Friday 23 August 2019

What lies beneath: Nuka and His Brothers and Sisters by Liu Xiaodong

Nuka and His Brothers and Sisters by Liu Xiaodong

Oil on canvas copyright Xiaodong Studio courtesy Faurschou Foundation collection of the artist

Nuka and His Brothers and Sisters by Liu Xiaodong
Nuka and His Brothers and Sisters by Liu Xiaodong

Niall MacMonagle

Louisiana, a villa on the sea, 30km north of Copenhagen, was so named by its original owner in honour of his three wives, all called Louise, and in 1958 Louisiana was transformed, by its then owner into a spectacular art museum, now the most visited art museum in Denmark and the 85th most visited museum in the world.

Works by Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong are on view there right now. Born in Jincheng, China, in 1963, Liu, aged 17, moved to Beijing, graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, studied in Madrid and is now a Professor of Painting at CAFA. He has painted in Tibet, the US, Cuba, Korea, has exhibited worldwide, and the Louisiana show is his response to a 2017 trip to Uummannaq, a remote town in Greenland, 590km north of the Arctic Circle. There he met and observed orphanage children and painted them on the spot.

"At the end of the world there is an orphanage. It almost sounds like a poem," says Liu. "It sparked off a lot of fantasy and made me long to go there."

For Nuka and His Brothers and Sisters he observed the kids in silence, chose kids that looked different from each other in age and skin tones, and the director of the children's home instructed them how to pose. Greenland's hunting culture and social life is reflected in this very large canvas painted under an open sky... Traditionally, whales, seals, polar bears were hunted but today that's not allowed and Greenlanders are depressed, says Liu, because "the heroic life that is in their hearts does not exist any more".

Against a dazzling, dramatic ice-white, blue, brown, turquoise land and seascape, Nuka poses with a spear.

Watching on, four girls, a boy in typical teenage gear stand awkwardly, a Greek chorus. To the left a boy and girlfriend stay warm. Nothing's idealised. The disconnect between tradition and now is there. What future awaits these young people? "My principle of art is to convey the most complicated psychological activity in the simplest way."

Photographs don't work. Liu paints what he sees." Face to face with them I paint much better. We are brothers. We might look a little different but we are brothers who have feelings. This is a powerful energy."

Liu believes that "a good portrait makes you feel that the person portrayed is related to you". A good portrait captures "the life of someone's heart".

'Uummannaq', by Liu Xiaodong is at Louisiana until June 10.

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