Towada City, located in the northeast of Aomori Prefecture in apan, is small and compact. The city center, within a five-minute walking distance, consists of the city hall, two business hotels, a McDonald’s, and a shopping street. However, the density of cultural facilities is surprisingly high. Between two or three streets, there are the Towada City Regional Exchange Center designed by Sohshi Fujimoto, the library designed by Tadao Ando, the Towada City Citizen Exchange Center designed by Kengo Kuma, and the Towada City Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Tatsuo Nishizawa. It is said that some of the construction funds came from compensation paid by the US military for establishing an air force base in Aomori.
The exterior of the Towada City Museum of Contemporary Art is a sight to behold. As you stroll through the neighborhood, you’ll come across several benches created by various artists. These include Erika Hidaka’s “Clouds,” Tetsuo Kondo’s “Vase,” and Chinese artist Liu Jianhua’s fiberglass pillow sculpture “Traces.” Locals can often be found sitting or reclining on these benches, taking a break or catching a quick nap.
Closer to the museum, you’ll find Yayoi Kusama’s large outdoor installation “Love Forever, Singing in Towada,” Erwin Wurm’s cartoonish “Fat House & Fat Car,” and a massive ghost sculpture with a similarly humorous tone, created by the German art group Inges Idee, who specialize in public art. These works naturally draw visitors towards the Towada City Museum of Contemporary Art.
Established in 2008, the museum is a core component of the “Arts Towada” plan, which aims to revitalize the city through art. Its architecture shares the light and open qualities of the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima. The pure white walls and large glass facades blur the lines between interior and exterior spaces. Multiple entrances allow visitors to freely come and go, and explore the permanent exhibits in the courtyard. Only when entering the indoor permanent exhibit halls will staff remind visitors to show their tickets.
Each indoor exhibit hall is independent, showcasing only one piece of art. These include Chiharu Shiota’s “Memory of the Ocean,” a mesmerizing red thread weaving, Koji Nakajima’s iconic deer specimen encased in a glass crystal, Ron Mueck’s 4-meter-tall hyperrealistic female sculpture, and Hans Op de Beeck’s “visual trap” created with light and perspective. Unlike most Japanese museums, which prioritize special exhibitions over permanent exhibits, the Towada City Museum of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection is just as impressive as any international museum.
Liu Jianhua’s Solo Exhibition “Injecting Hollow” at Tawaraya Modern Art Museum in 2023
Chinese artist Liu Jianhua, who established a connection with Tawaraya 13 years ago with his work “Traces,” has been invited to present his solo exhibition “Injecting Hollow” at Tawaraya Modern Art Museum, offering a refined retrospective of his artistic career spanning over 20 years. Born in Ji’an, Jiangxi in 1962, Liu now lives and works in Shanghai, frequently traveling to Jingdezhen for his creations. His works reflect a dual reflection on the materiality of ceramics and the reality of Chinese society. In an interview with Art News/Chinese Edition, the artist expressed that the unique geographical location and international-standard collection of Tawaraya Modern Art Museum are the highlights of this exhibition, and the museum’s diverse attributes will inspire more possibilities for interpreting his works.
From Pottery Apprentice to Sculptor
Liu Jianhua was sent by his family to a ceramic factory in Jingdezhen as an apprentice when he was a child. After eight years of learning, he won the Jingdezhen Ceramic Art Hundred Flowers Award. In the 1980s, with the rise of the “cultural fever,” he was influenced by a book introducing Rodin’s sculptures and applied to study sculpture at Jingdezhen Ceramic College (now Jingdezhen University). In the early stages of his artistic career, he mainly used fiberglass reinforced plastic for his creations. Although he returned to ceramics in the mid-to-late 1990s and gained international attention, his training in sculpture still made him pay special attention to ceramics as a “space” to be shaped.
