Tis the Final Conflict III, 2007, Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches
by Nick Stone
Female soldiers operating under duress are the animating force behind Hung Liu’s Daughters of China, a show of epic paintings based on a 1949 Chinese propaganda film that the artist witnessed as child. The show’s arrival, which she discusses at length in the interview below, couldn’t be timelier. As the public reckons with the necessity of supporting and defending women against male aggression, there is a dizzying prescience in these emotionally gripping images of armed women pushed to the very limits of their endurance.
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate commentator on issues of oppression and resistance than Liu. Born one year before the Communist revolution and raised under the Maoist regime, she served in the Chinese military and taught art in Beijing before winning a scholarship that allowed her, in 1984, to emigrate to the United States and attend UC San Diego. She’s since become this country’s most celebrated Chinese-born American painter.
This show at Kala reprises an earlier exhibition at American University in Washington, D.C. Curated by Peter Selz and Sue Kubly, Daughters of China finds Liu deploying her signature method: bravura strokes of paint on large canvases, bathed in and partially eroded by washes of linseed oil that serve as a abstract lens through which to re-examine and re-animate anonymous figures — women, children and laborers — drawn from historical photographs.
The largest paintings here are based on stills photographed by the artist from the aforementioned film, which is based on a 1938 incident in which eight female Communist soldiers, ages 13 to 38, chose to drown rather than surrender to their pursuers during the second Sino-Japanese war. (The film, spangled with animated drips of paint, plays on a loop in a small room off the main gallery.) In Liu’s treatment, the film’s subjects are rendered epic, monumental and unambiguously heroic. That quality comes across strongest in Liu’s handling of faces. These cinematic close-ups rival those seen in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). In one canvas, Tis the Final Conflict V, a lone woman stares away with a faint smile, as if squinting into the sun against a yellow-and-ochre background dappled with delicate reeds. In The Internationale Shall Be The Human Race, a canvas splashed with bright, almost cheery reds and greens, three women sing with heads held high. In the remainder of the series, however, the women wear expressions of grim, resolute pain.
Where the patriotic fanfare of a film like Daughters of China makes tidy sense of its heroines, Liu does not present the soldiers’ martyrdom as simple or sanctimonious. Several of the paintings retain spare, raw expanses of canvas, bare or submerged in only the lightest wash, and the effect is disturbing. We search for more paint, more information to work with, trying to make sense of these passages of emptiness. Only fragile, wide-eyed fish inhabit these blank or vaguely dampened sections of canvas; composed of only a few strokes, they appear cartoon-like, absurd in the casual levity of their execution. Unable to process what they see, these insensate animal spectators appear blissfully oblivious to the human tragedy nearby.
The bliss of ignorance is also evident in Liu’s tongue-in-cheek S-Wan Quan Lake: Red Detachment of Women, where a pair of ballerinas dressed in Communist uniforms and brandishing bayonets leap in dramatic pliés across the lake’s surface. This work, rendered on a canvas shaped to the exact proportions of its subject, lampoons the pompous trappings of militarism and the absurdity of propaganda’s reductive clichés. A self-portrait of Liu, also rendered on a shaped canvas and carrying a paint-spattered bayonet rifle, serves as a kind of
response: Liu as an authentic soldier, opposed to the play-acting spectacle of the gun-wielding servants of power. The equivalence drawn between paintbrush and bayonet casts these paintings as Liu’s own personal front in the world’s collective struggle against an entropic drift toward ethical myopia and historical amnesia.
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Hung Liu: “Daughters of China” @ Kala Art Institute through January 20, 2018.
About the author:
Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, Nick Stone is a writer and musician based in the Bay Area.
The Hung Liu Interview
by David M. Roth
DR: Under what circumstances did you first view Daughters of China? How old were you and how did you react?
HL: I saw the film for the first time in the mid-50s in China. I was maybe 7 or 8. We saw it in a movie theater. No one had TVs then. My reaction? I was thrilled.
Did you see the film as a documentary or as propaganda or both?
Under Mao in China there was no difference: documentary was propaganda, and propaganda was documentary. We had no words for that distinction. Plus, many people thought the film was real – the actors playing the women soldiers brought a sense of realism to their roles, and the Japanese invasion of Northern China, starting in 1931, had been real, a matter of history and memory for millions of Chinese.
What motivated you take up this film as a subject for paintings?
I have always based my paintings on historical photographs, at least since the late 80s. Daughters of China was just a string of black-and-white photographs called a film, so in that sense it wasn’t very different – except that the story is about women soldiers, fighting to the end, refusing to surrender. I started this series of paintings in 2007 and first showed them at the Rena Bransten Gallery. Then they went on to Beijing and Hong Kong before coming back home. Peter Selz, who, with Sue Kubly, curated the show at KALA, wanted to show them again. With all the political melodrama in the air these days, and especially the “reckoning” around women in the workplace, the timing made sense.
How, if at all, have your feelings about it changed?
About the film? Well, until I hadn’t seen it in 50 years, so it was like witnessing an important moment from childhood, and also from the beginnings of revolutionary China. It took until the mid-50s for China to import Soviet Socialist Realism from Stalin, and then even longer to reshape it into a Chinese-style of propaganda art. I can see the ideology in the movie very clearly now, but you have to remember that it was also a tragic, classical story – outnumbered patriots, who happened to be women, sacrificing their lives rather than surrendering to a foreign invader. And you also have to remember that it really happened in 1938. These eight women, between 13 and 24, fought and died for the nation. Although I left China in 1984 because of its political and artistic repression, I still feel pride in these daughters of China. Painting them allows me to be patriotic without being a propagandist. Or ironic.
