Hung Liu is widely considered one of the most important Chinese artists working in America today. Born in 1948 in Chanchung, China, Liu grew up under the Maoist regime. She experienced first-hand the famine of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and later studied social realist painting during the Cultural Revolution. Liu has been the recipient of several awards, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at museums, cultural institutions and included in several prestigious collections.
I met Hung Liu at her large studio in Oakland, CA. She graciously greeted me and offered me a tour of her studio, currently filled with the large paintings for an upcoming exhibition at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. Her insight into art-making, and her friendly and playful demeanor led to a memorable conversation about history, memory, and the role of art.
Art-Rated: History is deeply rooted in your work, personally and culturally. I have heard you say that you think of history as a verb. Can you speak more about this?
Hung Liu: Everyone has history, every family has history, the individual has history, and a nation has history, there is an oral history, an official history, a folkloric kind of history, all kinds of history. So I asked myself, what does history mean? Does it mean yesterday, last year, one hundred years ago in China? Maybe one hundred years is not old enough, five hundred? One thousand years ago? Even thinking about [time in] language is very interesting. In English you always have to change the verb in different tense. In Chinese we don’t. We say ‘we eat meal last night’, you know we ate last night, we don’t say ‘ate’. In English it is clear, you give the time modifier but in Chinese we don’t change the verb itself. I was wondering if this also reflects something about our philosophical and psychological conscious about actions in time. Maybe your action will last for a long time, not just you did it, you forget, and it becomes history. Maybe a lot of things are ongoing. Is it repetitive or maybe never really passed?
But it has not been that long that I have witnessed. I was born at the beginning of the Chinese Civil War. When I was six months old my family fled from the war. Of course I don’t remember but I remember [hearing] the story over and over. But the story did not just end there but it developed. My father was taken away because he belonged to the Nationalist side. He was separated from my mom then they had to divorce through the government. He was sent to jail (and was imprisoned on and off for the next fifty years). That story did not end there, it developed as time moved on. But after almost a half century, years and years after being in the U.S. I found him in the labor camp in China. I found him. My family history is still going on, right? In Chinese we have a phrase— ‘put a nail in the coffin’, but I don’t think there is that moment because you nail the coffin, you bury the body but the body starts to decompose. There are still things going on without seeing it. And there are also new developments that can change time. And sometimes you discover evidence from 200 years ago, or something about Jesus Christ. Who is to draw the final conclusion? Nobody.
I feel personal history, family history, community history and national history is indirect and interwoven from the small to big picture. We know something has happened but we may never know exactly when. It is one of the reasons I use washes and drips in my paintings. First of all I use old photographs that are washy and grainy. I will never know that monk’s name or age (Liu points to a large, dripping painting across her studio of a monk), even my grandfather, I lived with him until the day he died but still there are a lot of things I will never know. To feel the washes and drips create a certain kind of aesthetic. It is washing away part of the image. I create or try portray and preserve images but also destroy or dissolve them. This is because there is no way we can fully preserve anything. Not food, not wine, not history, not memory.
Memory can deteriorate too. I use a moment, a slice of a moment, a photograph or a document, not before or after that moment. I wonder, what is before? What is after? But I don’t know. The mind changes, the word changes, time doesn’t stay still, history is a verb, it is ongoing, there is no past tense, future tense, history is constant. I have this thing [Liu picks up the hourglass that is sitting on the table next to us and turns it over], so funny, turn it around you can see time running and it keeps going. It is not a clock telling you the time, it is just visible time running. Maybe that is really time, visible time.
AR: Do the drips also have to do with the fluidity of time or the malleable and immeasurable nature of time?
HL: It is a destabilization of images. Because I was trained in China, everything was copied, fashioned after the Soviet Union’s socialist realism. The realism had to be done perfectly. Russian textbooks train so you are the best camera in the world. It is the wrong direction, great craftsmanship. Copying nature? Copying what? So I have skill but that is not all. I wanted to destabilize the realism. So what does a wash represent? Rain? Tears? Sweat? To create an overall a visual viel when you see the images, you interrupt the realism. Maybe the images are still moving? Still wet? Even when the images are dry there is still movement going on.
