Pierre Menard, a creative but (in a secular sense) not quite successful novelist, is a fictional character in a Luis Borges’s short story. Apart from his few surviving works, Menard’s most “ambitious and unparalleled work” is Quixote, which coincides, in some cases verbatim, with specific chapters of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. His intention is not to imitate or mechanically copy but to create an authentic “Quixote.” By meticulously “considering, analyzing, and inventing,” he “enriches the essential art of conscientious reading.
Borges, by nature, experimented with unconventional ideas through an extremely absurd fictional scenario such as Menard writing a book that already exists. Like Roland Barthes’ sensational proposal of “death of the author” that opened up the possibility of literature, or Duchamp’s enlightening and unbinding art practice on how contemporary art could be viewed in different contexts.
Menard rewrote excerpts from chapters 9, 38, and 22 of the first book of Don Quixote, while Liu Ye chose to paint pages 47, 49, 61, 113, and 115 of Karl Blossfeldt’s The Art Forms in Nature, published in 1942. Rather than painting in the commonplace sense of using photographic images, these works on canvas (in Liu Ye’s words) “are the output of my hands once my eyes scanned them.” Liu Ye sets the game’s rules for himself – to work as a scanner, to work diligently and carefully to reproduce photographic images with great care and attention. The ambiguous and dangerous relationship between the original and the copy unfolds in the tip of the brush.
After completing this series of works related to Karl Blossfeld, Liu Ye read Borges’ “Pierre Ménard, Author of the Quixote” and recognized a similar ambition or delusion in this fictional character. Liu Ye has repeatedly alluded to many classic “texts and images” in the long history of human culture and art in his works of art, including Mondrian, Miffy the rabbit, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, Bauhaus, Eileen Chang, and the Book Painting series since 2013, all of these images loved by the artist have been rigorously integrated into the structure of the picture, constructed with his consistently delicate and subtle brushstrokes and colors. But never, as in Book Painting No. 22 to 26 and 29, has the artist completely abandoned his creative initiative, intent only on reproducing images that were already there. For No.22 and No.23 Liu Ye placed the same page of photography in different light, and the light-shadow relationship changes accordingly.
In the early 1900s, Karl Blossfeld enlarged plants of their original dimensions dozens of times with a homemade camera, providing the soft parts of the plants a metallic, hard texture in his photographs. Carl regarded the plants as God’s architectural works, and in order to achieve accurate results, he would use different tools to make subtle modifications on the negatives, such as using a pencil to deepen the outer contour lines of the plants or a brush to manipulate the layers of light and dark. So rather than perceiving Liu Ye’s approach as a renunciation of his artist’s power or his attempt at other methods, the composition of specific images in the earlier version of Art Forms in Nature already fit all of Liu Ye’s ideas about a painting and his choice came before he put pen to paper. The end of the painstakingly unsuccessful attempt speaks to the difference between painting and image. Each medium has its material limitations and appeals, and what Walter Benjamin called the “natural distance” between the painter and the object would not be eliminated even at the most extreme dimension.
In the eyes of Borges, Menard’s writing and use of language are more colorful and spectacular than Cervantes’ because “three hundred years have not passed in vain,” so the exact text has a richer meaning. Karl Blossfeld took great pains to fine-tune more than a thousand negatives; similarly, Liu Ye’s works allow us to find the “aura” of art through differences among repetitions.