Installation view of LIU DAO’s “Garden of Autumn Vapors” at Red Gate Gallery, Beijing, 2010. Courtesy Island6 and Red Gate Gallery, Beijing.

Garden of Autumn Vapors

Liu Dao

Red Gate Gallery
China Taiwan France USA
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Based in Shanghai, the international artist collective Liu Dao (also known as Island6) is comprised of members from China, Taiwan, France, Latvia and the United States. It is a proudly eclectic organization—choreographers, programmers, technicians, writers, producers and even a taxidermist number among them—that aims to produce cosmopolitan art that effortlessly crosses borders and mediums through interactive experiences. Following three years of special projects for fairs, such as Art HK and Art Paris, and a project at the Louis Vuitton Cultural Space in Taipei, “Garden of Autumn Vapors” was the group’s first solo gallery exhibition. The show featured a contemporary take on traditional Chinese art.

The show primarily consisted of large, teak-framed razor-incised paper compositions of classical Chinese garden scenes in which blossoming trees and village dwellings abound. Chinese papercuts originated in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–250 CE), shortly after the invention of paper from wood pulp. By the 15th century, this decorative form had become an integral part of Chinese culture. In traditional papercuts, the stark forms of the incisions help provide a modicum of dimensionality and perspective within the paper’s flat surface. Liu Dao takes this illusion of depth one step further by animating the papercuts with LED characters. In Fluttering in Xishuangbanna (2010), a strand of palm trees is populated with dancing digital butterflies projected from a rear-mounted panel. Upon closer inspection, the pixelated red insects seem to fragment into dot-matrix patterns. As the artists write, “One LED on its own is meaningless and formless . . . Only when an LED is connected to a larger framework does it deserve the moniker of pixel, acquiring a context and a purpose.” In this sense, the poetics of the blinking diode reasserts the importance of collectiveness, in a political or creative sense, over individualism.

The looping light displays interact playfully with the papercuts. In The Story of Love Between a Fish and a Flower, and a Dirty Frog That Is Stuck to the Belly of a Three Color Cat (2009), swimming LED fish circle just underneath a cluster of papercut bulrushes, brushing them repeatedly with their fins. The meditative digital loop hints at the boundless nature of love and its capacity for renewal, while the tranquil papercuts themselves serve as a visual analgesic. By combining the traditional medium with technology of new media, Liu Dao has successfully revitalized both of these representational strategies, all while foregrounding the pleasures of perception and playful interaction in space.

Deeper concerns regarding the clash of modernity and tradition are touched on in Double Happiness (2009). In the composition, an LED girl jumps rope in a courtyard set between papercut village dwellings and a towering apartment building, a perilous place between the crumbling old and the imposing new. The girl’s position mirrors that of China’s threatened ancient customs and also that of the work itself, consisting as it does of two oppositional artistic mediums. From this perspective, one cannot help but view the gallery space and the very production of art as a place of temporary peace.

The “Garden” in the title of the show refers to public gardens where, in the dense urbanity of contemporary China, there exist places for free movement. Here, people can choose to participate in regimented exercise, group folk dances or nothing at all. Whichever way, these places of unscripted recreation exist by design, carved out of the more pressing concerns of modernity. Like the gardens, the girl perpetually jumping rope in Double Happiness provides a semblance of freedom while actually existing in a virtual limbo, a ceaseless and fruitless waiting. Beneath the surface, the many elements in the “Garden of Autumn Vapors” combine to create a simmering tension that belies its veneer of playfulness.