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Liu Xiaodong – Painting As Shooting

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Liu Xiaodong

Art book 005

Painting as Shooting
Curated by Jérôme Sans

Painting as Shooting<br />
Curated by Jérôme Sans
Liu Xiaodong in his Beijing Studio. © Jiang Jia.

Fast Forward

Jens Faurschou

Documentary. If I could document my life and things happening in the world for this short period of time, it would be something like this. My first single record by the Beatles Help, when I was 5 years old, and Imagine by Lennon a few years later. Nixon’s and Kissinger’s bombs over Vietnam. The 1972 terror in Munich. The Hippies. The frightening weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War. The fall of the wall. The Balkan war. The 9/11. The endless war against terror. The refugees…

These pictures passed through my head in less than a minute. Images from the media and music from my childhood, imprinted in my mind as if they had been chiseled in. My personal documentaries. 

They say that “painting is dead and has been dead for decades”. The art of Liu Xiaodong is not just “painting”, it is the documentary of life. Just as the old master paintings are the best documentaries of life throughout the centuries. His impressions of moments will become historic documents for the future. From snap shots of his hometown to the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake. They are invaluable for our true comprehension of history.

Painting as Shooting reflects Liu Xiaodong’s way of working. This exhibition title is the great outcome of the successful collaboration between Liu Xiaodong and Jérôme Sans, after I asked them to make our first show in Venice at the Cini Foundation. “The painter and his curator”. A sublime constellation. 

As a result of our fruitful interactions in Venice in spring 2015 I have found my-self being involved in Liu Xiadong’s project in Ordos – a ghost town in Inner Mongolia built for 1 million people but with an actual population of only 20.000 – later that summer. If I could think of the most surrealist experience of my life, it would be that trip. The peculiar world I witnessed there has left a permanent imprint in my memory. The resulting paintings and films of Liu Xiaodong portray the inexpressible essence of Ordos. They were shown in our Beijing space in autumn 2015 and I am pleased that they are a part of the show Painting as Shooting in Copenhagen today, where the works from our Venice and Beijing exhibitions merge. This is another documentary chapter in history, recorded through the eyes of one of the most important artists of our age. 

If you asked Liu Xiaodong to sell one of his paintings he would come up with many excuses for not selling you the particular one. Actually, when you visit his studio, the paintings are hidden away to avoid the risk of the visitor falling in love with one and asking to buy it. Despite this challenge, after years of thirst and excruciating negotiations, we have been fortunate enough to acquire some outstanding examples of Liu Xiaodong’s art. One of my attempts, however, never succeeded and never will. I asked him to sell Jincheng Airport from the Hometown Boy series: a masterly painting depicting his friends. The strokes, the colours, the composition in it are altogether overwhelming. I knew it was the end of this discussion when Xiaodong said: “I can’t sell my friends Jens – never”. I couldn’t ask him again and I never will. 

We can enjoy the reproduction of Jincheng Airport in this book and for some time even witness it ‘live’ at the exhibition here in Copenhagen. It is the painting, which demonstrates that “painting” is as alive as it has ever been. We just need a real master to prove it. It is the artist shooting and we get it right in our face.

Liu Xiaodong at a military encampment in suburbs of Beijing. © Xiaodong Studio.

Painting as Shooting

Jérôme Sans

Liu Xiaodong’s work focuses subtly, yet forcefully on the deeply rooted convergence of social and environmental moments in our contemporary life. Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963) is regarded as one of the leading figurative painters of the “New Generation” of 1990s’ Contemporary Chinese Realism and one of China’s foremost artists. Although he is a key figure of that generation, his unique practice is considerably different from, and much more complex than that of the other painters in the group. He sees and depicts humanity in our ever-evolving world with a universal perspective on global transformation, not with a China-centric perspective. 

