Liu Xiaodong gained public recognition under the umbrella of the “New Generation” movement in China. Accordingly, it is thus fitting to note that art critic Lü Peng once boldly stated, “Liu Xiaodong’s art is the junction point that delivered contemporary Chinese art from the 1980s and into the 1990s.”1 This statement refers to Liu’s involvement in “New Generation” art, which is often considered in the same vein as the “New Generation Art Exhibition”, held at the National Museum of History in July 1991. In spite of this, however, Liu Xiaodong’s innovative “New Generation” style can be seen in works dating from as early as 1989. Painted in 2001, Prostitutes No. 9 (Lot 1048) is thus a prime mature example of the development of this movement for which Liu has gained such wide acclaim for.

“New Generation” Art is characterised by its candidness and its commitment to render authentic life. It was an entire art form that stripped itself free from its predecessors of the ’85 New Wave movement, a time focused on pursuing high ideals such as “the ultimate purpose”, “the absolute principle” or indeed even the “greater soul”. Those from this movement concerned themselves with the plight of all humanity, in pursuit of metaphysical principles. In contrast to this, the “New Generation” artists shifted their gaze to the minutia of life; to the regular happenings of ordinary human beings. In lieu of the high spiritual principles that predated their works, these new artists merely recorded the life that surrounded them, free of ideological debates and spiritual considerations.

Prostitute No. 9 is a remarkable example of this. It depicts two women, presumably nightclub hostesses. One of them, dressed in a shiny pink silk slip, seems to be in the midst of eating, while in her left hand she nonchalantly plays with a lighter, momentarily lighting it. Her companion, dressed in a yellow and black ruffled top, appears to be staring down at her feet, as if inspecting the slippers that are too large for her. Both women have exposed bellies, and are utterly unaware of the artist or the viewer. The sheets behind them, a melange of garish vermilions and piercing blues, are crumpled, or at least casually tossed onto the bed. They look mildly ruffled, as if they have just been slept in. The space is deeply intimate, perhaps even intrusive and claustrophobic. The moment we are privy to seems almost voyeuristic, and the tight space we are in heightens this unique effect that Liu has inflicted on us.

The piece comes from a series of other observations which share the same subject. The same women and duvet colour, for example, appear in works executed in the same year such as Three Girls Watching TV. The figure in the ruffled top is even identifiable as a certain “Xiao Hong”, in Xiao Hong Smoking After Midnight (2001). And yet, Prostitute No. 9 still remains a much stronger piece due to the ease with which it captures real life.

In 2009, Liu commented that, “I always try to carry forward a spirit that connects my works with real life while eliminating anything beyond it.”2 Liu’s preoccupation with rendering life stems from his art that can be characterised by a slight sociological inclination. This fixation would see itself further developed in the artist’s travel to the Three Gorges Dam site in 2002, which inspired the realist artist to produce sketches from life. His depictions usually included the men and women of the village, tinged with a small hint of pathos. His works of this time seemed sympathetic somehow; as if through his art he was relaying the sense of forlornness his characters felt.

It is curious to note that this determined spirit typical of Liu can clearly be seen in Prostitutes No. 9, as if the artist was investigating this style of his even before his later works. This frank portrayal of the mundane; from playing with a lighter with a sense of ennui, to inspecting slippers with a renewed sense of bewilderment, can be found in the present work. The two women seem engrossed in the everyday objects that they encounter daily, as if discovering them for the first time. This strange excitement is unique to Prostitutes No. 9, as if lacklustre objects have been rejuvenated by merely being looked at.

With the advent of photography, the recording of moments have become all the easier. Liu, who makes use of the technology, blends his photographic in-situ findings with his own memories, and creates distinctive renditions of different scenes. The result is a unique ensemble of a situation he has been in; a mixed result of the split-second record—the photograph—and his subconscious recollections. In Prostitutes No. 9, one follows the artist’s train of thought. One wonders at the contents of the small side-table, or the texture of the bunched-up jacket tossed to a side, or perhaps even the smell of the stale cigarettes, wafting from the ashtray by the bed. Liu very successfully creates a painting that is heavily tactile and deeply personal, perhaps commonplace but undeniably relatable. It is this unique ability to extract a moment so fundamentally human, so real, and gift it to us in all of its tangible glory that makes Liu such a celebrated artist.

At first glance, Prostitutes No. 9 portrays an ordinary scene of relaxation common to most viewers. But within the painting exists an unidentifiable feeling of languor yet, strangely, bewilderment too. It is a painting that unfolds slowly, capturing our attention as it beckons us to connect with it. Before long, this intimate scene engulfs us, and it is as if we too are in the room with the two women; as if we too are looking through Liu’s eyes.

1 Lü Peng, A History of Art in 20th Century China, Peking University Press, 2006, p.827
2 “Stepping into Reality: A Conversation between Wu Hung and Liu Xiaodong”, 2010 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG