Intersections strikes again. Through whatever connections, the Intersections visiting artist program here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa managed to get two huge big-name Chinese contemporary artists who are here in the islands on private family vacation, to come in and talk about their work.
Left: Liu Xiaodong. Photo: Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
I first learned of Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong’s work when I attended the Fresh Ink exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a year or so ago, though I did not know that they were a married couple. Both are professors at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, the most elite art school in China, as well as graduates from CAFA high school, and CAFA undergraduate and postgrad. Though the popularity of Chinese contemporary art is very much booming in the art market these days, and though there are many artists doing all kinds of fascinating, interesting, new, creative, innovative things, contrary to what we might therefore expect, CAFA’s curriculum remains extremely conservative. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – technical skill should still be considered important, and not just concept and theory, on which many art schools in the West might focus overmuch. Training at CAFA is like “academic” training in the French or Soviet mode, very much focused on realistic painting of the human figure in oils. Accordingly, both Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong focus heavily on depicting contemporary scenes, and real people – e.g. themselves, their friends, everyday people selected to serve as models.
Above: Liu Xiaodong paints his childhood friends in his childhood hometown of Jincheng, for a piece called “My Egypt.” Image: Want China Times.
What interests me most in Liu Xiaodong’s work is the concept and the process, more than the final product. In many of his works, he selects a meaningful site, and selects people from that place to serve as his models. The final product is, perhaps, nothing too radically unusual or impressive – it’s a realistic (though still stylized) depiction of the scene he had in front of him (posed models, landscape, props, setting) in oils – though I am sure that in person (rather than on PowerPoint) the works would be quite impressive in size, at least. He tends to paint his figures life-size. This means that, each figure in a painting being five or six feet tall, the work as a whole, incorporating background and everything, is often several meters square, if not larger.
Above: “Qinghai-Tibet Railway”; 98″ by 394″, oil on canvas, 2007. Photo via Mary Boone Gallery.
Among the works he shared with us were several of workers at the Three Gorges Dam, or of people forced to move from the area so that the dam could be built. He took actual people from the place, set them up as models, and painted them from life, with the actual landscape of the Three Gorges area and/or the dam itself, in the background. Another work captured seven young women sitting atop a wagon, with their town, the town of Beichuan, in the background, as it was right after being almost entirely destroyed by the Sichuan Earthquake. This was entitled “Out of Beichuan.” A partner piece to this was called “Into Taihu,” and depicts seven young men in a wooden rowboat on Lake Tai, near Shanghai. He then went back to his childhood hometown, and painted portraits (and group portraits) of his childhood friends, all grown up. One painting shows them all playing cards together in the park; one depicts a friend who owns a karaoke bar, singing at the bar, with all the crazy lights and whatever of the karaoke box room in the background. Another work, completed a few years earlier right after the Beijing-Tibet railroad was finished, depicts two Tibetan men leading horses across the plains, as the train runs by in the background. He said he actually had to go quite a ways afield to find Tibetan men who had horses, could ride them, and looked a bit more like what he was looking for – less fully culturally assimilated into (Han) Chinese culture. In 2009-2010 or so, he went to Boston and got a bunch of high school students to pose as models for him, as he sought to address issues of high school violence. This was the work I saw at the MFA. Perhaps you begin to sense the theme.
Above: Liu Xiaodong painting young women at Beichuan in Sichuan after the earthquake. Photo via Dgeneratefilms.com and Supernice.eu.
I think what I found most interesting and engaging about his work is the context in which he paints it, the issues he seeks to address by painting certain subjects at certain times or in certain places, and the role his art plays therefore in capturing these moments in time, and then broadcasting them, with, of course, a considerable degree of his own sentimentality or interest mixed in. He says he does not see himself as political, let alone activist, and I think in a way this does sort of come through in his work. Yes, he is picking particular moments which are of particular significance, and which could be interpreted to have serious political or social activist sort of meanings, but his work really sort of toes that line. The paintings themselves, the final products, feel more documentary, and more like simply capturing moments of life, then they feel like they are truly social commentary of any sort. Plus, as Liu pointed out, it is very easy to re-explain a new or different meaning for one’s paintings, if one is ever accused of making an inappropriate (read: politically dangerous) statement. Oh, no, no. That’s not what this painting means at all.
Further, Liu really seems to revere the process, and to insert into it a special energy. He says that from when a project begins to when it ends, everything in between is “art”, not just on-site, but everything that everyone involves does for the days or weeks of the process, from the act of painting itself, to the actions of the photographers and videographers, to the experience of the models, down to breaks and meals, carrying the materials away and then back to the site again the next day, even sleeping. All of it is part of the process, until the work is complete. With this in mind, many of his works in more recent years have been extensively photographed and videoed in process, sometimes by rather big name film directors. “Hometown Boy,” a documentary of his journey to his childhood hometown, re-meeting old friends, and painting them, was directed by big-name Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and won a Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for Best Documentary. Jia Zhangke, similarly, directed a film called “Still Life,” which incorporated a lot of footage of Liu Xiaodong painting, and which won a Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Int’l Film Festival – the festival’s top prize.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on the work of Liu Xiaodong’s wife, Yu Hong, who also spoke here at UHM on Feb 3.