Liu Xiaodong’s large-scale painting, Into Taihu, is part of a series of works that document China’s young generation, affected by both natural and man-made disasters. In this painting, the artist portrays the lake, Taihu, the third largest freshwater lake in China, located in the Yangtze delta plain near Shanghai. Supplying water to about 30 million people, the lake is known as one of the natural wonders of Southeast China—However, since the early 2000s, the lake has become severely polluted by waste dumping, leading to the infestation of algae.
Into Taihu depicts an eerie scene of seven boys sitting on a boat on the surface of this water, painted in poisonous hues of neon green. In the background, seven white herons can be seen taking flight. The image is inspired by a well-known painting, Auspicious Cranes, which was completed by the Song dynasty Emperor Huizong in 1112. According to historical records, the emperor had painted this masterpiece after seeing white cranes floating above the main gate of the Forbidden City. A symbol of purity, the white cranes are seen hovering over the Forbidden City, some even landing gracefully on the gate to rest, which was considered a particularly good omen. The herons in Liu Xiaodong’s painting, in contrast, seem to flee the scene in a panic. Here, with no intent to stay and, thus, no good fortune to bring, the birds symbolize a longing for freedom and a need to escape the impure, man-made disaster.
Liu Xiaodong was born in the city of Jingcheng in China’s Northeastern Liaoning Province. In 1980, Liu left his hometown of Jincheng to study art in Beijing. He attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he received his BA in 1988 and his MFA in 1995. He lives and works in Beijing, and is currently a professor in the painting department at CAFA. He gained recognition in the 1990s as a painter, representative of Chinese Neo-Realism style. His richly colored figurative paintings document snapshots of everyday life, his subjects often being common people and those at the margins of society, such as sex workers and the homeless. Liu tends to draw inspiration from scenes of friends and family members involved in everyday activities, but his work often alludes to larger social problems.