Finding inspiration in things small and public

Liu Xiaolin
A 2013 Japanese Ukiyoe exhibition at the British Museum sparked artist Liu Yi's interest in small-scale paintings.
Liu Xiaolin

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Painting on a limited-scale cellphone screen, which artist LIU said "now seems to be an organ of us," is his way to go beyond limitations, to go deeper and explore.

A 2013 Japanese Ukiyoe exhibition at the British Museum sparked artist Liu Yi's interest in small-scale paintings. A year later, he made a dozen copies of line drawings, sketching his wife sitting the month after childbirth, which led to mobile painting.

Today, he has produced more than 2,000 mobile paintings, posted on his WeChat Moments and filed by month on the home page of his studio 61creative. It became his signature serial project that never stops growing.

Painting on a limited-scale cellphone screen, which Liu said "now seems to be an organ of us," is his way to go beyond limitations, to go deeper and explore.

"The most healing thing about art is it enables me to present my art in different ways," the 40-year-old said.

A professor who teaches public art at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art, Liu intends to bring people beauty and enlightenment on social life, not only through monumental installation works, but also via temporary public activities.

He called it "another kind of therapy" to arouse people's awareness to care for those around and in need.

This week, we have Liu with us to elaborate on his mobile paintings and public art projects.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Chinese artist Liu Yi

Q: How did you get involved with mobile painting?

A: I remember clearly that I drew my first mobile painting on April 14, 2015. I gave my students an assignment that day. Since we were going to have a picnic at Chenshan Botanical Park, I asked each of them to prepare a dish, pack it and bring it to the picnic. We would then switch the dishes and present them. So I made a poster by drawing a meal box on my phone with Sketchbook and posted it on Moments.

My students exploded with excitement, and the comments kept flooding in. The next day, I posted another one I drew in the park, and again it made a stir. I'm pleased to see people have their own readings of artworks, and really enjoyed the uncertainty that it brought along.

Once started, I could hardly put it down.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: Is Moments your main exhibiting venue?

A: Yes. It feels like I am doing my solo show every day. Friends come to check each day, some would even ask me when to post today's painting.

Gradually, it evolves, from a daily means of communication with my students on art creation to a means of creation for me. I am fascinated by what comes out between my fingers – the very ancient, primitive tool of art creation – and the canvas of a cellphone screen, which is a daily product of new media.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: Do you want to try on a bigger screen, so to have more freedom?

A: I'd like to argue against you here. Bigger screens do not necessarily guarantee more freedom. Sometimes, it's another kind of freedom to explore within certain limitations. It's just like winding your way through a narrow longtang (a typical lane in Shanghai) – chances are you get to see all the fun things on both walls... For me, limitation is an approach to maximize freedom and dig deeper.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: What do you want to explore in mobile painting?

A: I want to try painting on screens varied in resolution and color display... All my mobile paintings are left with a print of time, which I'd like to explore a little bit. I've been trying to make some animation recently. There's a QR code on my website that you can scan and view my paintings from each month, which I edited into video clips. I want to bring online creations to entity space and then back to online networks.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: There seem to be many possibilities in formats.

A: The most healing thing about art is it enables me to present my art in different ways, thanks to my academic background in design, which provides many ideas and support in techniques and means. The happiest thing about being an artist is I can let my works grow and spin off with no limits.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Mobile painting by Liu Yi

Q: Let's talk about public art.

A: I started with this major in 2012, learning about public art while teaching. An interdisciplinary creation, public art is actually a job of curation. It involves venues, funding, curators, artists, the public and government, all parties working together in a cooporative mechanism. It's basically about a simple question: Who does what, where and how?

New types of public art go beyond magnificent, permanent installation art to include temporary activities such as community workshops.

In 2018, I was a tutor in the workshop "Bauhaus Class 2.0." During the session, I invited the public on a road tour on wheelchairs. One wheelchair for a group of three, one person riding the chair, one pushing and the other one walking alongside. After an hour's stroll down Fuzhou Road, the participants did some very good sharing. Many told me they never thought about how difficult it would be (in a wheelchair). "KFC was right in front of me and I couldn't get in because the curb is too high," some said, adding they would pay more attention to such affairs. That's the best thing art can bring us: to become aware and pay attention to people around us and those in need.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Participants are having a road tour on wheelchairs during the workshop "Bauhaus Class 2.0."

Q: What do you want to bring to the public?

A: Beauty. That's enough.

Q: Do you also want to encourage people to be involved in public life?

A: That's also a certain kind of therapy. To enlighten and inspire people in a way of public creation – it would be more than great if art can achieve this.

Finding inspiration in things small and public
Courtesy of Liu Yi

Liu Yi on a workshop of mobile painting

Q: Tell us about the project of body you are conceiving.

A: I'd like to restore myself to the configurations before every surgery I had. Then I'm going to build up a world in which there are all kinds of "weirdos" and "the deformed." We now call it "deformed" because we are making a comparison. I want to point out that there should be no comparison and no standards. That's what Chinese say about "bu'er" ("exclusiveness" in English). We should be happy to see a planet where everyone is distinctive, not just different in appearance but in varied shapes and forms. I am surely one of them in that world. I'd like to make a video or a drama. 

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