Liu Xiaodong at friend Li Wu’s home painting a portrait. Taking a break from painting, the two men are resting on the couch.

The little town of Jincheng is built around a paper mill. The mill, erected in 1939, has survived many periods—from the Japanese occupation to the civil war to the Cultural Revolution. It was first called Jinzhou’s “Barbu” Co. Ltd. and then went through a string of names as a state-run Jinzhou paper mill, before finally ending on its current name: “Jincheng Paper Plant.” The seventies and eighties were the plant’s glory days; at the time, to be a member of the working class was to have earned the most honorable title possible, and a body dressed in a worker’s uniform was sure to leave a distinguished impression. Later on, as was the fate of all such plants, the paper mill went from a state-run to a privately owned company. The worker status was stripped of its sophistication and began a decline into awkwardness, and “worker” as a term no longer warmly connoted the collectivist life. As a result of the transformed economic structure, the mill town’s entire atmosphere underwent change.

Entering the main gates of the factory district is already a fair introduction to the town, a nearly complete picture within eye’s reach. China Mobile signs flash in every kind of street-side storefront; the town square’s big screen punctiliously broadcasts Ping An Insurance ads. With little time or effort you can stroll the length of the pot-holed main road and see farmlands, a dam, a wood lot, and burial grounds up ahead; and then there are the chimneys—a sort of landmark in their own right—towering over the distant sky, spouting sallow smoke.

Jincheng is a small village centered around and built for a papermill. Photo: Sun Xiaoxi

The small town is located right alongside the railway; at this moment a train rolls through. “There goes another pang in my heart,” says Liu Xiaodong, “pretty romantic.” Old friends reminisce over when he left for Beijing to continue his studies; they discuss what route he had to take to get there and what route he would take back, revealing that they remember the details even more clearly than does Liu himself. Their whole lives are here; yes, the environment and the individuals have seen change, but when these changes are juxtaposed with the cosmopolitan life of their old “childhood playmate,” they seem particularly subtle, slow, and self-contained. With memories full of illustrative anecdotes, they animatedly rehash the old days, trade the wisdom of personal experience, and meditate on this great painter and his art—so incompatible with the local environment.

It has been a month’s time since Liu Xiaodong first arrived back here to paint, in preparation for his Ullens Center for Contemporary Art solo exhibition, “Hometown Boy,” scheduled to open in November. He paints his high-school friends, his martial- arts coach. Some work, others have been laid off. Some are policemen, others restaurateurs. Then there is a woman, slim and stylish as she was back then, leaning against a pool table, cigarette in hand, a subtly world-worn air about her. Liu Xiaodong says that, for him and for his friends, he wants to leave a little evidence of the years they have lived—he wants to paint their respective families, their faces, and their skin; the smooth cheeks in those old black-and-white photographs have already begun to grow rugged and rough; their pores and freckles hint at the passage of time and the transpiring of events.

Vintage photographs of Jincheng’s papermill.

The story of Liu Xiaodong’s departure to Beijing is one that everyone knows by heart. But when the bitterness of the past is put to a language that has some rhythm and some structure to it, a jumble of emotion yields to reveal a greater narrative. And his friends—narrativized through his paintings— generally live their lives irrespective of chapter headings. Guo Qiang, dressed just-so, stands inside the Karaoke hot-spot he opened up ten years ago; a decade in the leisure industry has left him with an ear-full of scandal and gossip. Shujun, sent to jail with his head hanging low, is unable to tear himself away from his son—a big butterball who brings him so much joy. Xuzi, just laid off from his job, sits in his own living room; his rolled-up sleeve exposes a tattoo stretching across his solid upper arm, and the plastic cover on the kitchen table behind him overflows with a pile of bottles and cans that seems like it has become something of a permanent fixture. It is as if these images are taken directly from what we see in modern Chinese movies; the country’s “alternative” type is now coming to the public eye via artwork, artwork that brings with it the visual experience of a county town. It is not only a matter of content; this element to the work informs the language used to describe and recreate it. It affects the way we look. It magnifies everyday feelings and looks them square in the eye, attracting our attention to images that have long existed but have not yet been discussed and giving them their first shot at a leading role. But it cannot merely stop here; the artist is not alone in having to consider and solve the problem of how it is that, after the exhibition opening, these images will end up as more than an aesthetic sensibility or a forgettable flicker in the retina.

After working on painting after painting cramped indoors, Liu Xiaodong decides that he would like to paint a landscape. He kneels before the local land deity temple and prays that the overcast sky will keep from raining so that he might sketch in the open air. It seems like God always grants the artist his requests. An easel is propped up on the dam, its stance tall, its canvas wide and blank; the northern green is hale and hearty, and the further north one looks, the more lush the green becomes. Gusts of wind lift leaves, revealing the hint of white underneath that signifies the beginning of change. This is a three-month project, just in time for the turn from summer to autumn. It has been quite some time since Liu last saw the landscape of his hometown in between seasons; for him and so many others who live away from home, coming back is associated only with winter and the new year festival. Liu Xiaodong’s approach in this series is not unfamiliar to anyone who has followed his work: earlier series in the Three Gorges, Bangkok, and Qinghai allowed him to develop his distinct method of painting on-site. The resulting works are heavy on time and narrative, meticulous in their selection of subjects and objects, removed from time and yet connected to a social context. His stories tend to go beyond the frame, connecting emotion to its surface as a sort of second skin.

