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Refrigerators in Space, Spiritual Face Masks, and Human-Dragon Hybrids: Welcome to the World of Li Hanwei

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What do Terracotta Warriors, activewear and outer space have in common? Under Li Hanwei’s dystopian brand Liquid Health, they are all connected.

In the mesmerizing series of 3D films, images and sculptures, the twenty six-year-old artist commodifies Chinese culture and — inside rocketing refrigerators — disseminates it into the cosmos. Li’s work is rife with metaphorical resonance, and throws light on the effects of propaganda on the individual and the community — via some extremely striking imagery.

Li Hanwei Liquid Health Beauty Instrument Radii China

Liquid Health Beauty Instrument

As a child of the internet age, Li observes the activity and the sometimes fiery interaction of netizens, especially in the form of 弹幕, or “bullet comments,” that shoot across the screen showing real-time interaction without breaking the viewer’s attention. It’s a feature he incorporated into the art shows of Slime Engine, an online space dedicated to new models for creating and showing arts through virtual worlds, which he co-founded with fellow artists Liu Shuzhen and Fang Yang in 2017.

His work revolves around the concepts of technology, state power, and the spread of dubious information —  all of which he transforms into science fiction. “Fiction is like a part of me; it solves a lot of problems that can’t be solved in reality,” Li says. “I grew up with high-tech visual models of games and Hollywood movies, so I naturally incorporate them into my work.”

Li Hanwei Refrigerator Liquid Health Radii China

Liquid Health Refrigerator

Originally from Xuzhou in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Li graduated from the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts in 2018, though he began developing the ideas that would become Liquid Health before that. “Around 2017, there was a real emphasis on the so-called ‘Chinese Dream.’ But, as I noted, the Chinese propaganda scheme was way too local. So I thought I should develop something more global, a more contemporary image for our national propaganda.”

And so he did, in the form of Liquid Health. This fictional state-owned company employs state-of-the-art technology to grow and mass produce a bizarre form of merchandise that embeds metaphysical energy and resembles ancient Chinese artifacts. It’s more than a company; it’s a “state of flow,” as Li himself puts it, promoting a lifestyle of wellness and spirituality based on ancient Chinese traditions.

His first film under the brand, We Define Nutrition, was made in a typical corporate style, showing the different stages in cultivation, production, and distribution of these Chinese relics. In many ways, the project is a tongue-in-cheek combination of these various influences. For instance, what appears to be a corn crop, actually grows golden Buddha statues, while Chinese porcelain vases are hydroponically produced like strawberries and cucumbers. There’s also the inclusion of autonomous systems and vehicles, meant to imply the country’s trailblazing technology.

Li Hanwei Liquid Health Face Mask Radii China

Dragonscale Facial Mask

Li Hanwei Dragon Liquid Health Radii China

Training Dragon

The sequel to that first film, Liquid Task 2, appears as a hyperbolic depiction of Li’s ideas. His Chinese artifacts are over-commodified, packed into the different compartments of a fridge, and launched into space. “A fridge is a very commercial product, and when advertised, there is always an emphasis on different technologies to keep food fresh,” Li explains. “I exaggerated this purpose; it’s not just about keeping things fresh at the physical level, but also keeping them fresh at a spiritual level.”

The film seemingly takes inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: Space Odyssey, but instead of dealing with spacecraft, it’s the film’s fridge and a washer that serve as vessels. Instead of an orchestra performing Strauss, the soundtrack feels like it’s been made for a spinning class.

In the third movie of the series, Spiritual Beauty Instrument, the notion of selling the “Chinese dream” as a lifestyle becomes more evident. This film also takes a corporate form, with an over-the-top narrator, and seems to introduce a subsidiary of Liquid Health, a company in the wellness sector producing formulas that help users achieve a “Buddha-like life.” Its products include three headsets that do miracles: slow mental aging, repair cognitive deterioration, and renew the inner spirit. Li also brought these devices into the real world by giving them a tangible form through realistic sculptures.

Double Happiness

Li Hanwei, Liquid Health @ Goethe Institute

Li Hanwei, Liquid Health @ Goethe Institute

In the film, Li depicts women of different ethnicities, emphasizing that the pursuit of the “Chinese dream” is universal, similar to the pursuit of beauty. The clip ends with these women soaking up all the energy from the artifacts in a spa-like hot tub. To create these characters, Li researched the types of images used to indicate the highest quality of life when it comes to female depictions in the mass media. His characters don’t ever lose their synthetic appeal, and they’re almost always in good shape (and dressed in Liquid Health branded sportswear).

We believe in the Power of Civilization makes the dimension of the state apparent through architecture. With a propagandistic purpose, the buildings express unity, structure, and progress under the central control of the enterprise. In this scenario, a woman dressed in red walks into a colossal building, accompanied by a golden dragon on a leash. Her face also has horns and scales — she has morphed into a human-dragon hybrid as if entirely absorbed in Chinese spirit and the Liquid Health concept.

Liquid Health is so encompassing that Li admits he had to think holistically on how a real brand would operate in the market. He also professes to have studied the history of advertising, taking influence from its use of hyperbolic language (similar to propaganda) to sell products detrimental to public health. As such, there’s plenty of meaning to play with in Li’s work.

Li Hanwei Water Rich Liquid Health Radii China

Water Rich

The series appears as a beautifully-executed illustration of how advertising can be more than a communication channel between sellers and consumers. It influences thinking patterns and actions and, especially when turned into propaganda, it can have a two-fold effect.

As Li puts it, “I’m concerned with the use of classic, mature, and effective language to build a set of propaganda tools that create magnificent and exciting atmospheres that can sell anything — from products to a country’s culture.”

Images courtesy of MadeIn Gallery

Tomás Pinheiro
    Tomás Pinheiro lives his life behind the scenes of culture. He's a producer, critic, and art writer. He's been meeting with the people and exploring the spaces nurturing the creative cities of Asia-Pacific.