Time is not linear. Time is cyclical. That which has happened will happen again. And again. And again.
Jawshing Arthur Liou — video artist and area head of Digital Art at Indiana University, Bloomington — says he's making art without purpose again. We might think of it as a return to his beginnings, when, in 2002, he brought a series of videos called Things that are edible to the J. Martin gallery for his first show in Indianapolis.
It was a playful series of work. One video featured a knife chopping onions against he background of a '70s kung-fu movie. Another depicted the voyage of a refrigerator across an ocean, depicting the idea of how a migrant to a new country still maintains a connection to her homeland via her diet.
But shortly after the 2002 show, his newborn daughter, Vivian, was diagnosed with leukemia. Liou dealt with her illness in the only way he knew how. His work began to take on a darker tone, to deal with disasters and the body.
“As an artist, one thing you can control is the work, and the work becomes this sort of reflective area in life,” Liou told me while bathed in the light of projectors in his pavilion space. “Artwork is a mediating tool that puts things in perspective, that allows for making progress.”
His 2006 series Blood Work depicts the microscopic cellular struggle that was then taking place within the body of his daughter. In one video, tiny babies crawl across a field of red blood cells, energetic at first, then gradually subsumed by a great wave of gray in one video. In another, a young child whispers “I'm going to get better” and other supplicating phrases on the soundtrack.
On this linear plane, Vivian's death prompted another sea change in Liou's work: “After she passed away, we sort of lost our religion, in a way. But, call it coincidence or fate, there was a longing for spiritual and religious practice. We grew up with Buddhism but never practiced it. But we're now profoundly influenced by it, and it's actually saved our lives, my wife and I. Just like a hungry person wants to eat, there's that very primal instinct and desire to see images of Buddha, to hear chanting. Things like that comfort us. It's a long process, but just like when my daughter was diagnosed with an illness, I can't help making work about it.”
The video “Improbable Waves” started out as “formal practice” for Liou, who was trying to animate a wave in a friend's oil painting. “But the more I went on with it, it became a reflection of a mourning and recovery process,” Liou said. The video uncannily merges the texture of oils with the undulations of waves.
A recent trip to Tibet marked the culmination of Liou's Buddhist practice and work. His video records a pilgrimage on a path circling Mount Kalias, a mountain held sacred by Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon and Jainism. Filmed in ultra high-def on a trip funded by his Efroymson Fellowship, Liou's video will premiere this March at FotoFest.
And now, Liou returns to food. "Insatiable," a high-res video that will show in his pavilion space, consists of video taken from a high-rise building overlooking an open night market in his hometown of Taipei, which was then animated in After Effects, such that the market might seem to be encased within a sort of slow-moving, worm-like shell.
“The obvious reading is to see the world as an organic entity,” Liou said. “I originally thought of this organic machine — both mechanical and organic — that's floating in the sky like a dragon.”
Liou completed the video during an artist's residency in Taipei: “I decided to give myself a break and some breathing room from my artwork, and I decided to go back to my food series. The whole series is about returning home.” He grew up in a city 20 miles south of Taipei, then studied and worked in the capital until he came to the U.S. at age 25.
Liou came to concentrate solely on video in 2002. Since then, his work has been seen in major shows across the globe: Art Hong Kong, Art Taipei, Art Tokyo; in the leading new media gallery and at three museums in Taiwan; at Houston's FotoFest.
Sadness recurs too; Liou points to it even in the supposedly purposeless "Insatiable," whose unsettling, industrial soundtrack accompanies footage of tiny creatures, viewed from stories above, slowly trudging down a crowded path between market stalls. “It's as if aliens have come to Earth and taken a snapshot; it's about taking that God's eye view. It's all very interesting, but at the same time, there's some sadness to it; we can never stop being hungry, greedy and so on.”