Painting as Shooting was conceived as an exhibition in three chapters, produced by Faurschou Foundation, in Venice, Beijing and Copenhagen. The first step, which took place at the Cini Foundation for the 56th Venice Biennale, was the first major European institutional exhibition to fully explore Liu Xiaodong’s unique practice, as one of China’s most influential painters of the last two decades. The second, presented by Faurschou Foundation in its Beijing space, presented the most recent series of works created by the artist during his stay in Ordos in Inner Mongolia. The last chapter, mixing the first two shows, represents the most updated survey on Liu Xiaodong’s work. 

Some people regard Liu Xiaodong as a painter of everyday life in China, with his images of family and friends set against modest scenery and captured at ordinary moments, such as eating, laughing or playing games. However, in-depth exploration of what is hidden behind these small narratives, which populate the surface of his work, reveals a much bigger picture. With one simple gesture, Xiaodong conveys the reality of the margins and paradoxes of our contemporary society. It is a reality that lies behind a dark curtain, behind which no one dares look; a reality, about which no one dares speak. It is the tough reality of day-to-day existence in displaced communities: from migrant workers, victims of ecological and natural disasters and sex workers, to the new homeless. All of them share the dream of a better life. Xiaodong subtly captures their dignity and poignancy in the few small, beautiful moments that their existence permits. 

The exhibition, Painting as Shooting, focuses on a unique selection of some of the artist’s most important projects from the last decade. They deal with major global, sociological, cultural, economic, ecological and environmental issues from the past ten years. It is not meant as a retrospective exhibition, but rather as a journey through images of the various worlds and situations he has witnessed all over the world, in locations such as China, Asia, Cuba, Europe, Israel etc. 

His approach is not that of the normal painter who goes to his studio every day to paint with the aim of developing a prolific body of work. He conceives his rare series in a long process of contemplation, focus and reflection. Liu Xiaodong constructs his work with the tools and storyboard of a filmmaker, as implied by the exhibition title, Painting as Shooting. His conceptual approach makes the process an integral part of the work itself. 

Originating from a thought in a diary, each major work is produced live, but begins with the simple step from that one daily diary entry to the thoughts relating to the events witnessed, photos taken or people observed, which are subsequently transformed into live painting performances on location.
Liu Xiaodong embodies the concept of artist as director. 

On paper and canvas, on video and film, he documents each step of the creative process, recording his methods, motifs, observations and impressions. Each component forms an integral part of the final work. He is the artist-as-director. The people he paints are his actors and we, the observers, are his live audience. 

Each series he paints is like a well-prepared expedition, in which Liu Xiaodong gradually enters the world he is seeking to convey, in order to fully understand the context of the situation he will be depicting. He manages discreetly to persuade the characters in the situation to become the protagonists of their own lives. 

Once he is on location for the live moment of painting, his rapid execution of the works also becomes a final, ephemeral performance, which freezes the tension of the scene in time, condensing it into one solid body: the final painting. This is no ordinary painting. It is more like an essence, a still shot captured and extracted from a long series of actions. 

The most recent series, Diary of an Empty City, first presented in Beijing at the Faurschou Foundation, shows a body of work painted live on location during the summer of 2015. Liu Xiaodong has long been fascinated by the Chinese phenomenon of the “ghost city”, which has frequently been portrayed by 

Western press and by the aficionados of urban planning. So the artist chose a propitious location in Ordos in Inner Mongolia, to set his latest scene for live painting and for a reflection on the Chinese “dream life” and “dream city” environment. 

Ordos is situated in the centre of a region, which has some of the largest deposits of coal in China. In record time it has been transformed from one of the poorest areas in China to one of the wealthiest. Local farmers and miners have become the protagonists of rags-to-riches stories, as regional and city governments have built the “dream city”. Ordos is a giant metropolis with amazing infrastructure, including condominium towers, shopping malls, a museum and high-speed trains. However, it remains a mysteriously empty place with a population of approximately 20,000 inhabitants. It is a city without residents, an unfinished plan, and a paradoxical place. The realisation of a modern dream society in terms of urban infrastructure, simply lacks inhabitants to fulfil its dream life. 