AR: When you came to graduate school in the US to study (at UCSD) you arrived with strict training of Social Realism. Did you find it difficult to depart from that style of painting? How did you engage in art-making differently in the United States?
I went to a very advanced school conceptually. Allan Kiprow, Eleanor Antin [professors at UCSD at the time] were very avant garde people, in the happenings, among other things. They questioned me, if I want to be an artist and improve my work, what should I do? In China everyone thought being Jackson Pollock was so cool because there was no image. In China we had the need to realistically portray something– a figure, a tree.
AR: Did you feel that way too?
HL: Well, we were trained. We wanted to labor it ourselves but also thought maybe abstraction is liberation from the labor. But I felt I could not do it because I didn’t know where that came from. If I pretend I was Rothko, I can copy the paintings but that is not me. So I tried things like distortion of the figure, drawing inspiration from ancient tombs, rubbings but I realized I cannot follow the same footsteps. Some art may look contemporary in China but even Jackson Pollack died a long time ago (when Liu arrived at UCSD in 1984). It was not today’s work. I asked, what is contemporary art?
Also, another thing I realized at UCSD was that I was an oil painter in China. Chinese traditional painting is very specific. You do nothing but oil on canvas all of your life. But then I realized here [in the U.S.] that is was not about that, you are an artist. When I had a chance to do mural installation I had never heard of it. In the early eighties in China we never heard of the word ‘installation.’ I asked- what is that? Can you write it down the term? I looked it up in the dictionary and it had nothing to do with art. Installation was for construction. It was how you build a house.
AR: Where you shocked?
HL: Still, I didn’t understand. I kept asking, what does it mean? So my husband, who was my fellow graduate student at the time, tried to explain. He said, ‘it is hard to explain, you don’t just do a painting, you think about it, maybe use the whole environment including the ceiling and the floor.’
Oh! Then I realized when I was in school in China studying the mural we went to ancient Buddhist caves-these caves, it’s installation! The Buddha in the middle could be a shrine, then there is a mural next to it, then the ceiling, everything. I didn’t realize it but we have always had installation, we just never used the word.
AR: That is an great connection.
It is there today still at the Media College at USCD, one staircase I did a mural on spring break. I painted everywhere, from the ground up two stories. I did a some tomb rubbing icons from the Chinese genesis, half woman half snake, two fish, birds, horses, a star chart, and in ancient Chinese language I wrote Da-tong, the name for Confucian utopian society (which is the family structure of women and children at home, men working, and all the elders are taken care of by everybody). That probably started my installation. And then I had another chance in Reno at the University of Nevada, Reno. The art gallery in Reno was about to be torn down and they were building a new one so I was given two gallery spaces and the freedom to do anything I want.
AR: When was this?
HL: In 1985. I thought, I can do anything! I was given two gallery spaces so I did a mural-installation on the wall, the floor, I used the whole space. I never had that kind of freedom. I didn’t know I could do installation!
AR: How did that change you as an artist?
HL: I feel like as an artist you don’t just build a wall and pigeon hole yourself to only do oil on canvas, not even do watercolor or sculpture. Also, being with Allan Kaprow, he was my advisor at UCSD, we did a lot of happenings. We splashed paint onto an old couch, that kind of thing, I was shocked. I was like, is that making art? What is this?
AR: Did you have a distaste for it originally or did you welcome it?
HL: It was a complete eye opener.
I had heard people tell me how famous [Allan Kaprow] was. He was one of the leading ‘happeners’. He was a wonderful guy. He’d come into the studio and tell stories. His studio visits were so different from China. In China they would do a studio visit and say ‘that arm you did was wrong, that color is not right’. I never heard this kind of this from Allan. At this time I realized you have to allow yourself to open up. Open up to what? I don’t know. I remember it shocked me in a good way. I had a revelation; you have to be a good thinker to be an artist.
