Liu Xiaodong has always been an ally of China's Sixth Generation filmmakers as the following facts clearly show: he co-starred with Yu Hong in Wang Xiaoshuai’s first film The Days, which was basically an adaptation of his own personal experiences; in the same year, he served as the art director of Zhang Yuan’s film Beijing Bastards; he also realized paintings entitled A Close Friend Zhang Yuan and Zhang Yuan Made an Offer of Marriage to Ning Dai; in 1995, his painting Sons was based on the film with the same title directed by Zhang Yuan; in 2000, another painting, Heroes Always Stem From Youth Since Time Immemorial was inspired by Wang Xiaoshuai’s film, Beijing Bicycle; in 2004, he guest-starred with Wang Xiaoshuai as two nouveaux-riches in The World directed by Jia Zhangke; in 2005, at Liu Xiaodong’s invitation, Jia Zhangke traveled to the Three Gorges to shoot a documentary about his practice of painting from nature, and this, in turn, triggered Jia Zhangke to launch a new fictional film, sanxia haoren (Decent People of the Three Gorges)… Of course, the relationship that has developed between Liu Xiaodong and the Sixth Generation filmmakers is not limited to this kind of courteous reciprocal interaction (although being an interesting subject matter for biography writers, it is not within the scope of discussion of this essay;) his paintings and the Sixth Generation films share a deeper spiritual connection.
The Sixth Generation films are the product of the social transformation in China after 1989. Prior to that, the Fifth Generation filmmakers, represented by Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, tended to deal with historical themes and grand narratives. They used films to explore deep layers of social, cultural and psychological sediment, and reconstructed the myth of the state and of the nation by using symbolism and a highly sumptuous visual style. Their films are the reflection of the zeitgeist of the 1980s, when people sought to get to the other side of the ideological maze, to reflect on history in a deeper and more thorough manner, and to rebuild national confidence. After 1989, people returned to the trivialities of their daily lives from the intense and turbulent events of June Fourth, and the highbrow attitude of the past was replaced by a sense of disorientation and confusion. In addition, Deng Xiaoping’s talks during his historic inspection tour to southern China in 1992 further accelerated the transformation of China into a consumer society, and the sense of loss among intellectuals and the elite became even more apparent. The Days and Beijing Bastards, two films that marked the beginning of the Sixth Generation cinema, are actually the reflection of this feeling of loss and disorientation. At that time, independent filmmaking was still at its initial stage of development; limited by funding and the availability of studios or sites, the new generation filmmakers were unable to realize grand and impressive scenes, as were often found in the films made by the Fifth Generation directors. All they were able to do was point the camera at the reality they and their friends around them were living in. In fact, it is thanks to this that the hopelessness of this era has been faithfully recorded in these films.
In comparison to the films, China’s easel paintings went through a similar metamorphosis, but much earlier. In 1980, Luo Zhongli, Chen Danqing and He Duoling created their masterpieces of art history, respectively: Father, Tibet Series and Spring Breeze Has Revived. Their visual style, which is de-politicized, and aims to depict true human nature and carry out a comprehensive reflection on the relationship between the Chinese national character and the destiny of the nation, is no different from the early films of the Fifth Generation directors, except that this shift appeared earlier in paintings than in films (Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth was shot in 1984, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief was shot in 1986.) In 1989, Liu Xiaodong realized Pastoral Idyll, where he painted an indescribable feeling of sadness that he and Yu Hong had felt standing in front of a small railway station in his native North-East China. This same feeling was depicted in The Days, the film they starred in three years later: at a time when people are materially deprived and spiritually crushed, love becomes extremely precarious, and the soul has nowhere to go. Around the same time, Fang Lijun started to use his own image to create figures with shaved heads symbolizing bored rogues. Fang’s paintings and those realized in the same period by Liu Xiaodong to depict the trivialities of his and his friends’ daily lives have been called “Cynical Realism” (wanshi xianshi zhuyi.) From dealing with grand and lofty concerns about the fate of the nation, the realistic tradition of Chinese easel paintings has then descended to depicting the trivial details of the reality of the moment, mirroring the Sixth Generation Films.