Liu Xiaodong investigates the ideal of the dream life in the light of the current Chinese lifestyle, discreetly asking: “What is our dream?” Could the Chinese common man’s search for his dream existence in some ways be an unattainable mirage? Liu Xiaodong also reflects on the question: “A ghost city or a crowded city: which is better?” 

Liu Xiaodong restores to painting the voice that it has lost in recent times: painting as a commitment that subtly revolutionises our way of looking at the world through art. 

Most recently Liu Xiaodong reactivated the issue on human migration, which appeared in his earlier Hot Bed series. Previously he portrayed migrants within Asia, both in his homeland China and in Thailand. Today Liu focuses on the largest migration and humanitarian problem since World War II: communities taking the most dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea and the most hazardous routes into Europe to escape the wars in the Middle East and Africa, hoping to find a better future in Europe. This issue will not only impact Europe, but the rest of the world.


To be continued... an on-going interview between Liu Xiaodong and Jérôme Sans, composed of pieces from different events and times since 2008

Liu Xiaodong & Jérôme Sans
Liu Xiaodong with Jèrôme Sans, Venice, 2015. Photo by Yu Hong © Xiaodong Studio.

Liu Xiaodong interviewed by Jérôme Sans, Beijing 2008, Beijing 2011, Venice 2015:

[In physical book only]

Liu Xiaodong interviewed by Jérôme Sans, Ordos 2015:

When and why were you interested in making a project in Ordos? 

For several years now I have been hearing about Ordos, this brand-new city in the prairie of Inner Mongolia. The city condenses my recognition of the whole society in general – rapid development, industrialisation, urbanisation etc. All these reflect what is happening in China. Everywhere is overloaded; schools are increasing enrollment; cities are enlarging; and new cities are being built in non-urban spaces. I’ve felt these changes for many years now. And finally, you yourself have been responsible for much progress here in China and abroad. You are a curator whose involvement and suggestions can awaken an artist’s passion. At times, when left to my own motivation, I am somewhat slack. For my last exhibition at UCCA in Beijing, you had helped me to develop a theme based on my hometown. And now again, after our numerous discussions, I thought Ordos could be an interesting place to explore, and your input incited my curiosity to come and work here. 

As you said, there have been many architects and artists that have come to create their works in Ordos. Why have you waited so long to come to Ordos? 

It might have to do with my personality. When I was younger, I would often find it difficult being at parties. I always would only start to feel like I existed around the time when everyone else started to leave. Or I stayed till everybody had left, which was actually a happier moment for me. My personality drives me to avoid crowds and things that other people get excited about. 

In Ordos there are many artists’ studios, but not many communities and organisations specifically for an artist’s interaction or infrastructures. 

It’s not difficult to imagine that a new city, where many people come together, calls for culture and a variety of participants. For example, people from the film industry. It’s a good wish for the city’s development. Artists are somehow different. They are like the flies enticed by raw meat, tirelessly searching for the most challenging and exciting places, and exploring new territories by themselves instead of staying in habitual places. Predictable and overly planned things are uninteresting.

I noticed that the infrastructure in Ordos is well developed, including stadiums, museums, theatres etc. All aspects of daily urban existence have been carefully studied and taken into consideration, which is very surprising. 

Yes. The government established a city based on its own will and an ideal master plan. However, the reason why people come to a city is more about working opportunities and social networking. Good infrastructure is not a good enough reason to attract people to live somewhere. You see, many castles in Europe are quite cheap, but people are more willing to pack into a small and expensive apartment in the centre of a metropolis. The contradiction of human desire is interesting.  

