In the name of humanity
Mainland artist Liu Xiaodong tells Ng Tze-wei how he learned to paint from a fresh point of view
For more than a decade after he graduated from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, realist painter Liu Xiaodong made his name with his studio portraits, which were free of social or political symbolism.
'It is only in the paintings of Liu Xiaodong that the people at the bottom of society show their true nature,' prominent mainland art writer and critic Ou Ning once noted. 'This truthfulness allows us to make a connection with our own life experiences, and enables us to identify with them. What he paints is his understanding of reality.'
But in 2004, the contemporary artist decided to explore a reality less ordinary: for several weeks he was stationed on the island outpost of Quemoy, just off shore from Xiamen in Fujian province, to paint 18 soldiers - nine from the mainland and the rest from Taiwan. (Quemoy is dotted with more than 2,000 military bunkers used by Taiwanese military forces to defend against mainland annexation of the surrounding islands.)
The exercise was part of a bigger project led by artist Cai Guoqiang to transform military bunkers into 'fortifications for peace'. Liu's work, entitled Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats, was subsequently shown at the makeshift Bunker Museum of Contemporary Arts, which Cai curated.
On Wednesday, the 18 life-size portraits, estimated to be worth between HK$45 million and HK$55 million, will collectively come under the hammer at Sotheby's contemporary Chinese art sales. According to the auction house, this piece is a bold statement by the artist, standing in contrast to his usual non-judgmental and impersonal approach.
By pairing soldiers from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Liu set out to highlight their differences - from the way they dress and pose to how they sign their name on the canvas, in traditional and simplified Chinese - and their similarities. For the latter, just look at their faces.
'I want to say something that no one can say clearly,' the Liaoning-born painter says. 'For some reasons, some differences in political ideals, this group of people cannot live under the same system. But no one can deny they are both Chinese.'
Unlike many of his contemporaries, 44-year-old Liu has stayed away from political symbols and has, for years, focused his painting mainly on friends and family, those around him, the common people. Life is short, he says, and the purpose of painting is to capture what's happening around him with all his skills. But he no longer paints his friends.
'Knowing the painting will be turned into a commercial commodity, should I pay my friend to be my model or not?'
Liu asks, jokingly.
The real reason is about five years ago, the artist grew tired of the relatively straightforward studio practice. Inspired by the long tradition in Chinese art education known as xiesheng - literally translated as 'writing from life' - Liu decided to move in a new direction and to be more directly engaged with his larger social surroundings.
Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats marks the beginning of this phase and a series of painting projects that he calls 'social investigation'.
Liu says this shift of interest may have something to do with growing old and the fact that he has become more interested in 'what's happening in the street next door' and what's in the news.
So in 2005 he went - with friend and occasional collaborator film director Jia Zhangke in tow - to the Three Gorges where construction of the mainland's largest dam project in history churned on. He painted the workers and the displaced inhabitants, looking on or playing cards in the shambles of what used to be their homes.
Jia returned with two interconnected films: the feature Still Life (which won the director the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival in 2006) and a documentary called Dong, a double reference to 'East Asia' and Liu.
Last year, Liu spent months in the Qinghai plateau painting Tibetan nomads against chemical factories belching smoke in the background, and a 'sky burial' ceremony taking place at a site that would make way for the new train connecting Lhasa and the mainland.
The Qinghai paintings are being exhibited in the US and will be shown at the Guangzhou Triennial in September.
'I hope society can become more humane,' Liu says. 'That's what my paintings are about: the individuals, the humanity.
'We happen to live in a time of great changes. As artists, we should live up to these changes, and participate in these changes. At least we should care; we should express our opinions.'
The painter says he feels lucky to have been born at the right time and to have become famous young and never have to quite worry about what to paint.
He arrived on the mainland art scene after participating in the China Avant-Garde art show of February 1989. His 'social realist' oil paintings swiftly made him one of Chinese contemporary art's best-known names, both at home and abroad.
While he is now spending more time abroad - he has worked in Thailand and Japan, and is planning to visit the US later this year to paint American youths - his roots and focus are still on his homeland. 'From the viewpoint of humanity there are many similarities [between people at home and those abroad],' he says.
Since Liu began his social investigation series, he has been taking on just two projects a year, with about three to four paintings each. To Liu, painting is like doing kung fu - it takes a lot of practice and preparation, but the actual painting from beginning to end is like one quick continuous stroke without break.
Sporting a crew-cut and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, Liu is as playful as he is serious. The artist is full of candid anecdotes and has a dry sense of humour unique to northern Chinese. And because of his down-to-earth personality and approach to his art, he has earned the respect of his peers.
Painting takes up all his energy, and Liu says he needs an equal amount of time to rest, to savour his creation, and to catch his breath.
Being lazy is important, Liu says: that's when ideas with no particular purpose spring to mind. And when he isn't painting or teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, nothing pleases him more than spending time with friends and family.
Liu's 13-year-old daughter paints at a hobby class, but he doesn't want her to become an artist.
'I paint, and my wife paints. If my daughter paints too, what can our family talk about? We will be busy ordering canvas all the time. Our home will run out of space,' he says, trying to look serious.
Liu wouldn't comment on whether The Eighteen Arhats will set auction records on Wednesday, but says he'll be paying close attention to the sale. 'I care about who buys it because when I hold exhibitions in future I'd have to borrow the painting from that person,' Liu says. 'And I hope he will be generous and charge me a lower insurance fee.'
Additional reporting by Kevin Kwong
Sotheby's Contemporary Chinese Art (Part Two) sales, Apr 9, 6pm, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre New Win, tel: 2868 6755