The story about this exhibition has to begin with an artwork that is absent, which is A View by the Ming Dynasty Imperial Palace. In May 1910, on the eve of the 1911 Revolution, Pan Dawei (1880-1929), a democratic revolutionary from Guangzhou, member of the Chinese United League, photographer, and artist, met with his friends Fan Zengxiang (1846-1931) and Jiang Kongyin (1864-1951) in Nanjing, to discuss political affairs and to reflect on the times. Guangzhou uprising failed in the following spring, and many revolutionaries were killed and their bodies left in the market. Jiang Kongyin swore on his reputation and buried the martyrs at the Huanghua Hill in Guangzhou. A View by the Ming Dynasty Imperial Palace is a two-panel fan leaflet painted when these three friends met. On the front, Pan Dawei depicted the wall of Zhongshan Gate, overgrown with weeds, near the ruined Ming Imperial Palace in Nanjing, and Fan Zengxiang inscribed a colophon on the back. The calligraphy, poetry, and painting together documented the chivalrous friendship of three individuals in a critical time in history.


Liu Ding fell in love with the work mentioned above, which he failed to acquire, because the painting, poetry, political affairs, and personal relationships, all tied in one work, resonate with him. For Liu Ding, this work is a messenger across time and space. As a contemporary, he has a strong empathy for this work and the history that it relates to. This picture, replete with melancholy, speaks of sentimentality through a view, which allegorizes the motherland in the artist's eyes with a desolate city wall, poetically conveying the feeling of seclusion and despondency of the human heart at the time of change. These sentiments speak to Liu Ding's heart and mind in recent years. Liu had planned to include this work in his exhibition.


Liu Ding often treats artists of different generations and their works as his peers and friends, learning from them, dialoguing with them, and serving as messengers to each other, weaving a web of meaning through conversations and empathy. Pan Dawei's work – although not displayed in this exhibition - is nevertheless present in Liu Ding's practice and exhibition site through various invisible ways, together with many ancient and modern artworks that Liu Ding has widely searched and studied in depth.


Through his own artworks, Liu Ding contemplates and inscribes reality and history, including his encounters and state of mind; such a realist approach to artistic practice runs through this entire exhibition. Just These Two Days originates from a photograph he took in 2018. It was the year the city of Beijing began to evict its migrant population, an initiative instantly leaving many people homeless. Liu Ding took a photo of a stray dog under an overpass outside the Fourth Ring Road, and in the picture, someone sprayed the words "will be forgotten in a few months" in graffiti on the overpass wall. Four years later, the reality of the situation has not changed, and Liu Ding has not forgotten this chance encounter. He printed the picture on photo paper and covered its surface with dark colors and graffiti-like brush strokes, turning the whole image into an infinite vile night. Liu Ding framed the scribbled photo on a silver aluminum plate and scratched "February 2018" on it with a wire ball, marking the moment when the picture was first taken. The collage and graffiti are modeled after the phrase left by the anonymous person under the overpass. Snapshots, pasting, random scribbles, and leaving marks, these arbitrary forms of expression aptly describe the floating style of human existence in society.


In Liu Ding's view, art practice, much more complicated than the specificity of the art medium itself or the establishment of any formal characteristic, should be synonymous with life, and is thus a kind of practice that is intrinsic to life. Based on this understanding, Liu Ding does not perceive his paintings as paintings per se, nor does he dwell on the medium he uses to create, as they are all paths to reach art. The World of Night draws on the computer's algorithm of image recognition to generate the visual sensation of multiple spatial dimensions co-existing on paper by stacking and disrupting images. The graffiti-like images conceal shifting sprites and inscribed scripture fragments. These scriptures from the Vajrayana and Lotus Sutras describe multiple worlds and experiences: the world of sound, the world of the mind, the world of color, and more. They allow readers to transcend the immediate perceptions and experiences and gain a transcendental viewpoint in grasping human existence. Liu Ding transcribes fragments from these scriptures in his paintings as compositional components and as means to convey meaning.


The Word for the World adopts news images that document scenes from highly conflicting international political events to the painting. In rendering the image, Liu Ding "masks" these news images from the scene using destructive brushstrokes and visual superimposition. This montage of image editing mimics how people perceive and describe the world today, where reality is shown and exposed while obscured and embellished, shaping a new language for describing social reality. In this exhibition, form becomes the testimony of reality. The works of art become mirror images and psychic mediums, transmitting and reinforcing each other's inner messages.


Although there is a nearly 14-year gap between Gravestone for Rumour Monger, created in 2008, and his most recent work, Sorrow and Joy: A Facsimile of the Mood in Chen Zhuokun's Paintings, the two pieces constitute a fundamental path Liu Ding undertakes while continuously exploring his personal experience and thus relating to history. In 2008, following an online attack from his peers, Liu Ding tried to look beyond the heftiness of his personal encounter and use that experience as an impetus to explore the origins of the attacker's concealed consciousness. This experience was not only his own encounter but also a symptom of Chinese art history in recent decades. Liu focused on understanding the source of an "anxiety of Western influence" pervasive in the Chinese art scene since the 1980s. After months of silence and deep reflection, Liu Ding produced a defiant and reticent artwork, Gravestone for Rumour Monger, constructing a group of tombstones with compelling symbolism to summon a dark and dismal realm and to convey his personal attitude.


This work marks the turning point in Liu Ding's artistic career. From thereon, his work shifted from depicting fragments of reality through the lens of cultural studies to an intellectual exploration of the self, creative practice, and society at large. He decodes the inner dynamics of practices and discourses of his predecessors and peers from the perspective of artistic and intellectual histories and translates them into diverse expressions. Grounded in the awareness and urgency of self-knowledge, Liu Ding focuses on developing the intrinsic complexity of his art practice that would allow him to transcend the superficiality of formal perceptions. He also aimed to carve out a space in his time where artworks would embody multiple meanings without being held hostage by narrow perceptions.


Liu Ding is keen on self-introspection through looking at others and history, learning about life, and iterates his views with seriousness and sincerity, while urging us to contemplate. Although times and societies vary, the appeal to human existence has been an eternal proposition through the ages. Such concern has infused Liu Ding's art practice with an anchoring humanist connotation, allowing his diverse explorations to transcend art forms while maintaining a close connection and dialogue with reality. In these efforts to create new forms, the artist’s impetus comes from his consciousness of purpose embedded with a profound social criticism rather than relying on senses.


In Liu Ding's work, poetry and artistic practice are not where reality ends but where actions begin. Although situated in a gloomy world, the artist wishes to experience it in-depth, offering an appropriate expression. In The Messenger at the Crossroads, he summons Chinese literati and artists who faced a world of unrest and disruption in the 1920s and 1930s and placed them on the witness stand, appropriating their poetry to testify and speak for an equally tumultuous world today. The world at present enters Liu Ding's puzzle through news images but is instantly covered, obscured, and concealed by his digitally and hand-drawn lines, blocks of color, patterns, and graffiti. Like a lawsuit in progress, searching for the truth is precisely the experience of encountering lies and deceit, and the individuals who undergo such experience face the pressure of making choices and assessing their humanity. We live in a time when everyone can become a witness, a victim, a defendant, a defender, and a juror. This body of work reveals an inherent motivation to intervene in reality: contemplating politics, poetry, art, and beliefs is not a waste but self-assembly in search of the truth. In generating meaning, these works of art transcend form and become a language immanent to life. With their transcendental character, these works will become messengers that speak to the future on behalf of the present.