In many ways, it is a typical art gallery reception. There is a wet bar and people gather around the art with drinks in hand engaged in animated conversation. What isn’t so typical is the artist herself seated in front of her installation sewing a pile of colorful children’s garments. Beili Liu’s performance is a simple act that you could just as easily ignore. She sits quietly in a chair stitching each garment for almost 45 minutes. Art made from textiles has, in recent years, seen a surge of popularity. Many women still enjoy quilting and make beautiful works of art. But this artist has specifically chosen the act of sewing by hand, which has been an essential part of womanhood in many countries for centuries.
Liu has developed an exquisite sensory power in her vision, with each installation forming a distinct visual experience. It’s become a forest of work fed by her source of wonder and imagination. She tells us she is a woman and a mother. She uses unexpected, subtle tactics to guide the unassuming visitor. MadArt Studio is a spacious one-room gallery, facing the street with a span of glass doors connecting to the outside street. The open floor is framed with metal architectural supports, old brick walls and an exposed ceiling. Unlike the square white neutral walls of a regular art gallery, this has its own environment with the ghost of memories of its past.
This performance may symbolize a woman’s endurance, sacrifice, love for children and a clear desire to do whatever’s necessary to hold the family together. Gazing at this woman for such a long period of time, visitors may equate the image of the artist with their own personal memories of women in their own family. I remember my own mother, who was an excellent seamstress when it came to the sewing of kimono. When I came back home after six months abroad, she was silent though she kept moving her fingers to push a needle in and out in a precise width of stitch on the silk fabric. Her whole body was responding to her joy that I was back but all in silence.
The artist has contemplated this installation for years. It takes up most of the space at the center of the floor ascending up to the ceiling. Hundreds of strands of string hang down. On the floor, hundreds of children’s clothes are placed in order, laying close to each other. The whole installation becomes a quiet, monochromatic scene because each string and each garment is coated with cement. This singular color of gray binds them into the uniformity of the nameless.
To create this environment, the artist has soaked both strings and garments in cement and dried them out. The clothes are permanently pressed and yet not totally flat, preserving some sense of their original shaped use. They are all slightly lifted above the floor. Each static gray string hangs still inches above and a silence lingers. One almost becomes numb, staring out at them while watching the performance. The forest of strings turn to mist and then a mirage in the distance that goes off into infinite space. In a split second, I visualize a crowd of children as they get up off the floor and fade off into space like spirits from another world.
Liu was born in Northern China and came to the United States with her family when she was young. She says it was not easy for her to confront life in the United States. Since graduating from the University of Michigan with an MFA degree in 2003, she has created many site-specific installations around the world. Now she is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin and has received a prestigious 2016 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painter and Sculptor award.
America is a country of immigrants. With the news of border problems on a global scale and stories of children separated from their mothers on our Southern border, Liu’s patient and meticulously constructed installation becomes all the more poignant. “Each And Every” asks us to slow down and to contemplate. If we don’t stop for a moment and visualize a more inclusive, diverse world then this country will never become what we wish it to be. Some artists, it seems, know this all too well.
Each and Every by Beili Liu will be on exhibit at MadArt Studio, 325 Westlake Ave. N., July 12 – August 31.