The Art of Liu Xiaodong: Man and Machine

Liu Xiaodong

Liu Xiaodong tackles the challenge of portraying emotional sensations in material form. One of China’s leading figurative artists, he has always aimed to paint the truth as objectively as possible. But can this ever be completely realised?

With his new series of paintings, Liu uses a machine programmed to capture movement in public spaces and translates this to marks on canvas. The machine has no heart, no desires, no ulterior motive. It does not sleep but obeys its instructions for as long as the artist decides. And yet the results have a strange power to move us. It seems that, despite all efforts, subjectivity can never truly be extinguished.

Join Liu as he discusses this latest painting project, the conflict and changes in Chinese society that have influenced his artistic approach and how we might all be affected by the ‘weight of insomnia’.


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The reason that I attach great importance to objectivity is probably related to the change in Chinese society. China’s economy is developing inleaps and bounds, along with rapid urbanisation. For those of us who grew up in the countryside, facing a metropolis that’s taken shape within only a few years would naturally make us feel this pressure and contradiction.

When we are really sad, we feel weak all over. Our bodies can only lie in bed, or lose the ability to sleep. I was trying to figure out what kind of technological means could measure this powerful spirit. Can people see it and can it be given material form?

It is basically a camera facing a streetscape, taking one photo every second. It’s converted to data and transmitted to this painting machine. Then the machine would start to paint this streetscape. This machine is very sensitive to anything that’s in motion, such as streams of people and car traffic. It captures and depicts their contours very quickly. After it paints a month or two, the paint will be heavier in places with higher foot traffic.

So, with the aid of this machine, one could compress complicated images into one painting. I think the machine painting achieved this, which is hard for traditional paintings.

In constant dialogue with computer and mechanical engineers, I would paint in front of them, and tell them how fast I’m likely to paint. How big the canvas should be and how thick the line I’d use. My hands are a bit shaky when I paint. So, the machine is set up to be shaky when it paints.

The places I choose are often somewhere that impressed me. My impression of Beijing is that it’s such a crowded city. There are traffic jams and a huge population with air pollution and heavy political pressure. That’s why I chose a crossroad. Shanghai is a metropolis filled with economic ambitions. So, I chose the Bund, which symbolises economy. This time in London, I’d like to do a painting that interacts with the locals. Therefore, I chose this square in London.

My principle of art is to convey the most complicated psychological activity in thesimplest way. That’s why I choose only one colour.

I often choose places filled with conflict to be the location of my paintings. Somewhere that’s complicated can ignite my thirst to paint.

The student movement in Korea in 1980 transformed the country into a modern democratic society. So, I painted this history and the next generation of those who participated in the square where the student movement took place. Now we have this painting machine, I want to return to this place and observe this history in a more objective way, viewed from a distance.

When you are living in a society filled with contradictions and conflicts, you would have vehement desire to depict places with contradictions and conflicts. When I was young, you know we went through the Cultural Revolution. It was a society in which everything had been exaggerated. From the Chinese’s point of view, it is very important to keep an objective perspective without too much personal attachment.

When I say objectivity, I’m talking about perspective. Not a painting method, but an attitude. As a human being in relation to society, you must be at an objective standpoint to observe it or observe yourself. It’s a psychological process. What’s in a person’s heart influences how they see.

But machines do not have desires. They don’t have this psychological process. With machine painting, it treats every detail in the same way. This makes me try my best when I’m painting traditionally: the composition, the colour or the applied pressure of my brush. But you know, no matter how objective you are, the end vision, or the end painting will always be very subjective. You cannot take subjectivity away.

With thanks to

Lisson Gallery



Chronus Art Center

Getty Images

Lisson Gallery

Lone Star Productions



9 Lives

Audio Network

Freesound by Marcel Gnauk


Full list of images shown 

Hong Kong City aerial view

DKart / Getty Images


Aerial View, Shanghai skyline and Huangpu river

charactery/ Getty Images


T/L ZO Residential Building Windows Twinkle at Night / Beijing, China

Wenjie Dong/ Getty Images


Panorama of Shenzhen cityscape which taking from Hong Kong with have rice paddy in front ground, country side with down town district concept

Photographer is my life / Getty Images


Newly developed block of flats with farmland, Hangzhou, China

xia yuan/ Getty Images


Downtown Macau

Barry Kusuma/ Getty Images


Shanghai old and new

Steve Golden/ Getty Images


China Daily Life – Construction

Kevin Frayer/ Stringer / Getty Images


Robot First Marks

Photographer: George Darrell

Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Weight of Insomnia

Courtesy Chronus Art Center


Half Street

Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and Lone Star Productions

Directed by Sophie Fiennes


Beijing Sanlitun Village Timelapse

june17/ Getty Images

Weight of Insomnia (Beijing)

Liu Xiaodong, 2016
Acrylic on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Weight of Insomnia (Shanghai)

Liu Xiaodong, 2016
Acrylic on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery
Photograher: Yang Hao


Weight of Insomnia (London)
Liu Xiaodong, 2019
Acrylic on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Weight of Insomnia (Oberkasseler Bridge, Düsseldorf)
Liu Xiaodong, 2018
Oil and acrylic on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Weight of Insomnia (Karlsruhe)
Liu Xiaodong, 2017-2018
Acrylic on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Weight of Insomnia Installation View

Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Korean Students Restrained by Army Forces

Bettmann/ Contributor / Getty Images



Liu Xiaodong, 2014
Oil on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Weight of Insomnia (Gwangju)
Liu Xiaodong, 2018
Acrylic on canvas
© Liu Xiaodong Studio
Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Chinese Red Guards set fire to, take down and destroy all signs

and images of capitalism from the streets during the Cultural Revolution 

Silverwell Films/ Getty Images


Freesound contributors:




Liu Xiaodong in conversation’, Ocula

Liu Xiaodong’, artnet

Liu Xiaodong: Weight of Insomnia review’, Time Out

Kwangju Uprising’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

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