Published March 2022
Na LIU (b.1989) is a Chinese visual artist, who lives and works in Paris. Her practice moves across mixed media painting, sculpture, installation and sound.
Discussion on 'In the Blink of a Pond' from the series 'Imagined Kitchen' 2021
What are the main themes that your work explores?
My work involves topics that relate to human behavior in everyday life, subconscious psychological motivations, and how this affects interaction with objects. In my recent series, I have been focusing on women’s suppressed and lost self-identity in family life. With a profound interest in literature and fiction, I use theatrical narratives and metaphors to structure a series of visual works. I am particularly interested in how to break linear structures, leave hints, and lead the audience “walking through” different chapters within a series.
What role does mythology or symbolism play in your piece?
Mythology and symbolism definitely play key parts in my work. For example, in this piece, the symbol of ‘pond’ is a derivative of the cooking pot. ‘Pond’ reminds me of the myth of ‘narcissus’, which I use to imply the complexity of the unseen character in the film, Mrs.XX. She is confined to the kitchen, her last land to control, with her lost self transmuted into extreme narcissism. In addition to the symbol of the ‘Pond’, when she was faced with countless choices, the biblical ‘apple’ also appeared as a symbol of temptation. Another important symbol in this piece is the ‘water in cups’ - the shots of filling in cups with water at different angles, and the repetition of pouring cold water into the boiling pot all indicate the temperature of her emotions.
Narcissus (Narciso), Caravaggio, 1597–1599
Still from 'In the Blink of a Pond', Na LIU, 2021
What relationship do your titles have to the works and how do you develop them?
In my work, my core focus is on how to create different ways of constructing narrative, and so the title is usually a part of the entire story. It can be an abstract interpretation of a particular work, or it can appear as a hint towards other aspects. It’s like playing a puzzle game with the audience. My process wanders in between text and vision. Each of my projects usually starts with collecting text fragments and making collage poems based on the research of the subject until I conclude with a drafted script. From it, a selected sentence or even a word can grow into an individual painting or a series of mixed-media works. When I think about the title of a work, in addition to the information contained within a single artwork, I also sometimes select words from my research ‘sourcebook’.
Do you begin with a topic in mind or do you let your process show you the topic?
I continuously collect text fragments. Sometimes I feel like I have a particular obsession with “fragments” themselves, not limited to being about a specific subject; instead, I focus on all the texts that impressed me at that moment; poems, parts of novels, or even a Wiki entry, etc. This mass of raw research materials are very messy, and I have no clue or context to when I collected them. So this process is organic, and I would rather follow my intuition. My resource catalogue/sourcebook is then developed piece by piece. Whenever I work on a specific theme, I hunt for ‘treasures’ in that sourcebook. At times, when the sourcebook is not enough, or when I found a greater interest in a particular topic, I would adjust and focus my research accordingly. I find the whole process delightful.
What materials do you use, and how do you feel about them? (Do you connect each material to a certain emotion or thought? Is there symbolism in the materials you choose to use? Here I am thinking of your use of the resin pool as water, and expanding foam as the body or form for some sculptures).
In this installation piece, I used many different materials, such as MDF, expanding foam, paper-mâché, clay, resin, color pencil, and airbrush. I used a lot of resin because ‘water’ is the most important element in this work. In addition, the string of beads hanging from the ceiling to the little pond is also an imitation of water dropping into the pond.
How did your sculptural and painting practice influence your film?
I make all the props in my films by hand, and so naturally they are already a part of my sculptural and painting practice. I am fascinated by presenting a realistic situation in a visual environment that exists outside of reality - almost like a fantasy. After the film is completed, and when I think about how to display it within a space, this allows the vision in the film to be extended, and to grow into various new forms and installations. This naturally includes the use of various materials, so I feel like sculpture, painting, and film are all intertwined.
How do you approach installation-making with moving images?
The installation part is a derivative of the moving image. I select some representative still images and close-up details from the film, and then collage them digitally to produce some new and interesting sketches. From that point, if any of these collages excite me, I then think about how to interpret them into 3D objects and installations.
