Art In Conversation
Liu Xiaodong with Barry Schwabsky
On ViewLisson Gallery
May 4–June 10, 2023
Liu Xiaodong—as John Yau observed in his 2021 monograph on the artist—“epitomizes Baudelaire’s description of ‘the painter of modern life’ as an ‘independent, passionate, and impartial nature,’ even as he expands on it.” For more than three decades the peripatetic artist has roamed far and wide from his base in Beijing to immerse himself, and the viewers of his work, in a world constantly transforming in unpredictable ways. In anticipation of his exhibition Shaanbei at Lisson Gallery, New York, for which I am writing a catalogue essay, I spoke to Liu Xiaodong over Zoom. Marco Betelli, the artist’s studio manager, kindly assisted with translations back and forth between English and Chinese.
Barry Schwabsky (Rail): Liu Xiaodong, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last. I was hoping we could start by asking how you became an artist or rather, when did you discover your desire to make art?
Liu Xiaodong: Hello, Barry. When I was in the third grade of elementary school, one of my teachers decided that I was quite good at drawing, or anyway better than other kids. At that point, of course, I had absolutely no training in drawing or painting. So I then started copying some Chinese Revolutionary era artists. And then it was my uncle that actually gave me my first real training in the arts, in painting. My uncle had me copy illustrations, and then focus on color. So it was the English watercolors from the eighteenth century and some Russian artists that were my first models. Later on, I applied for the high school affiliated to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. And that’s when I started off on the path of becoming a professional artist.
Rail: So, until you went to the Central Academy, it sounds like you really did not have access to museums or to actually seeing original works of art by fine artists, but were seeing things that had to do with what we might call more like illustration, is that right?
Liu: Yes, Barry, you’re absolutely correct. In fact, before going to Beijing, I had no access to museums, to exhibitions. The only art I knew was those English watercolors, and these Russian artists that my uncle had me copying, and what I would do was paint from life my school mates, or go down to the field and do some drawing, do some sketches. It’s only when I went to Beijing that I had access to libraries, to exhibitions, to museums. So I got to know the French Impressionists. I got to know the works of Cézanne, Picasso. And then I saw art magazines with Pop art and that kind of thing.
Rail: I’m not surprised to hear that among the first works that you were shown were these ones by Russian artists, because we know about the influence that Russia’s socialist-realist art had in China, but I’m much more surprised to hear mention of the English watercolors—I think you said eighteenth century? And was that an unusual interest that your uncle had? Or was that something that was more widely appreciated in China at the time? What’s the story there?
Liu: My uncle actually graduated from an art Academy. What happened was that during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he was forced to get rid of all of the materials, all of the art catalogues he had—he only saved two: one from these Russian artists, and one from these English watercolor painters. So that’s the reason. And what my uncle would do was encourage me to observe, when painting from life, to be very, very careful about details, even if it was, you know, painting a field, painting a tree, painting the grass. So that really made an impact on my practice back then.
Rail: In fact, it sounds like you’re saying that your practice today really has its roots in those very beginnings that go back before your time at the Academy and that you’ve preserved a certain impulse toward direct observation of what’s around you that your uncle inculcated. With that in mind, though, I wonder, were you ever tempted to go off that path to become involved in other modes of art making, maybe while you were at the Academy or afterwards, that could have been, let’s say, more Pop oriented—as I believe became popular in China for a while—or maybe more abstract, or in any case, oriented in another direction than this kind of observational approach?
Liu: I spent eight years at the Academy, first at the high school affiliated with the Academy, and at the Academy itself. I spent those years learning from the masters, learning from great artists and trying to paint like them. It was only when I was done with my academic journey that I kind of went back to my real self and figured out what I wanted to do.
Rail: Is that to imply the eight years in the Academy were sort of an impediment to your development? Or did following that path away from what you call your real self, and then circling back to recover your own earlier impulse—was that a positive thing?
Liu: Without those eight years at the Academy, I would never have had the confidence to become an artist. Because back then is when I realized how difficult being an artist was. I actually became quite frustrated with my work as an artist when I was about to graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts, and I actually tried to get into film studies. Then, after a while, I went back to the Academy. And that’s the moment when I figured that I needed to let go, I needed to not try to be so serious, not try to be so self-important, if you will. And I just let go of my resolution to start a new artistic movement myself. I just relaxed. And from that point, I kind of found my own path into the art world. So to answer your question more directly, those eight years were not an obstruction to my career, to my path, they were absolutely instrumental to me becoming who I am today. I hope that answers your question.
Rail: Absolutely, yes. I was also interested in your mentioning that you’d thought of going into film as an alternative because of course, I’m aware that you’ve continued to work very closely with filmmakers, also that you yourself have used photography a lot, even if, as I understand it, you don’t use photography in the preparation of your paintings, which are done directly from observation—sur le motif, as the Impressionists used to say. But clearly you have a strong ongoing interest in these, let’s say, modern technical methods for image-making and I’d like to hear more about that.
Liu: Actually, I do use photography in the preparation of my paintings.
