但为什么总是同一个女人的背影反复出现在刘晓辉的画面之中？根据艺术家的描述，“她”来源于小津安二郎的电影《秋刀鱼之味》中的一个镜头——一个送饭的女人转身离去。刘晓辉坦言自己对这个形象的截取很可能是“无意识的”，他只是觉得“她”神秘、令人迷恋。然而事实上，在对这一挪用行为本身做出一系列精神分析式的追问之前，艺术家本人的这种说法似乎并不那么可信——不厌其烦地反复描绘或许可以被理解为对这一形象的精神迷恋，但刘晓辉在他的绘画中却已经通过反复的涂抹、篡改背叛了这个形象本身——“她”最终变得不再是“她”。以小津的镜头画面为起点，“她”在刘晓辉的画面中不停地被篡改：行走或默立、面朝海平线或远方的大地…., 这一重复的女性背影在不动声色的变奏（variation）之中成为了为刘晓辉个人的图像系统所征用的一个典型形象。但在同时间，这一形象在这些画面中并没有被发展成另一种纵深的脚本，刘晓辉把它停留在了起始处。虽然在不同的画面中产生出一种辐射性的变奏，但图像的基调却维持在它从电影截图走入刘晓辉画面的最初时刻，换言之，“她”在刘晓辉建构的图像世界中并未有机会发展出新的情节，作为一个被借用的形象，“她”本身是扁平的，是一个“空”的主角。因为艺术家虽然从这个形象出发，却意不在此。他占用了这一图像，却只是为了以“她”为媒介，转而探索另一个更艰难的维度：一种在重复的绘画行为中不断接近真实又始终难以达成的体验，一种西西弗斯式（Sisyphean）的过程和执念。从这个意义上来说，图像的单一反复所强化的正是它背后不厌重复的绘画行为与方法，它指向一种比图像本身更为形而上的存在。如同西西弗斯之所以成为希腊神话的英雄，恰在于他永无止境地推石上山的行为强烈地象征着一种重复中的悲怆而不是绝望，他与山巅的永恒斗争过程比这个斗争所带来的结果更接近一种存在的真实。因而卡缪（Albert Camus）在他的短文《西西弗斯神话》（Le mythe de Sisyphe）中想象了“幸福的西西弗斯”——他并非是在一个无果的故事中绝望，而是在一种永恒重复的过程之中被满足。
从这个意义上来说，刘晓辉对于反复绘画过程的迷恋确实要大于不断重复的画面本身，或者说，正是因为要不断推翻那些业已“完成”的图像，他才反反复复地又重新开始。同质的图像结果在这个意义上来讲只是一种假象、一个障眼法，在同一形象和画面上的反复涂抹、覆盖才是真正令人迷恋的游戏。这其中也包含了艺术家对于“劳作”这一朴素的日常行为的推崇，绘画之于刘晓辉本人可能从来没有被预设为一种“创作”活动，而更多是被当作每日例行的劳作本身，它之所以重要，正是因为它带来的是一种在肯定与否定之间来回反复的“量”的积累，在艺术家看来，这种“量”比任何由绘画行为外部突然置入的判断都更为“可靠”、更接近一种类似于“本身即合理”的清晰与真实。而另一个相悖的逻辑在于，与重复的行为次数和物理层面的颜料叠加相反，刘晓辉在整个绘画过程中的反复覆盖与涂改事实上恰恰是一种减法而不是加法。或者说，“重复”最终需要达成的是“抹去”、是“清洗”，是一遍遍地去掉那些在艺术家看来杂冗、华丽、堂而皇之的显现与痕迹——无论它们是多年严格的学院绘画训练带来的技巧上的惯性、还是一种被我们当下的视觉环境认同为“正确”的图像模式，——这些都是刘晓辉在重复的绘画行为中执意要压制或清除的。用艺术家本人的话来说，是“不给别的可能性留余地，越来越寡、变成铁板一块”。此处的“寡”不是指向数量上的单一，而是更接近杜威（John Dewey）在《艺术即经验》（Art as experience）里所指出的“一个经验”，即作为“整体”的一个 经验，于其中，“每个相继的部分都自由地流动到后续的部分，期间没有缝隙，没有未填充的空白”1 ，它是一种组织意义上的紧密、不让其它外在的可能性被侵略或植入。这个过程并不容易，需要时刻保持一种警觉，一种高度的自我意识，从而对绘画过程中通过重复涂改来不断更新的具体画面之间的推导和衔接做出准确、连贯的判断。而难度在于，这个“过程”并不是日常时间意义上的，也就是说，一个画面的完成在刘晓辉这里往往跨越了数周甚至数月的时间，甚至在同一物理时段中，他会同时反复地涂改几张不同的画，因而经验的连贯性在这里并不意味着在时间意义上“一气呵成”的绘画，而是一种意识层面的联结与流动性。