Chinese artist Liu Wei has spent the past few months thinking about the future—and it looks bleak. “Everything in our lives is mediated by screens now,” he says, fittingly speaking over a video call from his studio in Beijing. “It was happening before, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic. The way we use our senses is changing. I think the body will disappear, eventually.” Hands will wither. Legs will shrink. Our brains will be plugged into a universal supercomputer. “It will be like The Matrix,” says Liu. “Then we will lose emotion; affection will disappear.”
He pauses, looks away from the camera. “Maybe our previous definition of love will disappear. But there will be something new, a new kind of affection.”
This U-turn from despair to optimism will not surprise anyone familiar with his work. For more than two decades, Liu, 48, has been examining the forces that shape and shake societies, then packaging his unnerving conclusions into thought-provoking and often beautiful artworks. His most famous paintings feature China’s vertiginous cities rendered in abstract strips of vivid colour.
Some critics suggest the bright hues evoke a sunset; others say they represent the suffocating, colour-warping pollution that blankets many Chinese towns. The duality is deliberate. “My art is never to provide answers,” Liu has previously said. “It’s rather to pose a question.”
Last year Liu puzzled plenty of gallery-goers at two major shows: his first retrospective in the US, jointly hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and May You Live in Interesting Times, the central show of the Venice Biennale, in which he exhibited two installations. This month, Liu is opening a major solo show at the Long Museum West Bund, the dramatic, sprawling, 355,000 sq ft complex opened by art patrons Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei on the bank of the Huangpu River in Shanghai.
“They have had a huge impact on the art scene in China,” says Liu, speaking through an interpreter. “And the Long Museum West Bund space makes me very excited.”
Nearly three months before the show, Liu was still working out how to fill the museum’s cavernous concrete halls, partly because this year has given him so much to think about. “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was thinking of a classic presentation of previous works or a show of just paintings,” he says. “But this is an extraordinary situation. Now, I don’t know if the old way of showing art works anymore, or if we need to rebuild the whole thing.”
For the first time in years, Liu is not working in painting, sculpture or installation, but experimenting with performance art. “I’ve made very few performance works because performances [only last for a short time], then always have to be captured on video,” says Liu. “In the past, that cancelled the significance of the performance on its own. But now that video surrounds us all the time, the video has been dragged to the same level as a performance—they’re both reality, they have become one.”