Ordos is known globally as a ghost town where local herders and farmers became rich overnight when they discovered the coal deposits under ground. Most of them sold their properties with the idea of becoming real estate developers. They soon began to invest their money in creating a city that they thought would grow to accommodate a population of millions. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way and many went bankrupt after the coal boom and China’s search for clean energy. Is it the other side of the “Chinese dream”?

I think cities and communities that grow in a natural, more organic manner are much more interesting. Those that are artificially planned usually end up with problems. Upon my arrival in Ordos, someone asked me if I preferred a bustling city or a ghost city. This is a difficult question to answer. I might still prefer the ghost city, because it is somehow a true luxury to enjoy such huge infrastructural resources without competing with other people. I personally think it must be a pleasure for local people to live here. 

In fact, do you see the conflict between Ordos’ pastoral nomadic background and the dream to become a large industrial city? 

Of course. The roots of this city’s activity are linked to agriculture and cattle breeding. I have always felt there is great friction between agricultural and industrial societies. Agricultural societies have been completely overwhelmed and, in essence, defeated by industrial civilisation. I somehow enjoy agricultural society more. We make a huge sacrifice as a population to enjoy the convenience of industrialisation. The perfect example of this is here in Ordos, where the infrastructure has preceded the industrial movement with a city built 50 years ahead of its time. I believe that potentially in 50 years, it will become even more modern. However, during these 50 years, in this huge city with few people living in it, the cost of maintaining the city will be exorbitant. The changes we make in order to assume this industrial lifestyle and enjoy an industrial civilisation are at a very high cost. 

We live a in a paradoxical global phenomenon where urban cities want to bring back traditional farming products and more nature, while people who live in the countryside want industrialisation and modern urbanisation. Here in Ordos, it seems that these opposite desires co-exist. 

I come across this situation a lot. I have been to many rural places to paint, and encountered many local people who held great longing for urban life, to enjoy the railway and the rapid social development. Also, there are many city dwellers who dream about the countryside. But if they were to really live in the countryside, the idyllic illusion might soon quickly draw to an end. It is difficult to reach reconciliation here. How to balance the benefit of the two sides is something we need to think about. 

How do you choose the locations to paint? 

I find places where it’s challenging, and where conflicts form and where I cannot find clear answers. For example, here in this place, shooting up from the middle of the grassland stand two pieces of alien architecture. If it were just two Mongolian tents, that would not be as exciting. 

You could say the same to explain why you choose to paint the other two, one of which is the museum? 

Yes. I like those places that ask intriguing questions and give no clear answer. 

It is almost like Google Maps, where you gradually zoom in and search for three specific locations. How do you find the exact location where you want to paint? 

I spend a lot of time searching for the right spot in the city. On the highway coming into Ordos, I noticed the stadium and it looked spectacular. So I decided to drive off the highway and get out and walk around it. Then I found there was a hill beside it, and thought it might have a better view. When I arrived at the top of the hill, I thought this was it. 

How did you choose the characters to be part of your work? 

Every time I have a different theme. This time, I wanted to find very good-looking, young Mongolian people. I didn’t have enough time to go to every place, so I just tried to find the best characters from what I encountered and invited them to be part of my work. 

What I find very interesting in the characters you chose is the young couple: a young man and woman dressed in traditional Mongolian attire. They are like what tourists expect to see when they come to town: a perfect selfie from a Mongolian visit with local people wearing their very traditional clothing. This is not everyday attire for these characters, but costumes they wear to pose for tourists in order to make their living. You can find this in New York, Paris, Venice, Rome, Barcelona…

Right now everything can be painted. Traditionally people can paint their real life and how they act in their real life instead of how they pose in front of tourists for photographs. For example, the people who dress like gladiators standing in front of the Colosseum in Rome, I would not know how to paint them. But now, the purpose of painting is not to restore real life. As long as you find some interesting points, you can even paint people posing. I painted this young Mongolian couple not to restore their everyday life, but as a symbol of Mongolian life. Different work has a different focus. 

