Excerpt from 'Seeing Shaanbei' by Barry Schwabsky:
I was embarrassed, at first, to admit that I had never heard of Shaanbei. Naturally, I started out with Wikipedia, where I immediately became confused. Typing “Shaanbei” into the search box took me to a page headed “Northern Shaanxi,” although the entry lists the latter as an alternative name: “Shaanbei (simplified Chinese: 陕北; traditional Chinese: 陝北; pinyin: Shǎnběi) or Northern Shaanxi is the portion of China’s Shaanxi province north of the Huanglong Mountain and the Meridian Ridge (the so-called ‘Guanzhong north mountains’), and is both a geographic as well as a cultural area.” I learned about the rich folk culture associated with the region, both musical and pictorial, and that this is considered the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party, since the Shaanbei city of Yan’an was where the Red Army ended its Long March in 1935 and where the party remained headquartered until 1947.
Next stop, Google Maps. I saw that Yan’an is southwest of Beijing, where Liu Xiaodong lives—a drive of about eleven to twelve hours. That’s about like driving from New York to Indianapolis. From Shenzhen, which I’d visited about five years ago, it would be a journey of about twenty-two hours due north—about the same amount of time it would take me to drive to Fargo, North Dakota. And then I tried a plain old Google search, which turned up very little information in English, though I did find an interesting chapter of an academic book according to which “Yan’an’s prominence in China’s revolutionary history came about quite by accident,” since “Mao had no intention of staying in Shaanbei, which he found too poor and sparsely populated to support his revolutionary ambitions.” How much has changed since then? According to some, not much. A recent report on the local music remarks, “By the standards of wealthier southern China, the area is poor, dry and coarse.” But from another point of view, Liu saw great changes, as he told me when I interviewed him for the Brooklyn Rail in advance of writing this essay: “The level of the urbanization process, the way that the tall and modern buildings have made their way into the valleys, and even the very iconic pagoda—which became actually a symbol of the Chinese Communist Party and of the revolution—is now actually kind of dwarfed by taller buildings not so far away.”
Mainly, what I learned from all this background reading was what I already knew: how vast China is, and how vast is my ignorance of it—a country I’ve visited only once and have mainly experienced through the mediation of films and journalism. And I remembered how, in interviewing Liu, I’d concluded by asking him what he’d hoped the gallery-going public in New York would glean from his exhibition—and that he’d wanted us to be able to see things from his point of view. Or if that’s impossible, he added, he hoped at least “to let them see something that they very possibly have never seen.” (I could not help but recall Peter Paul Rubens’s lament for Adam Elsheimer as an artist of whom he expected "res nunquam visae nunquam videndae" — “things one has never seen and never will see.”)
'Liu Xiaodong: Shaanbei' continues at Lisson Gallery New York through 10 June.