Liu Xiaohui: The Mystery of Sisyphus
How great is the distance between a series of paintings and an exhibition of that series of paintings? This is the question I have pondered ever since my first visit to Liu Xiaohui’s studio. For an artist who has devoted so much time in the studio while exhibiting so infrequently, what matters is this: from the studio to the exhibition space, the exhibition itself can be seen as a kind of existence that propels the viewing experience from the private to the public. In this sense, ‘why exhibit?’ and ‘how to exhibit?’ become one question, and solving the latter brings forth the answer to the former. Exhibition as a dispositif must provide a more concrete and clarifying vehicle for the aleatory vision in the studio. Therefore, if we resolve the question of ‘how to exhibit’, the answer then emerges to the more ontological question of why the viewing experience should move from the studio to the gallery. Liu’s paintings strangely, with monotonous repetition, offer extended possibilities for imagination. When the exhibited works are unified visually, it becomes more likely that we will treat the methodology behind such unification as the starting point of the exhibition. In other words, the symptomatic repetition that exists in Liu’s work induces an investigation into his methodological meaning. For both the artist and the viewer, this seems more reliable or real – according to Liu himself.
Why does the silhouette of the same woman appear in Liu Xiaohui’s oeuvre again and again? According to the artist, she comes from a scene in Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon in which a woman is seen turning around and leaving after delivering food. Liu admits that his capture of this image may simply be unconscious, but he regards her as mysterious and charming nonetheless. In truth, before delving into the psychoanalysis of this visual appropriation, we might need to distrust the artist’s statement here. Tirelessly repeating a certain image can be understood as being psychologically attached to it, but in his work, Liu paints over, modifies, and betrays the original image – she is no longer the same she. She begins in Ozu’s lens, but changes in Liu’s work. She walks, stands, faces the ocean, and gazes at land afar. This repeated silhouette, in silent variations, becomes an archetype of Liu’s visual system. At the same time, Liu does not extend the image into a kind of in-depth scenario, but rather retains the position at which it starts. The silhouette varies in a radiant manner, but its framework remains at the precise point when the filmic moment enters Liu’s canvas. In other words, the she in Liu’s constructed visual universe never gets a chance to continue living. Instead, she is but a borrowed image, flat and empty inside. This is because the artist takes the silhouette as a departure intended for something further. Liu appropriates the image and takes it as an agency through which a much more difficult situation is revealed. For Liu, it is the experience of perpetually approaching but never reaching the truth. It is an obsession; a Sisyphean process. In this way, the monotonous repetition of one image reinforces the unrepeatable acts and painting methods behind it. It alludes to something more metaphysical than the image itself. Sisyphus is a hero in Greek mythology because his endless act of pushing the boulder symbolizes grief without desperation. In his battle with the mountain, the process itself is much closer to truth, if such a thing exists, than any result. In the essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Albert Camus envisions a Happy Sisyphus who, rather than being desperate in a fruitless narrative, is satisfied with the process of eternal repetition.
That said, Liu Xiaohui is more interested in the process of painting repetitiously than the repetition of the image itself. Or, one could say that he starts over again and again just to subvert those ‘finished’ images. The homogenization of the visual product is only fantasy in some sense, or camouflage. Painting over and even covering the same picture is the real game. In addition, the artist acknowledges ‘labor’ in creative process. In fact, for Liu, painting is never supposed to be creative, but a laborious daily routine. This is important because it brings a quantitive accumulation in which the artist transitions between affirmation and negation. Liu regards quantity more reliable and reasonable than any exterior impact during the painterly process. This becomes a paradox. Liu’s work turns out to be more about reduction than addition in that the more physical movement or layers of color that are applied, the less there is anything left, as repetition eventually leads to erasing and cleansing. He negates the kind of symptoms that are decorative, pretentious, or superfluous; those which may come from years of academy training or some current ‘correct’ visual model. He erases them again and again. According to the artist himself, “the work does not leave any extra possibilities. It will become less and less, eventually a flat iron.” Here, ‘less’ does not mean anything quantitive, but something closer to ‘an experience’ like that proposed by John Dewey in Art as Experience. It is an experience as a whole in which “every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues.”1 It is tightly interwoven in an organizational sense and it prevents any exterior possibilities from invading or intervening. This is a difficult process, requiring the artist to be alert and highly self-consciousness. He has to make precise and consistent decisions about the image during endless erasing and covering. What makes it all even more difficult is that the ‘process’ is not measured daily, but rather, weeks or even months are spent finishing one painting. One image may require a period of time, and during that period of time, the artist may be working on multiple images simultaneously. Here, experiential consistency outweighs temporal coherence. What matters is connection on a conscious level. For Liu, truth or clarification come from subjective experience and judgment, which is why it is important to investigate his methodology. The conscious decision to maintain experiential consistency is itself aesthetic. Meaning emerges before the image is finished. One could say that the meaning leads to the eventual appearance of the image. Starting with the woman from Ozu’s film, what Liu wishes to produce is not another image, but a metaphysical image. His work attempts to enclose the figurative images inside the painting through repetitive modification and erasure. The entire process is done with a high degree of self-consciousness. Just as Camus puts it, “the reason why the myth of Sisyphus is a tragedy is because he is conscious (about his actions).”2 ‘Tragedy’ here is present not only in an emotional sense, but also in a philosophical one: it refers to metaphysical truth.