Did you approach painting these stills from the film differently than you do when you’re working with found prints?
I tried to “grab” particular stop-action moments in the film so I could paint from a still photograph, as I always do. But with film – or digital video – there are always one or two frames on either side of the image you want, so there is a sense of slippage, of an underlying movement, not just a single frame. I think this made the paintings more gestural and abstract. I also painted a colored, horizontal band along the bottom edge of several canvases to suggest the underlying cinematic flow of the images.
How, if at all, is your method of appropriation different from, say, the kinds of appropriation we saw coming out of the US in 1980s and 1990s?
As I said before, the “Daughters of China” paintings are not intended ironically. In fact, I don’t think the word “appropriation” applies. I am memorializing these women. In the ‘80s and ‘90s my works – like painting my own green card, or young Chinese prostitutes from the Victorian age – were ironic enough to be noticed, but irony was never my strategy or language as an artist. Making contact with the subject is.
When you attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, painting from photos was discouraged. You were supposed to paint from life. What convinced you that working this way was a good thing?
Painting from life was the ideal in the art academy, so we drew and painted lots of models and plaster casts. But what “life” did we paint? Under Mao, we painted a heroic ideal of common people, from peasants to soldiers to Mao himself. Everybody was happy and rosy cheeked. I called it “socialist-surrealism.” The irony is that if you needed to paint Mao, or one of the big leaders, then you had to refer to official photographs, but even they were idealized to begin with. Photography as a depiction of the tattered realities of life – photojournalism – had no place in Communist China during the era of Mao. Maybe that’s why I have always been drawn to historical photographs, especially the tattered ones.
I’ve read that you’ve developed a method of analyzing photos that helps you reach into them — to bring out aspects that might otherwise go unnoticed. I’ve also read that you glean a lot from really bad photos, those where faces are too blurry to really make out the details.
Although I work from old photos, I don’t copy them. They are points of contact with moments from the past that no longer exist. That gives me a lot of liberty about painting in the present, especially if the subjects in the photo are grainy or blurry. I can improvise from an imperfect “chemical” image and bring it to life as a “mineral” one. In a way, the drips I allow are given permission by the imperfections of historical photographs. A moment is captured in history, but often that’s all we know about it – that it’s historical. I try as a painter to liberate that moment by investing time in painting an image that was originally captured in an instant. Painting involves a lot of time and time opens up a picture. I think photographic history is redeemed by mineral pigments and linseed oil, but only if you’re willing to make contact with it from the end of your brush. It also helps to have some of that history inside yourself.
When people talk about the abstract elements of your painting they’re mainly talking about drips. One criticism I’ve heard is that the drips, because they read so directly as tears, are overly melodramatic. How do you respond to that?
A critic I respect once said that what I had accomplished as a painter with my dripping paint was to “dissolve” the rigid classicism in which I was trained in China, where even one drip would have been regarded as a lack of faith in Socialist Realism to perfectly depict the revolution. I think drips began appearing in my paintings in the late ‘80s, and while they reminded me of some traditional Chinese ink paintings (sometimes the literati painters would use their hair to paint with ink – there was a splash ink style long ago), the thrill for me is in allowing the painted image to wash away with the pull of gravity. It creates and destroys itself at the same time. And the drips as tears? Sometimes, as well as sweat, or blood, or rain, or the time it takes for linseed oil to drain away. Or the loss of history or memory. If I wanted to paint tears I could paint them. But how do you paint the moment when history surrenders to memory?
When you first came to the US you enrolled at UC San Diego. You fell in with a crowd of conceptualists and performance artists led by Alan Kaprow. How did that influence the direction of your art?
Allan Kaprow invented Happenings, and when I arrived from China in 1984 I had no idea what Happenings were. Or installation art, conceptual art, performance art, of anything else. So, when Allan took our class to a campus dumpster and asked us to begin, I was lost. Finally, one student took something out of the dumpster and painted it. Then I understood that art could be whatever we wanted it to be – but that we had to take personal responsibility for what we did as artists. That was radically different from China, where art and style and subject were officially defined and limited. Freedom, when you come upon it suddenly, is very sobering. At UCSD, I also met artists and thinkers like David and Eleanor Antin, Moira Roth, Newton and Helen Harrison, Sheldon Nodleman, and Faith Ringgold, and fellow students like Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Jeff Kelley (my husband of thirty-plus years). UCSD was liberating and terrifying at the same time.
Cynical Realism and Political Pop were terms coined in the 1990s to describe contemporary Chinese art. They filtered into the dialog right about the time your career started to take shape. Do those designations resonate with you? What individual artists or contemporary trends do you see yourself aligned with?
The New Wave Movement in China happened one year after I left for the US. I knew many of the artists there – I met Ai Weiwei in 1979 in Dunhuang, for instance – but Chinese art was still very academic when I left. Cynical Realism and Political Pop were terms that took root after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, when I was already here. Though I have returned to China many times and know most of its first generation of artists, my career has been an American one, even though my subject has mostly been women and children in the homeland. But my point of view is that of an insider looking back from outside. I am not Chinese-American, since I came here at age 36. I am an American who was born in and lived half her life in China. I think my work reflects that complexity.
Lastly, is there anything I haven’t asked about Daughters of China or your work in general that you’d like people to understand?
I think the question that means the most to me with Daughters of China is whether it’s possible these days to be patriotic without being ironic, cynical or just stupid. What is there left to be sincere about? For me, it’s the actual courage of these eight women in the face of an enemy. They were soldiers, like I was. They sacrificed their lives, China turned that sacrifice into propaganda, and I have tried to turn propaganda into passionate realism. My paintings honor them. I feel I owe them that.
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About the author:
David M. Roth is editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.