Liu Xiaodong spent the spring of 2019 in his Beijing studio, painting monumental portraits and landscapes from photos he had taken that year on a trip to the US-Mexico border. He worked for months trying to capture the arid, cactus-studded Texas terrain, the faces of migrants who had been arrested for crossing the border illegally and the uniforms of the American policemen who locked them up. In June, Liu decamped to London, where he set up his easel in plush homes in the city’s ritziest boroughs, painting wealthy Chinese expats who call the British capital home.
The stark disparity between these places was not lost on Liu, 56. Within six months he’d gone from meeting desperate asylum seekers in the Chihuahuan Desert to sitting in leafy west London with entrepreneur Veronica Chou, daughter of billionaire textiles tycoon Silas Chou, and eating dim sum in Mayfair with Victoria Tang-Owen, creative director of Shanghai Tang. But he did not dwell on it. “I’m used to dealing with all sorts of people,” Liu says, speaking through an interpreter. “I deal with people who are extremely, extremely wealthy and the poorest people on Earth. But people are people. What matters to me is how they behave and the way they conduct themselves in their lives, not their personal wealth.”
In fact, Liu explains, it was not what divided these groups that interested him, but what they had in common. “My work is always about movement, about migration,” he says.
Liu most famously tackled this topic in his series The Three Gorges Project in 2003, when he painted portraits of some of the 1.3 million people who had to relocate after the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province flooded their ancestral villages. These works were shown at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2006, an exhibition that earned Liu international acclaim for his lively, bold brushstrokes. Critics also marvelled at the way he injected new life and meaning into realist painting, a medium that historically was used as a propaganda tool in China and elsewhere but, in Liu’s hands, became a nuanced means of exploring the complexities of life in the 21st century.
Since then, he has travelled as far afield as Israel, Bangladesh and Cuba, portraying people who have been forcibly displaced as well as those who chose to migrate in search of a better life. His two new series—the London paintings, which will be shown at Massimo De Carlo gallery in the British capital in October, and his pieces from the US-Mexico border, slated to be exhibited at Dallas Contemporary in early 2021—are the latest additions to this large, globe-spanning body of work.
Liu is drawn to migrants because their personal stories often reveal the impacts of geopolitical forces, whether economic boom or collapse, regime change or the climate crisis. “In today’s world there are conflicts and contradictions everywhere,” he says. “As an artist, I shouldn’t avoid those topics or these places. It’s almost an artist’s duty to narrate, to depict the conflicts in the world.”
Macro To Micro
Whenever he is invited to exhibit his work at galleries and museums internationally, Liu makes it his mission to create art about these big, global topics in a way that will resonate with local communities. “There’s no point holding an exhibition in Dallas, close to the border between the US and Mexico, and not paint local people,” he says.
The show at Dallas has been years in the making. “This was a long-term, three-year, discussion with Liu Xiaodong about a possible exhibition for Dallas Contemporary,” says Peter Doroshenko, executive director of the museum, adding that it took a year alone to plan Liu’s travel to Texas and Mexico, working out what Liu most wanted to see and who he should meet to spark ideas.
Liu ended up making two trips to the Lone Star State. The first involved an eight-day-long, nearly 2,500 km drive in February 2019. Liu and his team zigzagged back and forth across the border—spending the day in Mexico and then returning at night to sleep in the US—meeting migrants, policemen, photographers and journalists, priests, nuns and directors of shelters who support asylum seekers.