Daydreaming with Alfred Liu January 09 2019
Alfred Liu is a Melbourne-based artist, and is our first Small Wall Project artist for 2019. Growing up in China, Alfred found himself between two worlds when he moved to Australia at age seven. Unable to speak much English, he sought refuge in his imagination and the worlds he created. His work depicts his love for Australia, the nostalgia of China, and the escapism of science fiction and fantasy.
Interview & photography by Viet-My Bui
Can you tell us about your background?
A few months after I was born in Australia, I was taken to China and lived there with my Grandma up until I was seven. Life in China was different. At school, we were taught to write numbers according to a rigid 4 x 4 grid. And in kindergarten, if you didn’t go to sleep for your afternoon nap, the teacher would dangle dead insects over you to scare you into closing your eyes!
Once I moved to Australia permanently, there was a lot of adjustments to make. I didn’t have any English-speaking skills. I had to take remedial classes to teach me the basics of the language. I remember in Chinese school, you brought your own cutlery and an old woman comes along with a huge trolley of stir fried food. In Australia, my lunch was a cheese sandwich from the milk bar.
My high school careers counsellor suggested I take on interior design. I tried it for three weeks and knew it wasn’t for me. Then I did a TAFE course at Latrobe College of Art & Design – a great school. The teachers there were really good. At some point I tried Games Design, too, but that wasn’t for me. From there, I got into VCA, where I studied for three years.
The weird thing is that I was never fully committed to doing art. I liked it, but my family told me it wouldn’t lead anywhere. My mum told me that her art teacher in China used to illustrate propaganda movie posters, and he lived in a shack. She told me that would be my future!
But then a friend of mine told me that his aunt ran a gallery in North Fitzroy. She encouraged me to contribute to a show, and it went really well. So, I decided to try having my first solo show in 2017, and it was a success! Soon after, I quit the family business and focused on making art. For the past year, I’ve been trying to be a full-time artist.
How do you strive to capture the duality of your upbringing in your works?
I like Chinese history, stories and art. I have an idealised version of what China is in my mind. I am more immersed in what it was, than what it is now. I hold a lot of memories of growing up there. I don’t have such strong connections to China now. I’ve only visited once since coming here. I spoke with the local accent of Beijing and I blended in, but I felt like an outsider.
I have always had a yearning to reconnect with the culture, and I seek that through my work. It shows in the aesthetic, too. The old Chinese court paintings were often in a three-quarter view, which reminds me of architectural isometric drawings – and of video games, another big interest of mine.
When I came to Australia, I fell in love with it. It has become my everyday, and I incorporate that into my work. I find that Australia has a unique colour palette – silvery and earthy.
So I suppose I try to merge all of that into my art.
I read that you sought refuge in your artwork. Why is that?
Yes. Initially, because I couldn’t speak English, I started playing video games. I grew to love them. Then I began to create art as a way to escape into these worlds I was experiencing. But as my English improved, art became a way to escape from my sometimes chaotic personal life, too.
Let’s talk about your method. What mediums do you use and why?
I use a mechanical pencil with my drawings because it’s a technical and convenient tool. It’s especially good to use for the isometric style artwork that I make.
I used to work with watercolour, but found that it was too subtle. Now, I use very light washes of gouache mixed with water. I like to let the paper colour come through the work. I choose paper in a mid-tone because I feel it helps create a sense of completeness and depth. I like negative space in my work, but the mid-tone of the paper makes it feel more complete even though it’s quite minimal.
There seems to be a narrative quality to your work. What stories do you choose to tell in your artworks?
It differs from piece to piece, but there’s an overall theme to my works. There’s a narrative. A “homely adventure”. You haven’t really gone anywhere, but you’ve gone somewhere else. Like you’ve retreated to your mind, or you’re playing a video game. I wanted to capture that kind of internal adventure. I’m a very indoor person – a homebody. So I kind of like to “astral project” to another reality. I’m just thinking, “What if?” Making up little stories and just imagining how they play out.
What inspires the softness in your work?
My everyday environment is soft and comforting, as I’m often at home. The light, the furnishings, the objects in our house inspire me. I wanted to take colours from my surroundings. But it’s also because I’m not very brave with. I’ve only started using colour very recently. Before that, I was only using lead pencil.
I do want to increase the contrast in my work. People have been talking about it a lot. A prominent Chinese artist told me that if I want to expand my work into China, or try to make the work a bit more appealing to a wider audience, it had to be more visible from a distance. Some friends have bought work in the past, and when they put it amongst other artwork, they feel that my work disappears because it’s too subtle.