This was a revelation for an artist who came from such a sealed society with conservative ways and used to only using political subject matter. It liberated my way of thinking. I didn’t even realize I could love this work. Because it is not a painting, it is not a sculpture, it is so conceptual. I learned this was a way of thinking. That’s great! I feel very grateful for that time. Even it was two years at school I learned so much. Matisse, everyone knows Matisse in China but it looked differently in the United States.
I learned art-making is really a process. It is more than making a drawing, a sketch, and then a painting. It is a no brainer in China, if you have skill you can do it. In terms of skill I am not bad but it isn’t about that. It isn’t just what you do, it’s how you do it. Over the years I learned you should allow yourself to feel settled with not knowing what to do. Start from there. It is a good position to be in.
It can be scary but then you learn. I did something at College of Charleston in South Carolina. I am not familiar with the South and they asked me to do something related to Chinese. Then I realized there there was no record of chinese restaurants. You would think it would be everywhere. The big Chinese business in South Carolina was the laundry business. The local history museum was really interesting. They had old artifacts from Chinese laundries like the hand rolled washers. From there I developed an installation called WashingTown. I made ghost clothes in three colors, red, blue, white, American flag colors. I made a jacket for a man, woman, and child and sent the design back to my mom and my neighbors in China and told them to make this for the exhibition. It turned out to be a memorial to the long gone Chinese laundry business. The Chinese in the south was pretty weird because back then they did not fit into the white-only or the black-only categories. The Chinese were neither white nor black. There were many ideas I had through my research before I reached the final result of what I did.
Lucy Lippard wrote something on that. But anyway, this exhibition challenged me. It started with not knowing too much, with fear, and also excitement. You must know that you will learn something through it. You do not know, but you will know although you don’t know now. There is something there. Every time you don’t know you want to learn. It is putting yourself in a student’s position. It is a privilege that I can do that.
AR: Do you consider yourself as a student?
HL: I think in life and in art-making, absolutely. Even with my students, I could be their student. I learn so much about anything you can name. Graduate students, they work. And they could be working with mixed media, video, installation, painting, anything, but their ideas, they challenge me. It is not only the artform but the content you have to understand. They may be doing something about the 1950’s American culture and ideals. I was not here. Someone what making work about Neil Young- who is Neil Young? A lot of things I learned backwards. Woodstock? What does Woodstock mean?
I learn a lot from them but also I learn that there is a human condition regardless if you are from, China or Mexico or anywhere. Something comes across. Like how a grandmother is universal, they all look alike and play similar roles. The way family is arranged, for example, but there is always things you don’t know.
AR: So teaching is an education within itself?
HL: Yes, teaching educates the students and the teacher. There is always something new. You can’t always use your past experience. It is good, it makes each day different and there is no auto-pilot. With students who have graduated, the relationship changes from student-teacher but it is the opportunity to work with a young artist. You learn to be generous with your time. What can you lose? You learn a lot.
AR: As a influential women artist, you are inevitably a potential role model for young artists and young women. How aware are you of that role and how do you take on the responsibility?
HL: I am aware. I constantly have email. What is a role model? People are not perfect. Being an artist, your work is the thing on the stage, not yourself. So I think the work is bigger than me. The resources comes from something bigger than my personal history and cultural history. I think of my work is much bigger than the individual. When I look back I see I have done a lot of work. I have never stopped. I never forget where I come from, I have accomplished a lot but that is not enough. It is a reason to be better, more generous, and never stop learning or pushing yourself forward. I don’t feel like I represent China, the country, but I do feel like I represent value as a human. On a daily basis, not only in artmaking. It is good to not only think about yourself and your own work. We are all teachers. In China there is a very poetic term for teachers that translates as gardeners, you have to grow a lot of beautiful flowers. You want to see you your students succeed. Some of my students become good friends and genuine good friends, like a big family.
AR: So you feel the student relationships influence your work?
HL: I think maybe. Young artists, their spirit and their thinking, helps. Such as an abstract painters, some of my work is abstract. To talk about how the abstract elements in the students work makes my work richer.
AR: I am interested in how you started making art and how your own personal history has changed over time, from China, to graduate school, teaching and with your current preparations for your retrospective exhibitions.
