Those fortunate enough to not be directly affected by Covid-19, not to be out there on the frontline, those who spent lockdowns cocooned at home, eating, exercising, sleeping, doing little else, had time and space to reflect on what they were missing. Socialising, offices, travel, rituals, protest – all these things that life consists of beyond meeting our basic needs. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben uses the term nuda vita – “naked life” or “bare life” – to describe a life reduced to biological survival. A version of the Greek concept of zoe – this is contrasted to another idea, bios – a life lived as a citizen, a member of a community.
Nudità, multidisciplinary Beijing-based artist Liu Wei’s (b. 1972) current exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey is inspired by Agamben’s ideas and how they relate to the pandemic experience. The works on show are an invitation to look back, forward, and somewhere else entirely. The opening sculpture, Speculation (2021) evokes prehistoric remnants – bones, eggs, fossils – and Vanguard (2021), with the metallic industrial sweep of its curves, spikes and cones recalls the utopian drive of early 20th century modernism towards a better, more collectivist world. In a series of abstract oil paintings, bodily shapes hinting at flesh and muscle merge in an embrace.
Allegory (2021), on the other hand, positions us in an imagined future looking back at the ruins of today. The grey car paint that covers these sculptures is both everyday and monumental – their forms recall spheres that once sat atop columns one instant, a temporary road barrier the next. Animals, from a fox to a pigeon, speak of a post-apocalyptic city where wildlife reigns once again. Far from the stuff of scientific fantasy, the concept of a world beyond humans, where we’ve been wiped out by climate change or indeed a virus, now feels frighteningly plausible.
The sweeping polished aluminium structure of Dimension (2021), part of a wider series about scientific perception titled Microworld, zooms in on the microscopic elements that make life itself. Only by breaking things down can we rebuild them. We are back to that moment of unreality in 2020, where anything seemed possible. As we retreated into existences more atomised than we could have imagined, the uncanny sight of emptied out public spaces offered an opportunity to rethink ways of being together.
Liu Wei: Nudità runs until 5 September at White Cube Bermondsey. Find out more here.
Words: Rachel Segal Hamilton
1. Installation views, Liu Wei ’Nudità’, White Cube Bermondsey, until 5 September 2021. © Liu Wei. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick)