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Exhibition: Exploring Nature and the Nature of Matter at CGK

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Liu Jianhua, Black Flame, 2016-2017
Liu Jianhua, Black Flame, 2016-2017

Two new exhibitions recently opened at Contemporary Gallery Kunming – "Blank Paper", a solo exhibition of Liu Jianhua, and "The Trees", a solo exhibition of Li Ji. Both are curated by Cui Cancan, one of the most dynamic curators on the Chinese scene today.

Liu Jianhua is an internationally-acclaimed sculpture and installation artist best known for his work in ceramic. Having trained for a time in Jingdezhen, China's main porcelain production center, he was drawn to its potential as a material for contemporary creation. He often uses it as a means for exploring the nature of material, such as in "Foam", a wall of white ceramic bricks with the texture of styrofoam, made specifically for this exhibition. "Blank Paper", from which this exhibition takes its title, resembles a giant piece of blank paper hung on the wall, with slightly upturned corners at the bottom. As the curator writes in his exhibition essay:

Liu Jianhua, Blank Paper, 2019 (detail)
Liu Jianhua, Blank Paper, 2019 (detail)

Blank paper symbolizes the beginning of writing and depiction. It can encompass any and all things. It can carry ideas, compose sacredness, or be nothing at all, mere blankness. In this way, "Blank Paper" bestows the exhibition with an entirely new narrative structure, and serves as a symbol of the exhibition.

That narrative structure takes the form of a series of rooms, each featuring a separate artwork installation, in what Cui Cancan describes as "scattered lines of poetry." Each installation occupies an independent space, but carefully-placed passages and lines of sight create interactions between them, as the spatial experience radically shifts from one room to the next – the viewer must walk around the obstruction posed by the wall of "foam" bricks, to find themselves surrounded by thousands of black flames lining the floor around them.

Liu Jianhua, A Unified Core, 2018
Liu Jianhua, A Unified Core, 2018

The exhibition closes with "Square", a series of steel plates laid on the ground with metal-plated porcelain disks, resembling drops of molten gold, laid on top. This artwork, first featured at the Venice Biennale in 2017, explores the properties of two materials forged under extreme temperatures and stresses. Steel is often a symbol of strength and power, but rusts and disintegrates over time, while porcelain, often seen as fragile, is nearly invincible to the ravages of time, frequently unearthed in near perfect condition after centuries buried in the ground.

The Trees exhibition view
The Trees exhibition view

As the exhibition title suggests, "The Trees" presents a new series of tree photographs by Li Ji. Li Ji trained as a painter and printmaker, and has taught for many years at Yunnan Arts University. His focus has shifted in recent years to wildlife photography, and he has visited nearly every major wildlife preserve and national park in Asia to capture the rare and often dangerous animals found there.

The Trees exhibition view
The Trees exhibition view

His recent tree photographs combine his nature photography with his painting background in an exploration of ways of seeing and representation. Most of the trees in these images are too large to capture in a single photograph, so he developed a process of photographing each tree from multiple angles, and combining them into giant images. These have been scattered around the exhibition hall, often standing upright in the middle of the space, changing the way we encounter what curator Cui Cancan describes as "A party of trees":

Before science took shape, or before humanity emerged, trees had already long ago begun their own story. Trees have never been our resource. They have a much longer and far-reaching experience and potential. We must understand this if we are to depart from our anthropocentric perspective in viewing plants. Li Ji provides us with a different kind of gaze, an enchanting world where all things possess a spirit, the world of the knowledge, emotions and secrets harbored by trees.

The Trees exhibition view
The Trees exhibition view

As artist Li Ji describes this project, "What I do is more akin to scanning the tree. What emerges in the artwork is not a specific moment, but a representation of fragments of time."

Both exhibitions will be on view at CGK into early April. Contemporary Gallery Kunming is a non-profit museum founded in 2018 dedicated to fostering connections and understanding of the art of Yunnan province, Southeast Asia and the greater international scene. Closed Mondays, except for national holidays.

Editor's note: This article was written by GoKunming contributor Jeff Crosby. Jeff Crosby is a longtime Kunming resident. He is a translator and curator of Chinese contemporary art and culture, and is currently Deputy Director of Contemporary Gallery Kunming. If you would like to submit an article for publication, please get in touch with us via the contact form.

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