Rail: Ah, okay. Things I’d read about your work made me think that was not the case. So that’s also something I’d like to learn more about.
Liu: Back in the Academy, when I was preparing to become a painter, I felt that when I was watching movies, I was always very, very happy. I was always very, very content with myself. I cannot say the same thing about my artistic creation because painting was not about happiness. Also, I felt that it was much easier to express what I wanted to convey through a movie, through a film, through a video, and not through my paintings. Hanging out with people involved in the cinema industry also was a lot more fun than being alone and painting. So that was it, that was why, for a brief while, I considered giving up on my idea of becoming a professional artist, of becoming a professional painter, and thought about walking down the road that would eventually lead me to enter the movie industry. So, as for the impact that movies and films had on my art, on my painting, movies made my painting become more relaxed. I feel that the whole art history is very heavy with content. And I was at a point in art history where it was hard for an artist to find a logic within art itself. So what I learned from my friends involved in the film industry is that I could just go about my way of being an artist by dropping hints, by giving suggestions in my paintings.
Rail: What about the question of time and how that enters your work? I was thinking that a way that your paintings differ from the, let’s say, classical or traditional realism that they seem to relate to, is that a traditional realistic painting typically wanted to present itself through the fiction that it represents a single moment in time glimpsed from a determinate viewpoint, whereas I think in your paintings there’s much more of a sense of the time that went into making them, the time that goes into seeing them, as well as a multiplicity of viewpoints, and that in fact they don’t represent a single moment but rather a sequence.
Liu: I think you’re right in saying that. I would add that my wish, my desire, is to reflect on the complexity of the work of the society by putting more scenes into one artwork, into one painting. By telling more stories in one artwork. It’s a bit as if I was, you know, sitting on a wall and at the same moment seeing inside two different apartments. So as a painter, as an observer, I can observe with only one artwork two things that are going on in separate spaces and in separate times.
Rail: I’d like to hear a little bit more about the use of photography in the work, in the painting. How does that go? Is it that you take pictures on the site and then bring them back to the studio to develop them into a painting or is there another method involved?
Liu: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. I do, of course, paint on site, I do paint from life, but it’s not always the case. Especially when I travel to work on a project, I take loads of photos. These photos of course are stored in my phone or in my laptop, but they’re also stored in my mind in a very clear way, in a very systematic way, so that when I do go back to my studio in Beijing, and I’m about to paint on a canvas, if there’s something that I feel is missing, if I need more of some details, I know exactly from which resources I can draw. And sometimes when you’re looking at one of my works, you may very well feel that, you know, that this was really the scene, that was how the person was in the space, and so on, while more often than not this is not the case: it’s actually a collage of many images. I try as hard as I can to do everything by heart, out of my memory, but sometimes the photographs that I took myself come in handy.
Rail: That’s very interesting to learn because I think from what I’ve read about the work until now, the emphasis has been much more on this fact of working on site, and so I’d like to hear a little bit more if we can just go into more detail about how that process actually goes. What happens when you go to a place and decide, okay, this is where I want to set up, to start painting, then what happens?
Liu: What usually happens is that I set my mind and my eyes on places, on locations that present a high degree of complexity. If a place is not at all complex, I probably have no interest in painting it. So what I do is, I do not do my homework. I do not do plenty of research on that place. So I only go with, you know, a very general idea of what is going on in that place, of what kind of people, what kind of environment I’ll find in that location. And the reason behind that is that I don’t want things to be pre-arranged too much. So I want a level of casualness, of chance, if you will, to be the strongest element in my painting. So I travel to the place, and then what happens happens. I meet with someone, I find someone interesting, find someplace that seems more interesting than other places. And then I start painting a few works on site. And it’s never the whole series. So the majority of the artworks are realized in my studio in Beijing. And that’s by me taking a lot of photographs and writing diaries. That’s generally how I go about a project.
Rail: So would you say it’s more a question of finding the people in the place that you want to connect to? Or is it more about finding a physical location within the area that seems interesting? Or can it be either one?
Liu: What I do is when I travel to a relevant place, whoever I meet there, I am going to be painting; whoever I meet in this relevant location, this relevant place that is willing to be painted and to work with me, that is good for me.
Rail: Do you consider that this work is connected to journalism? In many ways it sounds like you act like a sort of reporter who goes and embeds himself into a certain situation and tries to find out the viewpoints of the actors who are in that situation.
Liu: Yes, in a way I agree with you. The main difference between what I do and what journalists are supposed to do is that I do not by any means give an account of events. I just get to a place, I decide that I want to tell something about that place, and then whoever I meet, that person is good for me to be a sitter for my portraits. I don’t wish to investigate and tell some truth about that place.
Rail: It sounds like what you are avoiding, perhaps, is the claim to give an overview. I think about the work that you did around the Three Gorges Dam. And of course that was a situation that was, as you know, reported a lot in the international press. But in the news or in a journalist account, it has to be framed within the larger context of development and industry and so on. You’re going down to a more microscopic level, it seems.
