Visual Art

When Nicholas Jose saw Liu Xiaodong’s painting Smoker, in a Beijing exhibition that expressed the political unrest leading up to Tiananmen Square, it marked a turning point in the writer’s life. By Kate Holden.

Nicholas Jose on Liu Xiaodong’s Smoker

Painting of a man with dark hair smoking a cigarette in a bedroom. Another man watches from the bed behind him.
Liu Xiaodong’s Smoker (1988), Queensland Art Gallery, and author Nicholas Jose (below).
Credit: Liu Xiaodong / Courtesy QAGOMA (above), Roberto Finocchiaro (below)

Nicholas Jose is a much-admired Australian author and academic, currently adjunct professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University, and emeritus professor of English and creative writing at the University of Adelaide, where he lives. His eight novels, three short story collections and two selections of nonfiction include Paper Nautilus (1987), Chinese Whispers: Cultural Essays (1995), The Red Thread (2000) and his latest novel, The Idealist, published this month by Giramondo. His work has typically connected Australian and Asian – especially Chinese – experiences, drawing on connections and coherences rather than differences.

He chose to speak about Smoker (1988), a landmark work by Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong, which is in the Queensland Art Gallery collection. Liu was associated with the cynical realist movement in painting, which depicts the restless and bohemian youth of the time.

When did you first see this work?

There was a big exhibition in Beijing in February 1989 called China/Avant-Garde. All the ferment of contemporary art practice through the ’80s was gathered; they took over the main art gallery and museum in Beijing and filled it with new work. It was very exciting. I was working in Beijing at the time and I went to see it, and that painting by Liu Xiaodong, Smoker, really grabbed my attention. It just captured this mood and this foreboding and sense of environment. Then by April the demonstrations were beginning in Tiananmen Square. After the events of June 4, the authorities pointed at this art exhibition as one of the causes that had led to the turmoil. In a way it was: it was giving voice to this ferment and oppositional feeling and the uncertain, unstable mood. For me, all of that was in that painting.

What were you doing in China?

I was the Australian cultural counsellor, a grand title for a job that covered everything that wasn’t politics or trade. I went to China first in 1983 with a student group from Canberra, and the energy in China was extraordinary. People of my age, the generation after the Cultural Revolution, they’d been let out of the box. There was this light in their eyes, they were on a journey to somewhere different, engaging with the world outside China. People were keen to talk. The sense of an upward curve was overwhelming and I thought, I have to get back here. I was already writing fiction. I thought, Well, here’s something I can really write about. So I arranged to go there and teach Australian literature but also to research and write this novel on the side. I’d met a few artists and was interested in what they were doing. When the previous cultural counsellor’s term was up, they wanted someone who was in the literature and Australian studies space, and there was me on the ground, already doing it. So I was offered the job.

At the end of 1988 I was thinking of going back to Australia. A poet I knew said, “Look, Nick, just stay another 12 months and you will see something you’ll never forget.” So I thought, Well okay, and then seeing that exhibition made me think, I’ll stay. And then of course, it all did happen. I saw the poet in Tiananmen Square about two days before June 4, and I said, “You were right!” He said, “I’m going to London tomorrow.” He was on the plane and the next time I heard his voice he was talking to the BBC.

After Tiananmen, things changed completely in Beijing. The authorities were trying to track who knew whom. I made contact with Liu Xiaodong. We were good friends. He decided to stay in China. He said, “I’d really like that painting to go into a museum in Australia so it will be safe, it’ll survive.” By then I was getting ready to finish my time, so I said, “I’ll take it and deliver it to an Australian museum.” So I sat on it for a while. Eventually Liu and his wife, who’s also a very good painter, came to Australia on a trip. Then I talked to the Queensland Art Gallery, which had established itself as the pioneer in contemporary Asian art, and they’ve had [the painting] since then.

Tell me about the painting.

It’s two men in a dorm in Beijing, very like the dorms where the art teachers like Liu had studios. There’s a young man in the foreground who in fact is an up-and-coming film director: he’s dressed in trendy clothes, he has a waved haircut, he’s smoking a cigarette and is looking sort of moody. Sitting on the bed behind him is an older man, middle-aged: a worker, judging from his clothes, who would be one of the retainers of the institution. We’re talking northern China, probably from the less-developed areas, and he’s been working in this place for some time. He can’t move – this is a job for life, being a janitor. And all around him are these bright young things that got into this prestigious national academy and they’re on the move. So there’s this gap between them, of age, of social standing, but mainly of possibilities for life.

In China you always share cigarettes: that’s one of the ways you bond with people. Although it’s the man in front smoking, and that has that Hollywood glamour about it, there would have been an exchange. So they’re comrades, but the older comrade is looking at the younger comrade and thinking: Where is this going? Where’s this going to end? The world is changing. And if you look at the big picture of China since 1949, when the communists [came to be] in charge, it’s the workers of China who’ve created this future for this new generation. But whether they’re going to be beneficiaries, whether they like it: those questions are up in the air at this point. So for me, that’s what the painting says.

A lot of your work has connected China and Australia in histories, characters, culture, transportation… That sense of juxtaposition in the painting, is that a quality in your work too, do you think?

Yes, probably: what can’t be said. What meanings are carried but not articulated. Bringing together things that are already connected, even down to the iron ore we’ve dug up to send to China that has built those fast trains and high-rise buildings. In return we’ve gone to Bunnings to buy stuff made from that ore in China. It goes around and around.

Those brave rebels in Beijing: is there a link with your latest character in The Idealist, the potential whistleblower trying to be a good man in a bad system?

I haven’t really thought about it consciously but yes, and the book is as much about Australia as East Timor, it’s about what someone does when they’re in the middle of a very difficult situation. The instinct to be idealistic, or to side with idealists, is probably something I have, whether that comes from China or came to the fore in China.

For me, being in China that year became a very important part of my life as it unfolded, both in terms of my writing and other things I did. I guess I associate the picture, an artwork of 1989, with that. So if there was a turning point in my life, that was probably it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Nicholas Jose".

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