signed and dated 2004 on the reverse, framed
Jinmen, Bunker Museum, Eighteen Solo Exhibitions, September 2004 - January 2005
Beijing, China World Trade Center, China International Gallery Exposition, May 2005, reproduced in journal
Taipei, Eslite Gallery, Sketches from the Battlefield: Portraits of the New 18 Luohan, May 2005, reproduced in catalogue
Beijing, National Art Gallery, 2nd Beijing Biennial, September 2005, reproduced in catalogue
Guangzhou, Guangdong Museum, Liu Xiaodong: Sketches, December 2006 - January 200
Art World, Shanghai, October 2004, p. 88
Meishu, September 2005, p. 58
Yishu Genzong, no. 4, pp. 200-203
Red Flag Special Issue - Liu Xiaodong, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 128
Art Gallery Magazine, February 2007, pp. 64-67
Liu Xiaodong's neorealism marks one of the most significant trends in Chinese contemporary art during the last two decades. The standard critical interpretation of his work—that he has taken the tools and language of socialist realism, adopted them to his own ends, and used them to depict the realities of a new moment—rings true, although its simplicity belies a practice that is as much about sensation and evocation as about mimesis and depiction. His first solo show, mounted at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1990, marked him as the bearer of a new pictorial vision. This vision, based on the poetry of the everyday, evolved in substantive scope and aesthetic ambition over the following decade. By the early part of the present decade, Liu Xiaodong was well known for work in which, as his friend and collaborator, the award-winning filmmaker Jia Zhangke noted in a recent interview, "you could jump out and spot your own reality."
Formally speaking, the color snapshot was the fundamental technical and rhetorical device behind the emergence of this representational strand in the 1990s. The camera proved for Liu Xiaodong an unfailing eye, recording the everyday moments that he would then so dramatically transfer to oil on canvas in his painterly language of expressionist-inflected realism. The subject matter of these snapshots, and the resulting paintings, was wide-ranging: men swimming, schoolchildren returning home, workers, leaders, actors, artists, family. Although he rarely repeated himself in terms of specific scenarios, his attention was focused on quotidian events and largely on the locale of Beijing. The color snapshots, later anthologized in The Richness of Life: The Personal Photographs of Contemporary Chinese Artist Liu Xiaodong (Timezone 8 Books, 2007) was for Liu Xiaodong a way of bringing themes of memory and history into his work.
By the middle part of the present decade, however, Liu Xiaodong was beginning to tire of this relatively straightforward and studio-based practice. Inspired by the long tradition in Chinese art education of xiesheng—literally translated "writing from life"—he decided to set on a new painterly path, one more directly engaged with his larger social surroundings. And thus began this second, now extremely prominent strand in his work, whereby Liu Xiaodong enters into the depths of reality for extended periods, producing major cycles of paintings based on firsthand encounters with often pronounced situations and subjects. Battlefield Realism: The New 18 Arhats (Lot 938) is the series with which this new, defining era in Liu Xiaodong's career began. It was here that he began to think about how to endow his painterly practice with a new element: that of physical presence and energy, achieved by "taking the canvas out into the wild." In this act of painting outdoors, Liu Xiaodong is able to arrive upon "results and processes that could not be predicted, which make the self rich and open."
The basic conceit of the 18 Arhats cycle is simple: here, Liu Xiaodong has painted nine soldiers from each side of one of the testiest political divides of all time, the nebulous line between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. Nine People's Liberation Army soldiers from a military base outside of Beijing are here rendered in tandem with nine Taiwanese soldiers stationed on the island outpost of Kinmen, just kilometers off the shore of Xiamen in Fujian Province. Liu Xiaodong has chosen these eighteen sitters from a massive range of possible subjects, spending weeks in each of the respective military enclaves following around the young fighters he met there before finally settling on the small number portrayed Liu's sitters are rendered at life size, on canvases two meters by one meter. Arranged in diptychs of one Chinese and one Taiwanese soldier, the paintings speak eloquently to the universal sameness of humanity.
At the conclusion of his painterly process, Liu Xiaodong invited each of his sitters to inscribe the finish canvas with his full name, age, rank, and place of origin. This textual element adds an additional element of realism to the works, incorporating the actual handwriting and self-characterizations of their sitters. In this way, the cycle subverts the traditional relationship between representer and represented, between artist and subject. And yet this gesture of incorporating his subjects' handwriting also resonates with Liu's long-proclaimed documentary drive to create works that can function as what he calls "objective records of existence." In the distinctions among the soldiers' calligraphy, we are able to sense one major social distinction—the Taiwanese soldiers are largely college-educated, whereas their mainland counterparts are largely culled from the ranks of peasants. In the distinction between the traditional characters used by the Taiwanese and the simplified characters used by the mainlanders, we are reminded of the ways in which this sixty-year separation between China and Taiwan has led to a diversion so basic as to reach into the level of the written Chinese word.
Perhaps the most interesting dynamic behind this cycle is the psychological interplay between Liu and his subjects. Recalling the creative process, Liu Xiaodong has noted how he "needed to look at these people for a long time, and had only the brush and colors in facing up to these people's faces." Looking at these images of young men doing their jobs, this sense of the artist as observer, witnessing and processing larger historical dynamics through the vehicle of specific individuals, emerges fully formed. As the critic Yin Jinan, Liu's colleague at the Central Academy, has written,
"One can easily evaluate the thoughts of Liu Xiaodong's 'models' while they are being painted. Without exception they dominate his spiritual field of vision. They are the music to which his heart beats. Liu Xiaodong makes manifest in his painting the passive and the active elements of the subject with which he interacts. His 'models' or subjects possess real life human emotions, characteristically fleeting as they consider their latest or most recent problems. He captures them with extraordinary specificity. Exchanges between friends in a circle are specific to this day only, each a story or a hint at a story."
