Guan Yuda: Rooftop Convention

Rooftop Convention
— the chronology and studio pathway of Liu Lifen’s artworks

by Guan Yuda, critic/curator, Prof. of Yunnan University, Art School.)


Being different from those noisy artists who care more about social events, gossip news, fashion and entertainment, historical narrative, or the ranking of “Gods and Goddesses”, Liu Lifen values much more about her own inner live, and her annoyed physical live which goes through thick and thin together and gets entangled with the inner one. When I say like this, there must be someone objects to my point view: does a physical body separated from inner live really exist?

The answer is “Yes”. Since Foucault announced the death of “human”, cultural and spiritual fields have fallen down to a symbol empire and a language bank. Especially in so-called Chinese “contemporary art” market, as these brand promotion and fashion shows are coming and going, never-ending, so that standard duplication, plagiarizing, second-hand rose and copycat are widely adopted. The separation between inner spirit and physical body has become a new normal for mediocre people to deceive themselves. Their physical bodies are all hollow bags and floating over this world of mortals, the inner spirit can find nowhere to dwell either. And this separation now is the extremely serious modern crises.

Liu Lifen’s artistic concern is all about something on the rooftop. As same as those artists who pursuits a true life, “time” is the theme of Lifen’s art, yet she fled from “times/era” but faced to “time”, and “space”, that is rooftop, in which she has always been getting entangled. For me, her works keeps coming out and developing, like a river flow. And no matter how many times transforming of space-time they have gone through, they end up eventually to a flow of life: to seek a balance between inner world and physical life, and furthermore, to expect rebuilding another sort of true, romantic and poetic life in an artistic and aesthetic world through this balance.

Kant once said that time is one-dimensional. Inner instinct appears as time and can hardly be identified by human’s eyes. The concept of time has no apparent form; we can only portray our own time video through different kind of analogies, and several spatial patterns usually help us understand and even master inside operation of time. In my following discussion about Liu Lifen’s artworks, I illustrate the time-based narration as some spatial moving. From the small studio (less than 10m2) in Malmo 2005, to today’s TAI PROJECT gallery in Kunming 2014, during past 9 years, Liu Lifen kept her nomadic migration, as a floating island. She had been resident in seven different studios or spaces including: artist community in east part of Malmo Sweden, shared studio with other 2 artists; a faced to the ocean garret floor of her lodging in a Swedish family; a 2nd floor and top floor studios (shared with Janeric Johansson, a Swedish artist) in Kunming Chuangku Art community; a loft space in Kunming Jinding; a huge hollow studio on top floor of Zurich F+F University, Switzerland; a garret studio in Mariannelund School and a wild forest space in Sweden. Quite interesting is all these studios or spaces are on the roof floor, and therefore, they are regarded as some chronological marks or geographical coordinates. For artists and art creation, the studio or space, after all, are most important spots on where the artworks are created or the art event took place. The artist didn’t migrate on time axis but the experience of time became possible.

So, what I want to do is to establish a chronology system to interpreter Liu Lifen’s artworks by the means of spatial (studio) shifting, transforming and alteration. Studio’s spatial path and the chronology of her works interweaved with each other, and constituted a longitude and latitude grid. Numerous intersect points are present spots where her artworks created and developed. The path is circuitous and bifurcates, like a maze; in fact there is no path. I would rather call it a lonely journey. Let’s start this journey to discover any possible mysteries or secrets.


During the year 1998-2002, Liu Lifen studied in Traditional Chinese Painting Department, Fine Art of Yunnan Arts Institute. She didn’t spend her last academic year on painting some mountains and waters or flower-and-bird for graduation assignment like most of others in this department, instead, she unexpectedly created more like self-portrait with colored ink on paper. These works obviously influenced by Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine and Picasso’s blue age artworks. Melancholic, lonely, sentimental and a bit decadent, her works at that time were full of pathos at the end of the century. It was easy to find her inner world was introverted and dolorous at that time, and she indulged in that world though. So it is not surprise when she said several years later: “actually I don’t know at all how to paint traditional Chinese painting.”

