Chinese contemporary artist Liu Dahong began his presentation on 30 April by stating that he has lived through three dynasties—the first being Chairman Mao’s reign, the second when he left power, and the third the current regime. He explained that this is the lens through which all of his paintings must be viewed. Liu’s work illustrates the merging of past and present histories by weaving references from his own childhood with contemporary political issues. It not only reflects his own histories, but also the nature of history as both an account of factual events and a myth composed of personal memories.
Sotheby’s Institute of Art lecturer Dr. Katie Hill engaged Liu in dialogue about the overarching themes present in his most recent series of work, ‘Childhood’, currently on view at Rossi & Rossi. This show presents the work, along with written text by Liu, in book form. During the conversation, Hill described this book as a kind of ‘textbook’ that was available for visitors to purchase and contribute to. As Liu explained, alongside the pages of his images and explanations were also blank notebook pages to which spectators could add their own impressions and thoughts about his work. This concept, he noted, comes from his continued practice of journal keeping, again bringing elements of his childhood history into his contemporary practices, merging his own history and opinions with those of his audience.
I was particularly interested in the dialog regarding Liu’s painting, Battling the Seaweed Sea (2011). Liu introduced this image with a folktale from his childhood about children who were brave enough to stay out with their sheep during a storm. Thus the image depicts two mischievous children peddling through the water ‘battling the seaweed.’ But as Hill suggested, the image also reflects contemporary ecological issues: the green sea signifies the extreme pollution. Again, Liu brings together the myths of his childhood with current histories, creating a visual link between the past and present.
Another link present throughout Liu’s body of work is one between the Far East and West. The first work Liu presented was a digital tour of a ‘Chinese Church’ to highlight the differences between Chinese and Western culture. Many of Liu’s works utilize Western, particularly Christian, motifs and structures to display distinctly Eastern themes. During the audience question-and-answer session, Hill and Liu discussed his reasons for adopting this format. Utilizing Christian iconography, but placing Chairman Mao’s image in it, demonstrates the widespread influence Mao had, comparable to that of Christianity. The Western forms facilitate the translation of the influence of Chinese political figures.
Overall, Hill and Liu highlighted this idea of translation—translating various histories and myths, translating childhood experience, and translating Chinese culture and politics into visual forms that can be understood and experienced by a broad and diverse audience.