Late one April night, the artist Liao Wen was in her studio in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, listing off the many instruments that she uses to make her astonishing art.
“These are my chisels,” she said in a video interview, panning the camera about. “Chisels, chisels, chisels. The wood saw. So many tools, accessories, so many machines, sandpapers.”
It was a veritable hardware store of supplies, and she was in the midst of packing them all up (not an easy task) to move with her husband across the border to Hong Kong.
Wielding those implements, Ms. Liao has shaped wood into sculptures that suggest skeletons (human, animal, alien) that have been melded with sci-fi robots and obscure insects and plants. They are alluring and frightening, psychologically fraught, and they have helped make her, at 29, “one of China’s most innovative young women artists,” as Wang Chunchen, the deputy director of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (C.A.F.A.) Art Museum in Beijing, and the curator-critic Jia Qianfan put it last year in Art in America magazine.
Ms. Liao had just finished a new batch of pieces, which will appear this week at Frieze New York, taking over the booth of the gallery Capsule Shanghai.
When visitors to the fair peer through a peephole in the booth’s wall, they will be confronted with a naked android who is perched on her toes and bent over at the waist, gazing back at them from between her legs. She is exposing herself in the process — her crotch is urine-colored resin speckled with red — but she looks firmly in control of the dynamic, as well as a little menacing.
“I think this is quite provocative,” Ms. Liao said, explaining that the figure is basically telling the voyeur: “Maybe you look at my vagina,” but I don’t care (she used a more colorful turn of phrase).
Her sculpture shocks, but it also channels deep art history, drawing in part on the images of women urinating that the artist found on an ancient Greek cup, in an 18th-century François Boucher painting, and elsewhere. She titled her work “Stare.”
“I’m thinking about how we use the body as a weapon or a gesture against, or to deny, something,” Ms. Liao said of some of her recent efforts. Looking closely at her elegant constructions, one can see that they can actually behave like bodies, too. They have movable joints, which are the result of Ms. Liao’s unusual art training.
Born in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, Ms. Liao was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in experimental art at C.A.F.A. when she won a scholarship to study abroad. Recalling that moment, she said that her thinking was, “Maybe I can do something I’ve never tried.”
And so, in 2017, she enrolled in an intensive monthlong puppetry workshop in Prague. She learned how to create marionettes, write scripts and perform. The very first lesson was in chisel safety, and she’s proud that she’s never cut herself. (However, she has temporarily lost some sensitivity in her fingers from the skin peeling off from her labor.)
Her attitude at C.A.F.A., she said, was, “I don’t like my school. I don’t like my teachers.” She was attracted to folk art and puppetry, things that “would never be exhibited in the white space in a gallery. They are open to everyone, every audience,” she said.
Until 2020, she thought that she would be a puppeteer and operate a mobile puppet theater, but then decided against it because “I realized, I’m actually a very shy person,” she said. (This was a bit hard to believe as she gamely discussed her practice and cracked jokes.)
Focusing instead on sculpture, Ms. Liao has “really pushed the boundary of crafts and folk art into a conceptual realm,” the Beijing-based curator Mia Yu said in a phone interview.
For a show that Ms. Yu organized as part of the 2021 OCAT Biennale in Shenzhen, Ms. Liao covered an expanse of floor with soil and planted it with greenery, creating a garden-like pedestal for her zoomorphic creatures. There is a “spirit of care for her materials,” Ms. Yu said.
In another venturesome series, Ms. Liao asked migrant workers in Shenzhen to create self-portrait dolls, and then take the dolls to a place that was, or could be, important to them. The artist accompanied the workers, taking photos and writing about the trips. It was an effort to preserve their stories, and to better understand her city.
What unites these disparate projects is a fascination with what a body can do, how it can grow and suffer, be nurtured and reimagined, serve as a symbol and take action. Another sculpture at Frieze shows a human figure taking a huge step as its torso is forced back under a tremendous unseen weight. It is standing, but only barely. Just looking at it can induce joint pain.
Ms. Liao wants her art to connect viewers with their own bodies, to send them inward. To that end, four works that resemble abstracted organs will hang on the walls of her Frieze booth, each one referring to a different human urge: the need to inhale, to urinate, to swallow and to vomit. The latter is represented by a kind of smooth, curvy esophagus that is being blocked by smooth objects resembling stones.
Some people may find these subjects bizarre, Ms. Liao conceded, but why not try to represent them? “I want to depict the feeling of our daily body because we are always chasing for a bigger thing,” like “a very ambitious idea or someone we have never met before,” she said. “But, I mean, every breath, or the feeling of being thirsty, is very precious for human beings, because it means that we are alive.”