Liu Xiaodong, Sky Burial (2007)
“China's hot young artists well schooled in market savvy”, reads a recent article by David Barboza on the Herald Tribune. The article, published on April 1, 2008, discusses the pros and cons of the highly market oriented and very prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Barboza tells us that the school’s faculty boasts of several millionaires, and that its alumni consist of some of the most successful contemporary artists from China, including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. Given the strong link between art and market established by the Academy, it might not be surprising, to discover that artist Liu Xiaodong has chosen Tibet, the latest tourist destination for Han Chinese, as the subject for his most recent paintings. Both an alumni and a member of the faculty at the Academy, Liu’s work is currently on exhibit at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, where his two large, multi-panel paintings, proudly take up gallery space.
The first work, entitled Qinghai-Tibet Railway (2007), is composed of five panels, each 98” by 394”. The painting represents two Tibetan nomads walking their horses across the Tibetan plateau, as blue skies fade behind them, and they are met by the looming grey skies of industrialization. Behind the nomads, the new train that connects Beijing to Lhasa advances, unstoppable. While the painting suggests the tragic results of China’s influence and development plans in Tibet, there is something else at play in Liu’s work. The fluid style of his painting suggests a kind of romance with the Tibetan culture, an objectification that resigns itself to the disappearance of a people while glorifying their past existence and environment. Similarly to the attitude of American colonizers towards Native American tribes, Liu’s painting at once glorifies and denies the complexity of Tibetan culture and history. In the painting, the two men with their horses are at once beautiful and defeated. Although they are on the forefront of the painting, they are passive, and all the action takes place in the background. And what to make of the rainbow in the midst of the grey skies? How quickly are these Nomads to expect better times and better weather?
The second painting on exhibit, Sky Burial (2007), romanticizes Tibetan landscapes and rituals, without giving them much power or complexity. As some Tibetans look over their shoulders at a group of vultures dismembering a carcass, the viewer is allowed to contemplate the beauty of the fertile valley beyond the violence taking place among the birds. In other words, Liu creates a seductive vantage point for the viewer (and potential buyer) of the work. In contrast with the first work, in Sky Burial all the action takes place in the front, but the spectator is allowed to look away from the deadly scene and be reminded of the beauty and harmony of nature around it.
The work of Liu Xiaodong might offer great satisfaction to a country eager to turn Tibet into museum material. Through his subject and style of painting, Liu manages to create attractive scenarios that only superficially allude to the violence of history, providing relief for a public interested in forgetting and romanticizing the history of Tibet and China. While Liu’s art will no doubt prove very marketable back in China, one hopes that the West has experienced enough cultural objectification in its own history not to be easily fooled by Liu's pleasant lines and landscapes.
Mary Boone Gallery
Through April 26