Liu Xiaodong  vs. Hou Hsiao-hsien

Interview and transcribed by Tzu-Chin Kao


ARTCO:  You once called live painting  “farmers' work”, Please tell me whether live painting have other implications in addition to the method of your creative practice? Your work has attempted to capture the daily reality of the working class. Does the live painting helped to reach the consistent nature of your creative approach and the content?

Liu Xiaodong: If everything were arranged in advance it seems the painting already finished at that moment. To paint live on the site is the primitive attitude towards painting. It makes this old job more appealing. It is particularly a most luxury way for a painter to have a change to paint face to face. Nothing can be more luxury. Such a huge canvas, such beautiful sun light and such lively soul standing in front of you that is all you need. That is the advantage of being an artist. I was born for this (laugh). I have no choice.

ARTCO: Your first painting of Hometown Boy series is Li Wu Works on Night Shift and Can Not Sleep During the Day. You said that you went home to paint your friends “with a mood of uneasy and instability”. You were a little nervous and couldn’t curb it. What did your friends feel when they saw your paintings? Is this one of the reasons you decided to keep these 26 paintings in your own collection?

Liu Xiaodong: In early 1990’s I also painted my friends.  But it was simple at that time. I didn’t think too much and I painted whoever was available. But one day I found all these painting were sold. It had a counteraction. You felt that you sold these friends’ face to make money. It was a very uncomfortable feeling. I am afraid if the paintings of my friends becoming commercial commodity, they would suspect their life being used by me to realize my own work.  There is some profit in art practice indeed: show to others, exhibit and sale. That is where the contradiction lays. I would suffer a burden on my shoulder when I paint someone based on our pure youthful bonds of friendship. But they didn’t mind about this. They didn’t even think about it. Often it was myself being so irritable and worried too much. Therefore I had to give up my worries. The life of past cannot go back, but the friendship and loyalty of several decades are beautiful.  This time my work must had certain impact on their life. When they came to Beijing and saw their portraits in a massive exhibition hall, they might not express themselves verbally like we thought, but their body language showed evidently what they wanted to say: Their life had never been so seriously noticed.

Hou Hsiao-hsien: It is always like this. You became famous and went back home, realized the way everyone looked at you was different. So you should be very careful to handle this circumstance. I told Yao Hong-yi: You have to listen to Liu Xiaodong, because he knows well when to draw a line. There is nothing you can do facing this kind of situation. You only need to stop too much thinking. Like Liu Xiaodong, he treated his brothers with easy and straightforward attitude. That opened everything. After one or two paintings the awkwardness faded away. So Liu Xiaodong could concentrate in painting wholeheartedly.

ARTCO: How did you choose the objects appeared in your painting? Do they have special meaning to you? Or you want to give clues of the story through them?

Liu Xiaodong: This time I went home and spent much longer time because of my art project. Therefore I was able to see a lot of meticulous stuff, and to think about many things past. For example, when I painted My Egypt, I was walking on the site and kicked a skull by chance. I immediately decided I would paint this head. It was a cemetery when I was a kid. When people died they would be buried casually in this abandoned place surrounded by sand dunes. But in a child’s eye, it looked like an Egypt, a pyramid. Now I went there and found it was only a few piles of dirt.  There was not only the contrast between memory and reality, but also the marks of my childish experience of death.  Death became something you saw everywhere and always ran into it.

ARTCO: You said “In my current life situation those brothers are forgotten”. Can you talk about the state of being forgotten? Does your encounter with them reflect in a microscopic aspect the meeting between big cities and remote industrial towns under the globalization?

Liu Xiaodong: Owing to my background, and my understanding of the World, I believe the working class is the foremost power that leads the society. The factories are huge, tall and magnificent. In the farm field situated large tracts of lower single-story dormitory buildings. The labour scene of working class can be seen everywhere. We all used to be the children of proletarians, of working class. However, we never thought the society would have had such enormous change from our childhood till today. The high-rise buildings are overwhelming. We will all become middle class, advance towards the direction of a consumer society, a commercial society. Even though I went to my homeland, it was not my homeland that used to be. The development has changed homeland. It was just the impression left in the memory. And there are fewer and fewer stuff left in the real life.