If you see those traditional Japanese paintings featuring female protagonists, they often have a very subtle palette but a deep jet black for the hair. I want to add that kind of contrasting element to my work – to make it pop more.
You’ve mentioned that you really love, and have been influenced by games, fantasy and sci-fi. What are you favourites?
I love Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. I love his work because he has multiple layers of stories, and all these little tiny elements, gadgets and machines in his work. There’s a mixture of organic and the mechanical. He has living machines and abstract creatures.
I really like Yoshitaka Amano, the character designer for the Final Fantasy games – I hope I can one day be as bold as he is with colours. I really like Akira Yamaguchi who does these incredible technical drawings. Also Katsuya Terada is one of my favourite artists. Arthur Rackham is an old-school illustrator. Norman Rockwell has really cool compositions.
I’m hugely influenced by games, too, especially Japanese RPGs, like Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy IX is my greatest influence because it is a mix of steampunk, knights and wizards, as well as a blend of the mechanical. Also World of Warcraft!
I really loved Valerian, the movie. It was PANNED but I loved it! Star Wars, too. I still really like the concept designs behind the characters, vehicles and the world-building. The Lord of the Rings.
I really like H.P. Lovecraft. I want to inject more of a horror element into my work. I like really scary stuff. I predominantly like horror movies, but they don’t influence my work that much. I’d like to do more eerie stuff. I enjoy the world-building of horror movies. The best part of the horror movie for me is at the beginning, when nothing is really happening. It’s just everyday ordinariness, with a sense of foreboding. There’s something about that period – it’s normal but slightly eerie.
Can you describe your workspace to us? How do you like to work?
When my wife and I moved into this house, it had two bedrooms, and it simply seemed cost effective to just work from home. I do like being at home though, as I’m a homebody. I live out in the eastern suburbs (which I love for its greenery and quiet nature), so it takes a while to get anywhere. I love the convenience of waking up in the morning, having a drink of water, and then sitting at my desk to begin my day.
I am a little sad about not being around other artists as much. It would help with my personal growth. I made a promise this year to get out a bit more, go to exhibitions, connect with other artists.
My home studio doesn’t have that much natural light, because I don’t really like natural light that much. I don’t like the sun! On a clear blue sky, I don’t like it. It’s harsh, it hurts my eyes, it’s difficult to work. I like rainy, miserable days. That’s when I crank the windows open and my lamps are on, and I feel cosy. It has a soothing quality to it. I mostly listen to horror podcasts and I love listening to them when it’s a rainy day. There’s one called No Sleep Podcast. It’s entertaining and engrossing.
How do you feel about embarking on the pursuit of full time art over the past year or so?
I guess it’s a risk, especially without the same financial stability of working for the family business. I just wanted to do something that I’m good at. It is the best thing I can do out of all the things I can do.
It’s worked out well so far, opportunities have been coming in. My friend was the one that encouraged me to apply for the Small Wall Project, even when I felt there was no way I’d get in. I feel really grateful for what Outré has done for me and appreciate that I was accepted.
It’s about persistence. My mum is quite entrepreneurial, and it’s her persistence that has brought her this far. It’s encouraging to see that. I don’t know if what I’m doing is right, but I’m hoping that if I persist it will lead me somewhere.
You have an upcoming show at Outré, called Daydreamer. What is the story behind that name?
I guess I was trying to come up with an idea of what I wanted to do for Outré. I started thinking about concepts that I like. I was just daydreaming, really. I think it was in The Hobbit that Gandalf says, “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” My art is not grand. I like the small elements of life. The normal things. I thought that was a good concept for the show. It communicates the message of my work quite well – the everyday, and the mystery in the everyday.
How did you create this body of work for this show? What narratives did you choose to depict?
I started thinking about things that I wanted to happen. For instance, I always wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons. But nobody around me wanted to play it! My wife finds it a bit boring, and my friends aren’t that into it. So then I imagined what it would be like if I played it by myself.
I also thought of the narrative of what would happen if the characters I played with came to life in my absence. What if they went on their own little adventure?
The other work is based on world-building, inspired by everyday scenery. Like the powerline outside my studio window that I see all the time. I like to merge the little creatures I create into a familiar context.
One of the pieces is a tribute to Jean Giraud. One of my characters rides something similar to the Arzach bird. It’s also a reminder to when I was very young and enjoyed coin rides.
What’s next for you?
I want to try to build more installation-based work. I’ve got a show planned for May. I really want to make some prints. I want to expand a bit more into a larger market and build my brand. I want to work larger and be more ambitious, too.
Thank you so much for your time, Alfred. We are so excited to see your show!
DAYDREAMING by Alfred Liu
11 – 20 January 2019
Opening night 6pm on Friday, 11 January