Code of controversy

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-6 19:05:04


A visitor takes a snapshot of Lui Liu's 2005 oil painting Beijing 2008 at an exhibition in Shanghai early this year. Photo:IC
A visitor takes a snapshot of Lui Liu's 2005 oil painting Beijing 2008 at an exhibition in Shanghai early this year. Photo:IC

Among the pieces to garner most of the attention at Poly's autumn auction on Sunday was one oil painting titled Beijing 2008, but not because of the final hammer price. The winning bid of 19.55 million yuan ($3.14 million) is within the normal range for works by artists of the same generation. The interest in this particular piece of work is due to the fact that it and its creator, Lui Liu, have caused controversy for years.

Decoding the painting

When mention Beijing 2008, most of us will think of the 2008 Olympic Games. Yet, this work is about another China-related game - mahjong.

The major part of the painting is about four naked or half naked women playing mahjong, in an unusual attitude. Beside them, on the right side of the painting, is a teenage girl, wearing a red embroidered halter-top and carrying a bowl of fruit in her right hand and a fruit knife in her left hand. On the wall, on the left side, hangs a portrait of a man: He is bald, sports a mustache and has an obvious mole on his chin. In the background, the sky is dark with black clouds.

Completed in 2005 and exhibited at a New York art fair the next year, this painting was soon posted on the Internet and raising heated discussions around China. Many netizens thought there were political messages in the painting. One interpretation that got a lot of support was that the painting refers to the Taiwan question - a tense topic at that time just like the dark sky.

According to analysis found on the Chinese online forum, the four mahjong-playing women represent the four powers influencing the Taiwan question - the US, Japan, Chinese mainland and Russia. More clothing means that the player has more strength, and the teenage girl is interpreted to be Taiwan.

The man in the portrait is thought to be a combination of three former influential leaders of China - Sun Yat-sun, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong - as the man carries each of the three leaders' symbolic facial features. This portrait is thought to mean the Taiwan question is an unsolved one within differing ideologies.

There are other theories as well, like interpreting the teenage girl to be North Korea or migrant workers in China.

"It was the time when The Da Vinci Code had just been released. A number of media outlets called the phenomenon 'The Lui Liu Code,'" the eccentric art critic and art forum moderator Xing Chen (a pseudonym) wrote in an analysis of Beijing 2008.

According to Jia Wei, general manager of contemporary art department at Poly International Auction Company, the estimated price for Beijing 2008 was between 15 million yuan to 18 million yuan, but the final hammer price was not a surprise. "It is [a combination of] the value of the painting itself, as well as its social value," Jia said. "Its social value may also exceed the value of the painting."

Jia said she thinks, for an artist, the saddest thing would be for his or her work to not generate any controversial discussions, because that would mean few people are seeing the work. "And because there is no standard for what beauty is, every viewer can come up with their own interpretation of a work, to criticize or to praise," she added.

Lui Liu's daydream

Although Beijing 2008 stirred quite a buzz on the Internet, the name Lui Liu remained unknown to most Chinese, despite the fact that at the same time some of his college classmates such as Chen Danqing and Yang Feiyun were already famous, even outside art circles.

Born Liu Yi in 1957, Lui Liu was among the first group of students admitted by China Central Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Since 1991, he has lived in Canada with his family. Yet, even without knowing much about the author, people are often attracted to Liu's paintings.

Most of Liu's works feature nude women, which some may criticize as a vulgar way to be eye-catching. But more importantly, compared with some other works that are often hard for audiences to understand, Liu's works provide a sense of familiarity while causing one to ponder the meaning behind the images.

As for whether people give the right interpretation, Liu said he does not care. "I care more about whether people are willing to interpret rather than how they interpret," he told the Global Times.

Many say that Liu's works give them a dreamlike feeling. It is because, as the artist said, he believes art is just like a daydream.

Liu pointed out that different people often have similar dreams, like being chased by a demon, and therefore, by painting his dreams, audiences are able to relate them to their own.

"I hope when people look at my paintings in the light of day, they will think of the dreams they have at night," Liu said.

A good story teller

Liu seems to be a person often in a daze, for he cannot recite his home address and is likely to give a wrong phone number. However, when he talks about things like psychology and ongoing world issues, he is totally another person, with abundant ideas and clear analysis.

It's hard to believe this man knows about the outside world so well when he spends almost every day at home painting and has few social activities. He doesn't even have a mobile phone.

He said casual chats with a few close friends and surfing on Sina Weibo provide him with enough information to keep up with the latest happenings around the world.

When asked whether he consciously puts political messages in his paintings, Liu said, he mostly does not do that with intention, but sometimes, his ideas may be influenced by some political issues.

"Also, when viewers interpret more political meanings [from my paintings], it means at that moment, they care a lot about the political issues," Liu said.

Humor is another thing Liu has deep interest in. As a result, even if Liu wants to imply certain political issues, he expresses them in a humorous way rather than being critical.

Now people like to classify Liu's painting into a genre called magic realism, a name Liu does not quite agree with.

"It's a term adopted from South America, and often related with folk legends containing no politics," Liu said. "It makes some sense to call my paintings magic realism, as they give people a feeling of magic. But [the difference is that] my magic is about dreams of the masses and society."

Posted in: ARTS

blog comments powered by Disqus