Published in the South China Morning Post on 17 October 2010

Paris-based Chinese artist Liu Zhenchen: "Shanghai's fast development is irrational."

When Liu Zhenchen finished art college in Shanghai, his classmates lost no time in finding work, while he felt lost and got all philosophical. “I thought it was meaningless to work for the sake of making a living, and I couldn’t accept doing something I didn’t like just for the money.” This romantic ideal, he reckoned, had no place in his fast-growing hometown of Shanghai – or anywhere else in China. Art-loving France might suit him, he thought. So at age 23, he went to France to begin a life of “escapism”, studying year after year as he struggled what to do with his life.

Ten years on, the 34-year-old still maintains his ideal of work, but he drifts no more: he now lives happily in Paris as a “poor artist” and an award-winning short filmmaker.

The son of a sculptor and painter, Liu began his life abroad in Nice, southern France, where he enrolled in an art school. When the three-year course was over, he was not yet ready to get out into the working world. Luckily for him, his parents in Shanghai were understanding and supportive. So in 2005, he moved to Lille in the north to do a second master’s degree at Le Fresnoy, a renowned postgraduate audio-visual institute.

It was then the self-proclaimed escapist began to get real. At Le Fresnoy, Liu was provided with ample technical support to make films. During his two years there, he gradually forged a career as a visual artist. A turning point came in 2006 when he went to Shanghai to shoot Under Construction, a short film about China’s reckless demolition of old neighbourhoods as part of his coursework. The part animated, part documentary movie went on to win him 37 awards across Europe, Latin America and Japan. It also made him a Le Fresnoy graduate with the longest list of accolades.

Liu, however, is modest about this phenomenal success, which he attributes partly to the institute’s support. “The film takes the viewer through walls and windows to various construction sites. That was a special effect that could only be done with advanced and expensive machines. I was very lucky to have free access to such equipment at Le Fresnoy,” he says.

The generous support he has received did not stop here. After Lille, Liu moved to Paris to become a full-time artist. He stayed in a studio flat overlooking the River Seine, provided at a low rent by Cité Internationale des Arts, an art foundation that accommodates foreign artists. Liu is grateful to France to such generosity. “France is a country that treats artists very well, and it doesn’t only nurture French artists. It has a history of supporting foreign ones,” he says.

Despite all the aid and awards, however, Liu says he remains poor. “Paris is very expensive and I don’t have fixed income, which is my biggest stress,” he says. To make ends meet, he and a few friends would work as street painters in Paris in summer and split the profits among themselves. “The nicest thing about this job is that after a long day, we’d have a beer and chat until 2am. It makes me happy,” he says. 

Having spent a decade in France, Liu has developed a more critical view of his home country. And he feels obliged to use his art to highlight China’s frantic modernisation efforts that hurt poor people’s livelihood, a theme that is at the heart of Under Construction. “Every time I return to Shanghai, I feel shocked; everything is changing too quickly. The development is irrational. Many people get evicted from their home. I want to make more people aware of the situation. Society needs critics. Without them, we’ll be left with emperor’s new clothes,” he says.

Liu does not rule out living in China again one day, but at present he is content with what he has. “When I lived in Shanghai, I was like a fish in a tank. My two decades in this tank were very precious. But I’m glad and lucky to have got out in the sea to see other fishes. It’s a very different world,” he says.