Documentation of In the Blink of a Pond, Na LIU, 2021. Photo: Apertura Studios
Do you feel the term feminist applies to your practice or do you prefer alternative discussions of your work?
Yes, I think you can describe my practice as feminist, except that my visual presentation is relatively ‘gentle’.
How did you become interested in the topic of the suppressed and lost self-identity of women in family life, which your recent works focus on?
In the beginning, I was interested in collecting fragments of research, and those fragments lead towards and visualize a female character formed via a series of behavioral patterns (repetitive and tedious daily routines in her family life). But if you analyze these household rituals in-depth, you begin to see how they can project inner emotions and reaction mechanisms. You can then read ‘her’ (Mrs.XX’s) repression and lost-identity through her actions; therefore the process of understanding this subject goes from the outside to the inside. For me, later on, when the topic became more evident, I realized that it was indeed related to my upbringing, as if you were observing your mother’s or your grandmother’s daily life and thinking about the emotions behind their actions.
As you mentioned, this work explores gender related issues of imprisonment, domesticity, and repetition. What do you think about feminist issues in relationship to China and Chinese culture? Is this a topic you would like to explore more? How do you feel about exploring women’s issues as an artist from China? (The abstract of this essay inspired this question.)
This is a vast subject, and I can not say that I have a full or deep enough understanding. Nonetheless, the feminist issues that my work addresses are based on my observations of women in family life, especially my mother's and grandmother's generation. In the patriarchal cultural environment that has been deeply rooted for over 3,000 years in China, so many ordinary women in their family lives are unaware of the choices they have made, that the culture asked for them to make, the cost they paid, and silently endured in the context of their times. You will find that the character of Mrs.XX explored in this work is more of an observed object than a conscious character. In the first chapter, most of her responses to choices are influenced by habitual patterns. But the good thing is, I think this situation of oppression slowly getting better, just like Mrs.XX, when she wakes up from the unconscious world and a change begins. As a female artist myself, it is natural for me to incorporate my understanding of gender into the character in my work, which I think is inevitable. So, it is natural for me to be interested in feminist issues. But compared to feminism, what I'm most interested in is the unconscious behavior patterns of humans (including men, of course) that are influenced by their growth environment and social rules.
As a young female artist, how do you feel about the effect gendered roles within family life can have upon an artistic career?
I think it's relatively cruel for female artists if you think of balancing art career, family and children, and so on. I guess this is also the collective fear of all-female artists, and even all successful career women. Frankly speaking, I haven't reached this stage yet, so I haven't thought about this very seriously. But if our society can give female artists more equal opportunities, more tolerance, and empathy, maybe things can be much better.
How has being on a residency affected your practice?
Residencies always positively impact my practices, and I am grateful for every residency opportunity so far. During the residency period, all your surroundings changed, which will force me to step out of my comfort zone and bring new vitality to my practices. Besides, the communication with artists from different backgrounds and the ideas exchanged during residency are likely to inspire my future projects.
Who are some artists that work with video that inspire you?
Many video artists inspire me, like Matthew Barney's work, his grand narratives, metaphors, and genius visual abilities. I like the video works of Shana Moulton and Mika Rottenberg, and I am also really obsessed with all the films directed by Sergei Parajanov.
CREMASTER 5 (production still), Matthew Barney, 1997
Tropical Breeze (video still), 2004, Mika Rottenberg, Single channel video installation, 3’ 45”, collection of Pasquale Leccese. Courtesy Le Case D’Arte, Milano).
The Pink Tower and The Waterfall of Grief, 2019, Shana Moulton, exhibition view Zabludowicz Collection, London. Courtesy the artist and Zabludowicz Collection. Photo: Tim Bowditch
The Color of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov, 1967
Would consider you making more moving image works in the future? If so, what kinds of films would you like to make?
Yes, of course, I will continue making moving image works. There are still a lot of potentials that I would like to explore and expand. In this big project 'Sinking, Mrs.XX Welcomes You' that I am working on, theoretically, Chapter 2 and 3 should also include moving image parts. It would come in the same format with hand-made props, but with the continuation of the narrative, hopefully on a larger scale.