PRINT February 2012


Liu Xiaodong, Out of Beichuan, 2010, oil on canvas, 9' 10 1/8“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

A SENSE OF DOOM about painting prevailed in China in the 1990s. Painting had entered its endgame, or so the story went, just as it had in so many narratives of art the world over. But here, when easel painting hit the wall, it seemed to hit harder than ever. Many of its practitioners abandoned the medium altogether, while others sought to find a way forward by making their canvases look anything but painterly. Critics began to expound on “conceptual painting,” a term that was applied to strategies such as citation—specifically, the appropriation and even parody of well-known socialist-realist tableaux—and the displacement of the properties of performance, photography, or video onto painting so as to flaunt postmedium promiscuity. The rationale (as in Western painting’s own such turn) was that a “conceptual” interest would drive the work, freeing painters from having to engage with touch, technique, gesture, or materiality. In the early 2000s, however, conceptual painting itself suddenly looked passé—the touchstone for many painters now seemed to be their own immediate experience. A recent project by Liu Xiaodong, one of the most prominent oil painters in contemporary China, offers an alternative, taking up many of the issues that conceptual painting raised and demonstrating a way for easel painting to hold its ground anew.

A pair of unexpected disasters prompted Liu’s endeavor. Industrial pollution caused pools of blue-green algae to cover the surface of Lake Taihu in Jiangsu, a region in eastern China traditionally known for its serene landscape. Then the massive earthquake of 2008 hit the province of Sichuan, causing nearly seventy thousand deaths and colossal damage. The town of Beichuan, close to the epicenter, was among those most affected. According to some accounts, more than half of its twenty thousand inhabitants were killed, including a thousand students from its high school.

Two years after the earthquake, Liu Xiaodong set up a large canvas on an easel overlooking this town and embarked on Out of Beichuan. Working en plein air for almost a month, he painted a group of young women huddling on a cargo tricycle against a backdrop of collapsing buildings and piles of rubble. Liu also arranged to have this spectacular act of painting recorded in photographs and video. Two camera crews accompanied the painter to the site and documented both the artist’s process and their own takes on the earthquake’s aftermath.

Out of Beichuan was first shown in 2010 at the Shanghai Biennale, along with its companion piece from the same year, Into Taihu, which presents a group of young men in a boat on the garishly hued, pollution-infested lake of the title. That an ecological or geologic disaster underlies each work is plain: The two paintings form a neat symmetry, corresponding to the proverbial Chinese pairing of “heaven-sent calamity and man-made disaster.” A time-honored Chinese custom, as Liu remembers it, would counter such catastrophes with ritual ceremonies. “Golden boys and jade girls” (i.e., virgin boys and girls) would be paraded in honor of heaven in hopes of averting or lessening the calamity. This folk belief supplied Liu with the cue for part of his conceptual framework. With enough effort and persistence, Liu’s liberal interpretation of the folklore seems to say, human reproduction can triumph over destruction and disaster. The artist’s twin subjects—the young men in Jiangsu and the young women in Sichuan—thus combine to spell out a symbolic logic of humanity’s perseverance.

But this is hardly the whole story. Liu staged his allegory with winking self-consciousness: All of the male models used for Into Taihu were members of a local opera troupe; all of the female subjects in Out of Beichuan—excepting one, who was an actual earthquake survivor from the town—were aspiring actors and models from the city of Chongqing. Rather than ask his sitters to role-play in fictive situations, Liu required only that they be themselves and so be co-opted, as themselves, into his symbolic drama. Despite (or because of) this, the apathy of their body language and facial expressions suggests the unheroic and anti-theatrical tenor of Liu’s pro­ject—and makes it impossible to take entirely seriously the iconography that allegedly underlies the pair of canvases.

Such ambivalence is typical of both works, but Out of Beichuan in particular sheds light on the way Liu traffics in fluid genre categories, at once enacting and undermining several of painting’s established conventions through deliberate overkill as well as layered displacement. The setup, for instance, is essentially that of a group portrait. Portraiture, as a studio practice, is not typically done outdoors, but Liu did just that—and on a truly colossal canvas! What’s more, although Liu’s work was painted en plein air, pleinairism, with its preoccupation with light effects, is not the artist’s primary interest. Nor is on-location documentary realism the work’s modus operandi: Liu shows little interest in a realistic depiction of the ruins caused by the earthquake. The painter has stated that he wanted to treat the landscape as portraiture in a state of “writhing,” while the group portrait was to be rendered with all the dispassion of a still life.