We could say that it raises another question. Is there a room for disappearing tradition in fast urban development? What should we do about this? 

This is a big question. In today’s society, everyone is packed together in a huge wheel moving forward. However, some traditions can get left behind. No one in the world is able to maintain all the traditions and, even if they did so, some of them would become tourist products. However, if we do not protect the traditions, our wheel and movement will become more and more boring. As an artist, I feel very hopeless and sad to witness this disappearance and loss, and I paint to document how I feel. 

In one painting, the old man with the horse is slowly disappearing and fading into the background. It seems to symbolise that the nomadic way of life is leaving us. Horses are often part of your vocabulary, and appear in some of your previous work. Why?

Since our contemporary bodies cannot endure the rigorous lifestyle of tribal people, we still need to keep the spirit of a nomadic style. Our spirit doesn’t like to be trapped in one place; it needs to be free. Otherwise we human beings will reach our end. The horse, in this sense, is a symbol of nomadic spirit. 

Three big paintings created in three different locations at three different times. Why?

It is like a war between agricultural society and industrial society. The people standing for agricultural society are like Don Quixote, fighting against industrial civilisation. They fight in the morning and in the afternoon, and when the industrial society is sleeping at night, the agricultural society thinks they have won. The truth is they are completely defeated. They are just self-comforting. 

You mentioned in a previous conversation that you were influenced by the Yuan Dynasty while creating these works. Could you talk more about this? 

I like the paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties. And the Yuan Dynasty was the golden age for paintings of horses. The paintings that indicate the relationship between humans and horses were at their most natural during that period. Since I wanted to paint this subject as well, I tried to pick up some techniques from the past with an attempt to evoke reminiscences of that golden age. Also, as you know, the Yuan Dynasty was Mongolia’s heyday. 

The body of work looks more polished and detailed than your previous works. Often your work is famous for its unfinished touch, one trace, one brush stroke, and you leave a blank in your painting. But this time they look very refined and very finished. It seems like a slight stylistic evolution, what do you think? 

This time I wanted the paintings to be detailed and condensed. It has something to do with the subject of the vast prairie landscape. The sleekness of modern architecture cannot be depicted in a few strokes and the vastness of the distant scenes requires more detailed expression. Here, the painting would actually look like an ancient traditional Chinese painting, if there were no viaduct in it. Therefore, I painted more details and this series is overall more finished to express this feeling. 

Vermeer was the inspiration for a lady’s dress in your painting. Can you talk more about this? 

There is always a lot of information and influences popping up in a painter’s mind. The colour of the lady’s dress is such a beautiful pure blue colour that it reminded me of the blue in Vermeer’s work. Even though the time I spent here didn’t allow me to paint the same blue, he did inspire me. 

Besides the big paintings, you often produce medium-sized, smaller-sized paintings. Are they more like close ups of smaller scenes? 

I would like to paint some smaller paintings of the real city scenes of today with, for example, the street and the empty buildings around. Maybe some ink wash paintings as well about the relations between humans and horses. These small paintings would act as a supplement to the big paintings. In the large paintings, everything was arranged according to my imagination. For example, now horses are not allowed in the city, but I have them entering the city in the painting. So in the smaller-sized paintings, I want to focus on a true depiction of the real settings and the absurd situations one finds in the city.

So you are showing two sides of the reality of the city: the imaginary part and the real? 

Yes, exactly. 

Liu Xiaodong interviewed by Jérôme Sans, Beijing 2015:

After Ordos, you just realised a project in two different parts for a museum in Italy. The first part deals with one of the bigger issues of our time: this recent surge in migration to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Why did you choose this issue?

Refugees are a very important topic in today’s world. Although I myself am not a refugee or migrant, and am not directly influenced by this refugee situation, I believe what is happening now will have a very large impact on the situation in Europe for many years to come. 

But, as a Chinese person looking at this from outside, what is your take on this situation?

