This exhibition represents a new chapter in Liu Ding’s investigations into the legacy of Socialist Realism in China (for convenience, abbreviated to ‘SR’ from here on). These investigations have taken the form of re-enactments of the visual culture of SR, and the development of propositions pertaining to its continuing influence as a tenacious ideological apparatus in contemporary, globalized life. The current show, ‘Rice, Mango, Pork … and Ghosts’ develops two strands of Liu’s investigations: the role of the painted image in making concrete SR’s imagery, that imagery’s propagation out into the world, and the way the painted canvas can be used as a field of contestation for the meanings of these images; and the role of photography as a contemporary revelation of SR’s presence in society, providing panoramic views of its traces within everyday life, and holding those images for future analysis.
Although originally codified in Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, the Communist Party in China adopted Soviet Socialist Realism in the 1950s as a means to guide artists into undertaking a practical, revolutionary practice in the New China. The revolutionary impetus within China has become diluted over time, and while SR is still strongly associated with that period and its ideological battles, SR’s legacy has in fact become unmoored from its direct co-option by the Party. This ambivalence to its assumed meaning has allowed Liu to adopt it as a tool with which to confront the visual ideology it had come to represent, as well as concurrent visual ideologies developing in parallel to it in China, as well as in other cultures. These processes represent an imaginary construction of forces, of SR and its other, each marking out its own space, and in the process marking out the space of the other.
Liu’s painted works comprise a series of collaged images that focus on various foodstuffs that have come to hold resonance as signifiers of ideological thought. Food’s relation to the body makes it literally a matter of life and death, and because of this urgency these seemingly passive objects become easily instrumentalised to serve the purposes of the state and society. In the paintings these foodstuffs are juxtaposed with other images that relate to ideological production in its broadest sense, and Liu’s canvases reflect this spacial process, enforcing a reckoning of the various visualisations with each other. This reckoning never resolves itself, but routes are constructed through the imagery, tracing connections and differences that subvert the historical assumptions associated with SR, but also the assumptions associated with any other imagery that Liu places with it.
This amalgamation of images on the canvas becomes a microcosm of the world that we live in. Such a treatment of imagery is a fact of post-modern visual culture. All around us the legacies of history live on in strange formats, negotiating their place in our sight and attention with any number of other cultural artefacts. Liu’s doctored photographs capture moments in the spaces of China that hold these multiple readings, with various ideological apparatus jockeying for attention in the visual field. This might suggest that their power is diminished amongst the throng of distractions, and in the overwhelming consumer society in China, but they live on and retain their potential to revert society back into a space of authoritarianism if we are not paying enough attention. They are banal and anodyne, and yet these signs and structures are an integral part of the construction of social space. Liu’s photographs capture these structural elements as gathering clouds and crossing shadows.
One consequence of Liu’s collage method is that by directly bringing together and addressing these signs and their relationships, Liu Ding’s paintings themselves enter into the general economy of symbols, reconfiguring the relations and values that these symbols represent. They no longer act as carriers of the ideology they were designed for, whether that of “Communist” China or “Capitalist” America. By painting these collages Liu places SR onto a level playing field with the many other sign systems and ideological apparatus that he is addressing. The manipulated photographs propose that our social environment holds within itself the structural traces of ideology, at times expressing this latent presence in (literally) unsettling ways. Society is the canvas on which globalisation is negotiated, where these latent ideological processes can become realised and adapted, but to what end we cannot predict.