Discover more from Victor Liu . Art
Statement on work, 18 October 2023
I want to talk about some of the difficult imagery in my work. My work grapples with significant forces at play in our world today. I use a small pantheon of figures to harness and channel these forces, in order both to reflect, and to reflect on, our world. These contemporary forces may be terrifying, and they may manifest as difficult and challenging imagery. The figures I make come out of my concerns and worries, but I do not use them to offer my judgments or opinions, as I have no interest in a didactic art. Rather, I see them as crystallizations of dynamic forces, built for the task of meeting the complexity and competing tensions of these significant forces.
There is an element of dark humor in the work, but that does not reflect a flippant attitude towards these matters. I’m a news junkie, and nearly everything newsworthy is bad news, so I’m pretty morose most of the time. About half of my gray hairs sprouted during the Trump presidency. I follow my primary artistic hero Philip Guston in wanting his artwork to converse with the larger world, sometimes only armed with a pathetic humor. Guston’s imagery could be troubling, and it does not attempt to simplify the matters in play.
Guston’s current traveling retrospective was delayed, due to concerns about his sometimes troubling themes. I too am sensitive to how my work may be received in light of current events. I have proposed my work as a response to contemporary forces, so perhaps it is to be expected that current events heighten the tensions in my work. But I was taken aback by how current events changed the perception of my difficult imagery. When tragedy struck in Israel on 07 October, I was horrified by the barbarism of the attacks. My heart is with the victims and their families. In recognition of this, I am stopping production of certain works in progress. I wish I could say I am switching to easier themes, that doesn’t seem in the cards with my work.
I’ve been asked to connect the dots on my work. I tend towards reticence when talking about my work, but that has been a mistake. By connecting some of the dots, I hope to share an understanding of the origins and themes of the work. But I do not want my editorial point-of-view to overwhelm reception of the work; didactic art bores me. My aim with my art is to crystallize some real-world tensions, for which there are no easy solutions. In other words, my opinion means shit when the cards actually get played out.
The origins of Sergeant Surge lie in the military adventurism in the Middle East and Central Asia, starting during the GW Bush years. Specifically, the rise of the private military companies (PMCs) — for example, Erik Prince’s Blackwater — was a significant development which eases the way for military adventures by nation-states. These mercenaries for hire are much easier to deploy without legislative approvals, and further, do not commit the sons and daughters in our military services. Today their use has spread to other places, including in Africa, with the Wagner Group’s propping up of authoritarian leaders in exchange for extracting the African wealth in resources. These PMCs are a key ingredient in the worrying rise of militarism in the world, as a “continuation of politics by other means”, to borrow from Clausewitz.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been a daily source of worry for me, as it has reinvigorated the desire for empire by an authoritarian regime, inflicting untold horrors on the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainians have suffered at the hands of bloody Russian leaders in the past, including a mass starvation under Stalin, and I want the Ukrainian people to win this time, to beat back the invaders, to achieve territorial autonomy. Thoughts of war have led me to increasingly channel them through Sergeant Surge. Significant phenomena of the changing weapons of war (like drones), and where images of war can enter into the mundanity of our lives, are ways for my art to reflect, and to reflect on, these sometimes hidden forces.
Maiden China is an interesting figure, tying together a primordial vision of China’s ancient power with the ascendance of a modern state. Today’s China under Xi Jinping is the major alternative pole in the world for the administration of a nation, and the possible role model for other nations seeking alternatives to a liberal democracy. This model takes some market mechanisms of capitalism, but also pursues an ideological and technological repression of its people to retain societal stability. Xi Jinping has emphasized the role that humiliations suffered during the Opium War of the 1840s has figured on the political consciousness of modern China, and my figure explicitly reaches into that complicated confrontation between China and the West. This original resentment festers, and may light a powder keg in Asia.
Dark Cygnus is an activation of the Black Swan, the famous metaphor of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan event is the unanticipated event which does not fit any mathematical models, so cannot be predicted, yet has outsize influence on the course of history. September 11th is a primary example. I don’t think it’s just my imagination, but the rate of such Black Swan events, such as the pandemic, or Trump’s presidency, or the recent Hamas terrorist attack, seem to be accelerating.