The context for Liu Xiaodong's Battlefield Realism: The New Eighteen Arhats is the work of another major Chinese artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. In 2000, Cai began a series of social projects entitled Everything is Museum, establishing museums of contemporary art in locations that included a kiln in his native Fujian and later under the arches of the St. Francis bridge in Colle di Val'elsa, Tuscany. In 2004, as part three in the Everything is Museum series, Cai initiated the "BMOCA" (Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art) in Kinmen, an island populated by over 2000 military bunkers used by Taiwanese military forces to defend against mainland annexation of the surrounding islands. In configuring the project, Cai also drew on the local government's desire to increase tourism, which had not happened since the island was opened to direct travel from mainland China in 2002. Initiated on the third anniversary of September 11, 2001, the museum staged eighteen solo exhibition in six months, with "artists" including the curator Fei Dawei, the composer Tan Dun, film director Tsai Ming-liang, and Wang Jianwei among others. It was Cai's curatorial decision to include in the exhibition program artists from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Local residents were enlisted to serve as art "tour guides," and another series of projects drew local schoolchildren into the museum for study and creation.
Liu Xiaodong was the fourth of eighteen artists to exhibit at BMOCA, making use of the Nanshan Fortification Chungshan Classroom to display his paintings. The challenge presented by this space—dim, low-ceilinged, and full of distractions—was for Liu Xiaodong part of the allure. How could he create paintings powerful enough to function outside of the traditional "white cube" context of an art museum and compel their viewers solely on the basis of their own visual power? For Liu Xiaodong, who was by then a professor of studio painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing this was a major question. Liu Xiaodong began his project by painting the nine People's Liberation Army soldiers over the summer of 2004 on an army base outside Beijing. He drew upon his position as an important state artist at the Central Academy to gain access to such a facility.
Liu Xiaodong's presence in Taiwan is something of a more complicated story. He first traveled there in 2002 at the invitation of the scholar and curator Ni Tsai-chin, having been asked to teach some classes at Ni's university. Liu Xiaodong recalls this as the first time he was challenged to work in a foreign environment. Although he had spent the year 1993-1994 in New York City, he had not painted during this period, rather amassing groups of photos which he would turn into paintings upon his return to Beijing. And so this initial, temporary sojourn to Taiwan in 2002 proved deeply important. No wonder then that he would accept the invitation of Cai Guo-Qiang to return two years later, in September of 2004, to embark on the present cycle of paintings. And indeed it was only with the support of his Taiwanese gallery and the momentum surrounding the BMOCA project that he, as a mainlander, was able to enter such a secure zone. Cai spent approximately one month among the Kinmen soldiers, painting to the point of exhaustion. In this extended stay he was able to engage emotionally and intellectually with the land on which he found himself.
This project would of course give rise to an entire body of work, and perhaps more importantly to a meta-shift in Liu Xiaodong's career. Liberated from the studio, he would begin to spend a significant part of each year painting in plein air, and focusing directly on subjects with whom he would spend significant amounts of time. The following summer, in 2005, Liu traveled extensively to the Three Gorges project where he realized a major cycle of paintings of displaced workers and peasants living in the shadow of the largest dam project in history. These same sitters would become characters in Jia Zhangke's film Still Life which would go on to win top honors at the Venice Film Festival in 2006. Liu Xiaodong's Three Gorges paintings, for their part, went on to be exhibited in Beijing at the China Art Archives and Warehouse in a show curated by Ai Weiwei, and in late 2006 to be sold at auction in China for what was then a record price. The following year, in 2006, Liu Xiaodong traveled to Bangkok to realize a cycle of paintings about sex workers based there. A solo show at the Xin Beijing Gallery at the end of that year entailed his painting of live models directly onto the gallery walls. Then in 2007, he traveled first to Japan to realize a group of paintings about the hot springs there, and later to the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai province to paint the nomads and Buddhist faithful who roam the area. Liu explains that although he will only paint in these removed situations for one or two months each year, each such exploration requires him to spend up to three months recovering from the intensity of the experience, and that thus this has significantly altered the rest of his painterly output.
On account of its poignant subject matter, pronounced conditions of production, and place in Liu Xiaodong's overall oeuvre, the Battlefield Realism cycle stands as one of the artist's most significant and noteworthy projects to date, marking both a transition in his practice and a new touchstone for his future projects. These monumental paintings stand as a document of a fraught geopolitical situation, but also as a reminder of the basic sameness at the core of rising nationalist and separatist sentiment. As the artist himself has remarked, "In art, it is easier to put the soldiers from Taiwan and Mainland China together, to have them collaborate. I was also trying to show that they are not so different, they are like brothers."
 Jia Zhangke, interview, February 10, 2008.
 Interview with Liu Xiaodong, January 2008.
 Yin Jinan, "Knowing One's Own Standpoint: Random Thoughts on the Works of Liu Xiaodong," Liu Xiaodong: 1990-2000.
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