I think, for many people all over the world, Europe is in some ways an idealised dreamland, the most developed region in the world. Everyone likes Europe. But when such a large conflict (in Syria) leads to so many people coming to Europe, even though it may seem that it is irrelevant to my situation because I am far away in China, change in Europe will affect the world, so what happens there is very important to me as well.

It is something that also touches Africa and China, because it echoes historical issues, which are not just something new but have been around for many years.

Yes, true. Such events have happened often through history, but perhaps I just never noticed them or most of the time I never knew about them and never realised they were happening. But this time I learned about the situation from the news coverage and as an artist I wanted to go and see it and deal with it in my own way. 

And you made a big trip in response to this situation, trying to follow the road of the migrants on your own. Why did you feel the need to make this trip yourself?

I had to make an effort by myself. I travelled, following the news of the situation in order to make an artwork. Even though ultimately I didn’t find the Syrian refugees because they move too quickly and the routes they follow change too quickly. I found the place where the young boy (Aylan Kurdi) was washed up, on a peninsula in Southern Turkey near the town of Akyarlar. I also went to Greece, Hungary, Austria… On this path, in all of these places I was just one step behind the refugees and realised that they were moving and changing their routes much more quickly than I could keep up with. But I met many Afghani, Pakistani, African and Iranian refugees instead.

The thing is, now many of the countries that were crossed or elected by those refugees are starting to close their borders. How do you see this, because the situation is constantly in flux? Sweden is thinking of closing its borders, Eastern European countries such as Hungary are building fences and are re-closing their borders, so the refugees have to try to find new routes all the time.

On the one hand, I am sympathetic with the refugees. But on the other hand I can empathise with those in power as well, because it isn’t easy to be in a position of power. For example, Europe is in a position of power in terms of the refugees. But one must also realise the situation of the refugees and their difficult plight…

Europe cannot bear the burden of too many refugees. It is really such a difficult situation to resolve. As an artist, I feel like a sports fan. Sometimes I root for the weaker team, but if the powerful team truly loses, I cannot be completely happy either. That is how I feel. I’m not a reporter, I’m not a politician, so on my journey whether or not I find the people I search for is unimportant. In today’s globalised world there are many things that I know about and learn about (through the news etc.), but there is no way for me to personally experience or be influenced by all of those events. As an artist, what is more important is one’s own effort. I need to make an effort. The result is irrelevant. What is important is the effort behind it. I support both sides, I feel for both sides and it is too difficult to choose one side.  

Art is about failing sometimes as well.

Yes it is. 

And how do you see the future of this phenomenon, which seems not to reduce but to grow and tomorrow maybe more countries will close their borders…

It will definitely become more complicated than it is now…


In making any decision, one has to think of the implications for the other side. Artists cannot make decisions. It is best to leave decision-making to the politicians, because artists experience the world through their hearts, through their emotions. They are distant. No one listens to artists on the subject of how to live, so an artist’s contribution lies in his or her emotions and personal concerns. This is their most important contribution. But artists lack the power or the capability to truly decide and make decisions. I find it very difficult to judge, to determine what is right and wrong. But I am certain that the situation will get more and more complicated in the future.

The other part of the project has not progressed that far, since you are underlining a special community in Italy that is almost invisible. It is the Chinese community in Italy, in Prato, the town with one of the largest communities (of Chinese) in the country. It is a metaphor for the Chinese communities in Paris, in New York or in other countries, in that the Chinese don’t make so much noise, but moved to places like this, and took it over “in the shade.”

