In the first half of the twentieth century, Shanghai was a city that attracted performers, writers, artists and designers from around the world. A breeding-ground for new art forms, such as oil painting, cinema and poster art, this ‘high time’ of Shanghai’s past has long been considered the city’s cultural and artistic zenith. Today, Shanghai’s cosmopolitan heritage is under restoration. Over the past five years in particular, a growing number of international artists have made Shanghai their base.
Since its establishment in 2006, the new media art collective, Liu Dao (aka island6), has become something of a stalwart of the Shanghai art scene and beyond. The collective’s creative and operational centre is its production studio and exhibition space in Shanghai’s m50, also known as Moganshan arts district, where individuals from different backgrounds come together to engage with and comment on contemporary life in Shanghai. The collective’s signature LED art, interactive art and sculptures makeup only a fraction of Liu Dao’s ever-expanding repertoire. Meanwhile the tone of the work is often humorous, delivering social commentary in unexpected ways — see the LED display, Puxi Fluffer (2012), pictured above, which references the city’s dependence on an army of ‘ayis’, or domestic cleaners, for a cheeky example.
With its international member-base and technically and conceptually experimental practice, Liu Dao embodies the vision of cosmopolitan Shanghai. Liu Dao’s collaborative structure, valuing communication over egocentrism (their approach has been likened to film production), provides a model for cross-cultural and collectivist approaches to art making, curation and arts management in China.
In the spirit of Liu Dao’s uncompromising collectivist ethos, the following interview responses were submitted anonymously by its members.
Joanna Bayndrian: How did the idea behind Liu Dao come about? Was it born in Shanghai?
Liu Dao: Liu Dao was indeed born in Shanghai. The idea of the collective, and the art it makes, is something we feel would not have been possible if we were anyplace else. First, Shanghai is a city where multi-national and local influences and styles merge. The city itself is simultaneously traditional and progressive — Oriental and Occidental. This comes through in the signature fusion style of our artworks.
Liu Dao was set up to promote young creative talents, and we work as a collective because our chosen medium, new media art, allows us to explore a vast range of artistic possibilities that draw on all members’ expertise. Because we all have different strengths to draw on, we are able to experiment with LED art, video art, interactive art, photography, sculpture, neon, acrylic and oil painting … And we are still expanding our repertoire!
What kind of technical skills do Liu Dao’s members bring to the collective?
It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly the technical skills are, just as Liu Dao and other media artists make people question what “art” is. Liu Dao’s members are involved in every aspect of the creative process. They conceptualise the artwork, choreograph and film the performers onsite, and program the video footage into LED or video animation. If working with a photographic piece, then they employ their photo-editing skills on the artwork. They then work with technicians and carpenters to put together the physical structure of the artwork – from framing to circuitry and wiring – using component parts that they directly sourced from local Shanghai suppliers. Finally, in the m50 showroom, the collective does its own curation and scenography to set up a themed in-house exhibition. Members of the collective draw from their past experiences to contribute their skills. The collective also deliberately seeks out people with specialised skills (in graphic design, IT, sound-editing etc) to collaborate on short-term projects.
Liu Dao regularly features international guest directors, curators, models and performers in its productions. What kind of cross-cultural dialogue does Liu Dao’s organisational model foster? What is the ratio of local to international members?
There’s never a set number [of members]. At the moment, there are 4 locals and 5 international members.
Unlike Sydney or New York where over a third of the population are foreign born, Shanghai’s laowai population make up less than one percent. Is this (relative) lack of cultural diversity something you are aware of? Has Liu Dao faced any challenges in attracting international members?
Currently, the laowai in Shanghai may not be as significant in number as foreigners in New York, Sydney and other large cities, but foreign influence has been a very strong factor in shaping the city’s history. Last December we put up a show called Goddamned Shanghai, which explored Shanghai’s heady Concession-era days. This celebrated both foreign and Chinese influences on the city.
In a way we are lucky. I guess because we have built up something of a reputation, people tend to seek us out. We’ve met many very interesting, very talented people from all countries and all walks of life because they heard about us from someone and walked through our doors. Perhaps keeping those doors open 365 days a week helps, too!