Liu Xiaodong painting Out of Beichuan, Beichuan, China, May 17, 2010. Photo: Weng Yunpeng.

Perhaps it is most accurate to say that Out of Beichuan is a pictorial fiction in the guise of an on-location documentary painting, as well as a painterly mimicry of a photograph that accomplishes what a photograph or a video cannot. The documentary accompanying the project, made by Yang Bo and Tong Weijun and titled Out of Beichuan, into Taihu (2010), shows the female models parading past a gigantic crumbling building as they wend their way to the spot Liu selected for their daily sitting. The footage, shot using a zoom lens, heightens the contrast between the magnitude of the ruin and the insignificant and even pitiful scale of these human figures. In his painting, Liu takes a contrasting approach, emphatically resisting such emotionally laden rhetoric. Setting up his canvas at some distance from the ruins of the town, Liu enlarged the human figures and minimized the visual interest of the collapsing structures. An in situ preparatory drawing hints at the artist’s momentary toying with the voyeuristic fascination that earthquake landscapes often solicit with their terrible beauty: Those jutting angularities and architectonic contortions can easily prompt a pictorial cadenza. But if anything, the finished painting thwarts the negative sublime by abstracting the toppling forms, erasing any suggestion of dark horror, denying any normative or superficial way of looking at the earthquake’s aftermath. Positing an alternative way of representing the scene, Liu heightens different perceptual modes by means of painterly intervention.

But in some respects, Liu’s painting is clearly performative in its deliberate staging and its use of actors. Its visual language also engages photographic modes, yet turns them to unexpected ends. The work thus magnifies the tension between subject and object, fidelity and manipulation. This tension is central to Liu’s practice and forms the crux of his engagement with realism: realism both as pictorial problem and as the fraught fulcrum between such dichotomies as the natural and the synthetic, document and artifice, contingency and order. And where a digital flourish or a ready-made citation might be enough to satisfy the minimum requirement for “conceptual painting,” Liu is compelled to go much further in his multilayered response to the specific trajectories and implications of realism in China.

LIU IS WIDELY REGARDED as a leading figure of the “neorealists”—a grouping within the New Generation, or xinshengdai, who came of artistic age in the 1990s. From one perspective, the confusion of genre in Out of Beichuan puts such labeling on the spot and complicates the shifts that took place in Chinese art in that decade, which also saw the emergence of confrontations between painting and the ascendant modes of photography and performance. Many of these changes came about in reaction to the prevalent stylistic approaches of the ’80s, when Chinese artists had carried out the herculean feat of overhauling the country’s artistic idiom, which had for so long served Maoist-era ideological orthodoxy. To achieve their task, these artists in many cases borrowed from European and American modernist forms and strategies: In fact, one could say that they essentially rehearsed a century’s worth of Western modernism—Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, etc.—and packed it into a single decade or, more precisely, a half decade, from 1985 to 1989. Yet if the revisionism of the ’80s is easy to sort out on purely stylistic or formal grounds, things get more complicated when it comes to this generation’s rhetorical tenor. As much as these artists opposed the ideological dogma of the previous decades, they nevertheless inherited the grandstanding and at times shrill tone of the Red Guard era, often seeing themselves as self-appointed national spokesmen or visionary masters of larger causes.

In 1989, however, all the impassioned avant-garde posturing and high-mindedness of the ’80s came to a crashing end, with the abrupt closure by the authorities of the “China Avant-Garde” exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing. The neorealists who came of age in the following decade no longer thought they occupied Olympian heights. They were no longer enmeshed in a political climate beholden to the grand narratives of the past. Facing the new reality of rampant consumerism in the wake of economic reform, the ’90s generation was weary and distrustful of the large collective causes and metaphysical pretensions that had fueled the high-octane modernizing drive of the ’80s. It did no good, either, to be blindly in thrall to Western models: There was a painful awareness of the gap between these borrowed modernist forms and the texture of the new consumerist reality. One response, then, was unabashedly to resurrect modes of realism. But this could no longer mean socialist realism—which now appeared as wide-eyed romanticism in disguise and was plainly incommensurate to the actual and often brutal conditions of life, and no match for the contingency of the real.

Liu Xiaodong, Into Taihu, 2010, oil on canvas, 9' 10 1/8“ x 13' 1 1/2”.

