BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Reviews | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Liu Xiaodong

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Reviews | 01 MAR 11

For decades celebrated painter Liu Xiaodong has been searching for new ways to broaden the scope of his work beyond the confines of the two-dimensional canvas. In the 1990s Liu painted scenes of his family and friends, becoming a leading figure in a generation of Chinese painters which was interested in producing intimate depictions of the day-to-day reality of their immediate surroundings. Their perspective was not necessarily ideological; they neither glorified the working class and the peasants – as some revolutionary realist painters once did – nor approached their subject with condescension, guilt or curiosity borne out of class difference. They sought objectivity; their depictions were lively and contagious, sometimes focusing on the individual but often in a way that was relevant to the lives of most Chinese people. Liu’s 1996 painting Disobeying the Rules, for example, shows a group of naked workers crowded onto the back of an open-topped truck together with several large gas canisters. Most of them turn their faces towards the viewer, grinning. When I first saw the painting, I could almost feel the familiar sensation of a van rumbling past me on the road.
Since then, Liu has continued to turn his gaze towards those pushed to the margins of society: migrants, sex workers or residents displaced or made homeless by the Three Gorges Dam project. He has often painted them from life, a strategy interpreted by some critics as a conceptual ploy and by others as evidence of an emotional commitment. In many of these paintings his subjects appear indifferent and unengaged, perhaps all too conscious of the social problems he seeks to portray through their presence, and therefore take on an image of ‘otherness’.
Liu’s latest project, Hometown Boy (2010), which was also the title of his exhibition at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, brought these two interests together. Last year the artist spent two months in his home town of Jincheng, a small city in the Liaoning Province of north-eastern China, which he left in 1980 to attend art school in Beijing. Liu spent part of the spring and summer with his family and childhood friends, eating at their homes, drinking, playing football and singing karaoke. He painted them at home or at work, as they sat, stood and modelled for him. Liu documented his journey in a loose-leaf diary produced by the local paper factory, where his parents used to work. The project was also recorded in a documentary film, also called Hometown Boy, by famed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The film, together with Liu’s diary entries, old photographs of his family and childhood, photos he took of his return home and the dozens of paintings he made during his stay, comprised his solo exhibition.
The hour-long film was more than a mere footnote to the exhibition: it explored a small industrial town left behind by the rapid pace of modernization and urbanization – despite which Liu’s childhood friends live not very differently from their parents’ generation. The film offers a glimpse of the lives of the subjects of his paintings, enticing us to invest emotionally in the details of their stories and the artist’s relationship to them. Its inclusion added crucial context and power to Liu’s figurative portraits, which might have otherwise fallen a bit flat.
At the beginning of the film Liu confesses that he feels anxious about the project, worried that his fame and commercial success as an artist may have affected his relationship to his childhood friends. And indeed the fact that his life has taken a completely different trajectory from theirs was visibly an obstacle for the artist – more so than for his friends. As it turned out, both they and his relatives obviously enjoyed spending time with him and appeared to regard his success with nothing but enthusiastic admiration. Liu, however, saw himself as an intellectual confronted by the reality of a disappearing working class – a phenomenon he clearly intended to illustrate in this project. Thus, by engaging with them as his artistic subjects, Liu himself remained irretrievably ‘the other’.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.