因而，这里所说的“真实”、“清晰”更多地来自于一种主观的体验和判断，这也就是为什么去追问刘晓辉画面背后的绘画过程及其方法论变得更为重要。因为维持这种经验和判断的连贯的自我意识（conscience）本身就是审美的（esthétique）的，绘画过程在最终画面的形成之前已经构成一个意义，或者说是这个意义将画面引向它最终的形态。借用小津安二郎电影中的女人形象开始，刘晓辉的绘画最终要创造的不是另一个具体的形象，而是一种形而上学的图像；它所尝试的，是通过反复地修改、覆盖，将那些具体的显现一层一层地关闭在画面之内，整个过程在一种清晰的自我意识中完成。如同卡缪认为“西西弗斯神话之所以是充满悲剧意味的，正是因为西西弗斯（对自己的行为过程）是有意识的”2 。这里的“悲剧”除了情感意义上的，也包含哲学意义上的，即指向一种形而上的真实。
然而，无论对于观众还是艺术家本人，当我们欲从创作过程的这一美学面向折返回画面内部具体的形成过程时，就会发现判断在这里变得难以捉摸起来——正如上文中提到的，以最外层的图像为界，画面内部的层层显现实际上是向它外部的观看者关闭的。从这个角度来讲，从行为层面到画面层面，这些重复着的图像忽然由“清晰”转向了模糊，甚至可以被称之为神秘。这种神秘首先是与创作者在绘画过程中的具体判断有关：比起面对一张空白画布深思熟虑、纠结于从哪里开始、如何开始，刘晓辉更多属于在一张画的结束之处反复踌躇的艺术家。一如蒙克（Edvard Munch），后者常常说，“只有当不再可能（在一幅画上）继续画下去的时候，我 把它停下来”3。而这里的“不再可能”，当然也是更多来自于一种主观的判断。刘晓辉常常将一张“完成”的作品放置在一边，过了一段时间又在已经“涂抹”过数遍的画布上重新开始，之前的图像被覆盖，他总是不断推翻自己认为“可以了”的那个结论，很难出现一个确切的终点。而至于为什么这张“可以了”而那张不行、从一遍到另一遍的覆盖究竟是基于何种具体的理由，观众恐怕永远难以知晓。刘晓辉自己则认为，“一切都不太可信”，在某个特定的时间“否定”了自己之前的“肯定”，这本身就比看似确凿的“肯定”更加接近他想要的真实 。而更进一步来看，多次的覆盖、涂抹其实只是行为意义上的反复，但就每一次“反复”本身，于刘晓辉总是有不尽相同的理由来推进，尽管这些理由可能非常具体，比如一块颜色、一根线条的“不可靠”。——似乎没有比这些具体而主观的判断更令人信服的了，但对于观众而言，这也是最难以进入和跟从的理由。如同一个命题，方法和逻辑是清晰的，但推演过程和结论却令人难以揣测。
2 Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Essai sur l’Absurde, Éditions Gallimard, 1942. P 165.
3 展览“爱德华•蒙克：现代之眼 1900-1944”（Edvard Munch: L’œil Moderne 1900-1944），巴黎蓬皮杜艺术中心，2012年。引自展览线上资料：http://mediation.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-Munch/ENS-Munch.html#， 原文：[…] Je me suis finalement arrêté quand il n’était simplement plus possible d’y travailler. （原文来自：Edvard Munch, Projet de lettre à Axel Romdahl, N3359, 1933, Oslo, Munch-museet. Traduit du norvégien par Luce Hinsch.）
Liu Xiaohui: The Mystery of Sisyphus
Text: He Jing
Translation: Hanlu Zhang
Editing: Michael Robert Winkler
Published in exhibition catalogue Liu Xiaohui: The Mystery of Sisyphus, 2015.
