LIAO YIBAI: REAL FAKE
At Mike Weiss Gallery (520 W. 24th St., btw. 10th & 11th Aves.)
Call 212-691-6899 or
Liao Yibai gets ‘Real’ about our lust for labels
Gleaming silver sculptures supersize consumerism
Photo courtesy of Mike Weiss Gallery & Liao Yibai
Yibai (right) is both watchmaker and watchman.
BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN
Just before he left town, I met with the Chinese artist Liao Yibai at Mike Weiss Gallery — where his current exhibition “Real Fake” will remain on display through October (an additional installation can be seen on the same block at ATM Gallery).
Excited and exhausted from preparing, installing, and at last opening his second New York solo show, Yibai was ready to leave the frenzy behind and recharge his batteries with his wife and daughter. However, he is, one quickly gathers, a man who does not suffer from a lack of energy. Quite the opposite. His mind works rapidly and he speaks fast and focused (he points out that in the Chinese language, conversation is much faster than in English).
In about an hour, his speedy train of thought led our conversation from childhood memories to his student years and current life, facing the challenges of an international artist on the rise. It appears that he is not only witty, but practical. When at home in Chongqing, he tells me, he has trained himself to work at night and so do all his studio assistants. He develops his projects at two or three in the morning, thereby avoiding the noise, distractions and traffic chaos that befall his hometown during the day. It also makes it easier for him to stay in close touch with his New York gallerist and both seem to enjoy communicating nonstop. The preparation of “Real Fake” alone, Yibai and Weiss assure me, was accompanied by about six thousand text messages between the two.
It is a new world, in which life is fast-paced and globally connected. It no longer is a challenge to have a close working relationship even if those involved lead existences thousands of miles apart. However, it is easy to get distracted by the waves of information that seem to drown us as soon as we switch on televisions, radios or browse on the Web. Yibai embraces the speed and access of this era wholeheartedly, but will take any precaution to assure that he constantly is improving his time and energy.
Considering his upbringing, he surely has come a long way.
Liao Yibai was born during the Cold War era in 1971. He grew up on the premises of a top-secret missile factory, where his father was a well-regarded cruise missile engineer. Throughout his childhood, he remained sheltered from the outside world. Money was no object and financial concerns did not exist as the government provided for all necessities. Though Yibai’s family enjoyed a comfortable life compared to most people in China at the time, the scene was hardly idyllic and far from peaceful. Weapons, secrecy, and the omnipresent notion of danger — mainly embodied by the United States — defined the day-to-day consciousness at the factory compound. Sometimes, the family would visit the nearby town to stock up on supplies — and it was on these rare occasions that Yibai would get a glimpse of a world that promised to be much more complex and colorful than the one he knew. When he grew older, he turned to art as a means to escape the dullness of his upbringing. To him, it was the most opposite choice to his father’s profession and the life he had led thus far.
In conversation, Yibai makes a point of clarifying that in the beginning, art was not a spiritual calling for him. Instead, it embodied a way out of his secluded situation. His family encouraged him. Later he attended the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts (enrolling at first as a painter). It was not until meeting his future wife — a professor at the school and famous sculptor in her own right — that Yibai changed his medium. Sculpture also promised a means of income. The Chinese government was frequently in need of heroic portraits, promising lucrative commission jobs. Having his mind set on starting a family, Yibai was determined to make a living through his work.
Visually, the works in “Real Fake” could not be further from government-commissioned propagandists’ motives — but they just as overtly address strong convictions. They are inspired by one of the most persistent fetishes found in capitalist societies, as well as in those opening up to Western markets: label fixations.
“Real Fake” is the follow-up to Yibai’s 2009 exhibition “Imaginary Enemy” — which was also hosted by Mike Weiss. Both shows were conceived at the same time and meant to be staged one soon after the other. So far, none of the works featured in either show, has ever been shown in China. In fact, this particular body of work was targeted at and initially developed with the American audience in mind.
For “Imaginary Enemy,” Yibai drew on both his childhood vision of America as an enemy state, ravaged by the destruction of capitalism, as well on his experience of true American life when he first crossed the Pacific.
In “Top Secret Hamburger” — a work that was featured in the first show — Yibai reflected on his first taste of an American hamburger (which in his childhood was an icon of American capitalism). When finally able to explore for himself what this infamous status symbol was like, he simply found it bland. The power and lure of the enemy had turned into a mirage.
