As a child growing up in a top-secret missile factory in the Chinese countryside during the Cold War, Yibai Liao could not have imagined that he would one day be displaying his sculptures at the MGM Grand Hotel in Washington DC.
Known for his hand-welded stainless steel sculptures that question today’s skewed concept of value and material obsession, Yibai Liao has gained international recognition as a Chinese artist prepared to examine China and America’s long history of hostility.
“I always like art to be humorous and cheerful,” he tells me from New York where he lives with his wife and daughter. “I want to have a healthy, relaxed and cheerful life. I hope my art is brought to the audience, is happy and thoughtful. Art is daily life: life because of art and art because of life.”
Yibai’s imaginative and ironic stainless-steel sculptures depict the complex cultural relationship between China and the US via accessible and humorous stories. His works illustrate the challenges he faced during childhood growing up in a bomb factory that was part of Mao Zedong’s master plan “to fight China’s biggest enemy, America.” For example, a giant metal hamburger emblazoned with “Top Secret” represents Yibai’s first impression of the West and “the food of the enemy.”
“At that time, the education and information we received was by listening to Chairman Mao’s words, and always being prepared to fight against the enemies of imperialism and capitalism,” he explains. “I could only draw enemies from my imagination based on the limited information I had. Imaginary Enemy was my first solo exhibition in New York in 2009 and I used sculpture to show my imagination of the enemy of US imperialism I knew in my youth.”
In December 2016, he had an exhibition to display “Cash Fighting”, a sculpture that was conceived years earlier. “I was interviewed by an American critic in 2008 who asked me to talk about my views of China and the United States. I am neither a historian nor a politician, but I still agreed to answer his question, but I wanted to use sculpture to answer this question.”
Originally, the design was of the Monkey King fighting Mickey Mouse. But the idea evolved. “I thought why do not let the two VIPs come out from the banknote and fight? Let Chairman Mao rush out of a hundred Yuan, and Benjamin Franklin punch out of a hundred dollar bill. To obey international rules, they must wear boxing gloves for the fight.” The result was a marvellous seven-foot high stainless-steel sculpture.
“I hope that while the visual effect of this piece of work is ridicule, it is reminiscent of reality: the fight between Mao Zedong and Benjamin Franklin is a daily scheme that impacts our real life,” he says of the final work.
Another work “Cinderella High-Heel” is in the same mold as “Cash Fighting”. Yibai had never heard of Cinderella until 2009 when his then four-year-old daughter asked him to watch the movie with her. “I watched half the movie with my daughter and I was so impressed that I was almost in tears! I picked up a pen and quickly drew a rough sketch of my original design of the traditional Chinese style lion head on a diamond-cut high-heel shoe. Isn’t China the great Cinderella of our time?”
Yibai Liao’s story mirrors China’s rags-to-riches path from the end of the twentieth century to the dominant player on the world stage today. His art has always taken an interest in China’s increasing obsession with opulence and luxury goods while discrediting and glorifying it simultaneously. How does the art scene in China differ to America from his point of view? “Of course they are different. One is a medium-rare beef hamburger, the other a plate of dumplings, a bowl of noodles, or a spicy hot pot,” he says in his typical nonchalant way.
When examining Yibai Liao’s oeuvre, the pop-art nature of his work leads us to ask some thought-provoking questions about how art can be used to forge global relationships. However, although his art is intricate and expressive, underneath lay a simple desire to create beautiful pieces that will bring people together. “Craftsmanship is complex, time-consuming and expensive, but well worth it, as these pieces will last for many years.”