Liu Xiaodong paints friend Cheng Zi in plein air. Photo: Sun Xiaoxi

Liu Xiaodong is not a typical “Dongbei Artist,” and was active in Beijing very early on. But he has maintained a private connection to this place; like a family background, his roots are permanent and unalterable. After having broken away, reconnecting is an encounter that is both extremely estranging and extremely personal. As he brings his gaze and body back to his home environment, he must not only confront the canvas, but his own emotions.

Upon his return home, friends immediately sprinted over to help. They pose patiently for paintings, not daring to make a sound that might disturb his work. They hold his achievements “abroad” in high esteem and put their hearts and souls into looking after his work. In their free time they come in to enthusiastically report the latest developments in town—an upcoming factory strike, the workers’ welfare demands, an old acquaintance’s funeral—things that no longer have any intimate relevance to his life. These are Liu Xiaodong’s longtime acquaintances, but in reality the only experiences they have shared date back to childhood and adolescence. He describes their relationships, explaining, “This kind of friendship is neither deep nor shallow; they’ve never come to Beijing to seek my hospitality. It’s only when I return home that we’re together.”

Here, the incongruity of Liu Xiaodong’s identity is like his putonghua: a hybrid of Beijing diction and a Dongbei accent. “Huanxiang”—the verb for “returning home”—is, as Chinese people conceive of it, an act that possesses profound significance; “yijin huanxiang”—literally a “homecoming in silken robes,” or, in other words, a return home after the achievement of wealth or honor abroad—is an even more valued ideal in rural society. All the same, in this instance, the act of “returning” seems to be an awkward one; it is difficult to judge whether or not Liu Xiaodong is comfortable here. A small town has its own precepts of worldly wisdom; for a person who has lived in the city for a such a long while, it is truly difficult to come back and set about consenting to each of these rules again, one at a time. Liu Xiaodong’s special status inevitably leads people to cast a sideways glance of expectation his way; people at home are saying that this time around, his performance has been better than on previous visits; when he sees people on the street, he knows how to greet them, and to greet them at all.

Jincheng friend Guo Qiang opened a karaoke, so Liu Xiaodong painted the owner inside a karaoke room. The light was very dim so Liu was worried that the paintings’ color might end up a little off, but the next day he found that the result was pretty much on target. Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien’s team arrived in Jincheng to shoot a documentary of Liu’s project and everyone ended up singing karaoke together; in this shot, Hou Hsiao-hsien is singing.
After the painting was finished, Liu Xiaodong joined in some mass entertainment.

He paints by day and drinks at night, even though there is no night life in this small town. After an evening chat everyone is early to bed, early to rise in time to begin another day’s work. In a small town, it is even harder than it is in the city to sleep through the morning; there is the noise of a new building under construction, of people going to work early, of study hall period at the neighborhood school. In his diary, Liu Xiaodong writes, “In my childhood memories, the working class was perpetu- ally powerful; the manufacturing industry occupied the main streets of every district with justified righteousness. I do not know from what day it was that I could no longer see the manufacturing industry or the working class from the city; there, the skyscrapers overwhelm the sight. There, people walk the streets like tourists, like an army with no combat troops, only logistics officers.”

For a person who has spent so many years away, it is not possible to have first-hand experience with the slow accumulation of change. From afar, transitions always seem sudden. No matter how quickly one becomes accustomed to the fast pace of change in a city, every year the return home is accompanied by a weighty sense of decline, of fragmentary “urbanization,” of a modernized village—maladroit and overeager to use new terms and turns of phrase. These are the basic features of this place: its bustle and bleakness maintain a shady sort of relationship with one another, and it is hard to say if people’s lives are truly improving or if they are getting worse. It does not suffice to make a comparison with the material conditions of twenty years ago. The important change to focus on is the existing drop in the entire average: there are some people who have become more affluent, but there are some people who cannot make ends meet.

The reality of a small town is that no matter what the news is, it spreads like wildfire. People know one other, monitor one another, and judge one another, and it all lends to a specific kind of pressure. Beneath the surface, violence, house-fires, and crimes of passion abound with flesh and blood, producing drama, tension, and a kind of bizarreness that, after all, is fitting. Now, young people strive to move out to county towns at the very least, and those still left behind sit around the dinner table as they did before, discussing the importance of harmony between family and friends; every such remark provides consolation and leaves a pleasant, long-lasting aftertaste, and carries a sentimentality that is at once trifling and indulgent: a sort of calculated unpretension.

But for the uprooted, home is the best constant; one can return home and instantly burrow into the welcoming shadow of memories. It is just as Liu Xiaodong described it: a “friendship” that is neither deep nor shallow, one that is trustworthy and dependable. Sometimes, home does not need its own reality; it can exist in the imagination alone. Liu Xiaodong will ultimately “leave home” again to continue to face his “normal life” and creative problems—whether suddenly, at a gradual pace, or in complete disorder—but it is only temporary.