During the year of 2005 and 2006, Liu Lifen went abroad to study in Hylliepark folkhogskola, Sweden. And in fact, she was already involved in the art exchange program 2001 between Yunnan Arts Institute and Scandinavian countries, and another interactive art concept and performance exchange program “Sugar and Salt” initiated from Malmo by Swedish and Chinese female artists in 2003-2004, which focused on interactive and collaborated works using females body, sugar and salt as materials. These cross-culture vision and international working experience influenced her much more than those academies did. Liu Lifen’s art creation has always been focusing on spiritual field and inner world; it is an inseparable result of her immersion in European contemporary art for years.

Also in the autumn of 2005, Liu Lifen luckily found and set up her first studio in artist community, east part of Malmo city. It was the second floor, the roof floor. Only 10m2 space, she had to share the working space with other 2 artists. The fortunate is Liu Lifen was able to occupy that small space and enjoy her independent working on the floor as other 2 artists were often absent. However, this small studio became impossible for her very soon when the 4 months lease was due. And she had to start using her bed room in her host’s family as her studio. It was a faced to the ocean garret, full of all kinds of her collection: plant specimens, leaves, wild fruits, paper-cutting window decoration, and those “plants” cut from her painting which she was not fond of. The studio was full of everything, like a grocery. This can be a clue that we can trace back why she has been so fond of plant and plant collection and, the plant is always an important factor in her artworks. Her later weaving artworks and painting works always have figures of plant and animal, revealing her unforgettable Yunnan hometown complex and the passion to nature.

Liu Lifen came back to Kunming in 2006 and found a studio in Chuangku Loft art community when that room was just vacant in that winter. She shared this second floor room with Janeric Johansson, a Swedish artist. The room was gloomy and cold, sunshine can rarely reach. Kunming’s artists are all fond of sunshine so much, that there is saying in Kunming, you want to know if artists is working, you firstly look up is there sunshine today.

However, for Liu Lifen, perhaps after such long winter in Scandinavian country, she didn’t need sunshine as intensively as other Kunming artists did. She stayed in her gloomy and cold studio, kept on her paper-based color ink painting. Her works from that period are all melancholy and sensitive, and with the theme of mountain and water landscape and interior scenes and person figure; expressing a lost, floating, silent and lonely mood and visionary images, seemed like the memory and reappearing of Schumann’s piano cycle Kinderszenen, Op.15. During this period, she collected hairs from 40 persons with different gender, age and identity, and created a concept performance work called “Files”; afterward, she extended this work to make paper with these hairs and painted on them, or transformed some of them to canvas mixed materials paints. These works revealed the confusion of romantic love, communicating an ambiguous and anxious physical desire and erotic consciousness. Her art performance work “Tea Time” and video “Water” were also with this consciousness more or less, but the means were more secret and private, seemed like monologues.

From 2006 to 2008, Liu Lifen stayed in Kunming, and this was the most fruitful period for her art creation. She was vigorous and attempted many cross-disciplinary art practices. Her art works from this period were hard to sort out; they were between design, fashion, painting, performance and installation. She utilized different materials such as metal pipe, steel needle, metal hammer, scissors, ramie, paper, the light of a lamp, and clothes. It is interesting that these two groups of materials represented two points on contrary of hard and soft, cold and warm; it seemed like a contradiction and conflict between man and woman, and implied to seek a communication and compromise between them. Her experimental practice from this period also represented a daily poetic temperament, which are romantic and graceful. Even those cold and stiff metal materials reflected a comfortable temperature under the candle light, and, with a very rare sense of humor.