Liu Dao takes inspiration from facets of life in Shanghai. This includes the experience of international members who have to navigate the cultural challenges of living and working in a very unique city, which embraces both modernity as well as traditions.
How long do members tend to stay in Shanghai? Do you think international artists and curators working in Shanghai at the moment in it for the long haul?
Shanghai is a city of transience in many ways. Members have stayed with the collective for a period of 6 months to 6 years. So that also answers the second question – different people have different plans. But there is definitely a community of international artists who have set up in Shanghai about 5 years ago, and are planning to stay put for at least another 5 years.
Shanghai’s heritage (particularly ‘20s and ‘30s Shanghai) is a recurring subject in Liu Dao’s work. What do you find attractive about symbols of ‘old Shanghai’, such as antique furniture and Sing-Song girls?
The old furniture we use is beautiful! The workmanship and designs are simply outstanding. Well we do have a few Sing-Song girls, but not so many that they are a recurring subject. The qipao is, though. We have a fascination with the elegance, aesthetics and cultural significance of the qipao. And we’re excited that we can bring back awareness and appreciation for these aspects of old Shanghai through our re-imagination and re-appropriation of their forms.
Liu Dao’s signature use of LED animations perfectly encapsulates the blurriness, electricity and youthful seduction of Shanghai as a city. Do you think Liu Dao’s preferred medium will change as the city matures?
We don’t necessarily have a preferred medium. At the moment, we do use a lot of LED because we like the way the animations look against more traditional aspects of the artwork. However, we have recently been moving more into video art. We like to keep experimenting and surprising people – and ourselves.
It has been six years since Liu Dao came in to being. What changes to the contemporary art scene in Shanghai has the collective experienced over the years?
When we first started, the local contemporary art scene was in a fledgling state. Much of the art being sold in galleries were Cultural Revolution/ Mao-themed – and usually quite kitschy, “souvenir” art that was mostly bought by foreigners. However, over the years, more galleries, art fairs, exhibitions and serious collectors have come to Shanghai, and this has translated into much more interest in developing a more experimental and progressive art scene. In addition, many more local artists and gallerists travelled overseas and absorbed a rich variety of influences. Now there is a growing local interest in buying and supporting artistic endeavors. Most buyers are still foreigners, but whereas six years ago they were seeking out the most stereotypically “Chinese” type of art, now people buy art because it’s art.
Another change we’ve seen is that art is increasingly acknowledged by commercial ventures as a powerful social force. Over the years, we have been approached by more companies and corporate organizations seeking art consultation or looking for collaborations. We’ve worked with a range of clients, including Louis Vuitton, Lee Jeans, Miss Sixty, Chivas Regal and k11 Art Mall. All of them were sophisticated enough to allow the artists to create art that was inspired by concepts that their brands stood for. They understood and respected artistic integrity. In contrast, when we first started, there was very little, if any, commercial interest and understanding.
In her recent publication As Seen 2011: Notable Artworks by Chinese Artists, art critic Karen Smith praises China’s emerging artist collectives (WAZA, Double Fly Art Collective etc.), highlighting the model’s potential for innovation. Do you see Liu Dao’s model — an international art collective working collaboratively with local artists — as becoming more prevalent in Shanghai, and China more widely, into the future?
We definitely feel that the 21st century is the era for collaboration. It is hardly a new idea – look at the movie industry and the music industry, where people have been working together for decades. Collaboration allows us to dream bigger, and achieve spectacular goals. In addition, China is the right place for collaborative ventures to grow – materials and labor is relatively affordable, allowing artists to work on larger scales with their partners, assistants, technicians, craftsmen etc. Even local “solo” artists like Zhang Huan creates his works on a monumental scale with hundreds of workmen in a huge factory. Art can thus become more professional, more conceptual and push more boundaries. Especially with the changes described in Q13, local and international artists would find more reason and attraction in working together.
Go to the Liu Dao website for more images, and to see their mischievous video works in action.