Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Lost Homeland

(Hong Kong Gallery Guide  Dec/Jan 2010)

The image of China recedes at an accelerating pace in the works of the new generation of mainland artists. Old landscapes fade and blur into the illusion of prosperity; exiled souls go on a relentless search for their identities around the cities. Young Chinese painter Liu Weijian encapsulates this sense of loss in his compositions, which carry a profound sorrow that is far beyond his years.

Farewell My Country is a somewhat limited though thoughtful retrospective on Liu’s works, as it features some of his lesser-known paintings since 2003. Liu’s paintings are often visual narratives in which the protagonists are unseen or anonymous figures, while their despair is revealed with a quietly cinematic touch. In the stand-out piece of the show, ‘Dusk’, the misty blue world carries an ambivalent longing for respite. Yet the blue sky of varying shades and brightness only highlights the factory as the emotional focus in the picture, a world in which the day’s end promises more dreariness to come. Such contrast between hope and pain adds a subtle irony to Liu’s paintings like ‘Ideal in the garden’. The faceless statues feel like an absurd surprise against the dark backdrop, and the ideal they represent wear off like a disappointment.

Liu’s paintings from his earlier years present a more visceral side to his expression. The paintings play with the conflict between the inside and the outside: images of abandoned homes stand in the snow or at the end of the landscapes, with traces of passers-by who have left the places forever. These paintings speak of nostaglia and solitude, as much as the impossibility of connection. In ‘Late autumn’, human figures appear in deliberately odd and random relations to one another, and their presence accentuates rather than fills the void. In Liu’s world, the light shines on a painful reality and his feelings for a homeland that is fading away--once he has left a dwelling, a locale or a city, it changes and becomes an image from the past, an unreal entity.

In the same vein as other post-80’s Chinese artists, Liu delivers a personal, emotive take on the social issues phenomena in mainland China today. While Liu forsakes the abstract treatment that is popular among his contemporaries, his works strike an intriguing balance between realism and an intense subjectivism. His ‘comic books’--works on sketch books--are a remarkable example. ‘Two stories’ depict the monotonous lives of factory workers who migrate to the city from their hometowns. The drawings of these faceless characters spell imbalance and desperation--they have no way out of the nightmarish universes that stem from the artist’s vision. The sense of pressure, of a surreal existence gives poignancy to Liu’s interpretation of the subject, since it brings the audience very close to his feelings.

Farewell My Country gives some scattered and unsettling glimpses into a country that eludes the grip of her people, and Liu’s works are at times disturbing for their mix of cold and dark colors and melancholy subjects. ‘Crow’s moving castle (part)’, an installation of painting on boxes, may seem like a surprise amid the paintings of gloom and anonymity. The cardboard boxes--ones used for containing bottled mineral water--give a false sense of movement, yet the images speak sorrow and despair. The recycle signs interfere with images of anguished characters, demolished realms, ruined nature and crows flying like messengers of death around a lighthouse with a Chinese flag. For the receptive audience, Liu’s debut solo exhibition in Hong Kong may feel like a brief preview, but it is certainly a good introduction to the artist’s repertoire and sensibility. 

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