Art Talk with Hung Liu

By Rebecca Gross

Hung Liu. Photo courtesy of the artist

In 1984, Hung Liu emigrated from the People’s Republic of China to the United States, becoming one of the first Chinese artists to study in the U.S. An adult by the time she left her native country, Liu had spent four years receiving her “proletariat reeducation” in the Chinese countryside, eventually attending art school where she was trained as a painter in socialist realism style. Since arriving in California to pursue her MFA at the University of California, San Diego, Liu has largely become distinguished for re-working historic Chinese photographs into haunting, visually arresting paintings and mixed media pieces. A professor at Mills College for 22 years, and a two-time recipient of NEA Visual Arts Fellowships, Liu has exhibited her work around the world, including in her native China. We spoke with Liu by phone to talk about the differences between her Chinese and American education, the fluid nature of history, and whether art can be a tool for political and social change.

NEA: What do you remember as your earliest exposure to the arts as a child?

HUNG LIU:  One beautiful day in the late spring of 1954, I went outside with my grandpa, who was a middle school biology teacher. We both loved the outdoors---the wild flowers, the bugs, the birds, and everything we could see in nature. I brought my sketchbook with me as always. I was six years old, and that was the first time I tried to draw trees---there were a lot of them. I had a hard time doing it. Finally, I showed my finished drawing to grandpa---I was quite frustrated with the representation of the trees. Grandpa was like one of my teachers at school - he looked at my drawing, took a moment to meditate, then wrote down my grade---95. I guess he didn’t like the way I drew the trees. As I was just about to take my sketchbook and walk home, grandpa crossed out the 95 and put down 100! I was surprised and speechless. I looked at him, he was serious. In a moment, I realized I was good enough. No, I was perfect! Beginning with the highest point a child could hope for, I’ve been on my journey as an artist since, always trying to reach 100. [From a story written by the artist in 2010]

By the Rivers of Babylon by Hung Liu. This painting depicts war refugees sitting by a river. Image courtesy of Hung Liu

NEA: What was it like for you as an artist, at the age of 36, to enter a new culture where artistic training, traditions, and freedoms were so different from what you had previously known?

LIU: For my graduate school, I went to the number one art school [in China]---it’s called the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. It has independent departments, like traditional Chinese painting, sculpture, printmaking, and graphics. It’s very specific. Our schools trained you in very specific, very perfect skills; skills for artisans. You knew how to do human bodies, you knew how to do all the details, and the clothes, still lifes, landscapes. If you did painting, you did it all on canvas. There was no other way.  So you perfect your skill, and then you do that all your life.

Then you needed to have political subject matter, which was really defined by the government. In the end, your work had to follow party lines. When you look at North Korea today, the whole country highly controlled by their political leader, you can imagine China 40 years ago in terms of making art. For example, our Great Leader Chairman Mao, with peasants, with soldiers, with mine workers, with steel workers---it didn’t matter. You just basically took the assignment. It was already decided. You did different compositions maybe: Mao Zedong smiles like this, or you see three-quarters of his face. We had to always portray him with red cheeks, like the red sun.

But in the U.S., when I came to UCSD ---I was a TA---I didn’t think the students they didn’t have much of a training. In China, we called it basic training; like art boot camp. You had to draw models for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And the U.S. students, a lot of them never had that kind of training. First I thought, “Oh my God, they don’t know how to draw, how to paint.” If you posed a model for over five minutes, some students complained that that was too long.

But I feel like maybe [in China] we focused too much on technique; somehow we never paid attention to ideas and concept. Subject matter was assigned, as I said. Here [in the U.S.], there was mixed media. It wasn’t just painting on canvas. It could be on anything. And then there was video. There was installation. My advisor at graduate school, Allan Kaprow, was the grandfather of “happenings.” I took a happening class from him. He took a bunch of us to the dumpster, and then he unloaded some old chairs and sofas from his truck and some buckets of paint. And he said, “Now you can do it.” And I said, “Do what?” It wasn’t a studio, there was no canvas, there was just some house paint cans. I was completely waiting for instruction. Then some younger students, American undergrads---they probably didn’t have any preconceived notion of what art is supposed to be---grabbed some brushes and some dumped the paint onto the chair. I said, “Oh my God, what are they doing?” Then I thought, “You know what? That’s pretty liberating. I don’t have to worry. Let me give it a shot too.” So I joined them. That kind of spontaneous improvisation, not just mentally but physically, was quite an experience for me.

Of course, you go to the U.S. and you have freedom---you can do anything you want. But when you say do anything you want, when the subject matter is not assigned, that’s pretty scary. You have to take responsibility. Nobody told you what to do. You know how to paint, but it doesn’t mean you know what to do. So from that time, I just had to step by step work my way to understand what I really want to do.

Mu Nv (Mother and Daughter) by Hung Liu. This painting derives from an early 20th century photograph of a mother and daughter pulling a boat up-river. Image courtesy of Hung Liu

NEA: How does your art explore or challenge the relationship between history and the present?

LIU: History to me is not a noun. It’s a verb. History is constantly changing… You can rewrite history; history was written by the winners. In China, specifically I remember during the Cultural Revolution, one high-ranking comrade was somehow ousted as the public enemy. Way before PhotoShop or the digital age, there were images that were erased from historical photographs. When you saw that, you were shocked at first. How could you change history? He was there, he was with you, but they erased him completely. In China, we always had great slogans: “Serve the people heart and soul.” But who are those people when it comes down to it? Who are the heroes? I learned that history is a verb, and when you have new discoveries in terms of evidence, materials, and witnesses, new kind of recall, or maybe a regime change, history can be rewritten. So that [realization] really liberated me.

