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Fondazione Prada, Milan: Liu Ye's Storytelling

Transcending spaces through children's stories

by Sara Quattrocchi Febles 1st July 2020

This review was written in late March when Fondazione Prada was closed. It is now open to visitors and the exhibition period of Storytelling has been extended to 10 January 2021. I close my eyes and I’m back in the concrete village of Fondazione Prada in Milan, where 35 paintings by Chinese painter Liu Ye are displayed. To think that February 15, the day I visited it, was not so far off from the catastrophe that transformed the city into a deserted viral hotspot. It becomes easy to imagine Ye’s paintings sitting in silence in the industrial space of the Galleria Nord, waiting patiently for their Storytelling. ‘Storytelling’ is exactly what the exhibition does through the works by Liu Ye, both individually and as a whole. The paintings range from portraits of famous people such as Chet Baker to fictional characters such as Miffy, and from still life paintings of books such as Kafka’s Amerika to representations of Mondrian’s paintings. Ye’s paintings emerge from an illustration book and are displayed in “the cool and austere atmosphere of a former industrial site”, as stated by curator Udo Kittelmann. Displaying these playful and bright works in the grey industrial setting of the Galleria Nord causes them to go beyond a made-up narrative and to enter a real and adulterated world. Furthermore, they break the cultural barriers between Europe and China by their placement on the walls of Milan’s Fondazione Prada. Through the interaction between the works and the Galleria Nord, the exhibition becomes a separate world in which fiction and reality, East and West, all merge into one.

The Little Match-Seller by Liu Ye (2004) acrylic on canvas, 220 by 180 cm (Courtesy of the artist and M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong; exh. Fondazione Prada, Milan)

The first work the viewer encounters, even before entering the exhibition space, is Miffy Getting Married (2014). It connects the playful and serious atmosphere of many of Ye’s works, through the use of grey tones in presenting the cartoon character Miffy. Even though it is the first visible work, it acts as an interim painting that guides the viewer to the intended first painting, The Little Match-Seller (2004), as the entrance is not on either end of the long rectangular space, but on the west side. The Little Match-Seller dominates the space it is in as it is placed in one of the two largest areas of the gallery. The painting alludes to Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘The Little Match Girl’, as it depicts a girl standing alone in the snow with one match lit up. Ye uses pastel hues, which become even more muted through their placement against the grey concrete wall. Even though the painting presents the melancholic subject of the girl, it seems as if Ye used oil pastels instead of acrylic paint through the texture and the smooth blending of the colors, making the painting become an illustration in a children’s book. The idea of storytelling is further emphasized through the placement of traditional Chinese wooden chairs in the space of The Little Match-Seller, specifically of one angled in front of the painting. This chair suggests the position from which one should look at the painting; while the smaller details become indiscernible, the story can still be deciphered. Furthermore, the choice of a traditional Chinese chair places the Western subject matter of Andersen’s story within a Chinese context. The painting successfully introduces the exhibition and indicates how the themes presented throughout the exhibit are applicable in the East and the West and how both cultures are not so different after all.

Composition with Bamboo and Tree by Liu Ye (2007), acrylic on canvas, 300 by 220 cm (Courtesy of the artist and Cloud Art, Nanjing; exh. Fondazione Prada, Milan)

While the title of the exhibition, ‘Storytelling’, hints at a story that viewers have to unwind through, the gallery’s corner walls make it difficult to understand the path that they should follow, giving them the power to tell their own story through Liu Ye’s paintings. Although this is the case, Kittelmann still creates a clear beginning and end through the paintings found at both ends of the gallery. While the introductory painting is The Little Match-Seller, the conclusive painting is Composition with Bamboo and Tree (2007), which portrays leafless trees in winter, painted with different shades of grey. Similarly to The Little Match-Seller, the painting also has a traditional Chinese chair angled in front of it. This element connects both paintings across the gallery; the empty and austere landscape of Composition with Bamboo and Tree could depict the aftermath of Andersen’s story, with the girl’s loss of hope and death. This strategic curatorial placement of both paintings causes the ending and the beginning of the story to remain the same, regardless of the path that the viewer decides to take in between.

Mondrian in the Morning by Liu Ye (2000), acrylic on canvas, 180 by 180 cm (Courtesy of the artist and Private Collection, Beijing; exh. Fondazione Prada, Milan)

Regardless of the path the viewer takes, there is still a cohesive flow between Ye’s works. As one moves along the exhibition, the paintings slowly depict more human subjects, specifically children. One such painting, Romeo (2002), depicts a child shot dead, while Mondrian in the Morning (2000) portrays a girl standing in front of a Mondrian painting. This last one specifically shows the importance of light in the exhibition. Due to the gallery’s concrete makeup and its covered windows, barely any natural light seeps through. When some light does enter, it causes the meaning of the artworks to transform, as seen with the strip of light that hits Mondrian in the Morning; the painting becomes a window through which the viewer looks through. Even though the shining of the light is dictated by nature instead of the curator, it strengthens the experience of the painting. It becomes subject to a multisensorial illusion and causes the painting to transcend fiction and to enter the viewer’s reality. The universality of Liu Ye’s 35 works creates a dialogue between the cultures of both the East and the West through the act of ‘storytelling’. In fact, Storytelling was first shown in 2018, in the 1918 historical residence of Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai. Ye himself highlights how “the same artworks, exhibited in different spaces, suggest a different message.” Yet, regardless of the context in which the works are displayed in, all 35 paintings transcend the act of telling stories, and become sources of truth, for both the West and the East.


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