Of course, the dominant spirit and attitudes of an era will leave the same marks on different art forms. The fact that Cynical Realism and the Sixth Generation Films share a certain similarity in their subject matters and ethos provides, however, no evidence for the existence of mutual influences between these two media. But in Liu Xiaodong’s case, he shared common resources and inspirations for creation with the leading protagonists of the Sixth Generation films right from the start. We can follow evidence of this in the paintings mentioned at the beginning of this essay, paintings for which he drew his inspiration directly from films or their characters. Nevertheless, the most convincing evidence is that, thanks to the close and long-term relationship he has had with the films, he managed to break through the limits of painting as a traditional medium, and has proudly entered a deeper and broader universe of painting amidst the tumult of installations, videos, performances, conceptual art and other media produced by other artists. This is the secret of how Liu Xiaodong has succeeded in maintaining artistic vitality. On the other hand, most of the other painters of the same period are simply content with the paintings that have made them successful, and try to keep up a professional career by repeating what they have already done; their works become increasingly stereotypical and dull, and there is no longer any creativity.
After a fairly brief period of “elitist” self-pitying, Liu Xiaodong quickly moved on from documenting the lives of a small circle of people, and started to paint a broader sector of the population: ordinary city people, migrant workers, and marginal groups. This shift of focus occurred almost simultaneously with that of Chinese independent films at that time (the Sixth Generation films began to concur with the New Documentary Movement in China in the mid-90s; for the sake of simplicity, they are called “Chinese independent films” in this essay.) The main characters of early independent films are mostly artists who are marginalized by the mainstream system, that is to say, people who belong to the same social class, share the same destiny and feelings, and are aware of belonging to an elite as film directors: Wu Wenguang’s Bumming in Beijing(1990) documented the lives of four “migrant” artists bumming in Beijing; The Days depicted melancholic unsuccessful artists in the academy; Frozen (Wang Xiaoshuai, 1994) focused on a radical performance artist;Beijing Bastards and Dirt (Guang Hu, 1994) was about idle rock musicians…. It was only with the appearance of Jiang Yue’s documentary The Other Bank (1995) that this narcissism came to an end: this film brought to light the cruelty and hypocrisy of the elite, by turning the camera onto the situation of lower-class children, who had come from other provinces to study in Beijing, and were used, and then abandoned by the so-called avant-garde artists. Introspection and the desire for a new perception of reality made Liu Xiaodong and independent filmmakers who believed in the principles of morality and justice in films turn their attention collectively to the lower levels of Chinese society.
What is reality? For those who have a good education, a job and a share of power in mainstream society, or those who, although being marginal, have elitist ideas and a feeling of superiority, both their bodies and souls are full of added parts and camouflage; the deeper they hide themselves behind this, the easier it is for them to be successful. So-called socialization is in fact a show in which roles continuously become more firmly established, a process in which people continuously increase the weight of their protective shell, as well as a process in which lies are told more and more easily, and truths become rarer and rarer. The only way to look for the true self is to start from the opposite of socialization, by removing all cultural adornments, and digging into the most primitive, innermost parts concealed behind a bustling and flourishing appearance. In 1997, shortly after The Other Bank shattered the myth of the elite, Jia Zhangke shot Xiao Wu, and rediscovered a source of reality for Chinese films that had long been ignored. This was real life in small towns away from the great cities, which actually occupy a larger part of Chinese territory. In this film, Xiao Wu, a thief who spends his whole day loafing about in the streets, comes into view. It is a very familiar image, which has been roaming all the time in front of our eyes. However, it is only after the film has made him larger than life that we began to notice his existence. We see him (or his ghost) again in a painting Liu Xiaodong realized in 1998, Burning A Mouse: the same clothes, the same bearing, the same state of mind as all humble yet stubborn “small people” have. Whether it is the figures on the canvas or the characters in the films, they all belong to the group of people who are least socialized, and live at the bottom of society.They are a concentration of the true aspects of Chinese reality, and remind us of our complete disregard of that.
