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【评论】THE EMISSARY

2010-11-22 10:03:39 来源:《LIU XIAO DONG YAN'GUAN TOWN》作者:Jeff Kelley
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  In the fall of 2008 Liu Xiaodong traveled to the small town of Yan Guan in Gansu Province to paint horses. Gansu is famous for horses, and Liu set up a studio under a rain tarp on the edge of the village’s marketplace where horses are traded and sold. A year later, he returned to paint people. In particular, he focused on two local families he had gotten to know during the previous trip, one Muslim, the other Christian. During his residency in Yan Guan, he painted two group portraits (one of each family) and ten individual portraits (five per family). The Muslim family was painted in the tiny café they own, and the Christian family was painted in the church they run. In the paintings, the café looks generically Chinese – cluttered and drab, with the lower half of the off-white wall painted in a greasy green, probably lead-bearing paint – but is also appointed with some funky Islamic vernacular, including an interior niche called a mirhab, a symbolic door that indicates the direction of Mecca. Liu had eaten lunch there everyday during his first trip. The church, which is sort-of Catholic, is a dusty brick building with a plain white interior outfitted with a mish-mash of Christian iconography and evangelical gear, like a wall-sized orange cross, models of Venice’s Campanile built and/or painted into the corners, a potted Christmas tree, and a small television sitting atop a modest altar. The spirit is Southern Baptist, not Roman Catholic.

  Each place – the café and the church – became Liu’s portrait studio when he was painting its family members. Each model sat (mostly stood) for his or her portrait, and the paintings were finished on-site. When he painted in the café, people would peek in from the street; when in the church, congregants would watch from the pews. Liu would have liked to paint in the local mosque, but women and nonbelievers were not allowed entry, so the café would have to do. During his time in Yan Guan, his first and principal audience was the people he painted and who watched him paint. When the paintings were finished, Liu would carry them, without ceremony, through the streets and the fields of the village to the place he was staying – it was after a day’s work, and he looked like he could have been carrying anything.

  Yan Guan Zhen means something like “salt official little town.” In the ancient past, it was known as a salt deposit and was thus a battleground of official control since salt was as precious as gold. It was also a crossroads for the horse-trading market, which is one of the reasons Muslims and Christians – and Buddhists – crossed each other’s paths there. The town retains this frontier ethos today, and while congregations of the three major religions in the world live there, they tend not to speak of religion. They trade with each other instead. A Gansu horse is an apt metaphor of the dynamic peace that ensues.

  Liu is a work-a-day realist; he has stripped the socialist melodrama from realist painting, but did not substitute cynicism in its place, as did most of his peers in the early 1990s. He has often been mischaracterized as a cynical realist, especially in the painful wake of the political crackdown of 1989. Coming of age in the late 1980s, when the latent ideals of socialism mixed with a breezy notion of democracy that leaked in through a crack in the open door policy, Liu was rooted in his working class northern Chinese experience, and he returned to those roots after the Old Wave had washed the New Wave out of Tiananmen Square. His sense of the social purpose of painting shifted from serving the people to painting them. If there was any nobility left in the proletarian project for him as an artist, it was in the possibility of capturing the fleeting expressions of individual dignity – moments of self-awareness – in the faces and bodies of actual people, not the body politic of “the people.” This is not to say Liu romanticizes individuals, for he renders their bleary-eyed stupidity as well as their grace. But over the past twenty years he has learned to paint the psychic composite of a nation, and that – the overall effect – is the nature of realism.

  Realism in the visual arts, unlike naturalism, is not about the details, but the sense that the setting is congruent with real life. During the 1990s, the settings for Liu’s paintings - family life, friends eating dinner, the life of an artist, a trip to New York – felt like refuges from the violent historical forces loosed in 1989. He seemed to take solace in everyday life. Since 2004 his sense of the proportions of everyday life have expanded to include settings in exotic places, both in China and beyond (perhaps in resonance with the global expansion of contemporary Chinese art). He has set up temporary studios – sometimes just a rain tarp, sometimes in a museum – and painted local people in formal sittings. In the past five years, Liu has painted temporary workers and displaced citizens at the Three Gorges Dam (three times), prostitutes in a Bangkok gallery, soldiers on army bases in China and Taiwan, businessmen eating off the belly of a naked woman in Japan, high school students in Boston, men walking horses and vultures eating a corpse in Tibet, Italian men – young and old – eating (a last) supper in Rome, Cuban families in small apartments in Havana, horse traders in the marketplace of Yan Guan, and, now, Muslim and Christian families in the same town one year later. In each case, the subject matter is both exotic and familiar to Liu, and this mix, literally mixed together in paint, accounts for the tension in his realism between being simultaneously inside and outside of the picture he is staging. In his newest paintings, Liu articulates this tension in terms of two exotic religions – Islam and Christianity – that he can only penetrate, or brush the surface of, as an artist.

