Art Rated Interview: Hung Liu

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Rachelle Reichert for

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.

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