Liu Xiaodong


Liu Xiaodong: Jincheng Airport (2010): Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.Liu Xiaodong: Jincheng Airport (2010): Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing.

By Charlene K. Lau

Liu Xiaodong
Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
November 17, 2010 - February 27, 2011

China isn’t what I remember. It has been 13 years since the last time I visited. Beijing has rendered itself unrecognizable, sanitized of its character for the Olympics. Gone are the street vendors, the proliferation of chuanr (Muslim meat skewers) stands and the hutongs (narrow alleyway communities). In their place are shiny high rises, malls and tourist-friendly shopping streets. The city’s poor have been relegated to peddling leftover Olympic souvenirs and Red Army hats.

One of China’s leading painters of the “New Generation” artists, Liu Xiaodong, paints to understand this immense change. For his exhibition Hometown Boy at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing’s 798 Art District, Liu returned to his hometown of Jincheng in Liaoning Province. In the gallery, oil paintings, snapshots, sketches, journal entries and a documentary film (by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien) detail his visit.

Liu’s work captures moments painted in situ, sometimes melancholic (Dead Birds, all works 2010), other times eliciting a chuckle from their titles (such as Chengzi Shows Up at the Wrong Door). In Xuzi at Home, Liu paints an old friend recently laid off from the paper mill. A casualty of the Jincheng’s rampant factory closures and dislocated labour market, Xuzi sits at the kitchen table with his tattoos, potbelly and farmer’s tan, contemplating his uncertain future. The immediacy of Liu’s paintings is apparent, and it is with Impressionistic speed that he paints. This is translated through his broad yet carefully considered brushwork. No detail is left unpainted. In Guo Qiang at his Karaoke Club, the subject stands proudly next to a flashy geometric patterned wall. Liu’s diary entry of that day reads, “I wasted no paint or paper to wipe my brush, finishing the painting in one go in an hour and a half. I was sweating all over and also feeling a bit weak”. For him, painting is like a sport. It is a frenetic race against time to record the present, for who knows what little time remains before the New China shifts yet again.

Liu’s frankness in depicting the here and now can again be seen in the portrait, Phoenix. A young woman in pigtails is perched on a pink bedspread and clothed only in white sport socks. (Or, are her feet simply left unpainted?) Her sideways gaze can allude to a number of things: her discomfort of being nearly naked, her inner boredom or perhaps mischief. Why does she not have clothes on? This painting jumps right out at me, mostly because there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate context I can attribute to the scenario. It speaks to the liveliness of Liu’s work, and the absurdities of everyday life.

Liu paints the lives of ordinary Chinese people who have been left behind in the wake of China’s rise to a world economic power. With its seemingly limitless appetite for chasing status in the contemporary moment, China is moving ahead with such speed that it is too easily forgetting the past. Where does that leave its people? Liu’s painting-as-introspection records these fleeting moments of the Chinese Everyman. It is these moments that are memories for later.

Charlene K. LauCharlene K. Lau is a Toronto-based writer whose reviews have been published in Akimblog, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Fashion Theory and PUBLIC. She is a doctoral student in Art History and Visual Culture at York University.