Although Maoist-era socialist realists depicted the socially dispossessed, they tended to heroize them by “typifying” and abstracting them into larger socio-political categories and narratives. Liu and his fellow neorealists of the ’90s likewise focused on subjects on the margins of society, but they pictured these outcasts as particularized individual presences, objects of the painter’s disinterested gaze, and subjects resistant to being reduced to figures in a familiar tableau. Liu painted vignettes of unmotivated people in their skins and worlds: loitering young men setting fire to a mouse (Burning Mouse, 1998), migrant workers packed into a pickup truck (Disobeying the Rules, 1996), a blind man carrying a bag of meat, oblivious to a passing military vehicle (Walking Blind Man, 1994).

In the early 2000s, Liu decided to change his approach. Abject subjects remained his pictorial focus, but the scale and the effect of the backdrops shifted precipitously. Distrusting the epic pretensions of history painting had been part of the cultural DNA specific to his ’90s peers, but beginning with Liu’s monumental Three Gorges Displaced Population, 2003, instead of picturing the socially dispossessed in their own quotidian context, the artist placed them against vast panoramas, in this case the construction site of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Three Gorges is, of course, one of the biggest and most controversial public projects in modern Chinese history, and the government’s own presentation of it typically invokes the grandest of narratives—the heroic taming of unruly nature, and so on. Liu’s painting, by contrast, derives a jarring effect from the incongruity between the unheroic stature and humble demeanor of the migrant workers in the foreground, and the sweeping panorama behind them. The gigantic bid for systemic control (and hence the mandates of official narrative) is brought into sharp juxtaposition with the specific contingencies of the individual workers—just as the landscape is broken into discontinuous panels that interrupt any seamless whole.

In his follow-up piece, Three Gorges Newly Displaced Population, 2004, another enormous panorama of the almost-completed dam provides the breathtaking background. A heightened mood is here derived from the painting’s internalization of the telephoto-lens effect: The distant structure in the background is given a clarity deliberately disproportionate to the recession of space. The appearance of the migrants in the foreground is again a far cry from the exalted tone and mood of what lies behind them. Particularly notable are the two gaudily dressed young women on the far right. Their bright and skimpy clothing complicates the viewer’s response to the majesty of the panorama; the asymmetry of the colors alone is enough to trouble the otherwise stable triangle Liu creates in his depiction of the river. If this scene would traditionally call for a response in the vein of a choral hymn, patriotically extolling the heroic accomplishments of civil engineering, the girls’ sartorial gaudiness interferes with this script and undermines the showiness of the dam project. We are presented, instead, with a different reality: that of the prosaic everyday, epitomized by the indifference of the figures who populate the scene and the self-absorbed fashion-consciousness of the girls.

OUT OF BEICHUAN builds on the impulse evident in these earlier works, pushing the implications of a disjunction between foreground and background. Fashion and the everyday, again, take on a key role. Here, the girls’ hairstyles and clothing—T-shirts, short pants, frilly tights, and skirts—all suggest their attention to style. There is, moreover, an undeniable sense that this is a provincial effort at cosmopolitan chic. The seeming authenticity of the girls’ appearance derives precisely from the fact that they are who they are—and not the fabricated models in fashion magazines. But co-opted into masquerading as earthquake survivors, what are these real people doing here?

They are here to destabilize the familiar ways of looking at an earthquake scene. As soon as the earthquake hit Sichuan in 2008, it was packaged and framed by the media as a set of easily comprehensible visual narratives and scenes: the immediacy of government response, widespread public support, heroic rescue operation, lost-and-found stories, bereavement, recovery efforts, and so forth. Their visceral impact notwithstanding, such representations of earthquakes and their aftermath too easily congeal into a set of almost clichéd snapshots and montages. These do not necessarily falsify the trauma of the experience—but they make one wonder what lies beyond their conceptual clarity, the structural neatness of their presentation, and their conclusiveness. Not only is it disquieting that they tend to vault national leaders into the spotlight as heroes for managing the crisis, but they spawn the suspicion that something truly terrible must have been lost along the way.

Liu Xiaodong, Three Gorges Displaced Population, 2003, oil on canvas, 6' 6 3/4“ x 26' 3”.

Out of Beichuan does not purport to be a “more authentic” representation of the trauma of an earthquake, however. Its deliberate staging is a disclaimer to any such pretension. And if we expect to see the familiar cast of characters typically found in visual representations of earthquakes (victims, rescue workers, etc.), the painter instead gives us a group of nonchalant city girls with a regional and cultural—but not local—affinity to the earthquake site. As in his previous works, the sitters in this portrait thoroughly inhabit their own skins and worlds. They are impervious to any conventional earthquake narrative—let alone to Liu’s own staging of a folk tale of human reproduction overcoming the fallout of natural disaster.