HL: I think it is such a complex package. Your work is not alone. First of all, when teaching you have to keep up with the world. For example William Kentridge, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, the artist you know in the late 90’s early 21st century. There is a constantly changing artworld. And then Chinese artists. Everyone calls me big sister, except Ai Wei Wei, never calls me big sister, sometimes mother.
I am growing older. My son just got married. My personal life changed. My mom passed away two years ago so I did something in her memory. I did a painting everyday in her memory. Somehow they put this in my retrospective. This kind of thing you live, you learn, the work changes. I have my grandfather’s image of him sewing his clothes. It is a moving image but I waited five or six years to paint it. I needed distance, maybe because the image is so close to me I needed to do it.I wait for many years before I work on some things. Like, I think weddings are weird things.
The wedding itself. So weird. When is the time to do something, I don’t know yet. I have been chasing people, taking pictures. Some [brides] have really bad dresses. Legs exposed. My antenna is still up. I am interested in crosswalks too. Being an artist gave me the lessons to be so excited, like a kid, to be curious, to be silly. I won’t change in twenty years, except slower maybe. What I like is the investigation, thinking, and meditating on the images.
AR: What’s coming next?
HL: Right now they are installing at the Oakland Museum. The show is beginning with drawings and sketchbooks and photos from the late sixties. About eighty pieces. That has given me a chance to look back. There was some work we couldn’t get from collectors. Some paintings I have not seen in twenty years since they sold. It was like a family reunion.
AR: Do you feel you’ve learned looking at them now?
HL: Yes. Sometimes you really learn looking back. It is good to take a moment to reflect. I was shocked and so excited that I did so much. It is good to see I was never lazy, I did so much work. But it also pushes you to ask, what next?
And then there is the show at Rena Bransten in San Francisco from work for this year. The next challenge is the San Jose Museum and the opening is in early June. It will be of video works I have been working on. I started them last year but I am still working. Technically I am using help from a from graduate student. Some will be from my iPhone. Some of them I draw from the sky. It is not precious but somehow together it is something. I got inspiration. I took a lot of photographs of a dead bird. There is a big wall almost 70 feet that I will do a mural. I feel the Mills show was pretty good, the Oakland Museum I am putting together is a lot of work but the San Jose is new all together.
AR: And you are having a show in New York City?
HL: Nancy Hoffman Gallery in September.
AR: And the show at the Oakland Museum is traveling?
HL: Yes, we are looking at a few museums.
AR: Do you think the work will change now after this huge rush of exhibiting?
HL: Yes, constantly. It is unpredictable, just like the weather. Like right here (Hung points to a painting she is working on for her exhibition at Nancy Holman), the background I don’t know what to do next.
AR: Are you feeling that fear?
HL: Always. It never gets easy. But I am not afraid anymore. What I am not afraid of is my fear but my fear is there all of the time. It is important to know that things will work out. You know you have to. You have no choice.
Liu was born in Changchun, China in 1948, growing up under the Maoist regime. She immigrated to the US in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego, where she received her MFA. She currently lives in Oakland and is a tenured professor in the art department at Mills College. View more of Hung Liu’s work at http://kelliu.com/
A major retrospective of Hung Liu’s work, “Summoning Ghosts,” at the Oakland Museum of California will be on display from March 16 through June and is scheduled for a two-year national tour. The San Jose Museum of Art, where she already has several works, offers a new exhibit, “Questions From the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu” June 6 through Sept. 29. Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York will be exhibiting new work by Hung Liu in September, 2013.
More information on Hung Liu’s current and upcoming exhibitions, visit:
Oakland Museum of California http://museumca.org
Nancy Hoffman Gallery http://www.nancyhoffmangallery.com/
San Jose Museum of Art http://www.sjmusart.org
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Rachelle Reichert is a San Francisco based artist. Her paintings have been nationally and internationally exhibited including exhibitions at the German Consulate in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Galleria il Sotoportego in Venice, Italy, Sloane Fine Art in New York City and Southern Exposure in San Francisco. Rachelle received her BFA from Boston University in 2007.