  The idea that Liu is both inside and outside of his pictures is reinforced by the fact that he stages his compositions in real life in order to paint them. On a rooftop in Fengjie, for example, a town upriver from the Three Gorges Dam, he carefully arranged a group of underwear-clad workers on a mattress and asked them to play cards; since the Yangtze River would one day rise to the level of the roof, it seemed the men were stoically waiting to drown. Meanwhile, the afternoon sun raked their bodies like the naked swimmers in Thomas Eakins’ “Swimming Hole” (1884-85), and the rising river and mountains beyond pressed upon the rooftop scene and its actors like the backdrop of a stage. In some ways – its immediacy, its sociability, its light, its persistence in time – the scene was better than the painting it became.

  Realist painting has always attempted to fix on canvas the spatial and temporal theater of the everyday that surrounds it. Part of the allure of Liu’s in-situ paintings is the witness they bear to his having been, so to speak, in the middle of them. They are about and of the places they depict. In this sense Liu is like a film director and his paintings are like two-dimensional movies – his models become actors. The cinematic scope of Liu’s in-situ paintings is reinforced on-site by the fact that they have all been documented on film. The presence of a film crew during the course of each residency further turns attention – the artist’s, the models’, the film crew’s, that of passersby – back onto the process of painting, in which the subjects are the actors and the painter is the star. As a star in his own act of painting, though, Liu completes the loop of consciousness by paying enough attention to the scene and canvas before him so as to exhaust himself – and in that exhaustion we sense his working class convictions. He performs painting in public, a kind of Happening, but magnifies the power of the spectacle by surrounding it with the rituals of film-making and then channels it back through the painting, as both process and object. The filming documents the painting while the painting captures the heightened on-site intensity generated by the spectacle of filming. Liu’s art, at this point, lies in creating zones of artifice not in the studio, but in the middle of real life. What that means, of course, is that art is real life brought into poetic focus.

  In Yan Guan, Liu’s focus was on the two families he remembered from the year before. In that year the outlines of their religious values came into focus for him as well. It is unusual for Chinese to think of each other in religious terms. They think of each other more in terms of class and politics. To members of the Han majority, Christianity and Islam (and even some forms of Buddhism) are exotic features of the “minority nationalities” in far-flung regions of the nation. The blanket of a “harmonious society” is usually heavy enough to smother most (but not all) smoldering sectarianism in China. Painting canvases of Chinese families that allude, however obliquely, to the “clash of civilizations” between the world’s two biggest religions makes clear that Liu’s local realism pivots on global issues. The localities in which he paints – his settings within paintings within films – are selected because they tap into themes that resonate in history and culture and politics. And yet, being a realist painter requires human intimacy, otherwise pictures of history and culture and politics would be propaganda.

  There is a photograph of Paul Cezanne posing outdoors on a sunny Mediterranean day, his bearded and unfriendly face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat as he leans on a hiking stick, waiting to go. Strapped to his back are the folded legs of an easel and a wooden paint box, as well as what looks like a rolled up section of canvas. He was going to paint, of course, probably to the sandstone ridge above Aix-en-Provence where an ancient, overgrown quarry – with its orange rocks, twisted pine tree branches, milky atmosphere, and wild Rosemary and sage – offered him a proto-Cubist landscape that foreshadowed 20th century abstraction in painting. What still seems radical about this photograph, from around 1890, is its depiction of the artist with what amounts to his studio strapped to his back – a portable atelier for a mobile, modern painter.

  Mobility has long been a leitmotif of modernity in the arts, signifying liberation from the social constraints of royal patronage and from the aesthetic limitations of academic subjects, or even from popular taste. It also indicated a greater access to space, literally as well as pictorially. With space come places – as geographic and cultural borders are crossed – and with places come people and their experiences. Cezanne preferred the landscapes to the people. Liu prefers the people, but the more he carries his studio on his back the clearer to him it becomes that mobility does not always mean access. There are some doors, like the mirhab in the corner of the Muslim café, that will never be open to him. In this sense, Liu’s new paintings are early 21st century confrontations with the limits of being newly rich and mobile – the limits of being Chinese. If China’s emissaries go humbly, though, like Liu Xiaodong goes, it may someday brush the surface of all it beholds.

  “I use my paintbrush to depict their faces,” Liu writes in his diary, “as if my hand was touching their skin.” But he is afraid to disturb them, skittish about their gods and believers. Their horses give them the illusion of mobility; their marketplace the dynamic of trade – but they are concretely embedded in place. The artist cannot truly enter, except to brush the skin of the canvas. The individual portraits, especially of the children, are as close as he gets to caressing them – even the Muslim boy, who is twelve year old, washes his feet everyday before entering the mosque with the other Muslim men, while the artist lingers outside. Muslim or Christian, they do not raise their eyes to meet his. Their gaze, to him, is remote and unfocused - except when he is painting them. “They have their joy and sorrow,” he concludes, “and I have mine.”

  January 29, 2010

  Oakland, California

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