Urban villages can be found in various southern Chinese cities like Guangzhou, Foshan and Shenzhen. As these cities have expanded, outlying rural areas have been incorporated within the city limits. Landowners in these areas then begin developing inexpensive apartment buildings called “handshake” buildings (because the people in them live in such close proximity to each other). As these buildings proliferate you get districts of densely packed, inexpensive housing. Folks from the countryside looking for work can then enter these areas within the larger cities and find cheap places to live. Indeed, a whole slew of inexpensive shops and restaurants develops in these urban villages. The problem, of course, is that these places were not planned and many of them are, consequently, being replaced with state-approved construction projects, especially since some of these urban villages can, allegedly, be breeding grounds for various types of criminal behavior.
If you visit China you will see lots of construction. Any company essential to national security or the nation’s infrastructure will be a State Owned Enterprise and the building boom seems due to the implementation of government policy through these SOEs. This creates jobs and dazzling new urban structures. One scorching afternoon this past summer I climbed up Nanshan Mountain in Shenzhen, and with dragon flies whirling through the air and tiny lizards scampering around tree trunks, I heard a humming noise coming from the city itself, below me, like the low drone of a far-away cement mixer - just a humming sound overlaying the city. On a night when I climbed up the mountain again this sound was gone, and I was captivated by the city lights in silence; but, during the afternoon when I was there, from the top of the mountain, the somewhat hypnotic white noise of the building boom and various industrial processes was inescapable.
So within this building boom we get pockets of urban villages and Liu Sheng chooses to live in one in the city of Guangzhou, where he depicts the mostly poor inhabitants through the bright, shimmering tones of watercolors. This is a difficult medium to master since the pigment often follows the sometimes unpredictable flow of water over paper. To get the crisp lines that Liu achieves between his figures and backgrounds, and as details within images themselves, is quite a remarkable achievement yielding a stark, engaging and eye-catching effect. Indeed, it is the nature of watercolor paint to be both transparent and visible at the same time which lends the capacity for it to present a heightened awareness of reality. The effect of light suddenly advertising itself as well as revealing its subjects through watercolors provides the gauzy, limpid feel for what is otherwise perceived to be mundane and tumescent.
Watercolor paints are the most accessible, non-elitist of painting material and so this seems a perfect medium for the subjects, who are hard-working folks of few pretensions. Still, to master this most egalitarian of mediums takes well-developed inner qualities of patience, focus and resolve in order to produce such wondrous visual results - especially when Liu catches the subtleties of the tans and muscle tone (or lack of muscle tone) of the men who go shirtless in response to the intense heat of southern China. When I was wandering through the National Museum in Beijing, recently, it suddenly struck me that intense self-development might allow for breathtaking artistic technique. For example, to create a Taoist landscape in the past, one literally needed to embody a Taoist state of being. The brushstrokes evinced that state of being. I would argue you cannot get a super crisp line in a watercolor painting unless you are a certain type of person reflecting a certain level of staunch equanimity.
This is still an inchoate idea to me, but I think that states of heightened being become essential to the creation of great art in Asia much more so than in the West, where artists focus more on the viewer deriving meaning from an image than the viewer recognizing the inner state that allowed the image in the first place. It is not just that Liu has a high degree of self-possession, but his fellow-feeling and respect and even impish admiration for the inhabitants of his urban village seem to make it possible for him to engage in the time consuming and rigorous process necessary to use watercolors to the ends he is using them. His subjects are often engaged in the hard manual labor migrants seek to do to make a living, but his medium and technique help highlight the ephemeral nature of their labor, the permanent will be found in the structures they build and their family lives after they return home. His medium allows both a sense of the fantastic and a sense of honesty and sincerity.
Like the men in Louis Hine's classic photos of American industrial workers, we do not see deleterious effects of possibly tedious and monotonous work on the human body; instead, we see inner and outer strength and character. We are even drawn to endearing and quirky behavior like the men who roll their tee shirts half way up their torsos to beat the heat. These are folks who are not supposed to be where they are, but Liu gives them a strong presence by isolating them against the backgrounds he uses. When you think of a watercolor artist, you might think of Turner or someone interested in depicting landscapes. To use this challenging and luminescent medium to depict these workers is to make a statement about the artist’s relationship to the workers and his attitude toward them. He is borrowing and expanding the language of this type of painting, he is pushing this language to embody and express a greater and more humane level of commitment.
Some economists believe that the future of China will involve the planned urbanization of migrants from the countryside, but I am not sure the government is ready for that big move yet. So these are folks who jumped the gun and who took their own initiative and are now living in a gray area - they are not supposed to be there, but they can find employment and live cheaply (many of them sending money back to wives and children in the countryside). Liu is a graduate of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts but once owned and operated a factory where he became intimately aware of and concerned for the lives of the folks who worked for him. As an artist he is dedicated to living with the people of his urban village of Xisan and is part of a group of artists in China who are finding greater meaning living and producing work outside of a mainstream urban environment.