MAKING ART FROM THE OR­DI­NARY

Lat­est mod­els for Liu Xiaodong are no­madic peo­ple in the sparsely pop­u­lated city of Or­dos, Deng Zhangyu re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - EXPATS -

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.

Con­tact the writer at dengzhangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

ZHANG WEI / CHINA DAILY

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.

PHO­TOS BY ZHANG WEI / CHINA DAILY

Liu Xiaodong’s paint­ings show the con­trast be­tween an agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety and in­dus­trial cities.

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