There’s no avenue for the imaginary for Liu Xiaodong. The artist, best known for his figurative works based on real-life subjects, finds more meaning in reality and insists painting either on the spot or from photographs he has taken. Liu’s works often depict sharp contrasts between people and environment. Not one to shy away from difficult topics, Liu has painted scenes such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Rather than making political statements, Liu’s art is more reflective and encourages his audience to create their own interpretations if his works.
His latest pieces are no different. After being invited to Italy to document Prato’s Chinese community, Liu decided to also tackle the subject of the European refugee crisis in a new series of works. At the latest Parkview Museum’s exhibition The Artist’s Voice, one of his paintings, Refugee I, is displayed alongside other works by artists such as Marina Abramovic and Gilbert & George. While in Singapore for the exhibition preview, he shares with The Peak about his experiences researching about Syrian immigrants, the inherent alienation within displaced communities and the thought process behind his painting.
Why did you want to focus on the European refugee crisis in your works?
I noticed the influx of refugees from Syria towards European countries like Germany while I was doing research on the Chinese diaspora in Italy. Others portray this as a political issue, but I see it as people constantly on the move. One night, they’re here and another night, they have to find somewhere else to sleep. The migration of people around the world is has been around since ancient times and the fact that it still continues to do this has grabbed my interest. Us Chinese move around a lot as well, and it is something I can relate to.
So what differences did you notice about the two Chinese and Syrian immigrants during your research?
They’re definitely not the same. Chinese immigrants keep to themselves and they won’t go out to protest or rebel. They just work hard and go back home straight. That’s essentially their life: work and work, having child after child. It’s all very quiet. Unlike the more outspoken Europeans, the Chinese just keep their involvements within their communities. During my investigations, I realised that even when these Chinese immigrants have an Italian passport, they will still approach the Chinese embassy if they get into trouble. The Italian police were perplexed by the issue and tried to assimilate the diaspora. The motivation of the Chinese immigrants is to earn enough, go back home to China and build a nice house after working 10 or 20 years. And when they die, they also insist on being buried back in their hometown. It’s strange – so what if they have a nice house? There’s nobody staying there after they die.
And the Syrians?
In the news, well, you’ve read all about it – the Syrians disturbing the peace and causing problem. I went to their campsites to take a look and it dawned on me that those outside are almost 90% to 100% male. You don’t see much women outside. They have repressed views on sex and gender and it’s a problem that will take a very long time to resolve. They way they treat women are different from Europeans. They think women who wear less are trying to seduce them – but lots of European women don’t dress as conservatively, and obviously European men won’t try to molest them. To me, rather than just keeping to themselves, they want to master the countries and new societies that they arrive at. They get their strength from their religion, they still pray five times a day without fail. Compared to the Chinese, they don’t have a god. Even if they do, they pray to Buddha for money and there’s really not much spiritual strength there.
In your other works, you often paint on the spot or take photos and paint them after. How did you put together the Refugee I oil painting then?
For these series of works, I took a lot of photos over a period of time. I can’t relate to them much because of our difference not just in language, but with our culture and religion as well. So I can only observe the refugees from a distance, as though separated by a glass window.
For this painting in particular, I was actually in a cafe on the second floor of a mall above a railway station. So what you see in the painting is really street level and ground floor, where the trains are at. So if you see here, I’ve painted the Europeans smaller, and Syrians bigger. I felt the Syrians are stronger – not necessarily physically stronger in that sense, but mentally. They came here from another life, a precarious situation at home. Them being there has caused many problems for the Europeans and the situation has been very tense.
Your paintings are usually quite colourful. Is there a reason why the colour scheme here is just black and white?
I rarely do monochrome paintings actually. This is quite a unique piece, I have gray paintings but they are usually very small and not of this size. But the reason why I did this in black and white is because the train station really was just gray. Adding any other colour seemed superfluous and lacked meaning. So why not just make it greyer? Honestly, there’s no meaning to painting train stations – I’ve seen it so many times, colours and all. Having it black and white gives it an interesting dimension. I have other paintings in the series: one of refugees gambling by the ocean, one depicting them coming ashore after their journeys from their boats and taking a bath on the street, another queueing up for water and train coming and going, packed with refugees, in an empty station. They’re all in colour, except for this.
The Artist’s Voice runs till 18 March 2018 at The Parkview Museum.