Chinese modern art history is definitely not short of works that depict the life of lower-class people, in particular, the Revolutionary Realistic paintings that mainly focused on this category of people. However, this kind of painting is loaded with too much political baggage; lower-class people are depicted as heroes and “makers of history” who are “lofty, grand, wholesome” and “red, bright and shining,” giving off an unearthly aura. When it came to the generation of Luo Zhongli, Chen Danqing and He Duoling, the figures in their paintings began to look more human; however, these figures are too classic, loaded with too much cultural baggage. It is only in the paintings of Liu Xiaodong that the people at the bottom of society show their true nature. This truthfulness allows us to make a connection with our own life experiences, and enables us to identify with them. He uses a method of subtraction, by continuously taking off all of the elements that are imposed on the painting, thus, allowing the figures to reveal themselves. In spite of this, Liu Xiaodong is not a photo-realist painter at all; what he paints is his understanding of reality. In the same way, his colleagues in the “Cinéma-Vérité” don’t try to show reality “as it is” either; their films are not absolutely objective (even a documentary is not expected to achieve absolute objectiveness), but portray a sense of reality through a subjective viewpoint. The idea of truthfulness is not only the most important basis of Liu Xiaodong’s paintings, but also the mark that distinguishes him from other Realist painters in Chinese modern art history. What is interesting is that as a painter who grew and developed under the influence of revolutionary cartoons, Liu even had an opportunity to receive a “re-education” in revolutionary spirit years after having rebelled against its traditions: In 2004, while he was “painting from nature in the battlefield” in Quemoy (Translator: Quemoy, a small archipelago administered by the Republic of China government on Taiwan, was the site of extensive shelling between PRC and ROC forces in the 1950s and 1960s. It remained a military reserve until the mid-1990s, and direct travel between mainland China and Quemoy was made possible in 2002,) a Liberation Army cadre came and told him that he had painted the pectoral muscles of the warrior too small, “a warrior must look powerful, so his chest has to be large and wide” (see Liu Xiaodong’s Diary, in Battlefield Sketches: The New Eighteen Arhats, catalogue published by the Eslite Gallery in 2005)…
Liu Xiaodong likes to paint people naked. He always uses violent strokes to capture the flesh, which is certainly not the kind of technique appreciated by people who like “the beautiful.” Obese and clumsy children, floppy prostitutes, weary men in a bathhouse, workers crowded into the back of a truck with gas cylinders, where their flesh has been deformed under the compression of time and reality. It is a kind of invisible violence, whose concrete shape is brought to life under his paintbrush. Liu Xiaodong also applies the same technique to depict a piece of pork in a blind man’s string bag, a rolled-up lamb loaf on a restaurant table, and in River Bank: A String of Meat. The pieces of meat are exposed to the air, and start to produce chemical reactions with all sorts of substances. Far removed from conventional aesthetic standards, both the human body and the meat in Liu Xiaodong’s paintings possess a rippled skin texture and look greasy, and shimmer with materialistic zeal. The body as a physical form is the destination of reality, the terminal that nothing can ever be removed from. The fact that Liu Xiaodong likes painting bodies has nothing to do with a professional fondness developed from years of training in painting from nature; instead, it is because he wants to capture reality.Similarly, Jia Zhangke also insisted on showing Xiao Wu completely naked, in order to make reality have nowhere to hide: a forgotten body becomes even more solid and hard through the test of reality; the nature of a marginal man is revealed after all of the outer shells are taken off.