In relation to “Imaginary Enemy,” “Real Fake” functions as a cheeky-charming boomerang. Not only are they oftentimes hard to distinguish from each other, but sometimes the fakes are even better made. These “true” or “real” fakes distinguish themselves from more sloppy versions and anyone who has sought a true replica of a Gucci handbag on Canal Street, versus an easily recognizable fake, knows that there are differences in qualities.
The “Real Fake” is either bought by those who crave the real thing, but cannot afford it, or by those who would simply refuse to spend more than a New York rent check on a handbag. It is a product of a society defined by material obsession, which surely can be found in the Western hemisphere, but also, more recently, in China. Yibai is fascinated with this spreading desire to possess a specific item as if it would bestow some kind of power upon its owner. In a way, he explains, these luxury goods have taken on the role of religion. Whereas in the past, no matter what one’s belief, religion would provide mental and emotional strength, nowadays more and more people define themselves and gain confidence through specific objects. In a way, luxury goods have begun to replace spirituality.
Yibai’s work makes a point of being labor-intensive. After preliminary studies on paper, most of his stainless-steel sculptures start out as elaborate, life-size plaster molds. The amount of exquisite detail is staggering and it takes time to discover all of a work’s facets. Many of the minute parts demand to be individually hand-welded, while larger sections are carefully hammered around a fiberglass mold.
When talking about other contemporary artists he relates to, Yibai does not aim low. His work, he ponders, equals the amount of excessiveness found in works by Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons. This is not meant as an arrogant comparison and he explains, “While Hirst has set the bar for making sculptures with the most expensive ingredients possible [think of his diamond-encrusted skull for example], Koons has used color to an extent that no one could surpass.” To Yibai, both men work with superlatives, and so does he. His obsession is the amount of hours put into each sculpture, the hundreds of thousands of movements by the hand, hammering each detail, each curve into perfection (like Hirst and Koons, Yibai employs studio assistants). To Yibai, this process reflects contemporary China, the sheer work force this vast country can unleash, but also the long hours spent on factory production lines.
At Mike Weiss and ATM, Yibai’s sculptures immediately strike one as seductive and funny. They are easy to grasp. There is an evening clutch with a distorted Apple logo (in fact, two bites have been taken out of the apple), a slipper with transformations of the Adidas name and insignia, and a T-shirt riffing on Puma. An ornate Chinese lion transforms a shoe into the ultimate “Cinderella High Heel” and there are seven-dollar bills with Obama and “Yes We Can!” inscriptions. Each sculpture embodies a collage of reference points, drawing inspiration from both Western and Chinese pop culture. Some of the logos and products are made up and others taken from life. Yibai’s “Hiphone,” for example, is a 110-lb. version of an available Chinese product, which closely resembles Apple’s most popular product.
But underneath the lightheartedness lingers a more serious matter. Even without stating socio-critical concerns, Yibai’s work ponders the loss of individuality in a world dominated by mass-seducing products.
However, Yibai asserts that it is not his intention to condemn those creating mass-consumed luxury brands, nor criticize those who aim to make a living replicating their products for cheap. Both make an effort and show creativity, a fact he appreciates and pays tribute to in his own brand-mixture musings, such as the “Real Sprada” handbag or the “RIKEdas” logo, which forces Reebok, Nike and Adidas into one entity.
What is essential is the freedom to discover the similarities and differences between cultures, and the possibility to choose. When recently watching Disney’s “Cinderella,” Yibai confessed, he cried. Besides being moved by the story, it was the realization that his daughter’s childhood was so much richer than his that touched him.
Liao Yibai’s work is timely — and in the long run, this might prove to be its most significant quality. It describes a moment of intense commercial dialogue between the East and the West. America and Europe are increasingly introducing brand products to the steadily opening Chinese market, which has led to the emergence of a new industry in China, specializing in mass-produced fakes. It might just be a few years until the tables will turn and China will produce its own luxury brands that Westerners will crave. By that time, Yibai will certainly be on to new projects and considering his drive, one certainly expects him to stay in touch with current trends and happenings.
One of his most potent works in “Real Fake” depicts a giant watch, the “Rolls Phillipe Watch” (on display at ATM Gallery), a thing of the past and future. A watch is an old-fashioned time measuring device. It is a classic — popular and yet, hardly essential in a world dominated by digital displays. One cannot look at one’s phone or computer screen without receiving the exact, globally synchronized time. The face of the “Rolls Phillipe Watch” shows that this particular model measures time backwards, a likely hint at nostalgia. On the other hand, it also contains a rather practical attribute. It is able to measure the CO2 content in the atmosphere.
As air is getting thinner, we might indeed begin to yearn for rolling back time, to the days when life was slower and less homogeneous.