However, to both the viewer and the artist himself, when one tries to reflect on the visual form in the context of the creative process, it remains hard to make things out clearly. As mentioned above, taking the outer layers of the image as a border, we are actually excluded from the inner ones. From the behavioral to visual level, these repetitive ‘clear’ images become blurred, even mysterious. This kind of mystery is related to the detailed decisions made during the process: compared to those who consider everything and deliberate before beginning to paint, Liu Xiaohui belongs to the type of painters who hesitate only at the end of the process. Edvard Munch is among this latter type as well and often said: “I stop only when I can’t possibly work anymore.”3 Here, ‘possibly’ certainly refers to subjective decisions. Sometimes, Liu puts aside a ‘finished’ work and rejoins it after a time. The painting may have already been painted over several times with the image covered and recreated. He continues to subvert his own decisions as if a destination has become impossible. In terms of why one painting is considered finished and another not, or the reasons for repeatedly painting over an image, we may never know. Liu thinks that “nothing is that reliable,” and would at any time negate his own previous assertions. This process in itself, more so than any seemingly solid affirmation, is closer to what he actually wants. If we look further, we find that the repetition is only in the behavioral sense, and that every starting-over-again is supported by very detailed reasons: maybe a color patch or maybe a line is not ‘reliable’ enough. These reasons are too subjective and detailed to be convincing for the viewers or to involve them, and as such are much like a proposal whose method and logic are clear, but whose process of deduction and conclusion are difficult to retrace.
This is the paradox. It is not just a paradox of Liu Xiaohui’s works, but also between painting process and resultant image. If this exhibition attempts to pave a way for the viewers to understand his visual system by emphasizing his repetitive process, then, when we further investigate how the repetitions evolve heterogeneously, our recognition and judgment become blurred. When our vision eventually gives up on the burden of thinking and inquiring and rests upon the canvas, it is met with frustration, strangeness, and mystery. This is a road which leads forward but one on which we have to step backwards to arrive at the destination. When the audience steps back in front of Liu Xiaohui’s paintings, mysterious ‘lumps’ emerge. These lumps then become solidified and frozen, hanging between strokes, color, and lines, and preventing them from interacting with each other and integrating into one complete, gentle image. They bring weight and stagnation as mysterious black lines touch and leave the repeated image of the woman over and over with coarse accuracy and a hasty calmness. After all, these lumps form in the picture a certain dense spiritual barrier encased by an endlessly laborious experience. As Camus describes it, the most touching moment in Sisyphus’s life is the one moment each time the boulder is finally rolled up to the top of the mountain and is about to fall down again. In Liu Xiaohui’s work, those mysterious lumps are both physical and spiritual. They head towards the end of the image through a painting process that repeats itself again and again. They put objects’ realness into question and call to the uncertainty of perception. At the same time, they explore spirituality under layers of practical experience. If the reality of ‘truth’ is contained in that mysterious shadow, then the real myth of Sisyphus is in the unreachable end point, the fluctuation between negativity and certainty, the absurd body of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, as well as the shadow he casts back down upon reality.