Liu Xiaodong

Liu Xiaodong talks about his Hotan Project

Left: Liu Xiaodong, West,  2012, oil on canvas, 8 x 10”. Right: Liu Xiaodong, South, 2012, oil on canvas, 8 x 10”.

Last May, Liu Xiaodong and a team of assistants traveled to Hotan, a town in the Xinjiang region of China, where he painted monumental portraits of local Uyghur jade miners while a documentarian filmed the entire process. The project is on view at the Xinjiang International Exhibition Center in Urumqi from August 25 to October 8, and will travel to the Today Art Museum in Beijing in early 2013.

I’D NEVER BEEN TO HOTAN before this trip, but I wanted to go there because I’m interested in its jade production. The Chinese have, of course, prized jade for thousands of years. In the past it was the symbol of emperors—they loved it, and no one else was allowed to own it. Today, it’s mostly rich people who love having jade. The natural environment has been completely altered because of this history. For wealth, people will reshape mountains and transform rivers. I like to paint places with complex backstories like this.

I was in Hotan for a month. My working process involved traveling to different places along the Hotan River. Our driver was a Uighur man and one day he asked me if I wanted to meet some locals. I did. So he drove us about an hour away, to a village at the foot of Kunlun Mountain. The mountain has been overly carved up by jade mining—it looks awful, like a rotten apple. The people I met there were great, though. They introduced us to even more people, and that’s how I found the six miners that I eventually ended up painting.

We were in Hotan during the hottest, cruelest month of summer. There were sandstorms every day, and sand got all over the paintings. As soon as I’d cleaned the sand off one canvas, there’d be another sandstorm. It wasn’t easy work. But the reason it’s important to paint on site is because I temporarily become kind of like a local. Of course I can take pictures and go back to Beijing to paint, but I think doing that would be a bit too art for art’s sake. To me, it’s like a social experiment, and the process is often more important than the finished artwork. I can finish a painting in Beijing—perhaps even more so than elsewhere—but there’s no way I can have experiences like this in Beijing.

It’s important that documentation come out of this trip because painting can’t stand in for documentary, and documentary can’t stand in for painting. Painting can only offer one point of view. In documentaries, you can get a sense of narrative. For me this is a way of making my work more multifaceted.

I don’t think I’m working in a realist framework. I just exploit its markers so people have a frame of reference. If there is an ideology underpinning my work, it’s that I strive to paint only what I can see. I don’t paint what I think—only what I see.