Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lu Lei | The Sky's The Limit by Joe Pollitt

(Here is something rather off subject but an article I wrote about for a Chinese gallery - OtherGallery, Beijing) 

Since the beginning of this millennium, the world has been exposed to modern China through the eyes of a select few from the media arena. Resolute to infect and dilute the potency of the artistic dragons of China, the U.S and UK art worlds have purposefully created their own brand of Eastern promise by trying to create the fetishism akin to the Saatchi version of “Oriental Sensationalism.” In dong so, they have ostensibly set about with such extraordinary determination to undermine and align Chinese artists with the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and the demon, Damien Hirst. Crushing any notion of true intelligence and strongly endorsing mediocrity and celebrity over raw acumen,  they are demanding and increasingly supporting, creating and promoting mindless Pokemon sex stars whilst constantly ordering posters of Red Flags, hammers and sickles along with More, More, Mao.  Desperately fearful that the active minds of intelligence in fresh China should dare to flourish and thrive, like young bamboo. The West encourage all artists to become ‘Pop or Hip-Hop’ from the US or YBA or Banksy with ‘Gimmicks of Urban Street Chic’ from the UK.

Thankfully, there is fruit amongst the thorns in the shape of Lu Lei. Unlike his counterparts such as Zhao Bo who mass produces cartoonish Congolese-Cheri Samba-style works of political satire or the disappointing legal graffiti efforts on canvas of Zhang Dali or the non-offensive angelic and delicate designs by Qing Qing whose robes appear of hemp and spring and summer flowers from the meadows.  As an intuitive fine artist, worthy of fervent support, Lu Lei has, inevitably, chosen a different path; a unique Global vision of clarity. His is a way of seeing further than the commercial campaigns and the obvious financial gains being offered up as treacle for the few and dished out to the masses – soon those decorated as important artists of ‘Now’ will be remembered as the major players of the Chinese artistic sell-out movement of the early 21st Century.
When thinking about modern Chinese art, what springs to mind, are the interviews with the young Bruce Lee back in the 1970s; so determined was he, to be seen as progressive, whilst Hollywood had other ideas. The very hint of having Bruce Lee as the leading man in Kung Fu was unthinkable. The role was given to David Carradine; a safe, trustworthy American actor whom the US movie public could fall in love with and still be regarded as respectable. Pinewood producers felt similarly in Britain, secretly electing, as they all too frequently do, that the British audience would feel better-off and more comfortable with Chinese characters like the mischievous, Cato Fong played by Burt Kwouk, rather than the more aggressive alpha males such as Sammo Hung, Russell Wong or Robin Shou. This year, Burt was awarded an OBE for his contribution to drama, for his portrayal of the Chinese houseboy in the Pink Panther films, but this negative, albeit mildly amusing role went a long way in denigrating the Chinese people and their culture in the minds of Western onlookers. This obvious abuse of the medium of cinema should have sent alarm-bells ringing throughout the Buddhist world but the seduction of all things broadcasted and televised has been all too tantalizing yet it comes as a surprise that the Great Wall of China can so easily be tarnished.
Lu Lei’s artistic practice promises to generate a sea-change with new works being created and previous works being mounted; this vigorous, intelligent and motivating exhibition titled is earmarked to be one of the greatest showcases ever seen in Modern China. In fact, the show could potentially create a new art dynasty in contemporary Chinese Art.  The true art revolution starts with the courageous wild swans that are willing to stick their necks on-the-line by producing provocative works and those prepared to champion that provocation. For those unfamiliar with this artist, Lu Lei and his works here is an extremely succinct resume: he was born in Jiangsu Province in 1972 and graduated in sculpture at the China Fine Art College in Beijing in 1998.
Square, 2005 by Lu Lei

