Beili Liu's paradox: Each and Every
It’s so warmly bright out this week, you see only your reflected self, striding by a storefront (catching your mother’s distinctive step out of the corner of your eye). But there’s something inside; hard to believe, but it appears to be raining. Slowing, peering closer, you can’t quite distinguish what you’re looking at. Grey drizzle. A fence? Wait, a cage?
Once you cross the threshold, the spatial impact of Beili Liu’s work within MadArt’s dedicated installation venue pulls you in. Thin grey strings disappear into the rafters in the lofty space. Your eye drifts up, then is pulled down to the floor. Hold on. Not quite to the floor. Every string, there are hundreds of them, hovers inches above a floating island—itself hovering an inch or two above the floor—an archipelago of greyed, separated and discarded children’s clothing. They seem to be steam-rollered, yet they’re neatly laid out in precise relation to each other. And there are hundreds of small garments: ruffled dresses prettily lifted on each side by unseen hands. A favorite farm animal t-shirt, a knitted cap. Pull-up jeans. A onesie and a little sun hat. And on and on, in a level plane suspended airily just above the floor.
Of course you have to look more closely. The flattened and forsaken quality of each small garment is exaggerated by the mortar in which they are sheathed. The dreary, nearly monotone, brutalist grey (it’s intended to echo the mortar in the surrounding brick walls) is just translucent enough for the faint original color of the garment to ghost through. It’s skilled, to use this material in just this way, as I know from extensive work with concrete-embedded clothing over the last couple of years. And I appreciate that these humble materials, exquisitely presented, pay respect and a sense of obligation to everyday lives. There’s a paradoxical twist embedded in the discarded being preserved in this enduring way. In heavy artifacts, floating lightly. The softness of little fleece sweaters and frilly cotton socks, turned almost to stone. One can’t help but contemplate them as stand-ins for the softness of a sweet-smelling young body, freezing into something hard, fearful, inhuman.
I think I can sense the artist’s intent: to remind us of the brutal policy of children separated from their parents at the border by the current administration—to create a visceral, unforgettable reminder of the fate of many hundreds of children. Emily Kelly, MadArt’s director, was kind enough to walk me through a bit of the artist’s thinking and process. The trauma of separation is palpable in the sad, discarded and lifeless little things. I missed the installation phase of the work, and sadly didn’t get the opportunity to speak with Ms. Liu. But there’s a short video of a performance during her residence in Seattle, in which she carefully, stoically and lovingly mends damaged kids clothing, then carefully folds it, to give it a new life, perhaps.
Until today I wasn’t familiar with the artist. Having experienced this—Ms. Liu calls the work Each and Every—I went to the great gallery in the ether, where there are glimpses of her other stirring installation work and drawings. You should too.