A sizable and chatty crowd of students waited for the doors to the Texas State University-San Marcos galleries to open.
They waited to see “Amass,” a work by Austin artist Beili Liu that fills the entire 1,600-square-foot gallery and is on view through March 4.
“Amass” required several hundred hours to install, with Liu backed up by a team of assistants that sometimes numbered up to 10 people at a time.
Liu worked with the gallery doors open so students and faculty could see “Amass” take shape. Nevertheless, the moment it was revealed at the opening, the chatter stopped instantly. Just as many who encounter Liu’s work for the first time, this group found “Amass” quite literally breathtaking.
Sixteen wooden spears, 10 feet long, hover in a circle, all tilted slightly inward toward the center, each suspended by hundreds of delicate white strings. Covered with graphite paint, the spears are of indeterminate function. Deadly lances or innocuous giant pencils?
Visitors can slip into the center of “Amass.” And doing so offers a significantly different experience. With the giant lances aimed directly at you, you at once feel at peril and in control.
Like many of Liu’s creations, “Amass” exudes a sense of serenity. And yet it simultaneously resonates with energy, tension and even a fleeting trace of residual movement as though the giant lances just stopped rocketing toward a target, miraculously held back by the gossamer threads.
Liu’s work operates via multiple layers of dichotomy. Motion versus stillness. Threat balanced by quiet order. Delicacy contrasted with mass.
And although Liu’s installations are philosophically complicated, her materials remain poetically basic: wood, thread, fabric, wax, water and salt reappear throughout her portfolio of work.
And her palette extends to the unseen as well. Time and gravity remain integral to everything Liu creates.
Liu is remarkably prolific, particularly given the singular conditions of temporary site-specific installations. Except for an occasional series of drawings or smaller sculpture, Liu doesn’t make many discrete art objects — the kind easily displayed in commercial galleries and readily available for collectors to purchase.
And from the beginning, her work’s impermanence is a given.
“Really, my work doesn’t exist without an invitation to do it,” Liu says. “I make something for a specific time. And my installations don’t last, they don’t sell and they require a lot of space.”
With a shrug, she adds: “Really, they aren’t viable on their own.”
In the past several years, Liu has had solo exhibits in Berlin, Munich, London, Shanghai and Los Angeles, among other cities. She netted the $50,000 third-place spot in Art Prize, a much-buzzed competition, and was included in a show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Later this year, here in Austin, she will create an outdoor public work honoring the millions of trees lost in the recent Texas drought, an artistic venture funded by the lauded Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
“You’re constantly navigating to find opportunities to make art,” Liu says of her practice. “Exploring options, developing ideas, maybe waiting for a year for something to solidify, or not. Everything’s very fluid.”
Liu is on the faculty of the University of Texas, where she primarily teaches freshman art students, a job she takes to heart enough to be honored last year with a Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.
Despite an increasingly global career, Liu cherishes working in Austin. She and her husband, Blue Alan Way, moved here in 2008 from Michigan, where she taught at Eastern Michigan State University.
For “The Mending Project” at Women & Their Work, Liu spent hours, day after day throughout the course of the month-long exhibition, sitting underneath a cloud of razor-sharp scissors, blades open, hung from the ceiling. Silently, methodically, Liu sat at a small table sewing together scraps of white fabric, which visitors cut from a larger piece hung nearby.
Like with “Amass,” the menacing mass of scissors in “The Mending Project” was held back by the most fundamental of means, in this case the simple act of mending.
“I don’t think of myself as a feminist artist per se,” Liu says. “I think of my work as addressing the human condition more universally, as something bigger than gender or cultural differences are.”
Nor does Liu align herself with the groundswell of Chinese artists who in the past couple of decades have garnered much of the international art world spotlight — or in the case of superstar artist Ai Weiwei, garnering attention as much for his dissident action as his art-making.
“I’m really excited that there is a trend for the Chinese art scene, but I don’t think I’m really a part of it,” she says. “My art is from a Chinese background, and I can’t avoid that. But I studied here and developed as an artist here. I’m kind of in-between.”
Liu, 38, was born in Jilin province in northeast China. Like many young intellectuals during China’s cultural revolution, her parents were forcibly relocated from a city to a rural area.
Her mother, a math teacher and school principal, and her father, an engineer, lived in a modest adobe house where Liu was born.
That dwelling would later serve as inspiration for “The Little House,” a permanent installation at the Art Farm, an artist residency program in rural Nebraska. “The Little House” is a replica of her first home but set on the wide-open great plains of the American Midwest. On the inside, Liu plastered the walls with American newspaper articles about China.
“The Little House” will eventually erode, a process that should take about 30 to 40 years, the life span of a building of its type in China.
“It’s a very familiar and intuitive structure,” says Liu of “The Little House.” “But it was a detour from my other work, a turning point. The whole project is very symbolic.”
Liu credits her father with providing her with her earliest aesthetic awakening. “My dad was always inventing things, and he actually has a number of patents.”
An inveterate draftsman, her father was constantly sketching, and Liu remembers a portrait he drew of her when she was three. And then he once carved a goldfish from a scrap of stone.
“I thought what he did was amazing,” she says. “It was magic.”
When she was bit older, the family moved to the southern coastal city of Shenzhen, the first of the special economic zones in China where free-market and international business could flourish. The rapid growth and commercialization in Shenzhen proved mind-bending with its collision of new versus traditional.
Liu came to the United States 17 years ago, at first studying graphic design, a practical course of study undertaken principally to appease her parents.
But it was while in graduate school at the University of Michigan that her work began its current trajectory: specific to a particular site, temporary, complex and as she characterizes it, not always independently viable.
When she’s not working, or traveling, Liu and her husband enjoy their home in East Austin, where they have two cats and a backyard chicken coop. On Sundays, they take long walks around Lady Bird Lake. “It’s the heart of Austin,” Liu says.
Austin feels like home now, Liu says. Nevertheless, next year she’s off to Hawaii for a commissioned project followed by a solo show at the Museum of Southeast Texas and other projects beyond that.
However in April, she’ll exhibit some of her smaller work at the indie East Austin gallery Tiny Park — a more modest stage than she is usually on, but no less consequential for her.
“I think it’s very important to work where I live,” she says. “You have to engage with where you are.”
“Beili Lui: Amass”
When: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day through March 4
Where: Texas State University Galleries, Mitte Building, San Marcos
Parking: Free parking on campus after 5 p.m. weekdays and on weekends
Information: 245-2664, www.txstategalleries.org