Source:Artintern Author:Zhu Zhu Date: 2006-10-04 Size:
His earliest works are the products of fancy. A tiny heroine roams among fantastic vistas. Perhaps it is a naval ship patrolling the sea, jet planes flying in the air above. Perhaps a stage hung with red curtains, or a room with a view of golden wheat fields.

Liu Ye, Composition with Black White and Grey,160x140cm 2006


"Only the eternal children can return the magical world to us."

Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de la rêverie

"The first comedy I watched as a child was Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, a movie that makes one laugh wildly and cry hysterically, using a comedic form to tell a tragic story. The harder you laugh, the more desolate the tragic fate of the character in the story comes to seem. No one can laugh just once at this, which is why it is a truly great movie.” As Liu Ye reminisces, the charm of art emerges, art not as a heavy reproduction of reality that leaves us feeling suffocated, but art as new perspective, a new method of transcendence. Artists have this ability to make the heavy seem light.

His earliest works are the products of fancy. A tiny heroine roams among fantastic vistas. Perhaps it is a naval ship patrolling the sea, jet planes flying in the air above. Perhaps a stage hung with red curtains, or a room with a view of golden wheat fields. Other canvases are full of exoticism, records of surreal scenes of European-style architecture. He did, after all, spend time in Europe. Seen now, the spatial composition of these works seems heavy and viscous, a tactic with which to convey the illusions in his heart, influenced by Western masters from different periods including Van Dyck, Klee, and Magritte among others. Later, beginning in the 1990s, his images grew purer and more internal, focused, with just a few exceptions, on one or two characters set against a nearly monochromatic background. This simplified handling of background lies somewhere between Mondrian’s abstraction and the spatial composition of Chinese traditional painting. Although his understanding and respect for Western abstract art has deepened, and he often reproduces Mondrian’s works in his own images as a way of both honoring and experiencing them, he has never made himself into an abstract painter in the true sense. As I see it, abstraction is for him a way of bringing a quiet sense of order to the canvas, a visible model of the universe, an artistic specification. It is a harsh referent for individual speech, not allowing an individual to pointlessly dilute his personal potency, leading to a swelling of discourse, a drowning in one’s own saliva. His real interest still lies in what art historian Robert Rosenblum said in his writings on Klee, that he takes important themes and tries to “translate them into a language that suits the tiny scale of a child’s world of sorcery.”

Most of his works are like lyric poems—short and concise, transparent, sentimental and warm but deep, often hidden beneath comedic, bantering coats. They give off sweet but sad melodies, like a persistent tear on the cheek of a woman. He leaves aside the heavy, clamorous outer shell of reality, painting the fundamental fragility, tranquility, and dreams of life. These forms carry the weight of the real world, but also maintain a light stance, as if they will fly off into space at any time.


There is a biological term called “neoteny,” which refers to the condition whereby the physical characteristics of one’s youth are retained into adulthood, a condition which expresses itself as a giant head and eyes combined with a small lower jaw. It is said that in the history of the development of animation, “neoteny” played a role; Disney was creating his famous cartoon form Mickey Mouse, and originally drew a mouse with a small head. Only later did the head and eyes gradually grow, making the mouse cuter and more beloved, as he came to look ever more like a “neotenous” human.

In Liu Ye’s adult face, we can still see some traces of the chubby boy he once was. The round face, the head that seems almost naturally cartoonish. The characters that populate his works are often cartoonish like him; it is as if he only paints children, boys and girls. Angels are infantile angels; sailors look like boy scouts. When he paints adults, he returns to their most childlike characteristics: old people in the snow, Lei Feng, old Shanghai movie stars. He even painted the great scientist Stephen Hawking as Mickey Mouse. There is no better example of this thread in his work than his paintings of Ruan Lingyu; we need merely compare the preserved photographs of this old star with Liu Ye’s portraits to discover that while her face was actually quite slender with narrow eyes and thin, protruding lips, after Liu Ye’s treatment her silhouette appears round, her lips small and thick, her forehead wide, and her eyebrows set far apart. In short, she looks like a child star.

Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that in Liu Ye’s consciousness, world-weariness is only an outer coat, albeit one that all adults are forced to wear. Their personalities and consciousnesses have long ago been formed, at a time which Liu Ye says was “before they turned 18.” As the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai has written, “My adulthood is simply a bygone childhood,” and one’s childhood state is one’s only true state.

"I always feel that I live every moment in a fairytale world.” This confessional statement refers not only to Liu Ye’s childhood, but to the secret abodes of his heart, a relatively stable psychological attitude. His painting has been influenced by cartoons in an exceedingly natural way; In his eyes, the Dutch cartoonist Dick Bruna and the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki are “personages as great as DaVinci.”