I think exploring means finding something you’ve never experienced, or seen or heard before. I explore historical photographs, old ones, black and white, blurry ones, forgotten ones. I transform them to new paintings and change them. Not just change the scale---photographs were relatively small in the past---but also create different kinds of compositions, different kinds of mediums. For me, when I paint, it’s like thawing out ice---what is the information that is frozen inside this chemical layer [of the photograph]? I start to peel off, layer by layer. Or you can find another question. When you see an image, what is she holding in her hand? What is that behind her? Who is she in general? Through research, you try to find out information, to understand the image in a way, because you’re about to spend a lot of time with it. On the other hand, the more you research, the more you question.

Painting of woman in anguish.
Apsaras---White by Hung Liu. Depiction of a Sichuan Earthquake survivor. Image courtesy of Hung Liu

NEA: As you work on pieces that re-examine Chinese history, culture, and customs, do you find your own personal relationship with China changing?

LIU: Absolutely. I constantly need to readjust myself. I feel like I’m not completely on China’s side. There were a lot of lies in the fictions we were taught; propaganda was so heavy there. But I haven’t completely abandoned China because I also learned a lot of great stuff when I was in junior high and high school. My relationship with China---what I love, what I hate---is clearer than ever because when you have distance, temporal and spatial distance, you have time to reflect. That becomes more critical, and you’re also more aware of stereotypes. In my work, I try to fight against stereotypes and clichés, and fictions about China or Chinese culture which are far from the truth.

When I first got here, everyone said that America is the land of opportunity. But when you live here long enough, you realize it’s not a paradise. There are a lot of questions, a lot of problems. But where are there no problems? I want to feel like a citizen of the world. Unfortunately I have to choose one passport. But in my mind, I’d really love to be a citizen in the broader sense, of mankind. So that relationship changes in many, many ways.

NEA: Do you think art can be a tool for political or social change?

LIU: When we were in China, Mao Zedong said everybody was part of a revolutionary machine. You’re just a little screw in that. Art and literature should be part of the revolutionary machine to unite and educate people, and to fight and destroy the enemy. This was obviously part of a very clear political tool. Art, to me, is not concrete like a machine gun or an atomic bomb, but it is a very powerful brainwash. You make people followers without their own brain anymore. It can unite people, yes. During war, posters like Uncle Sam ask you to find your consciousness, to fight for your country. I do believe that art can help politically and socially by changing people’s human minds, by changing their perceptions and bringing awareness. I think then political and social change comes after.

Painting of woman in ethnic dress.
September by Hung Liu. With a Song Dynasty duck seeming to crash through the face of a bride, this painting was the artist's response to the tragedy of September 11th. Image courtesy of Hung Liu

NEA: You’ve also worked as a teacher for many, many years. How has your role as a teacher affected your role as an artist?

LIU: I feel teaching has kept me constantly on my toes, even today, because I have to constantly learn. Any knowledge helps me to be a better teacher. Critique is not just a judgment, but rather brings awareness and maybe brings forward problems. It’s a test of my critical edge. I think that challenges me to be more articulate, because you not only critique their technique, their medium, but also their idea, their concept. So that’s really challenging.

On top of constantly learning things, sharing my personal experience as an artist is also very valuable. You can only be the best of yourself, not the best of other people. I say it’s more important to face failure than to try and be successful. So that’s the process of how to be an artist, how to live like an artist, how to carry the burden, carry the responsibility, and challenge yourself.

NEA: What project or series are you working on now?

LIU: I have a retrospective show coming up next March at the Oakland Museum of California. When you talk about retrospectives, you’re looking back. I have a drawing that my mom saved from when I was five years old. I have drawings and paintings and things from the ‘60s, the ‘70s, during the Cultural Revolution. I will have those [in the show]. So there’s a full circle, or maybe not quite full yet, but it’s a long trajectory of my career or journey as an artist.

Then I will do two installations. I will show at Mills College Museum, and then I’m going to do a video project. So I will have three museums showing different kinds of work. Maybe that also reflects what I’ve learned in the U.S. Go out of your comfort zone; don’t just be a particular kind of painter or sculptor. I want to be an artist, which is much broader.

Painting of girls holding their hands over their ears in fear.
First Spring Thunder by Hung Liu. An image of school girls during World War II who are covering their ears during a bombing raid in Shanghai. The title refers to one of the 24 annual seasons in China in which the insects awaken and buzz. Image courtesy of Hung Liu

NEA: What tools could you not live without in your artistic toolbox?

LIU: No matter where I go, I always have a pen with me to make marks, to take notes. You just don’t know when or how there will be thoughts or images that will strike you. Especially on long distance travel, I always like to have a little notebook or sketchbook, or even sheets of paper, in my bag to sketch and doodle. I always have one handy to make mental notes, and physical notes as well.

Another thing is I keep my eyes open like I’m a hunter. I’m hunting, I’m capturing visual references. So maybe that’s my tool, just myself with open eyes and open mind. Some people are greedy for money. I’m greedy for images. Not that every image will become a painting, but just looking at them makes me think, makes me alive, or allows me to have another association. I don’t want to become dull or not thinking.

NEA: The motto of the NEA is “Art Works.” What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?

LIU: Art Works---that’s just two words, but to me it’s very interesting. It means that art is like anything else---you need to work on it. But when I read it as a noun, artworks, it means it’s one thing---artistic pieces. It could be concrete and very substantial by specific artists or specific artist groups or collaborations. There’s an image with color, with shape, with size, with weight, with texture, with light, maybe even with the five senses: you can smell, you can look, you can touch, you can hear. You can taste even. But to me, another way to read [the phrase] is with art as the subject, works as the verb. So art works is a verb meaning that art actually works, like this car works. That telephone works. So “works” means it’s running. It’s effective. It’s in action. It’s in progress. There are multiple readings to me. It’s a very smart motto.