In the spring of 2007, Liu Lifen moved her studio to the rooftop of Chuangku loft art community. She was happy: finally I can use this new space after it’s been vacant for so long. I paved it with new floor board, and I can run in it now. She was busy on different projects in Kunming and Beijing this year. She collaborated with fashion designers Shi Zhijie, Du Qian, BUTTONHOLE, and experimental musician Dan Froberg with “Morning Mist” fashion show. She extended further her previous experimental art practice and focused more on their daily esthetic. From September to November of this year, she involved in “Occasion linking–Songzhuang Village residency project between Beijing and Kunming” curated by Guan Yuda. In the project she exhibited her work of performance and installation “The love letter”. She invited every audience to be a creator to write a love letter to himself or herself, and to her or him. The letter was supposed to put into a special envelop and might be some words, a quiff of hair, a token, a graffiti, a music CD, a lip print, a straw, a leaf, a number, a tag…whatever it is. This work was known as the prayer for love, representing the strength of faith and love. In the meantime, she kept on her paper-based color ink painting. A female figure started appearing in her paint from this period. This female is either in a lonely empty room, or in the wild field, or being hybrid with plant or animal. Different flowers and grass and animal, especially the image of crane and feather began into her painting. These paints always bring a feeling of retuning to Eden Garden and backing to the nature, pretty, warm, but a little bit disconsolate. Conversation, communicating with the nature, and re-identifying the landscape are also evident convention to learn or practice contemporary art in Yunnan.

In 2008, Liu Lifen curated and initiated “Yunnan-Vietnamese female artist in residency exchange program” supported by Kunming Yunart Gallery and Nhasan Studio in Hanoi. Her canvas mixed materials work Tornado– the Useless Door looked like an album of painting or diary writing, which is popular among Chinese scholars. She used this artistic title to nominate her dozens working diary of the years from 2002-2008, which documented every single job and assignment for every day and every month. She was used to draw, erase and manipulate after documenting, so that these graphic diary actually are far more than diary, but a consciousness log of her mental progress. The continuous writing and erasing seemed like the monk’s daily reciting and bell bashing, became a daily artistic practice.

2009 was a fruitful year for Liu Lifen’s art performance. Her journey in this year included Kunming, Lijiang, Xi’an and Prescott of Arizona U.S.A. The interactive performance “Camouflaging” took place June 19-20, in Yuhu Village, at the snow mountain foot, Lijiang, then the work “Incline” performed in the middle of September in Xi’an, and was invited to artist in residency program in Prescott University, Arizona, U.S.A on November and performed the performance work “Taking along”, at the end of this year, she conducted the interactive installation “The love letter” again in “Wonders” art exhibition in Yunnan provincial museum. Her artworks of this year were all about the relation between human and the nature, and the relation and entanglement between female’s body as original source and the land. She attempted to be on intimate with natural land with her own body to express a willing of returning and a resistance to noisy world. Her paper-based colored ink painting at this period personated plant and animal much more than ever before, to reveal an androgynous consciousness of own physical body and life. The painting themselves are much more decorative and graphic.

In May of 2010, LiuLifen curated and organized “Wandering–international artist in residency” program in Kunming, and created a large-scale paint collage “In the room”; from June to August, she collaborated with Nathalie Bissig, a Swiss artist on art performance “Between us” and “Wind sways grass” (video documented by Kris Ariel and Lu Xiaotian); afterward, she created and conducted a performance-video work “Breath” in War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and in October, her installation works “the Cheese series” (with materials: low cabinet, paper-cut, magazines, paper knife and paper folding), and “Hold whose hands” (with materials: crutch, spices, mushrooms, model, rocking chair) were exhibited in TC/G Nordica, Kunming. The quantity and quality of her artworks in this year reached a high level. The performance works “Between us”, “Wind sways grass”, “Breath” and installation work “Hold whose hands” attempted to discuss dilemma of female’s social role and self-identification in the present age, seemed like the roses in firearms, with a sense of realistic pertinence and criticize. The paint collage “In the room” was an important work because of its experimental meaning, and a big breakthrough in her art career, however she hadn’t carried forward any more.

In the summer of this year, Liu Lifen moved her studio to Jinding art community, where her “TAI PROJECT” gallery is now. She was still unwilling to part the one on the roof floor of Chuangku Loft art community. It was, after all, a rooftop studio, and a number of remarkable works created there. She said: I can tell that I gave up a true studio. Now the space in Jinding is an open space although there are 2 rooms here. She was not exactly satisfied with Jinding because what she got here is an open space, although it was bigger. When people can easily come and go, the artist would not be able to keep any secrets, yet the creation is a crucial confidential course for an artist. Liu Lifen’s role changed from a simple artist to a gallery owner when she moved into Jinding community, and she has been doubting and perturbed about this change.

