"Liberation No. 1" by Liu Wei
Lehmann Maupin "Liberation No. 1" by Liu Wei

I encountered the works of Chinese artist Liu Wei twice this year. The first was during Art Basel Miami Beach, when the Rubell Collection featured his “Liberation No. 1.” Wei first created the massive array of vertical lines by importing random images from the Internet, and then blending them into a composition he printed out on large canvases. The result was what I thought was one of the most beautiful summations of the breadth and speed of images we encounter every day, an evocation of the modern city, a seismograph of colors and forms, and a continuation of the tradition of abstraction so central to modernist art.

A few months later, Wei popped up again on the international art fair circuit that has itself become the speed-dating collage of images into which the modern art world has morphed. At Frieze New York, he stole the show with his "Library II-III." Three fragments of a Gotham-like metropolis (meaning the kind of city of setback towers and vaguely classicist blocks that have formed the backdrop for so many Batman comics and movies) sat on metal frames mounted on wheels, implying that you could rearrange these pieces at will to compose your own city.

Wei constructed these sculptures out of books he cut apart and (I assume with the help of his studio assistants) reassembled into these rough-hewn scale models. If you looked carefully, you could make out the strata of printed paper, but what was more important to me was the sense that these were forms that were built out of layers, like the Earth. They reminded me of the soft chalk stone or other crumbly material that seems so solid, but falls apart in your hand when you touch it. Worn and fragile, Library II-III was at the same time massive and full of the thrust proper to skyscraper cities.

Wei loves using commonly found materials, whether they are computer images, waste he finds on the street, doors and window frames, or pieces of porcelain he packs up. In the almost 20 years since he graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, he has turned both what his country leaves behind as it thrusts itself forward into the global economy and what it aspires to build, into monuments that make us stop, look, and consider those building blocks. We see in them their beauty, their aspirations, and the isolation as fragments unmoored from any static structure.

"Photon Kite" by Lebbeus Woods
The Drawing Center "Photon Kite" by Lebbeus Woods

My next stop after the Frieze Art Fair, in a temporary tent on an island looking out over Manhattan’s skyscrapers, was the exhibition of the late Lebbeus Woods’s work at The Drawing Center (open through June 15). It was a slightly nostalgic occasion for me, as I remember seeing many of the drawings soon after Woods had made them in his studio, but what struck me this time was how much they are not the science fiction or ruin porn that many of us have categorized them as representing, but rather that they are loving evocations of the city in all its wonder, dread and, above all else, tectonic instability. Whether the city is unstable because of war (Architecture and War, a series Woods created in reaction to the early 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia), earthquakes, or just the instability and fragility of human artifice, Woods’ structures seemed, like Liu’s: both falling apart and constructing an alternative metropolis. It might not be the one we would want to or even could inhabit, but it may be the one we really do, one that only good artists and architects make us see.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.