Cleverly, Lu Lei has added the essential ingredient of intelligence into the mix. He has been amongst one of the few artists that are managing to push forward the ambitious notion and contemporary concept of global art. In doing so, he has somehow relaxed the grout away from the bricks from the Great Wall itself, revealing a trailblazing Chinese art in the making. His works begin in 2005, with a series of black and white images of 100 empty barrels of gasoline/petrol and within a selected few barrels are loudspeakers; other barrels have concave mirrors inside; this results in the spectators being left with a mild sense of wonderment and acute confusion as to whether or not, the barrels are full or empty. There are two flags, one on either side of the installation and they are black and white respectively. In many ways the work is a living statement, a therapeutic form of self-analysis or self-hypnosis, constructively analyzing the purpose and function of being built in the first place; contemplating the ultimate nature of art as viewed from an internal perspective. The work is ironically entitled, “Square” – In the same year and along the same lines Lu Lei constructed a glass house, with five speakers on the front wall and five on the back, amounting to ten in all. A thin isolated individual with his arm raised is clearly visible and behind him is a tiny square screen playing a video, the work is entitled: “The Big Details in the Key Moment”, 2005.

The surroundings are perfect. Deep inside the guts of a gallery; a time for reflection and rational meditation without the restrictions of dictatorial obligations, family duties or curious religious hand puppets, casting shadows of doubt where there are none. Artistic memory jogging and the eyewitness is immediately transported back to 1989 to the Tiananmen Massacre and that inconceivable picture of a single man, alone in front of the world and before him four petrifying tanks. One voice or heroic action can speak for a nation and on that particular day it was the Leader, Liu Xiaobo who shocked the visual world. The works clearly defend the rights of dreamers; rejoices in those who see themselves as individuals and shows China to be a country thinking out-aloud; stepping out from the majority; away from the group and ultimately standing up; bravely independent and often alone.
Alongside the installation Lu Lei has created a series of professional sketches and proficient watercolors that illustrates he is an impressively proficient draftsman. Working out sketches on a series of white and blue mathematical graph paper, he methodically constructs and develops his idea down onto the paper in a rather clinical fashion, as if he were an architect or structural engineer.  He also created images on thick watercolor-paper and effectively uses Indian ink displaying a beguiling technique and in one painting creates a fantastic image of the man in the glasshouse being bombarded with disorderly flapping bats and in another more academic and intellectual work he starts to play with the idea of Russian artist, Vladimir Tatlin and his ‘Monument to the 3rd International’.  Tatlin’s version came at a time of immense change in the Soviet Union and the interest then, was on the mechanics of all things; the nuts and bolts of arguments and discussions. The reason being was to discover the reasonable and the rational explanation to all things; the vision of the time was on the planning and the analysis; the architectural blueprints and the pure pleasure of working out the best solution for a worthwhile society, opposed to just ignorantly enjoying the end product only to take it for granted later. In many ways these positive, ideological and altruistic thought processes echoed the modernization of Soviet Russia; and the possibility of achieving authentic social change and ambitiously and maybe naively, searching for total equality.

In Lu Lei’s deconstructed version he adds a satellite and an aerial and then redressed or reconstructs the deconstructed version by wrapping the image up and adding a hammer and sickle to epitomize that the transparency so wished for at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, had failed and drastically changed. Sadly, Tatlin’s Monument and his dream of an unambiguous world had woken up and was now dressed and fully-clothed. These works really acknowledges that Lei has superlative dexterity and is proficient in numerous aspects of Art.
The artist continues with the effective theme of working in monochrome, “Clouds”, 2006 - tackles the issues of the ideological contrasts between the socially conscious, society within China and the Capitalist, and consumer greed of the West. This is simply represented in a series of clouds connected together by thin wire, symbolic of the importance of telecommunications, in a Post Internet Asia. In 2007, Lei begins to open up, but only slightly and introduces a single color, Red. In his installation, “Elements”, Lei, focusing on the organs of the body and veins in which they are fed and kept alive. The organs are made up of resistance wire and then painted red and placed on ceramic backs, in the shape of graveyard-headstones. A year later in 2008, Lei creates what many would consider his Masterpiece  – “Moments”. The work plays with so many different elements within art – geometry, architecture, sculpture, video-work, inventive carpentry, light and shadows. A blackboard is the material of choice; a material able to create true magic.