I think it is intricately related to Chinese traditions and customs. Chinese people have a strong culture of privacy. Their displacement leads to a very decisive attempt to live together so that they can all eat the food they are used to eating together. They also want to live in a linguistic environment like the one they are used to, since their customs and traditions are very different from those of most Europeans and Americans. Most Chinese migrants emigrate in order to try and earn more money, which they then send back to China and build a house there. Even though they might end up obtaining a foreign passport, they will still continue to listen to what the Chinese embassy tells them, so it’s a bit of a strange situation. Chinese work a lot, quietly…

They are really very different from other people. I find it somewhat strange myself. They sneakily go about earning their money and everything seems very peaceful and untroubled from the outside. They are afraid of other people discovering them and since they feel they already have everything they need, they just secretly go about their lives, not letting outsiders see the lives they lead. Actually it’s the same situation in China. Traditionally people are not very ostentatious. Rich people don’t like to announce their riches to the world, and those with power don’t like their power to be visible to everyone. This is all related to China’s cultural traditions and customs.

And progressively they build little or big Chinatowns.

Yes, they grow in a similar manner to the way, in which Beijing has grown. The more people come, the larger and larger the city or Chinatown becomes. The Chinese are a very centralised people. They like living together and most are afraid to go off on their own. This goes back to the traditions and customs. I think maybe with refugees and migrants from Syria or other countries, once they reach Europe they will listen to, and live in regard to European laws, they will want a place to live, food to eat and a job. They will make themselves heard and make their wishes clear, to use their individual human rights to try and obtain what they want. Chinese people wouldn’t do this, they wouldn’t make a big fuss about it, and they would just slowly labour away. So you’re correct in what you said. You never know where the Chinese are and then suddenly one day you realise a certain area is full of only Chinese people and you’ll wonder how there seem suddenly to be so many. They slowly slowly make their way and their presence gets larger and larger.

Sometime in those Chinatowns they speak only Chinese and not the local language of New York, London or Paris. Even some Chinese who live there for decades don’t speak the local language.

Most of them are like that. They only speak the Wenzhou dialect (of Mandarin), not standardised Mandarin. But I think it is slowly changing. I think for the younger generation, those born in and after the 1980s, they have all studied in the local schools, because education is very important to the Chinese, so all of the younger generation can speak the local language. Older people can’t, and the new emigrants can’t either, for example the newest migrants who leave China when they are already middle-aged, they definitely cannot speak the local language. But young people do learn the local language. So does the second generation. 

But sometimes it is interesting, because you think they live as if they were still in China but exported somewhere else, landing on the other side of the world and living as if in China, but in a Western country.

Yes, I wanted to say that as well. It is very difficult for many of them to change their habits and customs and they bring all of their life and their customs with them when they emigrate. But, those of the younger generation, those that can speak Italian, spend their lives helping those who cannot speak the local language. They run the law offices, the banks and the hospitals, which those who never learned the local language use. Consequently, this means that those who cannot speak the local language will never learn it and have no need to learn it. Most of them, when they get very old, return to China. When I was in Prato, someone told me a funny anecdote where an Italian person asks: “Do Chinese people never die?” Because when Chinese people reach old age and are close to dying, they don’t die in the country they have emigrated to, but definitely have to return to China. Once they get old, they return. 

Beautiful. But the thing is that the West today and traditionally has not yet recognised the economic and cultural importance of the Chinese community as they are doing with other ethnicities… To make it simple, in America you always hear about African-American identity, but seldom hear of Chinese-American importance. There is very little presence of Chinese-American life and identity on television, in the historical consciousness, no Chinese-American museums etc. It is the same in Europe, but I think this is very interesting because you chose Prato, a suburb of the very historically famous city of Florence. And Prato is an industrial city, where the economy has been helped or developed by a lot of Chinese living there. Most workers in the factories are Chinese, if I am not mistaken.

True. Actually I think this has something to do with the Euro-American world view and the education that they receive as children in school. When learning about world history, China is just a part of the Far East. I think history lessons in Europe and America deal much more with Africa and South America, because this is a very important part of their history, a part of their colonial history. But China is just seen as the Far East, and just a part of the idea of the Far East at that, even though it is such a massive and important country.

