5 Minutes with Beili Liu

By Serena Renner

Thirst by Beili Liu
Thirst by Beili Liu
Artist Beili Liu talks to MiNDFOOD about the thriving Texas art scene and what makes public art so powerful.

What attracted you to Austin in the first place, and how has the art scene met or not met your expectations?

I moved to Austin when I was offered a teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. At the time, I was excited about the rich research resources that UT has to offer and didn’t have a lot of expectations about the art scene in Austin. To my surprise, I was soon taken by the openness and vibrant energy I encountered in the Austin visual arts community. As a newly arrived artist, I quickly got to meet wonderful fellow artists and was introduced to Austin art galleries and museums. A year later, I had my first solo exhibition at D Berman Gallery. Later that year, I received the Artist of the Year Award presented by Austin Museum of Art (now named The Contemporary), and the Austin Visual Arts association. I felt so welcomed and encouraged and have been a proud Austin artist since.

How does the art culture in Austin compare to other cities in Texas? What makes it unique?

Austin is one of the most open and encouraging cities for creative minds in visual arts that I have personally experienced, for music, arts, or any other creative fields. I would use the term “laid back” to describe the atmosphere that you sense in the city and the art scene. People simply enjoy sharing their creativity, from musicians giving free performances in a park, to artists opening up their studios and to the community. There is a sense of freedom and ease. Creativity, and the freedom to create in your own way is a life style in Austin. I love the museums and galleries in Huston, Dallas and Fort Worth. Marfa is another gem that we are proud to have in Austin. But Austin is home, it is where one can have a creative practice, have a happy home, and enjoy a supportive and energetic community.

Public/outdoor art seems to be one distinguishing force. Why do you think public art makes sense for Austin?

Austin has had a long history of supporting public art projects. 2% of public project funding is designated to support public art projects. I think this is such a wonderful investment for the community and the city. The public art scene in Austin is definitely growing. There is increasing interest from the public–Austinites are outdoor people and make use of their public spaces like no other, from SXSW to ACL, from the numerous beautiful parks to the miles of hike and bike trails, festivals and events happen all year round. Public art projects bring focused new intentions to these spaces. I foresee great development and growth for Austin’s public art scene.

What makes public art (like your “Thirst” project) so powerful?

THIRST is a collaborative site-specific Public Art Project on the Lady Bird Lake in Austin Texas. It is a collaboration between Women and Their Work Gallery, Beili Liu (lead visual artist), Norma Yancey and Emily Little (architects) and Cassie Bergstrom (landscape architect). The installation speaks to the 300 million trees lost in the recent Texas drought.  Sited on Lady Bird Johnson Lake that is the physical and spiritual heart of Austin, Thirst manifests the urgency and severity of the water crisis.Thirst is a project that looks at a topic that is relevant and significant for all Texans and beyond. When we talk about the issue of water, and climate change, we are talking about a global issue.  Thirst is a project for our community. It is a project that brings people together. We chose the Lady Bird Lake as the project site not only because it is the heart of Austin, but also because of its constant water level and the beautiful green belt surrounding it—sometimes it is exactly the place we tend to forget about the urgency of the water crisis. By creating Thirst on this site, we hope to heighten people’s awareness about water, and the drought, and together, we could possibly initiate some positive change.

In your opinion, what are some of the most interesting artists/galleries/projects in Austin (or elsewhere in Texas) right now?

The Contemporary is our leading Museum in Austin, and has taken on the mission to transform the Austin art scene in recent years. We are all so very excited and proud to see the quality and scope of their projects since the inception of the new museum and the hiring of its new director, Louis Grachos. I am excited that the Visual Art Center of the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, our largest gallery space on campus is collaborating with The Contemporary to launch their newest multi-venue exhibition STRANGE PILGRIMS, a large-scale, thematic group exhibition this Fall, representing the museum’s most expansive gesture into the city of Austin. Women and Their Work Gallery is another outstanding arts institution that has done so much for the Austin arts community. A visual and performing art organisation located in Central Austin. W&TW serves as a catalyst for contemporary art created by women living and working in Texas and beyond. For over 37 years, Women & Their Work has brought groundbreaking art to Austin, with exhibitions, performances, and educational workshops. I have had the honour to work with Women and Their Work on many occasions, including Thirst, and absolutely admire and appreciate their effort in supporting emerging and mid-career Texas women artists.

Do you have any current or upcoming projects that you’re excited about? I’d love to hear some details!

I am working towards a solo exhibition at Hå gamle prestegard, Norwegian National Contemporary Art and Culture Center next summer. In Fall 16 I will be exhibiting at the Hangzhou Triennial of Fiber Art in China. I am very excited about both of these exhibitions and my travel to Norway, and back to China, where I was born and raised before I moved here to the US.

What is the impact of the music and film scenes (and maybe even the food scene?) on the growing art culture in Austin?

(I can’t speak much to music and film as I am not too familiar with these scenes as much as art).

Food scene in Austin is fantastic, it is creative, diverse, experimental and delicious. Try as many  food trucks as you can if you come to visit Austin. They have the most inventive flavours and presentations, like “kimchi fries” and  “Flying Pig donut”. To quote food writer Sarah Van Wettering: “…you have not experienced Austin until you have done so through a tour of food trucks. Get out there, get weird and eat some dang tacos — preferably, all day.”

What inspires you most about being an artist in Austin (or Texas), and how does the place show up in your work?

I have created a number of significant project during my time living in Austin, Texas, including The Mending Project, an installation and performance project at the Women and Their Work Gallery, Thirst, a collaborative multi-component public art project on Lady Bird Lake, and most recently, I completed Stratus, a site-specific installation, which was exhibited at the Grace Museum in Abilene, TX early 2015. My experience living in Texas deeply influenced these projects. Thirst speaks to the devastating loss of our trees in hope to raise awareness in our citizens about the scarcity of our precious water resources. If Thirst is a project about loss, Stratus, then, is a project looking at forces that may ignite change, and, most of all, hope.  Stratus consists of a vast field of clear acrylic sheets, each carefully dipped in graphite infused wax, and suspended a few feet below the ceiling. The flow of liquid wax and graphite particulates form natural and organic drips and patterns reminiscent of trickles of water paths, rivers and deltas. The translucent and energetic installation visualises a simple, almost daily occurrence that embodies the hope of rain. Most times, above the sky of Texas, Stratus cloud lightens and dissipates. The walk under the installation then, in a way, becomes a walking prayer for the cloud to darken, and for the much-desired rain to fall.


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