But nor are the paintings simply satires of an old cultural myth. Rather, Liu’s tongue-in-cheek invocation of humanism—and its faith in humans’ biological or reproductive power over the inanimate world—opens onto a far-ranging reflection on desire. For with their hopes of acting or modeling careers, their contemporary clothing, etc., these girls are desiring subjects: They aspire to the good life epitomized by models and actors—at least that is the pipe dream consumer culture has instilled in them. But one subtext suggests that these figures could equally be commodified by fulfilling the desires of others: It is said that prostitutes in the region are sometimes put on cargo tricycles in the service of temporary brothels. The tricycle on which the girls huddle thus freights the scene with the suggestion that their sexuality could be exploited, in a way that speaks to the possible real-life lot for some of these provincial women. Accentuating the implications of what is at stake, Liu placed a dog that he saw wandering around the scene in the foreground, painting it as if it were emaciated: The unforgiving condition of sheer survival is brutally literal, for animals and humans alike.

Whatever the girls stand for—provincial aspiration, downgraded fashion, consumerist culture on parade, desiring subjects, or objects of desire—they seem not to belong to the earthquake site. But, Liu’s painting suggests, they too live in a context of radical displacement. (Indeed, the ubiquity of such dislocation is underscored in a group of works made during Liu’s visit to his hometown in 2010, recently exhibited at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.) In their own ways, both the out-of-town girls and the local survivor do not belong. Though the would-be actors’ clothes demonstrate their allegiance to and interpellation by the fashion industry, they are nowhere close to where they want to be—playing roles in TV dramas, say, or modeling for perfume advertisements. They are—like the earthquake survivor who has lost her home, family, and town—unmoored.

LIU ORIGINALLY INTENDED to place the earthquake survivor apart from the girls on the tricycle, casting her in isolation as a lonesome, almost spectral presence. But during the extended period spent at the site, before he got around to painting her, the girl standing to the right of the tricycle—one of the hired models or would-be actors—was found to be pregnant and dropped out of the project. This turn of events forced the painter to alter his composition in a way that radically changed the painting’s meaning. At the artist’s instruction, the earthquake survivor filled the pregnant woman’s spot. Moreover, Liu requested that the survivor don the absent woman’s garment.

The move is conceptually provocative: Placing the survivor in the company of the other girls equates the earthquake site with the world at large, the two realms becoming exchangeable and equally grim topographies. Liu’s logic of substitution, then, explicitly connects the contingency of late-capitalist life to that of natural disaster. The change wrought by an earthquake is comparable not only to the building of a dam but also to the vagaries of consumption and desire—and, more broadly, to the demands imposed on human lives by economic and social forces. The mediation of images, moreover, is itself both generative of and trumped by uncertainty. The painter’s own imposition of meaning, whether allegorical or material, is as provisional and circumstantial as the displaced figures.

This leveling operation extends to the act of painting, as is evident in the striking details of Out of Beichuan’s background. The patches of brilliant red that define the roof of a building towering over the earthquake rubble are echoed on the far left, where patches of near-identical red disengage themselves from the architectural depiction; they fly away, initially resembling birds, but ultimately only as material paint in abstraction. In the same way, irresolvable daubs of green pigment are painted over the rubble. The index of the artist’s gesture and the depicted earth are rendered parallel—each a reminder of some lost or decimated material realm—echoing the equivalence of various painterly and photographically mediated operations at work during the execution of Liu’s painting.

Concepts are not meant to be fixed, Liu suggests. A painting takes shape as ideas are planned, sketched, revised, repressed, or reconfigured during an extended process of drawing and painting. Working through a painting over time is a means of allowing various conceptual categories and identities to overlap or coalesce into fleeting equations. Much of Out of Beichuan’s charge, in fact, stems from its challenge to the received tactics that have dominated visual discourses in China: the sham heroism of Maoist social realism, the media spectacle of televised disaster, the material index, the document, even the ready­made. And if painting’s pretension to the real has seemed condemned to oscillate endlessly between these categories, Liu’s picture evinces the connection, even dependency, between them. It brings together the ultimate contingency and the utmost determination. As Liu dismantles a long-standing cognitive house of cards, image and earthquake converge.

Eugene Wang is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller professor of Asian art at Harvard University.