Moments, 2008 by Lu Lei

Let us start in the middle, where the meat of the work lies. The slanted table top is attached to the blackboard and seen as an extension of the blackboard. A perversion, this unwanted bastard of a blackboard, is the creation of the original. The artist blows life into the blackboard, giving the inanimate object a life-force able to create. He has extended the possibilities of what essentially a traditional blackboard has always been expected to do. Bending the functionalities and responsibilities of a regular Chinese blackboard; the artist has the audacity to allow the board to breed, creating an imaginative blackboard without restraint. A board that was left alone one evening as nobody was watching and started to create; creating a series of abominable atrocities. This anarchic structure hypothetically, has free will. A mind of its own and the ability to create monsters at will. Forming structures that defy definition – shapes that are virtually impossible to define and when seen, even by experts, are unable to either be named, or understood. The practicalities of these disobedient shapes seem abhorrence to those that dare to visually confront. These rebellious structures are forcing all to put into question the actual reason for their very existence? Formed out of the belly of the board is a distorted tabletop, with flat surfaces and challenging perspectives housing a small square hole nearing the end; spikes underneath, like a trapped black star, unable to breathe or shine; devoid of reason. The board is unfairly divided and poking out the corner on the larger side of the board or the majority share side, is a video playing but seen more as a Cyclops looking, spying on at all those that are viewing, singularly seeing. The majority stare and the onlookers ponder on what or who is watching who or whom? Flying out from the corner of the board is a shooting black star, invisible at night but visible in the day, when the lights are turned on. The dull-black-star casts playful shadows on the white-washed-walls. Giving new life to the board and the walls and poking from the side a seemingly huge architectural tumor has been growing, forming staircases and platforms with limited floor-space and high dark walls; walls without ceilings, walls without windows, walls without doors. Only the walls, the single staircase and the limited floors space exist; as if in an Escher-style dream in a three-dimensional reality the board has created a perfect malfunction. Shadows radiate fantasy silhouettes that virtually fall to the floor. This ingenious installation entitled, ‘Moments’, is simply the artist’s greatest work to date.

All in all Lu Lei’s work is a celebration of an artist who is beginning to display a true sense of artistic maturity. His installations, alongside his obvious expertise in draughtsmanship can be defined as precision artistry, which can only be compared with skilled archers on horseback, shooting arrows at targets, whilst side-saddling thoroughbred stallions. He confidently assembles his fluid ideas and develops and executes them perfectly in his artworks. The artist is able to broach an array of various complex disciplines: with a comprehensible understanding of architecture, mathematics, design, sculpture and geometry, which are the ideal qualities to look for when choosing an artist to move up into Chinese and international civic art and join the ranks of other international super artists such as Michelangelo, Picasso, Miro, Anthony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra and Henry Moore. Civic or public art has often been used for political gains. The most extreme and widely argued demonstration of this continues to be the use of art as propaganda; especially within regimes coupled with instantaneous suppression of opposition. The approach to art seen in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's Cultural Revolution stands as a symbol of this old school oppression. It would be wonderful to see a Chinese Artist working alongside the best in the world and Lu Lei has all the right attributes and credentials to do so. It is vital that government and local leaders take it upon themselves to encourage a new way of seeing and a new wave of supporting their artists. In many countries around the world an unofficial ‘Artists Tax’ is levied onto all new builds and the construction company and owner set aside 1% of the overall budget to go towards the purchase of artworks from artists.  
China is so fortunate to have an artist such as Lu Lei who is clearly capable of creating and performing successfully on the national stage but more importantly, if given the opportunity, could show the country that he is more than adept to deliver and compete within the International art scene. His works create a myriad of ideas that shine like a sharp bright light, through glass prisms, generating new and glorious sounds and visuals, seldom published or accessible to those in the autocratic Far East.

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