoting、iao Feng、Shen Zhenxia、Ma Jian、Jiang Xin、Yang Qing、Liu Jimin

Designer:Hu Yuwei

Social Forces: Another Determinant of Formal Structure

Wu Hong

In The Origins of Form, Christopher Williams points out that the form of all things, whether natural or manmade, is the product of earth’s gravity and various natural stresses, from the structure of the smallest cell, to the forms of the largest mountains and beaches, to the ways in which animals and plants grow. Williams noted that there were five forces of stress on structures: compression, tension, torsion, shear, and bending. “Structure is the way to achieve the most strength from the least material through the most appropriate arrangement of elements within the best form for the intended use, and constructed from the material most suited to the kind of stress placed upon it.”[1]

In addition to these natural forces, humans are social animals, and our ways of organizing groups in society, modes of knowledge accumulation in society, and ways of expressing emotion in society all subtly influence the ways that humans understand the spatial structures of the world around them, which further shapes humanity’s formal depictions of things in the world. The influences that society has on formal structures we will call “social forces.”

Specifically, the formation and function of social forces can be divided into three layers:

The first is society’s collective will. This is primarily manifested in social systems, mainstream ideologies, and society’s organizational forms, customs, and culture, as well as dominant modes of expressing emotion in society. It is largely conveyed through political power, organs of the state, mainstream cultural traditions and customs, and social organizations, which transform this collective will into an external force.

The second is individual will. An important difference between man and animal is that man can, through individual learning processes, grasp knowledge and experience previously accumulated by the group. This learning process can be conveyed through language, technical experience, specific training institutions, and books. As humans grow, they experience a long process of individual learning and knowledge accumulation. Some animal species, especially primates, have a process similar to learning, but in contrast to these simple survival skills, the human learning process gradually builds knowledge structures and value judgments, which further influence and change the form of society. This process of individual knowledge accumulation fully reflects the traits of society. Thus, even if it is an embodiment of individual will, it still reflects the essential properties of the society in which it occurs.

The third is the collective unconscious. Carl Jung believed that the collective unconscious was a universal human spirit buried deep in the mind and formed through the inheritance of countless similar experiences. This hereditary accumulation of similar experiences may be one of the animal traits that was retained in the course of human evolution. In animals, the majority of instincts and experiences are conveyed between individuals through heredity. Some typical species of social animal, such as ants and bees, have very low levels of individuation, and the division of labor and coordination within the group is performed through the secretion of pheromones. Individuals are only able to send and receive information from each other’s pheromone signals. On a higher level, society’s “wisdom” only exists in the group’s “super-brain.” Humanity’s collective unconscious is different, and although it is conveyed and augmented through biological heredity, the collective unconscious obviously has distinct societal traits. First, humanity’s collective unconscious includes instincts and archetypes, and the production of archetypes is related to a group’s early social history. For example, humanity’s early experiences of living in caves determined the form and function of the homes designed by their descendants. Second, the collective unconscious can be activated in certain situations to become consciousness.

Thus, how social forces shape form can be divided into the three layers of collective will, individual will, and the collective unconscious.

The characteristics of our society today are linked to the real estate economy, bringing together state will, power relationships, capital, individual will, and the collective unconscious in a game of chess, with its entanglements, conflicts, resistance, and re-balancing. Here, various social forces are occurring, responding to and competing with one another, and being depleted. “All energies and substances move to the compromise, high to the low, numerous to the sparse, live to the dead, moist to the dry, and heat to the lack of heat. This is the law of evolution and the world, the principle of entropy. When all energies and potential energies are spent, entropy is increased… Entropy is the equalizing process by which the universe is moving through a state of chaos and disorder to an end…”[2]

The evolution of social forces is generally very similar to this. In the contention between various applied forces and stresses, formal structures change. Williams’ “way to achieve the most strength from the least material” works in a similar way on the social plane.

Liu Shuiyang keenly perceives and grasps the predicaments and traits of the times in which we find ourselves. Through a range of media, including installation, sculpture, video, and performance, he uses symbols, metaphors, and conceptual displacements to express our current social structures, relationships and conflicts, personal mental stresses, and the universal societal emotions of confusion, pain, and helplessness that permeate the collective unconscious. In contrast to other artists, when Liu Shuiyang presents these societal issues, he focuses on the analysis and consideration of the transformation of the social properties of spaces, structures, and materials. Therefore, in treating issues of formal structure in his works, he raises key questions about social forces, and this is what makes his work special. Liu’s works can be simply divided based on the different ways that these social forces are presented:

(1) The Socialized External Forms of Interior Structures

Bone Ring, Bow, Ladder, Bone, Messiah, and Skull have one thing in common: they are based on human bones, externalizing bones as special structural forms. In human evolution, the skeleton is a precise mechanical structure developed to resist the earth’s gravity and to complete complex motions. Human bones are foundational and omnipresent in human mechanical movement, but they are covered by muscle, skin, and other bodily tissues, forming what biologists would consider a typical endoskeleton. Because it is related to death and injury, the externalization of human bones is seen as a social and cultural taboo in the traditions of the vast majority of human civilizations. Liu Shuiyang’s work takes the externalization of these interior bones as a mechanical structure with a special meaning; he uses this social taboo, intensifying those hidden social conflicts, group psychological pressures, and individual psychological stresses through the “surprising” visual and psychological experience of this contact with social taboos. The new, externalized structures actually explain the important role that social forces play in the meaning of formal symbols and metaphors.