A child tries of course to wallow in the fairytale world, seeing it as the truest kind of reality, believing every story that he hears and reads actually happened. It is as if this hollow linguistic form is actually what the child is obsessed with, his problem actually consisting of how to borrow on this form and perspective to reflect the real world. Or rather, how should he write his own fairytale? Of course we know that fairytales are all written by adults; this is the “neoteny” of the creative field. Perhaps the world has no fairytales, no stories (paintings) made for children to hear (see). Juvenile texts are simply coy expositions of all that has been experienced and kept secret in the adult world. This is what the Irish author Oscar Wilde, whom Liu Ye adores, meant when he said that he would cry mournfully whenever he wrote a story for his son.

The Redemption of Red

“Sword” was painted between 2001 and 2002; in that period, Liu Ye made a series of similar works, different variants of the same body, different variations on the same theme. This theme is an expression of his red childhood memories. The compositions are pure and deep. Set against banks of cliffs that unfold like a stage, two girls stand still holding swords. Pines and cypress surround them, with the red rivers and mountains and sky behind them; in terms of pictorial style, the most striking feature of this work is its clean background. The objects and characters in the painting appear against a massive field of vision, endowing this painting with a sense of history, like a fragment of an epic poem, revealing an abnormal sense of integration.

In this painting, red is the main melody, nearly swallowing the entire canvas. At first glance, it seems like a new edition of the political propaganda posters of an earlier era. Red, for a Chinese person who grew up in the 1960s, is all too familiar. As Liu Ye says, “I came of age in a world covered in red, red suns, red flags, red kerchiefs; even the green pines, blue cypresses, and sunflowers were just foils to this red cover.” One might as well say that this was a color without another choice, a color we cannot but recall when we think back on our childhoods. In a world of red dictatorship, there were no other colors of which to speak; even so, if we say that this is another red children’s song, everything changes.

This is because it seeks not to recall the childhood of that period, but childhood itself; the artist is only using his own childhood experience as the material from which to fashion a commentary on human childhood generally. This red expanse is but an empty ideological skeleton, an old stage prepared for a fairytale. On it we can no longer see the images of the leaders of that period, nor the poor living conditions, crazy masses, triumphant parades, public denunciations, shouts, destruction, or any of the cruel and bloody realities of that moment…there are only two girls standing against the cliffs, holding the same big head high. Their bodies are small, looking childish, weak, innocent. The swords in their hands might be seen as props instead of weapons; even if they are dressed in the clothing of that era, they are Alices, wandering through Wonderland. This vista is jocular, like a still from an animated martial-arts film, and they, like ancient knights-errant, seek only to prove themselves, to separate inferior from superior. In this competition, there is no animosity among classes, no distinction between enemy and self, no ideological dichotomy. We can see how their images shine upon each other like reflections in a mirror, coming from the same body. Their appearance—braids, white shirts, green skirts, black canvas shoes—makes them seem like twins.

Similarly, red attains freedom, no longer the color of a bygone dictatorship but now suddenly abstract, carrying a broader frame of reference like the red curtains hanging before a stage, or rather, returned to its original meaning, now with more melodious undertones. In it we can sense mythology, the moment of creation when the world was bathed in the red glow of a rising sun, bringing out the visceral daring and power of blood deep within. All of this is virtual, designed to make us see how red can be the color of blood, the color of passion, the color of myth, the color of illusion; like a vaulted dome, it can hold all of these meanings. And only when it contains everything can red cancel out all of the special references to one particular historical period. Thus we sense that this painting has already far surpassed the realities of those red years.

In other words, for Liu Ye, red is purely visual, something he captures just as he captures childish faces, returning it from the connotative level of a particular era to its primal power, allowing it to show its essentially childish nature.


Little girls, girls, women, female teachers, female stars, mermaids, adolescent angels, and on and on. The female form has become more and more a part of his painting, and as a result, males appear ever less frequently. The small character that resembles Liu Ye himself has also retreated from the scene, replaced by the Lolitas who have become his new loves. One after another they appear under his brush, like figures in a Balthus painting dispersing their sexual desires, even carrying an air of the erotics of ancient Chinese huaben short stories or the works of Sade.

This is an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps it is why Liu Ye has encountered some reproach, because these subjects might be seen as excessively aesthetic and frivolous, lost in childishness and female lust, like the work of a careless playboy. He has said that this is why he painted a portrait of Stephen Hawking, simply to prove that he sill had the opposite ability, that he could paint men and make them look ugly.

A painting like this, named “The Death of Romeo,” presents a clean tabletop bearing a dead male head, a victim of suicide, blood flowing from the temples, accompanied by a vase of white flowers and a pistol. This is not the actual Romeo of Shakespeare’s drama; the feeling it emits is entirely wrong. Furthermore, when looking only at the head, it becomes immediately apparent that it belongs to a Chinese child, a neotenous little Liu Ye. As I see it, if this painting carries any special meaning, it is to represent the death of gender, the transition from male to female body. If the Liu Ye in the painting is Romeo, he has died not only for Juliet, but because he want so become Juliet, to become female.

