Liu Xiaodong: In Between Israel and Palestine

The subject of Israel and Palestine may seem an unlikely one for the Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong. However, the issue of internal displacement and migration has been a topic within much of Xiaodong’s work, particularly in his 2003 series, Displacement, which drew inspiration from the Three Gorges Dam project in China. The twenty new works shown at Mary Boone gallery in New York take up the artist’s previous interests once again, revolving around the same set of concerns in a different part of the globe. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor


Liu Xiaodong | 
In Between Israel and Palestine 11, oil on canvas, two panels, 2013. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.


Liu Xiaodong | 
Great Migration at the Three Gorges, oil on canvas, four panels, 2003.

The largest hydroelectric project in human history, the Three Gorges Dam was constructed to supply one-ninth of China’s energy, but at the cost of displacing over 1.3 million people and flooding 1,400 villages and towns along the Yangtze River. The human and environmental cost of the project made it controversial since its inception in 1994, fueling heated debate between those who argued for its production of clean energy, and those that denounced the displacement of a largely rural population, along with the loss of countless historical and archeological sites.


Liu Xiaodong | 
New Settlers at the Three Gorges, oil on canvas, four panels, 2004.

Known for his engagement with transgressive subjects since the beginning of his career in the 1990s, Xiaodong first visited the Three Gorges in 2002, creating monumental, multi-panel oil paintings, largely taken from life studies of the landscape and local inhabitants. The new paintings at Mary Boone gallery are similarly in line with Xiaodong’s painting practice, drawn in a realist style characteristic of the artist, with vivid colors and scenes painted in an impressionistic manner. These stylistic attributes are a testament to the open-air method he often employs when working, allowing him to capture the dynamic lighting of his al fresco subjects and imbuing each work with a spontaneity indicative of his on-site renderings. In the last decade, Xiaodong has turned away from painting from photographs in favor of an open air technique because the former caused him to “lose his sense of color.” He says, “People who do oil painting know that photographs don’t distinguish warm colors from cold ones… For me, my eyes need to unceasingly follow reality and establish a relationship with reality.”


Liu Xiaodong | 
In Between Israel and Palestine 15, oil on canvas, two panels, 2013. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

In an experience analogous to his stay in the Three Gorges provinces, Xiaodong visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron and Ramallah, in April of 2013, meeting with local residents and painting many of them in their homes and surroundings. The artist’s decision to make a majority of the works as diptychs was characteristically multivalent. While the small panels were easy to carry and transport during his travels, the format is also a visual reminder of the cultural divide that exists in the region, and the ever-present effect of this divide on the population. In his signature style, Xiaodong forgoes judgment in his portrayals of the conflict-ridden region, and instead focuses on humanizing its inhabitants through his paintings, the monumentality of which endow each of them with nobility.


Liu Xiaodong | 
In Between Israel and Palestine 1, oil on canvas, two panels, 2013. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

The sense of immediacy that Xiaodong attains in his paintings is perhaps one of their most compelling qualities, and he is emphatic that the energy of on-site work is integral to achieving this quality. In a 2008 interview, the artist commented: “The traces formed on-site are irreplaceable. You cannot reconstruct it after you come back to the studio. I find this process very interesting. [It allows me to] continually reject any fixed knowledge. When I go on-site, I can rid myself of all of it, including the influence of history.”


Liu Xiaodong | 
In Between Israel and Palestine 10, oil on canvas, two panels, 2013. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery. 

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Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963, China) studied at the Central Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing and the University of Complutense in Madrid. He has had several international exhibitions since 1990, including at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco; the National Art Museum of China, Beijing; and the Bologna Modern Art Museum in Italy. His work was also included in the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. Xiaodong lives and works in Beijing, where he teaches at the Central Institute of Fine Arts.

In Between Israel and Palestine was on view at Mary Boone Gallery in New York from September 5th through October 26th.

Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY in New York.

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