Comprised of paintings, extensive diary entries and a documentary film by iconic Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Hometown Boy offers the first complete perspective on the artistic practice of Liu Xiaodong, one of China's most respected painters. This multifaceted exhibition was designed and created specifically for UCCA.
Liu Xiaodong approaches his work much like a filmmaker. On paper and canvas, on video and film, he documents each step of the creative process, recording his methods, motives, observations and impressions, so that 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 the audience.
Liu Xiaodong was only seventeen when he left his hometown of Jincheng to study art in Beijing. Despite his travels to exotic and familiar locales and the many portraits painted over the years – one critic describes them as "the psychic composite of a nation" – Hometown Boy marks the artist's first extended trip home in three decades. Economic development and the passage of time have changed the landscape of his hometown and altered the lives and faces of the people he grew up with. With his unerring eye for detail, Liu Xiaodong's landscapes of Jincheng and portraits of his boyhood friends are based not on what he remembers, but on what he observes. The result of his homecoming is the body of work that fills these three rooms.
In the words of the artist himself, "Time is the greatest art of all."
In a philosophical sense, "going home" means returning to one's origins, going back to the place from whence one came and reexperiencing that endless interaction of people, place and time. And while it may offer us some solace, a respite from the loneliness of the world, the place we call "hometown" cannot remain unchanged: it may lack the cohesion and community spirit it once had, or suffer from a reality so bleak it defies our understanding.
By "going home" to paint, sketch, observe and capture the people and places of his childhood, Liu Xiaodong is confronting history, pain, nostalgia, familial memory and a range of complex emotions. The landscape is familiar, but the people have changed. The physical and spiritual act of homecoming is a way of striking back at life's defeats and disappointments, of resisting stagnation and false hope.
The essence of painting is coming into contact with real people and places, encountering the world in a physical way. The body, with its five senses and physical sensations, is more than just a starting point for meaning: it is the yardstick with which the artist measures meaning, morality, reality, and the world in general. Because Liu Xiaodong is capable of introspection, his paintings are not simply realistic or novel representations of the physical world, but vignettes that offer us insight into culture, politics and history. Again and again, he presents us with scenes both mediocre and familiar, proving that in life as in history, it all comes down to people and their stories, their hopes and dreams, disappointments and defeats.
Painting is an honest endeavor: it never hides the truth of things, only the truth that things are not quite what they seem.
Chief Operating Officer, The Institute
Vice-director, Minsheng Art Museum
When Liu Xiaodong trains his formidable powers of artistic Liu Xiaodong observation on our complex world, he manages to capture people from all walks of life with great sensitivity and perception. His paintings are inspired by the real world, yet distinct from it; they also show a particular fondness for nostalgia, introspection, and memory. Events from the past crop up constantly in his work, as if the artist is holding a mirror up to himself, scrutinizing his own reflection and comparing it to what he remembers.
For Liu Xiaodong, film is yet another mode of reflection and introspection, one he uses to document his artistic process and add an extra layer of meaning to his work. Long active in Chinese independent film circles, Liu Xiaodong has also appeared in movies (in both starring and cameo roles), acted as art director for films and collaborated with some of China’s finest directors, including Wang Xiaoshuai, Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan. For Hometown Boy, Liu Xiaodong’s solo exhibition at UCCA, famed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien will accompany the artist to his hometown of Jincheng and document the details of his homecoming.
Hometown Boy is Liu Xiaodong’s most conscious effort yet to create a dialogue between past and present. His boyhood years in Jincheng will always hold a special significance for him, but the home he returns to is not the home he remembers: thirty years of socioeconomic change have altered the face of Jincheng, not necessarily for the better. With paintings, sketches, photographs, extensive diary entries and an in-depth documentary by filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Liu Xiaodong’s solo exhibition at UCCA is a moving look at the hometown memories of a "hometown boy."
UCCA Art Department Director
This time, I've decided, I'm really going home.
In 1980, when I was seventeen, I left my hometown of Jincheng to study in Beijing, where I've been working ever since. Every Chinese New Year for the last thirty years, I've gone back to Jincheng for the holiday. I usually meet up with a few childhood friends and we drink, eat and have fun together. All of them still live there. Some are factory workers, while others have been laid off.
Jincheng is a small town built around a paper mill. It is home to several thousand workers and their families, as well as some neighboring farmers. Three decades ago, when the working class led the nation, factories were large and impressive, with thick smoke billowing from their ten-meter-high smokestacks, steam whistles blowing, crowds of workers changing shifts and workers' families living in single-story bungalows. Worker housing was divided into wards: there was a north ward, a south ward and an east ward, separated by farmland, fields and ditches. It was paradise for mischievous kids. Over the years, the fields and ditches gave way to multi-story buildings, state-owned enterprises were restructured, and factories fell silent, as if they were overwhelmed by all the newly-constructed buildings. It was like seeing a vast army reduced to a supply brigade, with no one left to carry on the war.
Because of rapid urbanization, when we journey by train these days, we see fewer fields and endless stretches of multi-story buildings. We discover that all cities look the same, that the people on the street are just lackeys or merchants, and the working class has been swept away. We discover that we’re all city people now: our hometowns have been invaded by high-rise buildings, making us city folk without a home. The friends I knew in childhood have gotten fat. I once painted their portraits because I was hoping to get into art school. Now, thirty years later, I am painting them again, hoping that I can finish their portraits before all of them are laid off.
Once upon a time we were hired farmhands, poor peasants, rich peasants and landlords. We were the proletariat, the working class, an army of workers and peasants. Now, we are making great strides, moving single-mindedly toward the future, becoming the propertied class—and we've got the bricks and cement to prove it.
August 6, 2010