Li Nu: Peace Piece
English / Chinese
Based on his extensive solo exhibition at SPURS Gallery 2021, this book presents the work of Chinese artist Li Nu in all its scope, with pieces created between 2008 and today. Born in 1979, the artist returned to Beijing after graduating from London’s Royal Academy of Art and became one of the most important artists of his generation, straddling both worlds thematically and in terms of artistic language. His sculptures, installations, and performance videos resolutely intervene in the exhibition or living spaces with subversive wit, combining personal narratives and political reflections into poetic works that even without knowledge of their background story impress in their formal richness.
Grammar on the G String
Whether stripping the white plaster from a pillar to emphasize its fusion into a new context or filling Kherlen River water into a fire extinguisher and removing its base to emphasize its dangerousness, Li Nu’s exhibition Peace Piece engages multiple senses in the viewer. Its topics touch on a wide range of social realities, including the Covid-19 pandemic, refugees, ethnic conflict, citizens’ movements, and regional politics. However, while Li Nu references real incidents, he does not use them as creative content: he does not employ a social-survey-style presentation approach, he does not bluntly cite news photos that would spark public memories, nor does he recount private experiences. In these works, the specific details of social incidents are present only as whispered hints. The thoughts and insights touched off by the events are the real core of visual expression …
While society exists objectively, it also exists to a great extent within the self. The self absorbs and ruminates on society. Our perceptions, concepts, and preferences take part in the process of producing the world, not to mention the actions and behaviors that arise from it. As Li Nu’s works explore the relationships between the ego, the self, and society, he focuses his questioning awareness on “the influence and interference of social means of shaping on the state of the individual spirit, and further on the discussion of the relationship of contention between self-shaping and social shaping.” The self, however, remains invisible, and yet in Li Nu’s artistic grammar, the “self” often becomes manifest as the living body that appears always in a process of interaction with external circumstances, always in a state of engagement between mind and body. It has perception, cognition, and the ability to act; it is not a cold, static shell, nor a wholly passive puppet. Perhaps only such a living body is able to reveal the freedom of the human spirit within.
The body can be found at every turn in this exhibition. Migration and There Is No End to the Whip (both 2019) present the artist in two “all out” performance videos. The copper piece Beat (2021), meanwhile, demonstrates how sculpture itself is an action or, more precisely, action is the only means of sculpture, and sculpture is the direct record and outcome of action. This sculpture was created by striking a metal plate laid over the artist’s spine for hours, a process that can be witnessed in an accompanying video piece of the same title. Born without Color (2021) is made from copper and aluminum forms joined together in a shape replicating the artist’s lower back when walking, marked across with the word “local.” Flow’er (2021) features a cast of the artist’s arm reaching out from a form that resembles a flattened yellow umbrella. The splitting of the word “flower” also suggests somebody in the act of flowing. The tattered aluminum body behind the umbrellas in Queen’s R (2021) was likewise made as a cast. Li Nu consciously opposed the state of stillness that is usually required by the process and moved around as he pleased, leading the cast to crack and fall off. Fissure (2021) is the cast of a skinned goat hung from an iron hook, the borderline of its broken spine, its form reminiscent of the China–Mongolia border, defining the state of the body. Li Nu views regional borders as molds that shape spiritual awareness. The walkable sculpture Level Land (2021) requires the physical intervention of the viewer to complete its meaning—note that Li Nu’s emphasis is not on “interaction” but on “completion.” Even the wheelchair in the work Air on the G String (2021) at the entrance to the exhibition space indicates the acting, absent body. In Li Nu’s art, the world and the self are in an endless process of mutual shaping and close combat. These pieces of “the body” scattered around the exhibition space denote the fragmentation of the individual spirit under social pressures, while also manifesting with some positivity that the individual spirit has never lacked freedom of action.
In collaboration with SPURS Gallery