Hung Liu received her second National Endowment of the Art fellowship in 1991. She and her son became American citizens in 1991. Also in 1991, she made her first visit back to China on a faculty grant from Mills College. Hung Liu asked her mother, who had returned to China, to look for any old photographs for her research project: “Most families burned their photographs, especially ones of Western-style weddings or anything that indicated you were not a proletariat or had some money. I went to libraries and found some magazines. I came out with all the dust all over my face. Nobody had touched these things forever.”
Hung Liu discovered books of photographs of high-class prostitutes from the late 19th Century until 1911 in an old Beijing film studio: “The women were doing the most hilarious things, like holding a book in hand, even though women were not allowed to learn to read and write, or driving a car, an old Ford model. The purpose was to sell themselves, pretend they were upper class. [The photos] were shocking and exotic but also familiar.” The books were a catalog used by high-ranking and wealthy men.
Hung Liu drew from her collection of prostitute photographs to create “Chinese Profile II” (1998) (80”x80’’). Profile portraits were used historically in ethnographic or anthropological studies of facial and racial prototypes. In the 21st Century women’s movements, these profiles were recognized as an attempt to avoid the “male gaze.” Her collection of black and white photographs was an opportunity to present these figures with the dignity they deserve. “Chinese Profile II” is large in scale and rich in color. She describes the process: “Between dissolving and preserving is the rich middle ground where the meaning of an image is found. I release information from the photo.”
“September 2001” (2001) (66’’x66’’) was completed after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by al Qaeda. The image of a Chinese Bride in full dress is fused with the image of a 10th Century Song dynasty ink painting of a duck. The young bride wears a traditional, richly embroidered red dress and a phoenix coronet. Phoenix coronets are made from kingfisher feathers, a traditional sign of status and wealth. They are made of silver and contain precious stones and pearls. Hung Liu interpreted the expression on the young bride’s face as reflecting “a moment of uncertainly, a feeling of being on the brink” which she saw as the collective emotional response to 9/11.
Fused with the bride’s face and coronet are the wings and head of a wild duck that flies through her face like the planes flew through the Trade Center and Pentagon. The effect is an explosion. Mandarin duck is served at wedding ceremonies because the birds are considered extremely faithful, a symbol of love, devotion, affection, and fidelity. For this reason, images of ducks are carved, made in porcelain, and cast in bronze for houses and temples. The duck heads look up, but Hung Liu deliberately positions the duck head bowed because “the bride symbolizes people involuntarily wed to an unexpected relationship, a new era in our political consciousness.”
The title, “Strange Fruit” (2002) (80’’x160’’) was inspired by the Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit (1939) that called attention to the numerous lynchings in the American South. The painting also is known as “Comfort Women,” because they were Korean prisoners of war who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II. Hung Liu used the red paint in the background to obscure the Japanese soldiers that were visible in the original photograph. She incorporates the images of two butterflies, symbol of love. White butterflies carry souls to heaven, while black butterflies represent transformation and hope after dark times. Although neither of the butterflies is entirely white or black, any butterfly is considered good luck in China as both words butterfly and good luck sound similar when spoken.
Hung Liu began to incorporate circles in paintings at this time. In Chinese writing, a circle is used rather than a period to end a sentence. In Zen Buddhism, circles represent both wholeness and emptiness, and the cycle of life. Hung Liu completes each circle in a single brush stroke. She refers to them as “a kind of Buddhist abstraction.”
Hung Liu’s Seven Poses (2005) is a series of “Untitled” paintings (60”x60”) of 19th Century courtesans who provided entertainment in the form of music, poetry, and song to entertain dignitaries. Each of the paintings depicts one or two courtesans with pieces of ancient pottery, and each contains symbolic animals such as grasshoppers, sparrows, swans, and cows. All the women are posed seated since they have undergone foot-binding. In “Untitled” Hung Liu has created a painting that employs the color orange. In China, orange is associated with the harvest and represents happiness and wealth. It is a popular color used in celebrations. Oranges and tangerines are a primary food for Chinese New Year. The cow is symbolic of agriculture and nurturing; it is a gentle animal. The friendly cow licks the leg of one of the women.
Hung Liu’s signature drips and circles are present, as are Chinese characters and chop marks. In each of the seven poses, an ancient Chinese artifact is prominent in order to reinforce the historical nature of the image. Flowers are also placed in many of Hung Liu’s paintings since they too have significant symbolic meaning for Chinese people. The white flowers in this painting are magnolias, one of the most expensive flowers in China. They were considered so precious that only the emperor could own and grow them. They also were valued for their many medicinal properties. Hung Liu states, “I communicate with the characters in my paintings, prostitutes—these completely subjugated people—with reverence, sympathy, and awe.”
“Going Away, Coming Home” (2006) (10’ tall by 160’ long) can be found on the glass window of Terminal 2 at the International Airport in Oakland, California. Hung Liu painted eighty red-crowned cranes, the second rarest crane species, on the huge glass wall with enamel paint. Red brings good luck, is the color of joy, and protects against evil. The silk scroll “Auspicious Cranes” (12th Century), painted by Emperor Huizong, was hung over the roof of his palace to bring peace and prosperity to his home. From that time, cranes have been a symbol of peace, purity, wisdom, fidelity, prosperity, and longevity.
Hung Liu has placed twenty cranes on each of the four windows of the terminal, bringing the number to 80 cranes to give blessings to travelers. A second layer of glass contains images of satellite photograph close-ups of the Bay Area and the Northern California coast toward the Asian Pacific region. Departing passengers walk past an expanding image and returning passengers see the view being reduced back to the Bay Area. Hung Liu’s circles represent the endless and wholeness of the universe.
Next week, part 3 of the article on Hung Liu will continue her journey to bring understanding and information to the public through other themes in her impressive and expansive body of work.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.