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Ullens Center for Contemporary Art Ends 2010 on a High Note with Liu Xiaodong's Hometown Boy
Liu Xiaodong, Jincheng Airport, 2010. Oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

BEIJING.- UCCA opened one of its last exhibitions of the year (Nov 17, 2010 – Feb 20, 2011), Hometown Boy by Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong. With 26 new oil paintings, over 200 pages of framed diary entries and an in-depth documentary film by famed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Hometown Boy offers UCCA visitors an intimate and unprecedented look into the life and artistic practice of one of China’s most acclaimed artists.

“The body of work that fills these three rooms…”

UCCA has always been committed to breaking new ground with innovative exhibition methods, and Liu Xiaodong’s Hometown Boy is no exception. For this exhibition in three parts, co-curated and co-produced with Minsheng Art Museum and The Institute, UCCA’s Big Hall has been divided into three separate spaces, each highlighting a different facet of Liu Xiaodong's work.

The first space is devoted to over 200 framed pages of Liu Xiaodong's diary entries produced during his return to his hometown of Jincheng. Written on paper produced by the local paper mill and filled with notes, captions, sketches and photos, the dairies are a record of Liu Xiaodong's daily activities, plans, encounters, thoughts and impressions. Within these pages, visitors will find amusing anecdotes, keen observations, background stories, recollections and biographical sketches of the artist's childhood friends.

The second space is the “painting room,” where Liu Xiaodong’s 26 new Jincheng paintings are displayed. The smallest canvases (33 x 38 cm) are mainly studies for larger paintings, or still-lifes of some detail that triggered a memory of the past. The medium-sized canvases (140x150 cm) are paintings of Liu Xiaodong's childhood friends in settings that reflect their lives today: Xiao Dou smoking a cigarette in a pool hall, Chengzi hanging out at the karaoke club he runs, or Liu Xiaodong's former martial arts teacher Master Xiao on duty at the police station where he currently works. There are also four large canvases (300 X 400 cm) depicting groups of people in settings that hold a special significance for the artist because they illustrate how time has altered the face of his hometown. “Jincheng Airport,” for example, shows Liu Xiaodong's friends playing cards in front of a decrepit fighter plane that was once Jincheng’s pride and joy, the centerpiece of its (now neglected and weed-choked) public park.

The third and final space is the black-velvet-curtained “screening room,” where Hou Hsiao-Hsien's documentary film, also titled Hometown Boy, will screen at regular intervals with Chinese and English subtitles.

UCCA Director Jé rôme Sans designed Hometown Boy as a multifaceted exhibition because he felt it was the best way for audiences to understand the range of Liu Xiaodong's artistic practice. “Liu Xiaodong approaches his work very much like a filmmaker,” Sans writes in his introduction to the exhibition, “documenting each step of the creative process and 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…the result of his homecoming is the body of work that fills these three rooms.”

“This time, I’ve decided, I’m really going home…”

“This time, I’ve decided, I’m really going home.” Thus begins Liu Xiaodongs artist statement, which explains the reasoning behind his Hometown Boy project. “In 1980, when I was seventeen, I left my hometown... [Now it has] been invaded by high rise buildings, and 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.”

Liu Xiaodong’s hometown of Jincheng is a small town located in Liaoning Province in northeast China. Life in Jincheng has always revolved around the local paper mill, built during the Japanese occupation and later retooled to meet the needs of the newly-established People’s Republic of China. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the mill employed thousands of workers and produced paper used to print everything from schoolbooks to the quotations of Chairman Mao. In recent years, however, economic competitions, industrial restructuring and environmental issues have led to massive layoffs at the mill and other changes that have fundamentally altered the life of the town.

Exhibition co-curator Guo Xiaoyan, Chief Operating Officer of The Institute and Vice-Director of Minsheng Art Museum, writes: “Hometown Boy is in no sense a nostalgic narrative or a remembrance of things past. It is a somber ode to the here and now. By going home to paint, sketch and observe the people and places of his childhood, Liu Xiaodong must confront a range of complex emotions and questions. The landscape is familiar, but the people have changed.”

UCCA Art Department Director Zheng Yan characterizes Hometown Boy as “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…”

A “documentary homecoming” by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien One of the most unique aspects of this exhibition is the related documentary project by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who accompanied the artist to Jincheng to record his homecoming experience on film. For Liu Xiaodong, documenting his artistic process is nothing new: he has collaborated with many filmmakers in the past, and is comfortable working in front of the camera and painting, as it were, “on set.”

“[UCCA Director Jé rôme Sans] suggested that we find a really great Chinese director, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien is about as talented as they come,” Liu Xiaodong explained in a recent interview. “I have tremendous respect for him as a director, and as someone who has a deep understanding of people, life and art. His involvement really increases the power of these paintings, because they all have a ―back story‖ that needs to be explained. The film helps deepen our understanding of the paintings and makes the project much more complete.”

Hou Hsiao-Hsien describes the process of making the in-depth “documentary homecoming”: “In May 2010, everyone involved in the project met up to discuss the plan for shooting the documentary film Hometown Boy. That included Liu Xiaodong, the exhibition curators, the film crew and Yao Hung I, who I had appointed to be location director and cameraman. From there, the crew did a reconnaissance in July, and started shooting in August. Everything was based on seeing facts objectively, with a straightforward yet lighthearted viewpoint. Yao would act as Liu Xiaodong’s ―third eye,‖ recording the whole amazing process…”

“Painting from life” gives local subjects a global resonance

For over two decades, Liu Xiaodong has been crisscrossing China and the globe, travelling to familiar and exotic locales to “paint from life.” In the process, he has amassed a body of work that Jeff Kelley, an independent art critic and curator, has described as “the psychic landscape of the new China.” Kelley writes that although Liu Xiaodong’s settings are often commonplace, the occasions he paints banal, “the pedestrian faces and prosaic postures of Liu’s subjects testify to a China filled with hope, ambition, cunning, bewilderment, anger, indifference, longing, and despair. They are the old faces of the new China, and they embody the weary countenance of history.”

Alexandra Monroe, senior curator of Asian art at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, writes: “Liu takes road trips to far-flung places—the unofficial sites of national or communal identity—to become immersed in the act of seeing. He sets up his transient studios in the open air, laying out his screen-sized canvases on the ground of his chosen sites, and, walking barefoot over the expanse of his compositions, palette in hand, paints directly from life. […] His paintings are imbued with the immediacy and informality of the documentary snapshot, trained on the unpretty sights of bleak but strangely prophetic communities.”

“These Jincheng paintings,” concludes critic Jeff Kelley, “provide a familial content for all the other psychic landscapes Liu has painted as an artist. They remind us that his paintings, however global their resonance, are profoundly local.”

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art | Beijing | Liu Xiaodong |

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