Liu: Yes, that is very representative of what I do. What I do is a bit like being a very irresponsible journalist. One that does not investigate too much. The only thing I do is get to a place. I paint a painting. That’s it. I’m sure that all of the actors involved in my painting have a lot to say, and have many truths. In a way, I have no interest in, and I have not the capabilities to be portraying all of these very complex issues in my art. So that’s what I do. That’s being a very irresponsible journalist, a lazy journalist.
Rail: That’s a very modest way of describing what seems to be a very ambitious project. Maybe an irresponsible journalist is a very responsible painter. [Laughter]
I’d like to know a little bit more about how the places are chosen, particularly maybe those outside of China—because I imagine that even before you get there you know something more about the places that you’re going to visit in China, even if it’s a place that’s new to you. But when you go to work abroad, how does that come about? Is it that you are being invited to go to a certain place, or that you’ve done some research and said “oh, there’s an interesting place I want to find out about,” or how does that happen?
Liu: During my professional career as an artist, I’ve worked on around twenty projects, and with half of them, or at least a third of them, I was invited to do those projects. What usually happens is that the institution, the galleries, the museum, that invites me asks me to choose between two places, between two locations. So I decide which one looks more interesting to me. And then I travel to the place and I go out of my way—even though I’m a very irresponsible journalist, even though I do not do research before getting to the place—when I do get to the place, I go out of my way to meet the locals, to live among the locals. I usually rent an apartment and spend time there. I don’t go there just for a few days, I stay there. I try to experience life as the locals do, live the local ways of life. And even if most of the time I do not understand their language—because I have done projects all over the world, and I cannot possibly be able to communicate with those people myself—that’s not at all important to me, because I’m sure that by depicting their appearances, by depicting their homes, by depicting their jobs, their workplaces, I’m already telling a lot about that place. Putting a lot of that place on my canvas. So in a way, in this world, there are no foreign places to me.
Rail: Just to clarify when you say you spend not just a few days but you go and stay in the place, are we talking about a stay of a few months, or a year? How long do you spend being on site for one of these projects?
Liu: It’s usually one to two months.
Rail: And then the amount of time spent afterward in the studio to complete the project would take about how long typically?
Liu: This is very, very hard to say because every project is different. So for the “Shaanbei” project, I spent four years working on it. It can very well be that I spend one, two months in a place and then I go back to my studio in Beijing, and I keep on working for another half year, one year. But in the past, I have also completed the whole project on site. So that happens. That happened in London; it really depends on the condition of the place.
Rail: Speaking of Shaanbei, which is the subject of the upcoming exhibition—I’d just like to hear more about that. I have to admit it’s a place name that hadn’t been familiar to me before. It’s not something I think we’ve heard about much in the United States. So I looked it up. I understand that it’s a kind of quite important place in the history of the Chinese Communist Party and also has a lot of folk art and folk music that’s very particular to it. Tell me more about the origins of this project and your interest in working there.
Liu: There are actually a few different elements that went into my decision to take on the “Shaanbei” project. One of the main reasons is that, as you probably know, Shaanbei, as the cradle of the Chinese Communist Party, was the place where literary and artistic policies were set, were established early on. So it’s a very symbolic place for Chinese art. Another reason that is probably very much related to this is that my own teachers, my own professors, were actually in Shaanbei back in the day, so they very much come from that region. And this is something that I had never thought about. Only more recently did I start to think again about what I actually learned from them—what I learned from the Western arts and what I learned from my teachers at the Academy. A more personal reason is that I had visited Shaanbei when I was a student at the Academy. When I was a boy, when I was a school age boy, I spent time there, I met people there, and this is a place where I went when I was nobody. So I have a lot of personal feelings involved in this project. I felt that I was kind of obligated to go back and to more earnestly, more seriously, think about these questions, think about these issues. So as you can see, there are several elements that made me decide to take on this project.
Rail: And so did you find something there that was different from what you expected or what you remembered from your early visits? Was there something that surprised you that came out of the adventure of returning to the spot?
Liu: The thing that I noticed immediately and that I was most surprised of is the level of the urbanization process, the way that the tall and modern buildings have made their way into the valleys, and even the very iconic Yan’an Pagoda—which became actually a symbol of the Chinese Communist Party and of the revolution—is now actually kind of dwarfed by taller buildings not so far away. I didn’t think that that could be possible, you know, in an ideal socialist society. That was very much a surprise to me.
Rail: Very interesting. I don’t want to keep you, I know it’s very late where you are, but I have one last question. I know that you lived in New York as a young man, and I know that you were also here for quite some time, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic when your flight home was canceled and you had to stay on. Perhaps you’ve spent more time here as well at other times, I don’t know. But I think that you know New York well, and maybe you know it better than we know you. Is there anything that you feel we New Yorkers should understand about seeing your exhibition and your work in general that we might not immediately have thought of or been aware of?
Liu: I have one very, very ambitious wish for this show in New York. And it would be that after seeing the exhibition, the audience might be able to see things from my own perspective—to adopt my perspective when looking at things. I am very much aware that this is a very difficult thing to do. So I would content myself to provide viewers in New York with a little diversity. To let them see something that they very possibly have never seen.