A Scientific Artist

by Nan Zhong

There is a popular saying in 90s’ China — “Only science matters.” Though this is a completely wrong education conception, it still influences plenty of teenagers who grew up in that period of time. Zhangbolong Liu, is one of them.


from “The Laboratory” by Zhangbolong Liu, Columbia University, New York, 2013

Zhangbolong Liu, born in 1989, just graduated from the School of Visual Art (SVA), majored in photography, and has already held three personal exhibitions in New York and Beijing. Being a successful, young artist, his education background is perhaps most interesting. Before 2012, the year he got into SVA, he hadn’t received any professional training of photography. He got into Tsinghua University (THU) in 2008, majored in Material Science for undergrad education.

THU, is the dream school of millions of science students in China. If Liu hadn’t chosen to be a photographer when he graduated there, he might now be a successful scientist, or a professor (who stands highly in Chinese social status) in any college of China. Why did he give up such a promising major, to become a photographer?

“Honestly speaking, the first big problem is I don’t like material science,” Liu said. When he was filling his report wishes aspect after the College Entrance Examination (CEE), material science was his third choice. “Initially, I want to do something related to design, but also in the scientific field.” Liu’s first and second choice were architecture and vehicle design. But unluckily, in August 2008, only the Material Science department of THU gave him the letter of admission. The junior year is an important year for Liu, because in that year, he thought he found something he liked by getting into the campus’ television station. “I was thinking to learn journalism, doing some documentary or journalism photography.” After a while, he also gave it up, because he found out the essence of journalism was interviewing and writing. “Firstly, I’m not good at being with people. Secondly, I still want to do something to record our lives, but focus on visual art.” After all of that, Liu drew the conclusion, “I should go to study photography.”

In 2014, Liu’s work The Laboratory showed at the Three Shadows Photography Awards (TSPA), and Liu received the Best Photographer Award. In 2013, Liu shot several labs of many elite schools in New York and Beijing. The precise instruments and cluttered laboratory environment became serious and dispassionate, but peaceful and elegant, in Liu’s camera. It looks like a love letter between an old married couple; the passion may fade away in their long-term marriage, but they know each other so well, and everyone knows their love is deep. The question about Liu is, why a person who didn’t like his scientific undergrad major, now wrote such a loving letter to the laboratory?

“The reason I don’t like material science is I don’t like doing the experiments. It’s fuzzy and sometimes meaningless. But I do like observation and recording, which is the essential process of scientific experiments, that’s the reason I still love science.” To ordinary people, the laboratory maybe in a mess, but Liu can always find the order among those intricate instruments. “I lived with them for whole four years, that’s the most familiar things to me.” Love will come after the long companionship, this can probably explain the relationship between Liu and the laboratory.

If Liu just combined the science and the art by observing the scientific objects. In his second work The Traces, he applied the scientific conception into his artistic creation. The Traces is all about the objects which have already gone, but the traces of them are left. This time, Liu aimed the camera to the drape of the sheet, the empty glass cover in the museum, the counter sunk on the wall and dust track on the table. The pictures are chill and objective, the photographer just honestly recorded those traces silently, without any disturbing. “This work is inspired by a second handed painting album of Van Gogh I bought. On one page, the painting is cut out, only the title remains.” The objectivity by which Liu treats these traces originated from the rationality of science. “I am just observing and recording, but not getting involved.” The Trace is a further attempting of Liu to find equilibrium between the sensibility (art) and the rationality (science). Generally speaking, he wrote an honest lab report by his camera with observing the world.

Now, Liu’s new exhibition The Museum of Science Fetish is on display in Beijing. This exhibition is an extension of Liu’s graduation project. “A science museum in Florence exhibited a finger of Galileo. That’s the inspiration of this exhibition,” Liu said. In Liu’s Museum, many thought experiments (means the science experiments which cannot present in physical way) are presented by visual art form. Maybe science and art has never been apart. Just like Liu, a scientific artist.

  • by Nan Zhong

    Zhangbolong Liu:

    Nan Zhong: