Monday, February 26, 2007

Luo Xu and the Earth Nest

One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while is introduce you to Luo Xu, an old Kunming friend. Sometimes referred to as “Savant Genius”, or even “that crazy guy with the house”, Luo Xu is a sort of fixture on the Kunming mindscape. He is an artist and the proprietor of the Earth Nest, a place that defies a half sentence description.

Luo Xu has been making sculptures with no formal training for the past few decades. After a rough and tumble time in and around Yunnan, he stumbled onto a plot of land outside of Kunming and began work on his Magnum Opus, the Earth Nest, which serves as a sort of museum for his myriad sculptures and a playground for his friends, among other things.

I first noticed the place when I had just arrived in Kunming and was on my way to the Stone Forest, a popular tourist sight east of the city. My teacher brushed it off, saying “maybe it’s a brick factory or something”. I wasn’t satisfied with that, but I couldn’t quite figure out what those shapes, resembling something like a giant ant hill, could mean.

Over a year later I began to get to know Kunming’s vibrant art scene, and stumbled across Luo Xu through a mutual acquaintance. A nice, scruffy looking old guy, we got along pretty well. He said that I should come to his house some time. I didn’t put a lot of thought to it, as plenty of small time artists had dragged me into their studios trying to sell paintings before. It would be another few months before I was dragged there by some friends.

I stood at the gate stupefied, with my first memories of the place coming out of the cellar. Words don’t do a whole lot of justice to this place. He’s created an entire fantasy world out of mounds, warped lines and piles of giant sculptures. He’s always changing it around or adding to it, and there are always plenty more sculptures to squeeze in.

He and Luo Hui, an aging donkey, preside over the sprawling compound. Cool Kunmingers who’ve been around long enough all know the place, and it has served as a sort of social center for us over the years. We’ve thrown some excellent parties there, and would do it more often if that didn’t mean renting a few buses. It’s quite far from town. He’s had several bonfire/barbecues, and even once hosted a Nepalese band that was passing through.

It’s been a bit less active in recent years, but I try my best to have dinner there at least once each time I’m in town. A lot of his friends bring important clients there to impress them, and sometimes we just go there to hang out. His artistic skills are rivaled only by his skills in the kitchen, and we know he’s always good for a homestyle Yunnan dinner and buckets of home-brewed barley wine.

Many people are frightened by the place and by Luo’s artworks, but if you get to know the guy, you start to see a whimsical intent in his pieces, like with the golfing terracotta soldier that sits on my desk. One of his favorite elements is legs, and they can be found behind every corner. Sometimes he stacks them up to make odd things like windmills, scorpions and dragonflies.

He’s probably one of the most renowned and least known artists in China. His work is rarely shown in any big international Chinese art book, but almost every successful Chinese artist I know collects him, and he has been featured in many international exhibitions. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have an exclusive agent, or maybe it’s because the international critics can’t find any overt social critique inside, which is what the western market wants (it’s actually there if you really look).

A few years ago I had the honor of accompanying him to Paris and Barcelona for his solo exhibition during the “Year of China in France”. That was a crazy story that I should probably save for another blog. The Parisian gallery-goers went wild over his stuff, but he decided not to establish a beachhead there. Maybe he likes being on the sidelines. Either way, I think that artistic accomplishment is what’s most important for such a life, not fame or money.

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