Owing to the fact that Liu Xiaodong regularly paints with the help of photos, his works resemble films a lot; people seem to be able to feel the presence of the camera in his paintings. His figures sometimes have their backs turned towards the audience, with a look concentrated on some point in the painting, but more often than not they are staring at the audience, and at the same time, at the painter. This kind of look is similar to the exchange between the actor and the camera. They are simultaneously looking and being looked at. The exchange of looks is, at the same time, the exchange between the viewer and the situation of the figure in the painting. Jia Zhangke understands this relationship very well, and uses it skillfully in his films. In his analysis of the ending of Xiao Wu (where the protagonist is handcuffed by the police on the street, and after a 360° panning, a crowd of onlookers appears,) Jean Michel Frodon wrote: “The passers-by (i.e. the common people) are looking at Xiao Wu, that is to say, they are looking at us (the audience,) and of course, in reality, they are also looking at the director and the camera on the shooting site. The director has used the simplest way to break down the voyeurism complex that is difficult to avoid in any form of artistic expression. He tore down the annoying veil, and revealed the profound secrets of the filmmaker, so that nobody can ever hide again: the power is fully exposed, and so is the audience.” (Le Monde, January 14, 1999) The question is: after having pushed the viewers into the foreground, how can we turn them into doers?
Liu Xiaodong created two large-scale scroll paintings: Three Gorges: Displaced Population and Three Gorges: Newly Displaced Population, respectively in 2003 and 2004. In 2005, he went to the Three Gorges to carry out a “painting from nature” project, reaffirming his continuing concern for the problems in the Three Gorges relocation process. This marked another transition for Liu Xiaodong: he has tried to use painting to preserve more personal details about this historical event that is currently taking place. It is a brave and responsible step for the artist to probe into this reality. After more than twenty years of development since the “85 New Wave” art movement, Chinese contemporary art is increasingly indulging in its recognition by the international art market. It is busy producing great quantities of stereotyped works, and is becoming further and further removed from the drastic transformation that Chinese society has been going through. If Chinese contemporary art was once stimulating and enlightening, it has lost its force as a form of social critique; it has even become the accomplice of state ideologies. On the other hand, the movement of personal filmmaking encouraged by the low-cost technology of digital video, with its wide and deep concern about and exploration into reality, has developed as a powerful force of social critique. The Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River has involved seventy years of planning and design, more than fifty years of research and investigation, and forty years of debate. It has been the main concern of every government. The project was finally approved and started in 1992, with a total budget of 200 billion RMB (which is still growing). The total population to be relocated has reached 1,13 million (the biggest of its kind in the world.) The project will take 17 years to complete according to the schedule, and has already generated a multitude of documents related to the controversy surrounding the project (The Compilation of the Yangtze River by writer A Cheng is a succinct compilation of historical documents on the Three Gorges construction project. See Liu Xiaodong’s catalogue Three Gorges: Displaced Population.) Such a large-scale construction project has prompted a large number of filmmakers to go to the Three Gorges to document and make films, giving birth to documentary masterpiece such as Before the Flood (Li Yifan and Yan Yu, 2004). In contrast, in the art world, Liu Xiaodong is the only person to have reacted. By chronicling the Three Gorges, he has managed to remain in tune with the newest accomplishments and the most vital forces in Chinese films.
As for the Three Gorges, there will certainly be an official history of this event. On the other hand, Liu Xiaodong’s personal account is made up of memories of his personal experiences on the site: the flocks of cormorants piled up on the Yangtze River bank, the pigs copulating on the river bank, the lustful men and hot, sexily-dressed girls that he saw will never appear in the official history. His paintings have nothing to do with great accomplishments or famous achievements, but are intimately connected with the fate of ordinary folk. You can feel that he has brought into play almost all of his experiences and capacities, as if he were a bewitched writer, and needed to go to any lengths to depict the strong feelings caused by the shock of reality as well as the burden of history. This series of works on the Three Gorges is without doubt a comprehensive expression of Liu Xiaodong’s previous techniques and styles. However, the historical immediacy and the feeling of compassion prevailing in these paintings make them go beyond all of his previous works. Similar to those masterpieces of Chinese independent filmmaking that look small but think big, Liu Xiaodong, simply by himself and with the help of colors and paintbrushes, has born witness to this extremely complex time we are living in.