Liao Wen

February 13, 2024
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Liao Wen (b. 1994 Chengdu) lives and works in Hong Kong. She received her MFA from Central Academy of Fine Arts China in 2019 and her BFA from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2016. Her solo exhibitions include “Naked” Frieze New York (New York, 2023), “Almost Collapsing Balance,” Capsule Shanghai (Shanghai, 2021), and “The Body Knows Silently,” Cai Jin Space (Beijing, 2021). She has participated in group exhibitions “Durian-Durian: Southeast Asian Studies as a Methodology,” The First Trans-Southeast Asia Triennial (Guangzhou, 2023); “Bodies and Souls,” Cassina Projects (Milan, 2023); “Durian on the Skin,” François Ghebaly Gallery (Los Angeles, 2022); “BOOMERANG-OCAT Biennale 2021”, OCT Art & Design Gallery (Shenzhen, 2021); “2nd Women Artists International Biennial of Macau” (Macau, 2020); “She Says”, Chengdu Contemporary Image Museum (Chengdu, 2019) among others. She was one of the finalist artists of the Ducato Prize 2023 and was awarded the Frieze New York Stand prize in 2023. Her works have been featured in publications such as The New York Times, Art in America, and Art Newspaper China.
Tell us about your practice.
My practice includes sculpture, video, and performance. The humanoid sculptures I make exude both a sense of primordiality and futurism, teetering on the edge of rules and taboo-breaking. I draw inspiration from puppetry, anthropology of ritual and myth, medicine, art history, and everyday norms. Through my practice, I attempt to contemplate the social order, technology, and power projected onto the body while simultaneously imagining the possibilities of the future body.
Can you tell us a little about the intersection between your background in puppetry and your practice today? Do you find there is a distinction between being a puppeteer and a sculptor in thinking about your work?
Choosing wood carving as my primary medium for sculpting stems from a deep desire to bring humanoid forms to life. Whether I am crafting puppets or sculptures, I firmly believe that a creation infused with care and passion possesses a soul. To me, this pursuit of “creating humanoids” echoes the beliefs of Dr. Frankenstein, where one must transcend the limitations of humanity and strive for an idealized existence.
The distinction between crafting a puppet and sculpting lies in the challenge of conveying a narrative solely through the sculpture itself. While a sculpture excels in occupying space, evoking vivid emotions, and capturing extraordinary moments, it lacks the inherent ability to tell a complete story.
Can you talk a little about your choice of materials in your practice? There seems to be an interesting play in using organic materials and fleshy colors on the one hand, then injecting almost alien-like synthetic elements.
I mainly use lime wood, followed by silicone, resin, and other fluid materials that require molding. I also incorporate ready-made items such as medicinal herbs, smelling salts, and soil, which serve as symbolic materials in specific artworks. The act of carving is definitive and establishes clear boundaries, as once wood is removed, it cannot be reversed. I appreciate this straightforward and somewhat aggressive approach, which aligns with my surface personality. Recently, I have realized that materials and methods hold metaphysical significance. When I aim to convey a sense of chaos, ambiguity, or an indescribable surge of life, I choose sculpting as a method. Clay possesses inertia; it allows you to manipulate it, but it also stains you. 
Sartre once said: “In stickiness, there seems to be a tactile gravity. I no longer care about being the master who can terminate the process of possession.” Thus, carving and sculpting coexist dialectically in my work. I often find myself oscillating and tearing between control and uncontrollability, between sadistically removing and sticky shaping. They entangle and coexist within my life. In the constant rebound between these two states, I feel that I am gradually touching upon my shape and boundaries.
“Organic” and “alien-like” are terms that I feel instantly differentiate various states of the flesh. We are familiar with the healthy body’s “fleshy color,” but it loses its stable boundaries once it shows signs of illness or undergoes abnormal deformations. However, when we talk about “aliens,” the concept and visual imagery of aliens in literature and cinema are products of human imagination. We tend to categorize them as some kind of “threatening other” – a certain type of alien. Therefore, aliens originate from within us rather than externally. I believe that my use of materials largely confronts these threats and attempts to understand these fears.
Your work has the ability to render the visceral nature of human emotion through the tangibility of the body. What do you think about abstraction vs. figuration in your practice? Do you start with a feeling, or is it the figure more the jumping-off point?
My practice has always existed somewhere between abstraction and representation. This may be influenced by my experience of crafting puppet characters. For instance, when making a spider puppet, I only need to create six legs instead of the actual eight. The audience can use memory and imagination to envision the complete object by just presenting six legs. But at the same time, depicting them with four legs would not be sufficient to imply the characteristic of a spider being “multi-legged.” For this reason, my sculptures often feature deformations, exaggerations, or missing parts.
Representation heavily relies on visual perception. Our experiences are not solely constructed by visual stimuli; they also involve elements such as dreams, touch, smell, and emotions. Our bodies constantly measure and store experiences from internal and external sources beyond visual input. When these non-visual experiences are translated into visual form, they differ from concrete representations. In making work, I draw upon various non-visual experiences, which I believe contribute to the emergence of abstraction.
What has been inspiring you lately?
Unlike scholars who engage in long-term research on a fixed topic, the perplexities that emerge in my daily life often drive my practice. My research process resembles the “related searches” feature in Google Image Search. I thoroughly enjoy uncovering the intricate connections between things and interpreting these connections in my way. For me, the act of creation is a process of unraveling mysteries. Anthropology, particularly mythological anthropology related to rituals, has been the genre of books I have read most recently. Gaston Bachelard’s works have taught me how to perceive materials and associate them with poetic imagination.
What are you investigating these days? Is there anything we can look forward to seeing in future works?
Recently, I have been focusing on the topic related to “disgust.” The most immediate reason is due to my chronic pharyngitis, which has caused my vomiting symptoms to worsen. Based on my previous research on rituals and mythology, as well as my daily encounters with viscous and amorphous substances, I have gradually realized that establishing self (and societal) boundaries may rely on emphasizing taboos- something has been defined as filth, abject, and non-achievable. This project will be realized at the Capsule Shanghai Gallery’s new space in Venice this fall.

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