How great is the distance between a series of paintings and an exhibition of that series of paintings? This is the question I have pondered ever since my first visit to Liu Xiaohui’s studio. For an artist who has devoted so much time in the studio while exhibiting so infrequently, what matters is this: from the studio to the exhibition space, the exhibition itself can be seen as a kind of existence that propels the viewing experience from the private to the public. In this sense, ‘why exhibit?’ and ‘how to exhibit?’ become one question, and solving the latter brings forth the answer to the former. Exhibition as a dispositif must provide a more concrete and clarifying vehicle for the aleatory vision in the studio. Therefore, if we resolve the question of ‘how to exhibit’, the answer then emerges to the more ontological question of why the viewing experience should move from the studio to the gallery. Liu’s paintings strangely, with monotonous repetition, offer extended possibilities for imagination. When the exhibited works are unified visually, it becomes more likely that we will treat the methodology behind such unification as the starting point of the exhibition. In other words, the symptomatic repetition that exists in Liu’s work induces an investigation into his methodological meaning. For both the artist and the viewer, this seems more reliable or real - according to Liu himself.
Why does the silhouette of the same woman appear in Liu Xiaohui’s oeuvre again and again? According to the artist, she comes from a scene in Yasujiro Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon in which a woman is seen turning around and leaving after delivering food. Liu admits that his capture of this image may simply be unconscious, but he regards her as mysterious and charming nonetheless. In truth, before delving into the psychoanalysis of this visual appropriation, we might need to distrust the artist’s statement here. Tirelessly repeating a certain image can be understood as being psychologically attached to it, but in his work, Liu paints over, modifies, and betrays the original image – she is no longer the same she. She begins in Ozu’s lens, but changes in Liu’s work. She walks, stands, faces the ocean, and gazes at land afar. This repeated silhouette, in silent variations, becomes an archetype of Liu’s visual system. At the same time, Liu does not extend the image into a kind of in-depth scenario, but rather retains the position at which it starts. The silhouette varies in a radiant manner, but its framework remains at the precise point when the filmic moment enters Liu’s canvas. In other words, the she in Liu’s constructed visual universe never gets a chance to continue living. Instead, she is but a borrowed image, flat and empty inside. This is because the artist takes the silhouette as a departure intended for something further. Liu appropriates the image and takes it as an agency through which a much more difficult situation is revealed. For Liu, it is the experience of perpetually approaching but never reaching the truth. It is an obsession; a Sisyphean process. In this way, the monotonous repetition of one image reinforces the unrepeatable acts and painting methods behind it. It alludes to something more metaphysical than the image itself. Sisyphus is a hero in Greek mythology because his endless act of pushing the boulder symbolizes grief without desperation. In his battle with the mountain, the process itself is much closer to truth, if such a thing exists, than any result. In the essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Albert Camus envisions a Happy Sisyphus who, rather than being desperate in a fruitless narrative, is satisfied with the process of eternal repetition.
That said, Liu Xiaohui is more interested in the process of painting repetitiously than the repetition of the image itself. Or, one could say that he starts over again and again just to subvert those finished images. The homogenization of the visual product is only fantasy in some sense, or camouflage. Painting over and even covering the same picture is the real game that the artist is obsessed with. In addition, the artist acknowledges labor in the creative process. In fact, for Liu, painting is never supposed to be creative, but a laborious daily routine. This is important because it brings a quantitive accumulation in which the artist transitions between affirmation and negation. Liu regards quantity more reliable and reasonable than any exterior impact during the painterly process. This becomes a paradox. Liu’s work turns out to be more about reduction than addition in that the more physical movement or layers of color that are applied, the less there is anything left, as repetition eventually leads to erasing and cleansing. He negates the kind of symptoms that are decorative, pretentious, or superfluous; those which may come from years of academy training or some current correct visual model. He erases them again and again. According to the artist himself, “the work does not leave any extra possibilities. It will become less and less, eventually a flat iron.” Here, less does not mean anything quantitive, but something closer to an experience like that proposed by John Dewey in Art as Experience. It is an experience as a whole in which “every successive part flows freely, without seam and without unfilled blanks, into what ensues.”1 It is tightly interwoven in an organizational sense and it prevents any exterior possibilities from invading or intervening. This is a difficult process, requiring the artist to be alert and highly self-consciousness. He has to make precise and consistent decisions about the image during endless erasing and covering. What makes it all even more difficult is that the process is not measured daily, but rather, weeks or even months are spent finishing one painting. One image may require a period of time, and during that period of time, the artist may be working on multiple images simultaneously. Here, experiential consistency outweighs temporal coherence. What matters is connection on a conscious level. For Liu, truth or clarification come from subjective experience and judgment, which is why it is important to investigate his methodology behind the image. The conscious decision to maintain experiential consistency is itself aesthetic. Meaning emerges before the image is finished. One could say that the meaning leads to the eventual appearance of the image. Starting with the woman from Ozu’s film, what Liu wishes to produce is not another image, but a metaphysical image. His work attempts to enclose the figurative images inside the painting through repetitive modification and erasure. The entire process is done with a high degree of self-consciousness. Just as Camus puts it, “the reason why the myth of Sisyphus is a tragedy is because he is conscious (about his actions).”2 Tragedy here is present not only in an emotional sense, but also in a philosophical one: it refers to metaphysical truth.