The titles of the Hometown Boy series are all very explicit, like telling a story. I think this make it much closer to the real life. For instance, Li Wu Works on Night Shift and Can Not Sleep During the Day, does this sounds like a painting title to you? But I want to pass a litter more information through the title.  A worker has to change three shifts in turn. If this week is on day shift, then the next week will be night shift. For an intellectual one must take sleeping pills all the time. I am curious how those workers could have survived in their life time. But my parents have lived through in the same way. Why they are mentally so strong? When we need to adjust from jet lag we take all kinds of medication. It was from these details I suddenly and instinctively found a lot of my respect and admiration towards them.

ARTCO: Why did you choose Director Hou Hsiao-hsien and his team to collaborate in the making of documentary at first place? What part of his style you appreciated in his films?

Liu Xiaodong: The Director of Ullens Contemporary Art Center is a foreigner. His request was simple. He wanted to find the biggest shot. I said that would be Hou Hsiao-hsien. Because his understanding of live, of the relationship among people is very humanized. Especially he has the attitude of equally looking at lives and concerning the vast majority as well as individuals. Orientals has no confident in movie-making and contemporary art, for these forms are came from outside. We are all beaten dawn. But the emergence of Hou Hsiao-hsien has shown us a special door to get through. He has paved a way that could parallel with the development of the rest of the World. Today he is a filmmaker with camera in his hand. But he would be on the same height if he was a writer, philosopher or painter. I am not his fan, neither a scholar on him. By just looking at a few shots and title of his film I know our choice is right and he is good enough. For instance, imagine the illusion created by the words “Boys from Fengkuei”, that is enough.

ARTCO: What did you think when you saw the result of the documentary? On the process of making were there discussions and adjustments in terms of the direction?

Liu Xiaodong:  At that time I didn’t know they were focus on me. I thought I was painting, and the documentary would extend and complement in many ways and make a much wider picture. The first time I saw the film was with the audience at the Ullens Center. The film has already shown to the public. I was terribly moved when I watched the first time. I felt that I fallen in love with myself again (laugh).  The approach of Yao Hong-yi was excellent. He contemplated and observed completely on one soul, without being judgmental. He found the poetry, humorous, and the indescribable sadness in plain life and delivered them precisely.

Hou Hsiao-hsien: When the film was screening for the first time in Beijing, people wondered how it could have such a strong foresight. I haven’t watched many documentaries made in Taiwan. What exactly is the difference between those films and the Hometown Boy? Maybe some others can tell us more, but I know for sure they are different. Maybe it because Yao went to Jincheng and there is a distance. He was not shooting in Taiwan. This distance made him to shoot whatever he saw with instinct. In addition, he used Bolex (This is a camera with spring-wound clockwork and can work about 25 to 30 seconds when fully operated on 24 flps speed. Besides it has a small viewfinder so the camera man has almost no time to react, but to capture immediately when the character appears. Thus every time it is very fresh. ), then he selected and cut. I think this is very unique. Yao Hong-yi has worked almost 20 years in our company. He started from art but almost had worked on everything. He wanted to learn cinematography and he did. His screen writing won award once. We don’t have a fixed format for film making. I only told the actors and actresses a situation and let them carry out naturally. Therefore Yao Hong-yi may be influenced by this for a long time and gradually developed his own style without self conscious. I believe Hometown Boy represents the current status of Yao hong-yi. Chinese people on the other side of the Strait is astonished to see this film and called it “A viewpoint from Taiwan”.

 Liu Xiaodong: From my understanding the distinctiveness of so called “viewpoint from Taiwan” is to look things equally.  This was no attentiveness as a director, no intention to step over others. This is the most delightful aspect of Taiwanese culture. People are calm and contented. They have their viewpoint but don’t want to force you to accept. I am a person from outside and Taiwan made keen impression on me. In China because of the various political struggles, the competition in the living environment is harsher. So when someone gained an opportunity, he often felt superior to others. Of course there are positive and negative aspects.  I think compare to the Chinese documentaries I have seen, the viewpoint and approach from Taiwan are most fresh one.

ARTCO: You have mentioned that “you only can choose one angle for a painting and cannot include other parts, but a movie is able to record from all angles comprehensively”. Would you worry that the documentary can tell audience more than a painting? Or you know painting has some characteristics that a film cannot depict?

