Don’t tell the European millionaires snapping them up – it’s good for art in general. But those canvases of clones grinning in Tiananmen Square? Mao in a tutu? So passé. For the true artist, in China, it is economic transformation, not political oppression, whetting the cutting edge of the collective subconscious.
And in reality, this transformation is a far different beast than the prize pig of Chinese media organs. This transformation has eaten the past. You can mark its passage in the hollow stares of old men walking the city streets, Rip Van Winkles who toiled decades for a dream and woke up in someone else’s.
Normals don’t want to, can’t look back at the bridge burned behind them, and take small comfort in the next trip to Carrefour, the new iPhone. In this sense, Liu Xiaodong has more guts than Orpheus. He looks back willingly, unflinchingly, to see everything he loved lost to the underworld.
Or you could just say he went back to his hometown and painted the people there. You could make intelligent noises about the dressed-down, authentic appeal of his subjects, and wonder at their quizzical expressions. But you would be missing the catharsis, and you need it, especially if you’re an expat.
Because you can’t go home. That place that belonged to you is gone. And to see the old gang in their new plumage is downright creepy, when you think about it, high school reunion meets invasion of the body snatchers. For a skinny-ankled, sensitive type like Liu Xiaodong, it’s downright soul-twisting, something he needs to work out on canvas even more strongly than you need that double scotch on the flight back.
Sure, the society of Liu’s boyhood was based on a lie, that they were sacrificing their self-determination for an achievable paradise. But who among you yangren can see the lie underpinning your existences back home? The one about ‘normal’ life resembling a TV show, where only the cursed have financial worries, lives that don’t resemble light-hearted sitcoms?
As with the majority of the world’s population, Liu grew up in a place where nobody had much, nor a reason to lament it unduly. Picture industrial-era Pittsburgh, but with no Carnegies or Mellons to make life bitter: smoke stacks, third shifts, crappy worker housing carved into wards where wayward boys ran under busy noses with feral joy. Such was Jincheng, a mere three decades ago.
Today, Jincheng is yet another ‘third-tier’ Chinese city, another rough but cheerful country girl put under the knife of a cut-rate plastic surgeon, who leaves the spirit with the rest of the clinical waste. Because now Jincheng has the jerry-built townhouse complexes, the parks in the middle of nowhere, and the semi-haunted commercial buildings. But is also has shame. The people of Jincheng see the high-ceilinged kitchens on commercials, the subsidized glory of Shanghai and Beijing, and feel third-tier.
“It was like seeing a vast army reduced to a supply brigade, with no one left to carry on the war,” says Liu of his trip back. “The friends I knew in childhood have become fat.” Someone should tell Liu that’s not fat, that’s face. You get it from the extended restaurant dinners and TV-watching vital to the decommissioned. Actually, never mind; Liu knows. He reveals it in the ambition, cunning, and bewilderment stamped on the pudgy faces of his subjects.
Art critic Jeff Kelly puts it nicely, Liu’s work, calling it “the psychic landscape of the new China.” It’s a landscape of abundance undreamed of a generation before, abundance wrapped in plastic, with chemical additives best not inquired after. And if you’re not on the make in this landscape, you inhabit its shadows.
Liu Xiaodong’s exhibition at UCCA is winding up, but soon there will be a documentary involving Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien. The movie will reveal the background story of the many characters from the exhibit. It will obviate going through the 200 pages plus of Liu Xiaodong’s diary accompanying the pictures. It will save the time and effort of painful retrospect. Here in the future, that’s the greatest gift of all.