MAKING ART FROM THE ORDINARY
Latest models for Liu Xiaodong are nomadic people in the sparsely populated city of Ordos, Deng Zhangyu reports.
Liu Xiaodong, regarded as one of the most important oil painters in China, has long focused on depicting people at the very bottom of society. Migrant workers in cities, migrants from the Three Gorges Dam area and sex workers in Thailand are among those who have served as his models.
These protagonists have helped to win him fame and set bidding records in auction houses.
Liu’s latest works focus on nomadic people migrating to Ordos in North China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region, a city that has been labeled a ghost town by the media due to its small population.
His show, called Diary of An Empty City, presented by the Faurschou Foundation in Beijing comprises 36 paintings, which Liu produced during his two-month stay in Ordos in summer this year.
Three large oil paintings show urban Mongolians sitting on horseback with city landmarks such as the stadium, the museum and the opera house in the background.
“I want to show the conflict between an agricultural society and industrial cities, as well as the contrast between urbanization and the lost nomadic culture,” Liu said.
“In fact, horses are not allowed into the city. I made a lot of effort to enable these people to ride horses in Ordos.”
Known as a producer of coal, Ordos has been transformed from a poor city located near a vast grassland into one of the richest in the region. Many of the locals formerly lived on the prairies.
Liu said the models in his paintings are people who make a living offering horse rides to visitors at a tourist spot near the city.
For some of his recent work, the artist drew horses on photos he took of the city. In another he drew a black frame on a photo of a horse head.
“Horses are a symbol of nomadic culture. But the city has no horses now. The black framed horse looks like it’s dead, just like the disappearance of nomadic culture in the wave of urbanization.”
Liu speaks of the way he plans and creates his paintings as “a project”.
He first finds the place and the people he wants to depict. Then he lives in a temporary camp, which is built to enable him to paint on the spot. A large picture often takes him around two weeks. Besides painting pictures, he keeps a diary of his experiences painting outside.
He also takes photos of the place he chooses to paint, and hires a documentary team to record all the activities related to his painting.
Then, when each project is finished, his paintings, diaries, photos and documentaries are shown together as a whole to the public.
In 2005, when Liu was painting migrants from the Three Gorges Dam site, he invited well-known director Jia Zhangke to make a film in the area. The resulting movie, Still Life, a fictional tale of people returning to a soon-to-be flooded town, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice International Film Festival a year later.
Around the same time, Dong, a documentary Jia produced recording Liu’s creation process as he painted a group of laborers in the Three Gorges Dam area, is a companion piece to Still Life and was also nominated for the Golden Lion Award.
“Liu is a very unique artist,” said Jerome Sans, curator of Diary of An Empty City. “He is a conceptual artist rather than a painter. The issues he talks about are not only the ones China faces. The problems of migration, minorities, women and urbanization — they are issues facing the world.”
The French curator first met Liu in 2008, and they have been collaborating ever since. Sans said each of Liu’s projects takes two to three months, so the number of works he produces every year is small compared with other artists.
Usually, he paints three to four large pictures in one project. Liu said two projects a year is the best working pace for him. “After months of painting, I have to return to my life and think for months, and then start again.”
Liu’s work Disobeying the Rules, depicting a group of naked migrant workers on a truck, was sold for $8.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in October last year. Before that, some of his works had fetched millions of dollars at auction houses in the mainland.
He started portraying the underclass in the 1990s. Liu has visited most cities in China and many abroad. But every time he goes to a city, he is there to find ordinary people to paint. His subjects have included jade diggers in Hotan in Xinjiang, soldiers in Taiwan, ChineseIndonesians and even his own friends.
“I like them,” said Liu of his models. “They are very real and don’t hide their emotions. They’re very easy to deal with. Sometimes their lives are bad, and unfair things happen to them, but they face them positively.”
Sans said that Liu, like his models, is very real. He does things by himself, from replacing broken bulbs to fixing leaking pipes.
After completing a project, Liu said, he stays in his studio, drinking tea and meeting friends. Then, when all his thoughts come together, he sets out on another project.
So where will he go next? Liu said he chooses the places on a whim.
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Liu Xiaodong stands in front of one of his latest works about Ordos, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, showing nomads on horseback with the vast city stadium in the background.
Liu Xiaodong’s paintings show the contrast between an agricultural society and industrial cities.