For Western people, if they have never come to China before, this country remains something out of a fantasy, something unreal. Because, in the most basic history lessons, China is barely mentioned or not mentioned enough. This directly affects what you asked, in that so many emigrants come from China, but even if there was a museum no one would go and visit it. It wouldn’t make economic sense because people don’t understand China. People don’t know how to wrap their heads around China. Even people who travel don’t want to come to China because they don’t really know much about it. They barely even know where China is. Only in the last decade or so, with China’s economic rise, do people know about China. Before it was just the Far East, somewhere in the Far East, and, when it came to the Far East, people maybe only used to think about Japan. So this situation is due to the overall education of the vast majority of Europeans and Americans. 

For African-Americans and African-Europeans, even though their social standing might be quite low and long-standing prejudice exists, their culture has very easily seeped into Western popular culture as a whole. For Chinese people and those of Chinese ethnicity, even though a large number are present in the IT, legal and other large and important economic and technological sectors, there is still no idea or concept of Chinese people apart from the idea of Chinatown. So the idea of Chinese migrants is limited to the space, in which they are most present and crowded together, Westerners looking in ask why they wear such ugly clothing, eat such strange unknown foods etc. So the Chinese identity in the West becomes equated with Chinatown, and consciousness of the larger historical and cultural context is lacking. But I think that this situation is slowly changing for the better…

Here as well one must mention the fact that no one knows that those people living in Prato are producing what is labelled as “Made in Italy”. In fact it is “Made in Italy” but it could just as easily be labelled “Made in China”.

I’ve mentioned before that I think that the “Wenzhou aesthetic” is taking over the entire world. 

But in Prato they are producing clothes yes?

Yes, everything: clothes, bags, shoes…

But everybody thinks it is Italian and therefore elegant…

Most of the things they make there in Prato are actually sold quite cheaply. They are not being made only to be sold in Italy or in Europe, but are exported to the entire world. On my trip through Europe a few months back, wherever I went there were many people selling clothes. In all the towns, no matter where you go, you see the same “Wenzhou aesthetic”. In Turkey, Greece, everywhere where there are small clothing shops, everything is from Wenzhou or in the same “Wenzhou aesthetic”.

Thank you.

Installation view of exhibition "Liu Xiaodong: Painting as Shooting, Curated by Jérôme Sans", Faurschou Foundation, Copenhagen, 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg, © Faurschou Foundation

Special thanks

Liu Xiaodong

Yu Hong

Liu Wa

Jeffrey Sequeira 

Yang Bo

Jérôme Sans

He Juxing

Massimo de Carlo

Private Collectors

National Collection of Qatar

Lisson Gallery 

Greg Hilty

Minsheng Art Museum

The team at Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen

The team at Faurschou Foundation Beijing

Morgan Morris

Masha Shaluieva

Dave Brubaker

Isabelle Bernini


Published on the occasion of the exhibition:

Liu Xiaodong
Painting as Shooting

Organized by and presented at:
Faurschou Foundation
Copenhagen, Denmark
26.05.16 – 16.12.16 

Liu Xiaodong, Painting as Shooting © 2015 Faurschou Foundation, Copenhagen
All rights reserved

All works by Liu Xiaodong © 2016 Liu Xiaodong. Used by permission.
All rights reserved.

Faurschou Foundation Copenhagen
Klubiensvej 11
2150 Nordhavn

All project descriptions by Jeffrey Sequeira/Xiaodong studio & Maria Grzywacz

Kristian Eley

Katrine Winther & Maria Grzywacz 

Anders Sune Berg
Jonathan Leijonhufvud
Arnold Lee
Alessandro Moggi
Marc Domage 

Photo editing:
Anders Sune Berg
Christian Faurschou

Graphic design:
Anne Solmer 

Graphic collaborator:
Kristian Eley

Arctic volume 130g
Upon fine 60g

Printed in Denmark by Narayana Press 

ISBN 978-87-91706-06-6

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