By Angus MACKINNON
Florence, Italy (AFP) April 22, 2016
Liu Xiaodong, the acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist, has put Europe's migrant crisis at the centre of an exhibition of new work which goes on show from Friday in Florence.
Entitled "Migrazioni" (Migrations), the collection features a total of 182 multi-themed works including paintings, photography, photo-painting, explanatory text and a video documentary.
It is being billed by its sponsors, Florence's innovative Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, as one of the art world's most significant responses to date to the unprecedented wave of refugees arriving on Europe's southern shores.
The exhibition is due to run until June 19 in the Tuscan capital's Palazzo Strozzi, just a short bus ride away from Prato, the Florence suburb that is now home to one of the biggest Chinese communities in Europe.
What began as a invitation to Liu to spend time in the region examining the relationship between Prato's Chinese population and broader Tuscan society evolved into something much larger when the artist decided to see for himself the journeys being made by Syrian refugees trying to reach northern Europe via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.
The result is a thought-provoking collection that is partly an illustrated diary of the artist's trips from Florence to the frontline of the migrant crisis, and partly a reflection on the nature of migration itself, seen through the twin optics of Prato's Chinatown and the timeless beauty of Tuscany's undulating, cypress-dotted countryside.
"There are two extremes of migration converging in Europe at the moment," Liu told AFP in an interview on the eve of the exhibition's opening.
"In Prato there is this very quiet, not very visible presence. And then there is this immigration, that we hear about every day, of people fleeing from war. And I wanted to bring these two ideas together in one exhibition."
- The promised land -
Among the most striking works in the collection is a huge painting of a classic Tuscan landscape seen from the edge of a swimming pool tastefully cut into the hillside.
In the foreground, two hunting dogs look on languidly, perhaps a little curious but not that interested, as a partly deflated piece of a black rubber dinghy bobs incongruously in the water, like the last remnant of a migrant boat sinking.
"For people in so many parts of the world, Europe is like a promised land," Liu explains. "Even though migration has been an integral part of the history of humanity, this huge wave, this influx of refugees has definitely caused some problems for European society.
"And this image of the deflating dinghy was a way of injecting the problems and the unresolved questions that migration brings into a paradisical, idyllic setting."
Liu said his visits to Prato had left him surprised by the slow pace of its Chinese community's integration into Italian life.
"They have been there mostly for at least a couple of generations and still they are very closed off. They have their own customs and traditions and are still very separate from the local population. This model of migration is also problematic."
The Palazzo Strozzi's director general Arturo Galansino said Liu's work was a long overdue attempt by the art world to make sense of the profound changes brought about by migration without seeking to take sides in the day-to-day political battles over whether Europe should close its frontiers or open its gates.
"The exhibition shows how the artist's eye moved from the local to the international. He wanted to capture what is happening from every possible perspective -- in the streets of Prato, at the main train station in Vienna, in a port in Turkey -- it is all part of one bigger picture.
"He does not make a judgement, he just presents the reality. And that shows us how art can help us to understand something very complex in a new way."
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