Liu Jianhua, the Artist
In Liu Jianhua’s solo exhibition, the first space is the largest, with thousands of everyday objects molded and fired into porcelain, uniformly coated with blue and white glaze, and then smashed to cover the entire exhibition hall, leaving only a narrow passage. As they walk through, viewers can gradually recognize common items from daily life such as tires, televisions, Ultraman toys, cabbage, and high heels. This is Liu Jianhua’s “Abandoned” series created between 2001-2011, exposing the homogeneity and fragility of modern life. In the center of this pure white garbage dump is a white tower-shaped shelf, displaying vessels with classical and beautiful shapes but deprived of functionality: wine vessels with sealed mouths, overturned bowls and dishes, or vases with only the neck portion selected. This is Liu Jianhua’s “Tower Vessels” created during the pandemic. Towers are important buildings in Buddhism, with their hollow interiors rarely used for specific human activities. By refining their function as metaphysical architecture, they become capable of carrying the Tao, hence the saying “the tower is the Buddha, the Buddha is the tower.” Liu Jianhua also forces ceramics to abandon their functional attributes as vessels, bringing them closer to the spiritual attributes of towers. This may be the inspiration for the exhibition title “Injecting Hollows.” Whether in “Abandoned,” exposing the hollow by smashing the fired porcelain, or in “Tower Vessels,” refining them into hollows by blocking their functional attributes, Liu Jianhua has pushed the contemporary transformation of ceramics with seemingly unnecessary actions, injecting spirituality and contemplation into them.
The material language of ceramics is dialectical, containing both toughness and fragility, control and loss of control, as well as cultural attributes that represent traditional Chinese civilization and connect with the world as daily utensils and works of art. In Liu Jianhua’s creations, there is no lack of exploration of this dialectical relationship, which he jokingly attributes to being a Libra. This keeps him vigilant and cautious in the ever-changing reality, and his works have a restrained sense of balance in aesthetics, which is particularly evident in his works before and after the millennium.
Retreat Beyond the Horizon
In 2008, Liu Jianhua realized that the reality reflected through art was far less surreal than the actual social reality. Therefore, he decided to detach himself and adopt a creative approach that was different from reality, one that was “meaningless and contentless.” In this period of creation, Liu Jianhua shifted his focus from exploring specific materials or reality to abstraction and perception, viewing his works as a visualization of his own emotions during the creative process. “It’s like lighting a stick of incense in a spacious temple. The smoke will spread throughout the entire space. I hope that my works and the space can create such a sense of field, and the audience will feel the distance from reality when they enter.”
In a small black box exhibition hall, a pillow with a skull hanging from it is displayed. This is part of Liu Jianhua’s work “Fragile Daily Life,” created during the millennium. As a material object, the pillow symbolizes dreams and uncertainty. As a biological human being, it is reduced to its most essential form, bringing it closer to eternity. Looking in the direction of the skull, one can see the work “Reflection in Water,” created during the same period. The skyline of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, made of blue and white porcelain, stretches along the corridor wall for 12 meters. The skyscrapers are presented in a twisted manner, ethereal like reflections in water. A row of spotlights shines directly above the porcelain plates, projecting reflections of reflections below the “horizon.” Like a game of telephone, from the skyscrapers to their reflections in water, to the blue and white porcelain plates and their reflections on the wall, reality is deconstructed repeatedly, revealing its fragile essence. The two works tell a fable-like story of a dream in Nanko, reflecting the artist’s hesitation in the vibrant acceleration of the millennium.
At the exhibition of Liu Jianhua’s “Hollow in Injection” held at the Tawaraya Modern Art Museum in 2023, the final exhibition hall showcased two works created by the artist from 2008 to 2018. One wall displayed an extremely thin “white paper” made using the rolling process of making porcelain plates. It was only 7 millimeters thick, with lightly curled edges that seemed to be able to be lifted by a gust of wind. Corresponding to its 1.2-meter width and 2-meter height, the other walls were covered in starry “ink marks” (Signs) made in imitation of the “leaking roof” technique in calligraphy, with a traditional black and gold glaze applied to the human figurines. These ink marks returning to the wall also reproduced the metaphor used in ancient calligraphy, like the marks left by rainwater on a wall. As the conclusion of the exhibition, these two works skillfully borrowed and transformed classic porcelain-making techniques and materials, and after creating an atmosphere of a study with just a few strokes, they calmly left blank spaces.
Whether it was observing reality in the early days or stepping back to contemplate spirituality in recent times, Liu Jianhua’s works always maintain a distance from tangible objects, both referring to them and intentionally deviating from them, lightly touching reality like a tangent before bouncing away, leaving room for speculation and perception.