LIU XIAODONG painting Qinghai-Tibet Railway (2007), which depicts two Tibetan nomads in Western attire walking horses across a barren field, on location in Tibet. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

Liu Xiaodong’s Paintings of Tibet


Silence was my immediate response to the ambitious new paintings depicting Tibet by Liu Xiaodong at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery. My silence had nothing to do with who I am—a Tibetan contemporary artist holding refugee status in the US—but rather an instinctual feeling sparked by the Zen-like, intuitive brushstrokes that are spontaneous, wise and fearless, with a hint of melancholy. The paintings, each on multiple panels, appear almost non-representational at a close distance and majestically awe-inspiring when one steps back and takes in the whole image. They have an innate sense of quietude, almost a loud echo of emptiness—possibly the artist’s aesthetic confession about the virginity of a newly discovered land.

There is a sense of immediacy and familiarity in all of Liu Xiaodong’s paintings, further accentuated by his disinterested interpretation of the subject matter. Although this familiarity becomes the basis of a dialogue between artist and viewer, his two mural-sized paintings of Tibet, Qinghai-Tibet Railway (2007) and Sky Burial (2007), are imbued with metaphoric emblems.

Since the first appearance of the word “Tibet” in the English language, the land it refers to has been the victim of stereotypes, shrouded in mystery and associated with social primitivism. The realities of Tibet are often reduced to the allure of a fictional Tibet, an impossible Shangri-la. The inevitable tornado of modernization that is currently sweeping across Tibet is accompanied by population transfer and mass migration from China, which consequently compels the re-structuring of the traditional mode of livelihood. The majority of Tibetans, especially in central Tibet, not only speak Chinese, but even speak Tibetan with a Chinese accent. The cultural clashes that resolve in the form of uncertain compromises result in a uniquely hybridized culture. In these massive and poignant paintings, Liu Xiaodong attempts to demystify the fictional Tibet with his characteristic candor.

The 30-foot-long panoramic composition, titled Qinghai-Tibet Railway, immediately engulfs the viewer as it discretely addresses the influx of alien influences. The factories at the base of the majestic mountains cough smoke into the virgin sky and the silent passage of a train penetrating a foreign land concomitantly exhibits Liu’s humanistic concerns. The two Tibetan nomads in Western attire causally walking across the barren land with their harnessed horses reinforce the idea of cultural restructuring and fusion.

A folder of photographs displayed on the reception desk at Mary Boone revealed how, to create Qinghai-Tibet Railway, Liu humbly laid his stretched canvases in a row on the scraggly ground. He drew preliminary oil sketches in the manner of Tibetan monks in monasteries making sand mandalas on the floor. He then brought the panels inside a tiny tent erected on the site to shield his works from the mischievous Tibetan winds and the blinding sunlight at 2,700 meters above sea level. Within his protective hut, Liu worked on one panel at a time. Nevertheless, the spontaneity and immediacy of those sketches, though resulting in part from the unpredictability of the battering weather, are lyrically reserved in his finished paintings.

The three-panel, 18-foot-long Sky Burial deals with the centripetal axiom of Buddhist philosophy: the pervasiveness of existential impermanence. According to Buddhist philosophy all things are of dependent origin and thus empty of inherent existence. Since corporal entities are innately devoid of inherent existence, change and impermanence reside at the core of every existence. Sky Burial depicts the devouring of a deceased human body by a swirling flock of vultures, which dominates the painting. Though a few disinterested human figures appear at the burial site, Liu treats them as less significant than the vultures that symbolize death.

This painting appears more personal than Railway. In an interview with the exhibition’s curator, Karen Smith, in the scroll-like exhibition catalog, Liu expresses his fear of death. In the painting, Liu confronts death aesthetically and discovers a sense of consolation in the Tibetan sky-burial rituals. However, it seems that he has misinterpreted the Buddhist notion of death. In the same interview, Liu describes human life as a material object that decays and is consumed by nature—death as a cessation of the body, a purely materialistic approach. According to Tibetan Buddhism, staid categorical terms like birth and death are merely conventional. One of the metaphysical pillars of Buddhist thought is the idea of consciousness without a beginning. Like energy, the innate consciousness of every sentient being transmigrates from one form to another in accordance to his/her/its karmic ledger. The phenomena of birth and death are interdependent entities and therefore inseparable and meaningless when identified independently. Buddhist doctrines claim that the dichotomy or polarity of things arises from the distortion of these precepts. 

It’s helpful for viewers to know that many old Tibetan monasteries are built in and around the burial sites. The great Tibetan scholar lama Dromtonpa specifically chose a burial site for his monastery wherein the boulder upon which corpses are hacked into tiny chunks stands immediately before his throne. The sky-burial ritual suggests the insignificance of the deceased body and therefore it is a good way to earn a few extra karmic credits by feeding it to hungry vultures. However, the practice has an additional social function. The goal of the Tibetan Buddhist is to attain enlightenment, an undefiled state of mind free of the burden of attachment to any entities. These practices thus help family members to abstain from clinging to the impermanent body of the deceased individual.

In Sky Burial, Liu has inscribed a common Tibetan Buddhist mantra—correctly written except for one backwards character—on the base of a mountain, om mane padme hum. This is a bodhisattva or compassionate deity’s mantra. Om is the sound of purity, thus the beginning; mane is the jewel of enlightenment that all sentient beings are born with and padme is the actualization or flowering of this innate jewel; hum is the sound of completion. Liu’s meditation on such rituals carries a subtle political weight, not only for depicting traditional Tibetan rituals. This mantra reiterates the idea of impermanence, wherein the jewel—the potentiality of human conscience—achieves full realization like the lotus blossoming after breaking free from the murky swamp of ignorance.