Born in 1994, Liao Wen is one of the most Chinese Innovative young women artists, producing emotionally charged, semi-abstract sculptures centered around the human body, whether whole or in part. Liao graduated from the Printing Department of Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, in the southwestern city of Chongqing, and in 2019 earned a master’s degree in experimental art from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Her artistic approach crystallized in 2017, when she studied at a puppet workshop in Prague, Czech Republic, learning how to tell stories and produce mental states by designing and manipulating puppets and puppets. Her recent work focuses on the topic of bodily rituals.
At the solo exhibition “Almost Collapsing Balance” at the Shanghai capsule last fall, Liao presented smooth carved wood sculptures depicting curved and twisted bones and joints, many of them balancing precariously or supported by metal hardware. In two works, the shin bones end in the form of a high-heeled shoe. The pieces together reflect three sexually charged historical practices: Thesmophoria, an ancient Greek women’s festival associated with Demeter, the goddess of grain, agriculture, and fertility; Adonijah, where the women of Athena mourned annually the death of Adonis; and treatments for female hysteria in Victorian England, which notably included ‘genital massaging’ by machines or male doctors.
Other items on display included a fig tree surrounded by a wooden womb, drops of myrrh, and silicone versions of decaying fish. Liao’s interest in these materials and activities, with her polemic between the physical and the ideals, stems in part from her search for stability amidst a sea of turbulent information during the Covid pandemic – a condition she associates with the absence of true community in present-day ritual. Reflecting on “primary motive” on the eve of the exhibition, Liao said the works are about “love and hurt in relationships, motherhood, survival instincts, or passion.”
Liao has also expressed interest in social issues related to the body in interactive projects and performances. Launched in 2019, Birds of Passage is an expanded measure that addresses the physical and psychological distress of nearly 300 million migrant workers in China who have moved from rural areas to major cities in search of a better life. The artist has invited several uprooted people in Shenzhen, one of the country’s largest immigration cities, to make self-portrait dolls that they can name and dress individually. Liao then encouraged the participants (whose personal stories have largely been overlooked) to take the finished dolls to places that were – or hoped to be – particularly meaningful to them.
The artist’s desire to treat immigrants was more than just statistics in her reflection on the process: “As the participants painted faces and sewed the dolls’ arms, I clearly noticed that they weren’t just looking at a doll. Instead, they were looking at themselves, their minds wandering through the past and present and the future.”
Some of Liao’s work, in addition to raising social issues, shows her inner self-exploration. to her room in a dream (2018-19) who appeared In group exhibitions at the Duo Yun Xuan Art Center in Shanghai and the Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Images, the artist created a doll based on her own image. By placing this miniature version of herself in a room filled with private items such as manuscripts, an old refrigerator, a TV, and models of internal organs, Liao revealed to the audience a delicate and highly sensitive inner world.
In the inaugural version of the work, as a graduation project at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the artist herself entered the room to become the master of the doll girl, and her performance was videotaped for a later repetition of the work. In the end, Liao held the doll with all the strings severed, and bid farewell to this dim space, as if it was escaping from a dream.
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 42-43.