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Liao Zhen Wu’s Re-presentation of the Republic of China: Traces and Truthfulness of Paintings

By Xia Ke Jun (Art Critic & Curator)

The process of modernisation brought by globalisation is far from coming to an end, the same as the modernisation of China. Basically, the changes in China, in fact, hasn’t even started yet. Because, in part, we always end up getting back to the start point. With “one step forward, two steps backward”, this transition becomes immensely difficult.

Given this reality, it becomes essential for us to recall our history of how our society changes in the past 100 years. This very chapter has been neglected by our people. But today, those memories are bound to come to light again.

The re-presentation of the time of the Republic of China is sparkled by the artist’s spirit of pursuing freedom and self-reflection. To re-depict the twists and turns in the process of transiting from an ancient country to a modernised one should be the obligation of an artist and even of every Chinese to reflect critically on the current society.

Born in Sichuan, China, Liao Zhen Wu has lived in Beijing for more than 10 years. In 2011, he was determined to compose a magnificent work. He spent 7 years and painted for numerous times. Finally, a masterpiece that is 4 meters high, 30 meters long was created. The re-presentation of 4 China’s representative cities (Sichuan-Guangzhou-Beijing-Shanghai) during the time of the Republic of China between years of 1900 to 1930 means more than a painting, but also a Republic of China, a history, a memory and a renewal of an image for the painter.

This great work of 30 screens has fused three elements together as a way to represent the transition and manifestation of modernisation. The first one is the high buildings which include the characteristic buildings of Sichuan, Anhui, Jiangnan and Shanghai. These buildings all stand high and behind, which generates a sense of dignity familiar to monuments. However, they are all under the wash of history. The eroded surface symbolises the power of time and also generates a sense familiar to Chinese traditional landscape painting: after unfolding a historical drawing, you will feel that the history of nature is hidden between gray sky and bleak trees.

The second one is the transport vehicles in the front of the painting. Liao has once painted motorcycles in cities. His thoughts for speed and transportation, again materialised the concept of time. From cart to tricycle and vintage car to steam train, the changes have shown us that the wheels of history can never be reversed. The development of the tools requires Chinese to once again show their respect to science as they do at the time of the Republic of China. These objects are most clear in the painting and are almost pictured in a hyper realistic way, reflecting the objectivity of the vehicles or time.

The third is the Chinese at the middle of the drawing who still keep the queue, a historical left-over of Qing Dynasty. Some still wear mandarin-jacket and some in suits. The change of clothes is actually resulted from the transformation of self-image of Chinese people. These characters in the paintings are not completely copied from the history, but instead, they are actually “the ideal images” that are applied to show how identities or self-awareness transformed at the time. From the picture, we can not only know their social status or identity but also their sweat and efforts. We can sense that they are confronted with both the burden of heavy history and the speed of transportations. However, this painting aims not to stress any particular person. Therefore, it is not a faithful depiction of the history. But it actually entails some “false portraits”, which explain why these people are suffered with the struggle between coming forward and stepping backward. Through the painting, we have seen not only a bitter and blurred face of the culture of China but also the vicissitudes and miseries of the Chinese history, making us feel the compassion of the artist.

To put these three elements into one painting, Liao had used many skills, such as abstract brushes, expression of sentiment and concrete brushes. Moreover, the painting looks just like an old photo, which is not in a realistic style but in an ink-wash painting fashion. The burning heart of history and coldness hidden in the memories are both put into one single painting. Ben Benjamin said that it is the dialectics of static pictures and the politics of time.

The modernisation of China should start again. The memories depicted by the painting have its own connotation of truth: when artists are in the middle of the chaos of the present days, they can still restore the bitter and blurred face of the culture in the state of transformation. In the respect of time, the artist makes us taste a bite of the time of Republic of China which entails the Chinese unshakable will for freedom and happiness.

The value of this masterpiece to the nowadays still requires further discussions and studies from various respects, such as its depiction of modernisation, its value of painting language and iconology and extensive sociology.

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