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ANIMAL KINGDOM
by Sarah Canner
 
Liu Jia, "Social Fables," Mar. 6-29, 2008, at Galerie Vallois, 35 Rue du Seine, 75006 Paris, France

In "Social Fables," the Chinese artist Liu Jia depicts a contemporary "Animal Farm" in which well-coiffed beasts flaunt their power over dependent humans. An angry pig in an apron carries a mutilated man over his shoulder (Le boucher). An arrogant Dalmatian drags a similarly spotted man on a leash (Sortir le chien). And a horse viciously whips the man he rides (La course de cheval).

Highly polished yet melodramatic, Jia’s cast resin sculptures are both comic and poetic, infused with absurdity as well as the drama of status and power, and a bit of eroticism. Imagine a role-reversal in Jeff Koons’ sculpture of Michael Jackson and his monkey Bubbles, where the animal was the dressed-up master and the human the cute little pet. It’s not your grandmother’s kitsch.

Born in 1982 in Chongqing, one of the world’s fastest growing cities, Jia is a product of China’s one-child policy and rampant industrialization. A recent graduate of the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, he clearly has prodigious talents, which have already garnered him an impressive list of prizes. The exhibition at Vallois was Jia’s first solo show in France, as well as the gallery’s first solo show devoted to a Chinese artist.

In The World of Cats, a large cat in a Chinese vest and gloves, standing on its hind legs like a human, dangles from its paw a mouse-sized man in boxer shorts by the nape of the neck. The man and the cat are entirely white except for the black circles on both their cheeks -- the Chinese figure for "cat." The Chinese word for "cat" is pronounced "mauw," which sounds a lot like "Mao" to western ears.

Seven of the show’s 13 sculptures involve these kind of dramatic couplings of animal and human. Another five are household furniture -- a couch, a bathtub, a chair -- inhabited by pint-sized feline humanoids that seem more threatened than appeased by their oversized modern "comforts."

For instance, the lyrical Le lac features three tiny feline female humanoids crouching on the edge of a bathtub. One of them points at the head of a man floating at the far end, his body submerged or perhaps vivisected. A grey splotch traversed by thin red veins fans out from his head onto the pristine white water.

Another striking piece is called Un bain. Here tiny feline male humanoids stand in an oversized sink and stare up expectantly at an old-fashioned shower-head that arches above them like a petal-less sun-flower, a street light or just a promise gone dry. Their hot pink skin makes their docile waiting grotesque.

Jia’s work, which is priced between €9,000 and €22,000, is brimming with youthful emotions, anguish, anger, alienation and humor -- wielded seamlessly and shamelessly. They are too smooth, too shiny, too new, too fast, too young. Yet this is also precisely their appeal. After all, who isn’t attracted to the next new great thing?


SARAH CANNER is a writer based in Paris.