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Recap: Meet the Artist: Liu Xiaodong, 11.24.20
China Institute’s “Meet the Artist” Series brings contemporary Chinese artists in conversation with leading art experts about their work, process, and perspectives.
What is the role of art in society? Do artists have social responsibility? What does it mean to be a global artist? Liu Xiaodong (LX), a super star in contemporary Chinese art, answered these questions and more on November 24 in an online program.
In conversation with art journalist Barbara Pollack (BP), Liu shared four projects—depicting his hometown in northern China and the effects of urbanization; kids in a Greenland village in a time of climate change; laborers on the Texas border and immigration; and life in New York during COVID lockdown.
Full Video of Meet the Artist: Liu Xiaodong
Selected Quotes and Screenshots:
BP: The most important thing is [Liu Xiaodong’s] place as a realist artist in China. Everyone was educated in the Socialist Realism of the Cultural Revolution…he came along 10-15 years later, they wanted to use these tools to tell just the opposite message. Instead of realism to convey a government view, they wanted to use it to portray the view of the people.
The people he is looking at are not just Chinese people, they are people who are living on the fringe and endangered people all over the world. It is important to know that background before we look at the work.
LX: I grew up in a small village. My family was poor but I did not have a sense of poverty. I knew a great deal about nature and the houses were small. We did not have cars. But I had a great childhood.
Dinda Elliott (DE): What was Beijing like in the 1980s? It was a thrilling time in China. How did that effect you?
LX: It was not the cosmopolitan city that we know today. …There was a good library [at my high school]. So, we perused Art in America [and other publications] and were exposed to ideas from the West. We were the first generation of artists to see this, and we embraced the idea of freedom. In class, at the time, we adhered to a strict curriculum of French academic training and Soviet Realism. After class, in our free time, we embraced this idea of modernism – like Cezanne – and experimented, even with performance art!
It is important to know that good universities back then were the center for information dissemination. New ideas in philosophy and art could be found [there]. It is there that we got to know what was happening overseas. There were also parties with foreigners, where people exchanged a lot of things together.
The My Hometown project is about urbanization and the people left behind.
BP: What was it like to return to your village in 2010?
LX: The biggest change was of course the appearance—the small one-story houses were replaced with six story buildings. Also, the factory worker lifestyle was replaced by small merchant. Everyone was selling something.
BP: I have always loved this painting- but what does the airplane represent?
LX: In Socialist China, people were proud of their profession. This airplane was given by the People’s Liberation Army to the local factory, but the factory declined it and the plane also began to fall apart. I grew up thinking that the factory worker was the richest, the national hero, but now they are at the lowest of the social strata, so that is why I put these workers in front of the airplane.
BP: Somehow you communicated that this isn’t relaxing and fun but that it is [boredom]. You convey the impact of urbanization so well. What is your approach and what is your opinion as to the urbanization of China?
LX: I live in Beijing myself, but all of this change is happening so fast that I can’t even follow it. Everyone relies on their smart devices and, if you are not young, you cannot keep up. There is a feeling of being left behind. I like to portray people who have been forgotten by urbanization. Or people who don’t have anything to do with their time. As they become forgotten, I have a huge desire to paint them.
The Greenland project is about climate change and its impact on people.
BP: Your trip to Greenland is the perfect way for you to explain your process. How did you meet people there?
LX: I was invited to visit an orphanage there, and this whole notion seemed very poetic: an orphanage at the edge of the Earth.The “Borders” series, sponsored by the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, focuses on immigration.
BP: In every picture, you see people for their humanity. Can you tell me more about that?
LX: I asked Tom, who was the sheriff, why he didn’t object to me, at a time when many Americans were feeling anti-Chinese. He said that people should just treat each other as people. I wanted to paint Tom as he saw him in life, in his backyard.
It is only politics that categorizes people as good and bad. As artists, we are all the same. The world is not black and white. Real lives are lived in the grey areas, and I only want to live in the light of humanity, in the grey. I want to illustrate that through my paintings.
The last group of paintings, New York Spring, were done while Liu was stuck in New York during the COVID pandemic. Some were painting over photographs.
LX: I thought the city was lonely. I was only a passerby, but because of the pandemic, I felt lonely for New York.
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