Liu Shiyuan’s ‘As Simple as Clay’: Photography and the Aesthetics of the Search Engine

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In 2013, Liu Shiyuan created ‘As Simple as Clay’ a large scale photographic installation composed of over 2500 individual photographs (c-prints), each measuring 20 x 21cm. Presented in the high modern aesthetic of the grid and visually riffing on the algorithmic aesthetic of the search engine, the installation offered a seemingly endless profusion of photographic variations on a single theme: Clay.

Moving through the identically dimensioned photographic spread, one which visually asserts the infinite multiplicity of digital files in our current information age, the viewer is confronted not just with endless images of clay but also photographs of a vast array of clay-like objects: still shots of blocks of butter, lumps of putty, round spherical balls of dough, bars of glistening soap, the wobbling sheen of a pana cotta, translucent cubes of tofu, as well as objects which seem to bear little or no relation to clay, images that are seemingly random, anomalous even: the viscous gloss of liquefied chocolate, plumped cushions, loafs of bread, modelling tools, cosmetic foundation, these sit side by side with photographs of hands engaged with clay: fingers kneading, sculpting and shaping, raw material twisting under the exertion of being physically shaped, contoured, carved and cast. Some images merely show the trace of human activity, the indexical mark of a fingerprint or the ghostly imprint of an absent knuckle, a gloved finger rolling a clay penny, two hands clasped in a tentative handshake.

All these images were scavenged entirely from the internet, the result of the artist entering the term ‘clay’ into Google image search, originally in Chinese, then in English, Danish and an ever expanding host of languages, noting the visual variations engendered by this linguistic manipulation. The images sourced from these search results were culled from commercial websites, photo banks, image aggregate services, social media, craft blogs and user-generated content sites such as Pinterest. After they were selected and extracted, the background of each photograph was digitally erased, replaced by a homogenous and homogenising backdrop of Chroma Key Blue (the shade of blue most commonly used in blue screen: the visual effects/post-production technique for compositing (layering) two images or video streams together based on colour hues. While this ‘universalizing’ impulse flattens each photograph and stresses their seriality, it also serves to obliterate and dissolve any information conveyed by these photographs original contexts, effectively untethering them from any commercial, didactic, or expressive function.

One could argue that ‘As Simple as Clay’ is therefore above all else a work of search engine art, one which playfully appropriates and ultimately embraces the frozen collage of the Google image search, delivering up static, silent screenshots of countless photographic remakes of ostensibly one and the same thing.

What’s ultimately at stake in Liu Shiyuan’s avid embrace of the algorithmic aesthetic of the search engine? In this talk, part of the Oxford Photography Seminar,  I focused on two primary vectors for consideration, exploring the inherent tension in the work between the material and the immaterial, as well as the interplay between text and image.