Exhibition Review: Liu Chuang – Love Story

Liu Chuang – Love Story

Hubei-born artist Liu Chuang (刘窗 / 劉窗) is interested in social conventions and perceptions of details and patterns in the everyday.

In Love Story (爱情故事 / 愛情故事), he provides a glimpse into the lives of migrant workers, possibly sex workers, in Dongguan, China through a collection of 3,000 pulp romance novels that were rented from stores or borrowed from other workers. Originating from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1980s, this genre of escapist fantasy quickly became popular in China where a book could be rented for 5 jiǎo (角) (0.5 renminbi) a day.

Workers who borrowed the books would often write or draw in the books. Chuang categorized the scribblings into seven categories:

1) Drafts for letters
2) Personal diaries
3) Contemporary poems, including nonsensical notes written poetically
4) Home address and contact information, biographical info (perhaps an attempt to become pen pals with future readers)
5) Phone numbers
6) Daily memos listing what the person did, ate, or bought that day
7) Doodles

Liu Chuang - Love Story
Drinking away one’s sorrow only reveals one’s weakness. One should face the reality with courage. The sorrow may go away for a moment, but it will eventually come back. You still have to face it one day. Why bother to let yourself suffer in the long-term? It feels so good to get drunk and wasted, indeed! If you have a chance, try it!

The books are laid out on low platforms, arranged in a checkered pattern.  Looking clearly worn, the books cannot be picked up to look at more closely and you must bend or squat down to look at the writing closely.  For the exhibition, Chuang translated and transposed a number of the books’ graffiti onto the walls of the gallery.  However, looking at books themselves is much more satisfying because of the personal nature of the original handwriting.

The popularity of the books are a phenomenon that reflects the loneliness of their readers and desires for love or a different life. Some of the anonymous writings by readers are in an actively passive way “doing something about it”. Knowing very well that someone else will see their writings, the notes are deliberate transmissions to anyone.

The exhibition guide writes:

“Like a micro network or an analogue internet, users comment individually and do not engage with one another- there is no mutual communication. Like a blog or the app Secret, the noted posted are often personal, with no specific readership. They reveal intimate feels, like a monologue, meant for a stranger to see. Connection between voices is mute. The readers who rent and return the books – writers themselves – are in a constant monologue. Like the mouse trap – or play inside a play – there is a new kind of story that circulates and connects the readers.”

For the workers, the question after “Who wrote this?” is “When was this written?” Was this note left yesterday? A month ago? A year ago? It is all very mysterious and surreal.

When does someone decide to write in a book?
Are there people who write in every book they borrow?
What do borrowers think of earlier borrowers’ writings?
What are some stories of people reaching out?

Liu Chuang - Love Story
I was walking on the highway and saw A Guo with a screwdriver sitting under a tree in a daze …he didn’t say “Hi” back.

The writings also raise questions about their authors’ sense of privacy. Despite their anonymity, many are still personal notes. Perhaps to the migrant workers, it doesn’t matter. There is no sanctity. The recorded histories are just moments in their lives, temporary like their ownership of the books.

Love Story is on view at the Salon 94 Freemans Gallery, 1 Freeman Alley, from May 7 – June 21, 2014.

Click on the images below for full-size views.  Higher resolution and additional images also available on Flickr.


Thanks to Luo Jiaqi for the transcription and translations of the text
Images: Andrew Shiue