In Jung’s theory of psychoanalysis, “anima” is an important concept, used to refer the fundamentally female tendencies of the male psyche. A related concept is that of “animus,” referring to the masculine tendencies of the female personality. Jung sees these two dispositions as latent in any personality, with the key question being how to peacefully unite them in order to create a complete personality. If animus is heavy, implying reality and action, ambition and lust for power, then anima is light, implying tranquility and dreams, the fundamental forms of life, the protectress of the universe.

“The Death of Romeo” could be seen as the death of Liu Ye’s animus. He wants to shed this shell, the shell of his red masculinity. He has sensed this so-called virility, tangled up inextricably with this dirty period of history, a scandal unable to vindicate itself, wrongly accused, seeking blood for blood. It is like an embodiment of Nazism, imposing itself, poisoning and enslaving the heart; the spiritual cleanliness for which it thirsts, along with the infatuation with life that it implies, have stimulated his daily deepening love for anima. This, in turn, has made his paintings appear feminine even as they appear childish. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself." To a certain degree, Liu Ye’s work has been carried out according to Oscar Wilde’s maxim. The women he paints all resemble variations on himself; life itself seems here to have attained more tranquil and sad expression. The lust which he conveys both reveals his decadent desires and can be seen as an intentional hyper-reaction to “animus.” The whips in the hands of his female characters, like the blades held by the two girls in the painting “Sword,” function to ridicule political struggle and real violence. They are like witch’s brooms, swans, and magic carpets in a fairytale, carrying the painter’s life, flying off into the deep recesses of a dark universe. “Those eternal women lead us to fly.”

The Unbearable Heaviness of Opposition

The feeling of “lightness” present in Liu Ye’s face and character has been interpreted by Italo Calvino in his “Six Memos for the Next Millennium,” stimulating unusual discussion. Calvino sees lightness as art’s most immortal and splendid characteristic, that writing is but a way of reducing heaviness—the heaviness of humanity, the heaviness of the cosmos, of the city, of narrative structure and language. Although he is unfamiliar with Chinese martial-arts novels, Calvino cites Bocaccio’s “Decameron,” with its fleeing poets jumping over gravestones in a manner not so different from these Chinese works. That moment of sudden alertness strikes Calvino deeply; it “proves that even though he weighs something, he maintains the ability to become light.” In his eyes, Milan Kundera is a knight in pursuit of lightness. His novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” discusses how a person finds joy and freedom in an overly oppressive environment, or rather, how when the body and soul encounter the trials of reality, the heart and mind must provide a secret recipe by which the self can find happiness, in this way allowing for a rather complete existence.

For Liu Ye, this secret recipe is the fairytale. Fairytales are like a crystal ball, strange lights shining forth from reality. Like the magic match of the match-selling girl in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, they illuminate human life in the dark winter night. The transparency and litheness of these fairytales finds a parallel in the China of the late twentieth century. Can we not borrow the title of Kundera’s novel to stand for all of the changes our generation has witnessed? If we say that China in the 1960s and 1970s was spiritually repressed by a “heavy” ideology, then the commercial revolution that began in the late 1980s and continued through the 1990s and into the present marks a triumph of the “light.” What must be explained is that this lightness is not the type that Calvino refers to, but rather a loss of spiritual gravitas brought on by a chaos of moral standards and the decadent pursuit of new experience. Truth lies in the reality that this generation’s lightness is a reaction against the previous one’s heaviness, or rather, that the former is merely a variation on the latter. In these years, China’s changes can be described as vast and sweeping, and yet it might also be said that at the core nothing has changed at all, that the questions of life, freedom, respect, belief and dream have not been lost and regained. If we were to use one sentence to describe China in these last fifty years, it might be the transition from “the unbearable heaviness of being” to “the unbearable lightness of being.” As I see it, Liu Ye’s painting is a brilliant expression of the “unbearable” in both instances.

He seeks not to express the reality of this current era, and compared to the younger “cartoon generation” artists, his art appears lonely and self-conscious, not an objective reception and presentation of environment. In his scarce writings and interviews, Liu Ye has spoken of politics, “trivial compared to the universe, trivial compared to ordinary human emotion.” He has spoken of the Cultural Revolution, “If we continue to cry and fix blame, pressed down by disaster and pain, then it is still damaging us.” Out of this kind of recognition and aspiration, Liu Ye found a transparent linguistic form, a way of highlighting humanity’s widespread sentiment and fate, and painted the “unbearable objects of being” that appear in every generation. His method is not unfathomable; he is trying only to remember a few things. Just as Saint-Exupéry wrote in his dedication to “Le Petit Prince,” “All grown-ups were once children—although few of them remember.”

Translated from the Chinese by Philip Tinari.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo