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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 8, December 3 - 9

Don't Cut It, It Might Be Art
The Installation Art of Li Jiwei

The motor fires up and a circular saw the size of a tractor wheel begins spinning a few meters away from my nose. Dirty water sprays from above onto the sharp serrated disk to keep it cool as it is lowered down onto a brand new aqua-colored Apple iMac. The iMac is encased in a block of transparent polyester, and as the saw's teeth bite into the block, the acrid smell of burning plastic fills my nostrils. There is a ghastly grinding sound, and I imagine a chain saw cutting into my own brain, spraying gristle and grey matter in a pink cloud above my head.

Fortunately, I don't get close enough to the saw for that to happen. Neither do the other spectators who comprise three photographers, a video cameraman, five bemused workers and the man responsible for this strange experiment - Beijing-born artist Li Jiwei.

Li, 39, has invited us to watch and record the vivisection of a US$1000 computer, in preparation for an exhibition entitled Cut scheduled for display in Beijing this month. The "cutting" edge artist is neither a Luddite, nor is he a pawn in a Microsoft-sponsored offensive against Apple computers. His brutal deconstruction of the iMac is part of a video installation intended to explore issues of life in an age of machines. Multimedia installation art is a relatively new pursuit for Li, whose artistic apprenticeship involved mastering the delicate brushwork skill that traditional Chinese painters have pursued for centuries. Born and raised in the capital, he graduated from the Traditional Chinese Painting department of Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1984. As a student his primary concern lay in the use of line in shuimo (ink wash) paintings. This led organically to an interest in abstract art, which he began to paint in the late 1980s when he was teaching art at the Beijing Film Academy. He left China in 1990 to obtain a masters degree in abstract painting at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, where he lived until 1998. Li has since moved to Berlin, but he is back in Beijing this winter to make and exhibit the installation work that includes the sawn-up iMac. Cut is composed of five parts, each one involving the dissection of an object. The actual cutting up of the objects has been filmed; the completed work includes both the objects and digitally-manipulated video footage of the "operation."

The first work features a red lantern of the kind Chinese restaurants often hang outside their doorways. The lantern was coated in blood-red dye and then bisected using an electric jigsaw. Li arranged sponsorship in Germany from Osram, a company that manufactures lightbulbs. Engineers at Osram's Berlin plant helped him cut a lightbulb in half, taking care not to damage the filament, and then resealed the bulb so that it could be illuminated. The completed video footage shows the lantern being sawn apart, exuding a gooey crimson liquid. The light remains burning throughout the process. The two halves split apart like a red, round flower opening up and bleeding at the pain of birth.

Li's second operation was performed on a scarlet-colored sofa. The artist used a chain saw to cut the common item of household furniture in half, revealing rough wooden boards, springs and foam padding beneath the smooth surface of the vinyl.

A glass of water and Li's own body are the other bisected objects. While he did actually cut the glass in half, video trickery was used to both give the appearance of cutting the water itself in two and to chop up his body. These images are all striking, almost shocking. But watching the iMac being sawn in half is a truly cathartic experience, especially for a writer who spends most of his days staring at the screen of exactly the same model of computer. This is sweet revenge for daily digital annoyances, hard drive crashes, and computer-induced eye-strain and carpal tunnel syndrome. The slices of iMac left after the operation have a strange, almost organic beauty. They look like mollusks, fossilized in the translucent, ice-like polyester.

The workers who helped Li saw up the computer felt differently though. As they helped place the polyester-encased computer on a big slab of stone and clamped it into place to avoid any movement when the massive saw bit into it, they chattered away in strong provincial accents about their strange task.

"What kind of craziness is this?" asks one. "What good can come from destroying a computer worth more than I'll earn in two years?" The difference between the way he saw the work and the enthusiastic attitude of the photographers gathered around is telling. Cut is about opposing halves and opposites: rational thought embodied in a computer against the illogical desire to make art; the digital revolution symbolized by an iMac against the industrial revolution symbolized by a motorized saw; the yin of the soft padded sofa against the yang of the jigsaw blade; plastic against steel; glass against water.

Li himself embodies many of these contradictions. He is the quintessential cosmopolitan contemporary artist, living in Berlin and working with the newest materials, but his aesthetic sensibilities are grounded in ancient Chinese traditions. His ink wash paintings of previous experiments cutting-up computers reduce the 21st century image of saw and sawn-up monitor to minimalist abstract lines that have the feel and compositional elements of traditional paintings. He has coffee for breakfast and noodles for dinner; his speech switches from German into Mandarin into German-inflected English; he drives as though he is on the Autobahn even when he is on the Third Ring Road.

Cut is likely to appeal to almost anyone who, like Li, suffers the postmodern contradictions of exile, displacement and being cut off from traditional roots. But even if you think that only self-indulgent art critics suffer from postmodern maladies, you should go see Cut, just for the opportunity to see what an iMac looks like on the inside.

Cut shows at China Art Archives & Warehouse, December 12-30. The exhibition opens at 2 pm, Sunday December 12.
Email: naac@public.gb.com.cn
Telephone: 6760-5364 / 130-0119-2709
URL: www.chinese-art.com/caaw.html


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