Parting a curtain, a landscape is revealed seen from an incredible height. It’s a city built on water where classical architecture mingles with the most fantastic: sky needles and skyscrapers, a hollow cube that looks like an ode to the toy models of molecular structures. It’s a World Fair built to last, viewed seemingly with approval and a sense of ownership from the man at the window. All this can too be yours is the unspoken pitch from a broker no doubt waiting nearby for the vista to work its magic.
The inverse of Wizard of Oz revelation, in the prints from Liu Gang’s Paper Dream (2008) series, what lies behind the curtain, or off in the distance, is betrayed by the surface details which proclaim the artifice. Streaks of light mar the figure of the man at the high window, tell-tale crinkles of the glossy advertisements which form the source material for the prints. A bank of what looks like a rolled up carpet that the man stands astride is a bunched up fold of paper testifying to the essential two-dimensionality of the urban dreamscape.
In other works, rows of gilt edged books redolent of the library of the well-read and well-bred sag as if an unfaithful tack has come loose, exposing them as nothing more than an image painted on a tarp or tapestry. In a print where a jockey poses atop his horse in the foreground, the eye strays toward an impressive array of multi-story buildings of concrete and glass peeking above the tree line. A second glance confirms that the same buildings appear more than once and in the same sequence.
My favorite of the lot was a racetrack receding into the distance, to one side the spectator stands filled with party confetti-colored motes and on the other, a row of wobbly looking apartments. It’s so packed with empty promises that it’s embarrassing how giddy it makes you feel staring at the image. Not only is the future waiting for you if you can close the distance, you’ll be racing toward it as the crowds cheer you on (the expressways in Heaven are all forty lanes across and empty of traffic). The pavement, blown up from the original is a mass of scattered halftone the color of red clay. But although the lines of the road converge at the horizon, we know that parallel lines will never meet. And the towering apartment buildings to your right will pass by lap after lap, always out of reach.
Curator David Spalding has paired Paper Dream with Living Elsewhere, (1997-1999) a video projection by Wang Jianwei (together they make up the complete billing of the SF Camerawork show, dubbed Even in Arcadia…). The documentary follows the plight of a group of people in Sichuan Province who have taken up residence in deserted buildings that were or were intended to be upscale housing complexes. Where manicured front yards would have stood, they carve holes in the crumbly dirt in the hopes of bringing forth a subsistence crop. Inside the villas, wall-sized holes are open to the air, convenient for emptying foul water from a pot, but also indicative that they would have required mammoth sheets of window glass to cover the space. Doors propped with bricks form makeshift tables. No narrative is forced upon the residents: the director is content with following them and letting them tell their story, or watching them trying to eke out a living in a setting built for opulence but repurposed by necessity.