However, to both the viewer and the artist himself, when one tries to reflect on the visual form in the context of the creative process, it remains hard to make things out clearly. As mentioned above, taking the outer layers of the image as a border, we are actually excluded from the inner ones. From the behavioral to visual level, these repetitive clear images become blurred, even mysterious. This kind of mystery is related to the detailed decisions made during the process: compared to those who consider everything and deliberate before beginning to paint, Liu Xiaohui belongs to the type of painters who hesitate only at the end of the process. Edvard Munch is among this latter type as well and often said: “I stop only when I can’t possibly work anymore.” 3 Here, not possibly certainly refers to subjective decisions. Sometimes, Liu puts aside a ‘finished’ work and rejoins it after a time. The painting may have already been painted over several times with the image covered and recreated. He continues to subvert his own decisions as if a destination has become impossible. In terms of why one painting is considered finished and another not, or the reasons for repeatedly painting over an image, we may never know. Liu thinks that “nothing is that reliable,” and would at any time negate his own previous assertions. This process in itself, more so than any seemingly solid affirmation, is closer to what he actually wants. If we look further, we find that the repetition is only in the behavioral sense, and that every starting-over-again is supported by very detailed reasons: maybe a color patch or maybe a line is not reliable enough. It seems that, as specific and subjective judgements, these reasons cannot be more convincing. However, for the viewer, these are also the most difficult aspects in attempting to penetrate and follow, and as such are much like a proposal whose method and logic are clear, but whose process of deduction and conclusion are difficult to retrace.
This is the paradox. It is not just a paradox of Liu Xiaohui’s works, but also between painting process and resultant image. If this exhibition attempts to pave a way for the viewers to understand his visual system by emphasizing his repetitive process, then, when we further investigate how the repetitions evolve heterogeneously, our recognition and judgment become blurred. When our vision eventually gives up on the burden of thinking and inquiring and rests upon the canvas, it is met with frustration, unknowingness, and mystery. This is a road, which leads forward but one on which we have to step backwards to arrive at the destination. When the audience steps back in front of Liu Xiaohui’s paintings, mysterious lumps emerge. These lumps then become solidified and frozen, hanging between strokes, color, and lines, and preventing them from interacting with each other and integrating into one complete, gentle image. They bring weight and stagnation as mysterious black lines touch and leave the repeated image of the woman over and over with coarse accuracy and a hasty calmness. After all, these lumps form in the picture a certain dense psychological barrier encased by an endlessly laborious experience. As Camus describes it, the most touching moment in Sisyphus’s life is the one moment each time the boulder is finally rolled up to the top of the mountain and is about to fall down again. In Liu Xiaohui’s work, those mysterious lumps are both physical and psychological. They head towards the end of the image through a painting process that repeats itself again and again. They put objects’ realness into question and call to the uncertainty of perception. At the same time, they explore spirituality under layers of practical experience. If the reality of truth is contained in that mysterious shadow, then the real myth of Sisyphus is in the unreachable end point, the fluctuation between negativity and certainty, the absurd body of Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain, as well as the shadow he casts back down upon reality.
1 John Dewey, “Art as Experience”, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Volume 10: 1934, edited by Jo Ann Boydston Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. P 43.
2 Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Essai sur l’Absurde, Éditions Gallimard, 1942. P 165.
3 See Exhibition Edvard Munch: L’œil Moderne 1900-1944 at Centre Pompidou, 2012. (Online resource:http://mediation.centrepompidou.fr/education/ressources/ENS-Munch/ENS-Munch.html#) “[…] Je me suis finalement arrêté quand il n’était simplement plus possible d’y travailler. “ from Edvard Munch, Projet de lettre à Axel Romdahl, N3359, 1933, Oslo, Munch-museet. Translated from Norwegian by Luce Hinsch.