The most interesting works Liu Lifen created during the year of 2011 was a group of unnamed body performance. In these performances, she closed herself into a room full of plant and posed different seduced and teased body gestures for photographing by her friend. This work pulled the questioning of feminist body politics from metaphysic level to a routine living scene. It eliminated mysteriousness of art work and consciously fuzzed the boundary between art and daily life. This work implies a Zen soul of “take a meal when hungry and go to sleep when tired”. It can be listed of the wisest contemporary Chinese female artwork. Unfortunately, it can hardly be found in exhibition or publication. In addition, her painting works with the theme of fairy crane from this period also with some implicative and aesthetic gender metaphors, and respond to those issues which the female art cares about at present.

Liu Lifen then went to Sydney Australia for a ” Two Generations Tour Exhibion –20 years of Chinese contemporary art” curator in residency program. During 2012-2013, she went to Zurich, Switzerland for “Zurich-Kunming exchange artist in residency” program. She “hibernated” in that huge and hollow studio on the rooftop of Zurich F+F University for a half-year-long winter and seldom went out. “I just want to paint and only focus my time on painting. Sometimes I talk to myself. I actually enjoy this loneness in Swiss winter.” She said. She created quite a number of painting works during this period and many of them are amazing great. She tried many different kinds of materials and means such as silk-based acrylic colored ink, paper-based acrylic watercolor, paper-based acrylic, paper-based colored ink, and paper-based watercolor to make her paints looked more unrestrained, more tranquil, more elegant and pure fine, particularly in application of color. The extremely brilliance of the color reached a level of simplicity, beyond any ordinary methods and no one had ever reached. This group of paint works is all with a “water like” nature: moist and smooth, vivid, and intangible, have a spirit of ancient Chinese art. The winding path leads to a secluded nice view, the distinction of Liu Lifen’s painting can be regarded as a personal transformation from tradition in today’s society.

In the summer of 2014, Liu Lifen went to Sweden again for “Visit 14” program initiated by Mariannelund culture center. The forest and wild land in Mariannelund became a part of her studio, in which she had a lot of wild flower arrangement. In the forest and wild land, she set up a land ground installation “Production Machine” with those natural materials gathered from the forest and items from second hand shop. It is a smart and magic work with romantic, poetic and surrealistic spirit. The installation is well kept there till today. The result from it feels like a mysterious fable and is still be awaited. Her painting works from this period care much more about spiritual prospect. They are all light, graceful, tranquil and peaceful.


As I attempt to sort out the relations between the studio path and the chronology of Liu Lifen’s artworks, an interesting question just comes into my mind: why the migration, nomadism, wandering and return of artist like Liu Lifen bring the arctic Scandinavian area and warm Yunnan together to become a pair of cultural attention and spiritual solicitude? The wild land in the winter is silent, all the more so the sparsely inhabited Scandinavia areas. Silence is a complete life state, a no-word language, a more powerful language, a realm of meditation, and a universe to be discovered. Equally, in ever-warm and sunshine Yunnan, always with blue-sky and beautiful clouds and leisure living, every single plant, such as a tree, a blossom and a slice of grass containing its secret code of life and universe, and waiting for us to discover, to protect and to praise.

Liu Lifen’s art follows the call of her heart and her physical pain. Her artworks are abundant gifts from the life and majestic nature. Like scenery during the journey, they reveal the great power of life and spectacular nature, silently. Lifen’s works are following the call and invitation of this grand rule. In front of the rule of mind and the order of universe, the secret of “hometown” singing voice gradually uncovered, and reminded me of the Nobel Prize winner, Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s poem: weary of all who come with words / words but no language / I make my way to the snow-covered island. / The untamed has no words. / The unwritten pages spread out on every side! / I come upon the tracks of deer in the snow. / Language but no words. (From March 1979) Language comes out automatically of where the mind is open and bright. Liu Lifen is such a person who dreams in her waking moment. Driven by dreams, her artworks constructed a local, poetic and spiritual rooftop, and traced the source of mysterious, endless creation over the cloud, and, on the rooftop.

March 1st, 2015
In Kunming