(2) The Displacement of the Social Properties of Materials

Rebar, Medusa, Cone, and Soft Body are related to the sociological transformation of a material’s properties based on its natural attributes. The natural structures of materials, whether they play a structural or material role, simply reflect their physical and chemical properties. Affected by social forces, the displacement of materials becomes a rhetorical method in installation art. Whether rebar is displaced by wax, or concrete is displaced by an unknown, soft material, these displacements give rise to another logical relationship that has a sociological correspondence to these new materials and forms. The absurdity, magic, and surreality produced after these new material characteristics and mechanical structures are combined is a distortion and perversion of social structures transformed by social forces.

(3) The Forms of Natural Stresses in Specific Social Contexts

Under specific conditions, Mood, 2,048 kg, New York Street, and the video work Washing Walls have social traits that emerge from natural stresses. In a sense, these particular natural stresses are a kind of social force. For example, after a fire at a car repair shop, high-end sedans representing the immense power of the latest technologies collapse immediately when faced with primal natural forces, becoming a pile of ugly industrial waste. From another perspective, its “thin, porous, wrinkled, and permeable” visual characteristics seem to correspond to an absurdity within Chinese traditional aesthetics. Concrete is a classic manmade material. After Liu simply cuts a piece of concrete left behind by an unfinished building project, it bears a formal similarity to a traditional Chinese jade disc. An asphalt road that has been traversed by countless cars will eventually be marked with lines with an abstract beauty. After the noisy little advertisements on the wall are washed off, it actually highlights the irresistible uniqueness and authority of other marks. Numerous similar cases show that mechanical forms, after their social transformation, can reflect various complex metaphorical relationships in society.

(4) The Forms of Individual Stresses in Specific Social Contexts

In specific sites of social force, Tattoo, Redemption, Self-Portrait 2017, Self-Portrait 2018, Self-Portrait: Two Faces, and the performance art piece One Cubic Meter can be seen as reactions to stress or the universal social emotions within the collective unconscious that arise when an individual confronts pressure from social forces. Redemption extracts a psychological fragment of a typical cultural archetype from human history, which serves as a metaphor for the anxiety, confusion, and self-redemption within social reality. Tattoo is an individual’s resistance in the face of immense external social forces; by putting his fingerprints onto a formidable structure, he attempts to prove the value of a single individual’s existence. Through two generalized faces in black and white that don’t have specific facial features, Self-Portrait 2017 highlights the emotional suggestions of the occipital bone in a skull’s structure, in order to express an individual’s “weak” resistance to silent surfaces. Through a specific closed structure, the performance art piece One Cubic Meter makes a metaphorical, rhetorical transformation of the real spaces in which humans live and the reality of the intense monetization of lived spaces. The artist repeatedly wipes the water vapor from his breath off the glass. This endless Sisyphean predicament satirizes the reality of society and the model of civilization that we face today.

(5) The Rebirth of Meaning in a Social Context

In Liu’s body of work, Teaching Materials is an autonomous system. A selection of these works will be presented in the exhibition. Teaching Materials involves classic plaster models that have long been institutionalized in the art education system. By wrapping them in other materials, their details and features are changed, and new sculptures are recast from these molds. With this kind of sculpture, as long as there are a few people with a professional background, the plaster model “archetype” is discernible based on movements and volumes. However, the loss of detailed features blurs its classic-ness. This leads us to wonder whether over-processing or homogenization can cause key cultural traits to disappear. This series is a conceptual interpretation of the context of the “autonomous system.” However, after these works, as individual elements, enter into the overall context of the exhibition, their meanings change once again, which may be the biggest difference between sculpture and installation. Generally speaking, the meaning of works of sculpture is fixed and closed, presented through the parts under the surface—elements such as form, volume, and structure. Installation art breaks with formal surface restrictions, bringing the spaces, sites, and relationships of the material artwork’s placement into the work itself, thereby creating a new contextual logic. After shifting from an “autonomous” interpretive system toward new situational relationships, the meaning of Liu Shuiyang’s Teaching Materials lies in the innate substance of these works and the interactions with other works in sites of meaning. Because of the injection of their overall interpretive structures, its intrinsic logic produced new possibilities. In the overall context that the aforementioned parts constituted, the Teaching Materials series loses its classic qualities and becomes a social symbol devoid of self-expression and individual characteristics, thereby becoming another symbol of a social group in a more universal sense.

Through his research and presentation of ways of conveying the forms and structures of material symbolism affected by social mechanics, Liu Shuiyang’s work takes a macroscopic view of the social realities and universal social mentalities that we encounter, and the ways that the souls and emotions of individuals exist within this social structure. The emotions of pity, consolation, and redemption that flow from the works magnify an interest in individual dignity and values.

June 26, 2018

Incheon, South Korea

(Wu Hong: Art critic, curator, managing director of the Songzhuang Contemporary Art Archive, editor-in-chief of, and a guest professor and graduate advisor at Jilin College of the Arts)


Williams, Christopher. The Origins of Form. Plymouth, UK: Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1981.

[1] Christopher Williams, The Origins of Form, (Plymouth, UK: Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1981), 30.

[2] Christopher Williams, The Origins of Form (Plymouth, UK: Architectural Book Publishing Company, 1981), 136.


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[Editor] 张艳