Liu Xiaodong: If the goal is only to record the word, movie images are enough. Even though, if one faces life with an artistic approach, he will realize that no artistic manner can recreate the real life. Yet all the art forms are for reproduce the life only. Because life is rather important and will past in a flash, we would appreciate every piece of grass and tree, everything we see from our eyes. We would try our best to get close and restore them. Many feelings that cannot expressed by painting, may be expressed by writing. If writing cannot express you may use film images. Those cannot be expressed by film may be can be done by painting. I believe painting is the way you work from one angle repeatedly. It takes a long time to gaze and deliver the message of the subject.  To record the whole surroundings and changes is very different. While the film medium is much shorter with multi-angles, the painting could be an expansion and complement to it.

ARTCO: When you went home and visited the schoolmates of the past, their identity as “the schoolmate of Liu Xiaodong” had slowly faded away with the progress of the film, and replaced by the scenes of their real life and the time passage of the past thirty years. For the centre figure- Liu Xiaodong – who tied his schoolmates together, the film doesn’t provide enough elaboration of the detailed reality, besides a successful artist mentioned in conversations. Is there a special consideration?

Hou Hsiao-hsien: I think the reason is simple. It is like before the Impressionism, the painting might be started and finished in studios, but impressionists worked under the sun, tried to capture the relation between sun light and colours. So the moment they painted was only one of its kinds.  Liu Xiaodong’s case is the same. There is no one from Jincheng. Nobody paints friends in Jincheng. No artist treats the reality of present like him. It is the only one of its kinds. Although the film may not touch too much of his details apparently, he is everywhere indeed. A man cannot exist without other people. We shot his brothers, his parents, and the paper mill built by Manchurians. Once the scenes of related environment, people and their life were portrayed, I think his paintings are responded.

ARTCO:  You said that live painting was a primitive attitude. How do you see the transformation of this old job in our time? Should we have to remind ourselves again and again to return to the original, basic position?

Liu Xiaodong: I think all media are equivalent.  Take whatever that closer to your heart and use it. You don’t need to evaluate whether this medium is advanced or backward. For example, a poet is going to write a poem out of the blue. Will it be more classic if writing on paper? Or more advanced typing on a computer? We don’t pay attention to the material which contains the poem. It is the line he wrote that is important, andit has to be really good. It is important what he wants to say, what is his approach and what is his viewpoint of the World. These are very important. People are influence by all kinds of things. Currently art exhibitions are so multifarious and they influenced the judgment of young artists. We have to remember the generation who control the power in art establishment today went to universities after the World War II. The education definitely changed one’s point of view. Why the changes after the WWII were so enormous? Is it because the Jewish people dominated the key fields of science and technology, economy and culture as indicated by the writer Zhong A Cheng? Why the changes were so great after they gained the control? It is said because their religion didn’t like things with figurative form. Anti-form, anti-content led to abstract art and installation. Was there really such powerful religious and ideological background? I think we will let scholars to find it out. (this part maybe omitted. S) I only feel this kind of painting is the closest art form to me as an individual.

ARTCO: Were there any unexpected incidents during the progress of your painting? Or any situation occurred that made it difficult to keep going?

Actually, I feel good if the things are just natural and spontaneous. Sometime I wanted to make it stiff and awkward in purpose. Take an example, Xiao Dou has never been in a pool Hall. But my impression of her is she has been always a trendy girl.  Trendy has to be in a trendy place. She may not play it. It may not be her real life. But that is what I fell. So I put her situated in a pool hall, looking a little bit sluttish. The interesting story is she has already been ordered to retire. When I invited the head of the factory to Beijing visiting my show, he was surprised to find out the woman he let retired was such a celebrity. (The painting Xiao Dou Rests in a Pool Hall is the major image in the promotion campaign at Ullens Center)  That is not right! So he asked her to go back to work. I never thought my art can “save” someone’s life. That is funny! (Laugh)

In another case, Guo Qiang in the KTV He Owned was executed in a condition that was almost impossible for making paintings. The lights in KTV were either blue or pink. The colour and lights were entirely bizarre. So I had to paint like a blind man. I was happy that disturbed me. I also painted the music which kept irritating people. Afterwards the painting looks good through. I think whatever you paint it would be good.

ARTCO: What is the plan of your creative work next?

Liu Xiaodong: I will continue to try my best bit by bit. In fact I don’t really know what I might do on the next step.  The expectation is always weak compare to the reality. I believe Hometown Boy has reached a level that I didn’t expected. It truly has something very touching but hard to explain. I don’t know where it came from. So the next step I should change a direction. You can’t keep taking advantage in this way: after painting my father’s home then go to paint my grandfather’s home. (laugh)  I should change my angle and try to find a larger subject matter.

shengtian zheng © 2014