The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
George Orwell, Animal Farm
In 1996, Liu Xiaodong was driving in Beijing when he passed by an open-topped truck crowded with construction workers, and not long after, a truck crowded with pigs. The two images, nonchalant on their own yet inauspiciously momentous in their coincidental occurrence, left an indelible mark on the artist, who went on to create two of the most representative works of his oeuvre: the first is Disobeying the Rules, painted in 1996, which is the current record-holding masterpiece by Liu; and the second is the current work, Train, painted in 2002. Executed 6 years after Disobeying the Rules, the striking Train is at once the antithesis and mirror image of the earlier painting. Whereas Disobeying the Rules featured the back of a truck filled with construction workers, stripped naked and lounging casually with insouciant grins, Train presents a straight-on view of the back of a truck crammed chock-full with pigs. In contrast to the earlier painting, where almost all of the workers look outwards at the viewer, in Train we are confronted with the gaze of one sole pig – its expression somehow managing to be at once apathetic yet quizzical, indifferent yet piercingly penetrating.
Liu Xiaodong’s art has been described as “documentary but not realist, yet more realistic than realism”. Born in 1963 in Jincheng, Liu Xiaodong arrived in Beijing in 1981 to attend the affiliated high school of the Central Academy of Fine Art. In 1984, along with Yu Hong, Liu won admission to the Third Studio of the CAFA’s Oil Painting Department. When he graduated four years later, campuses were infused with idealism when the ’85 New Wave swept across art schools large and small across the whole country; Liu was, however, unmoved by the new trends, regarding them as “excessive and immature”. Instead, Liu took time to define and develop his own direction; in his own words: “I wanted to do things honestly, but also to paint explosively” (the artist cited in an interview with Li Xianting). In 1989, when Liu was invited to the controversial landmark exhibition China Avant-Garde, his submissions were accomplished prototypes of his pioneering realist documentary vision and yet were at odds with the highly conceptualist and aggressively idiosyncratic tone of the exhibition. The genius of his visual language was nevertheless recognized when Liu’s first solo exhibition, “Liu Xiaodong’s Oil Paintings”, generated tremendous response in 1990.
Thereafter, Liu’s painting began to influence painters of the 1990s, such that he became one of the earliest pioneers of the “New Generation”. His unique brand of art-making held its ground amidst the then popular and influential notion of Cynical Realism: in contrast to the blatant and boisterous satire of the Cynical Realists, Liu’s much more subtle, apathetic and detached documentary style powerfully crystallizes the conflicting energies of society at the time. What is encapsulated within his scenes of mundane everyday life is a bittersweet concoction of tension, anxiety and disappointment mixed with helpless and passive acceptance. In the artist’s own words: “When you want to make a lot happen but cannot, you’re already full of contradictions. I try to represent this state in painting. You can feel a certain tenseness and pressure in my paintings” (the artist cited in an interview with Jean-Marc Decrop). On another occasion the artist stated: “I want my paintings to be more crystallizing. How? By nothing else but my momentary feelings and my persistence, I can crystallise it” (the artist cited in an interview with Li Xianting). In this sense, Liu’s modus operandi can be compared to that of a filmmaker; indeed, unusually in his time for a contemporary artist, Liu often collaborated with Sixth Generation directors like Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan and Jia Zhangke, all of whom liked to focus on ordinary citizens in their feature films.
Train epitomizes precisely Liu Xiaodong’s unparalleled ability to extract and distil fragmentary moments of life and imbue them with rich symbolic significance. While Disobeying the Rules was one of the artist’s earliest paintings to thematise migrant workers, predating more explicitly socially-oriented works such as Great Migration at the Three Gorges and New Immigrants at the Three Gorges, the present painting is imbued with an even greater degree of bittersweet nonchalance and even wry humor, while at the same time presenting piercing social commentary. The pig’s straight-on gaze holds the viewer accountable for the hostile situation within the painting as well as to the world at large, forcing contemplation and reflection on the inhuman byproducts of economic development. The moving train in the background signifies economic productivity in an era that heavily relied on human labor, while the pigs, traditionally associated with abundance and harvest in Chinese culture, also allude to exponential economic growth of accelerated consumerism and demand. A half-naked man lies prostrate next to a serene river juxtaposed directly with the enormous pigs, insinuating a subtly provocative connection between man and animal – both dragged like commodities with no control over their fate – a lamentation, made paradoxically more poignant by its objective and dispassionate execution, on the fate of the lower class of the Chinese economic reform of the 1990s . In the artist’s own words: “Everyone suffers through every day mechanically, doing nothing actively or energetically. Much like pigs, they are not in charge of their own fates. [But] they are still happy to be alive. I don’t want to say their lives are harsh or joyless. I have painted all” (Britta Erickson, Browsing Through Two Decades of personal Photographs with Liu Xiaodong, The Richness of Life: The Personal Photographs of Contemporary Chinese Artist Liu Xiaodong 1984-2006, p.201).