4.9 / Review

Hung Liu: Offerings

By Ellen Tani February 12, 2013

The spare aesthetic of the exhibition currently on view at the Mills College Art Museum belies the fullness of the Bay Area artist and educator Hung Liu’s major concern: history. Two large-scale installations are repositories for the effects of Liu’s dynamic artistic transformation over the past thirty years, during which she has persistently kept one eye trained on history. This retrospective vision was borne from Liu’s upbringing during China’s Cultural Revolution, a period in which history was editorialized and artworks destroyed according to Maoist orthodoxy. Trained as a mural painter in China, Liu later pursued a master’s degree at the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1980s. Under a faculty known for its radical, conceptual practices (including Allan Kaprow, Eleanor and David Antin, and Faith Ringgold, among others), Liu unlearned earlier ideas in order to access new ways of thinking and making. One might call this deskilling, but Liu did not sacrifice her technical skills; rather, she embraced a conceptual re-education. Leaving behind a traditional art school in China for the conceptual avant-garde in California informed her role as a professor of art at Mills College, where she and her students have pushed each other beyond their comfort zones for the past thirty-some years. Offerings embodies transcendence in numerous ways, from the geographical to the philosophical. It is a tight and complex presentation of Liu’s work as an artist, a community member, and a mentor. The works on display both reflect and bear the accretions of personal and collective history that drive Liu’s practice.

In the front gallery, Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain) (1994) comprises a glowing mound of 200,000 fortune cookies piled over two railroad tracks that lead to nowhere. A nearby wall, featuring twenty-one paintings of fortune cookies on gold-leaf panels, lends a sacred aura, a nod to the exhibition’s title. In the back gallery, the two-part installation Tai Cang—Great Granary (2008/2012) offers a darker palette. Thirty-four antique dou, wooden vessels full of grains and beans, are arranged in front of a massive ten-panel mural entitled Music of the Great Earth II (2012). A reworking of an image (later destroyed) that Liu created in 1981 while at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Music of the Great Earth II is richly layered and brims with references to Liu’s original mural, Chinese art history, Buddhist mythology, Liu’s oeuvre, and the large-scale, all-over style of midcentury American painting.

One of the foremost Chinese painters in the United States, Liu is less known for her installations than for her large canvases based on historic Chinese documentary photos and films, many of which reside in the collections of major museums. Characterized by an immanent tension between inscrutability and realism, these works present photorealist scenes, but Liu thins her paint with linseed oil to destabilizing effect. The pull of gravity helps to produce Liu’s signature drips, which obscure the precise images underlying them and, in the context of her subjects, read as sweat, blood, tears, and erosion. In a retrospective this spring, the Oakland Museum will honor Liu’s painting practice. In Offerings, however, Liu’s conceptual mastery speaks clearly through works that, albeit lesser known, speak to her artistic concerns more subtly—and perhaps more powerfully—than her paintings.


Hung Liu. Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), 1994; installation view, Hung Liu: Offerings, Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and the Mills College Art Museum, Oakland. Photo: Phil Bond Photography.


Hung Liu. Tai Cang—Great Granary, 2008; installation view, Hung Liu: Offerings, Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and the Mills College Art Museum, Oakland. Photo: Phil Bond Photography.

Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), for example, articulates Liu’s conceptual awareness of process-driven art and its historical potential. Originally conceived for the de Young Museum, the installation resonates differently now than it did in 1994, in the midst of the culture wars, when its minimalist aesthetic was dismissed by critics as “unexciting.”1 However, Liu’s reference to the complex history of immigration and labor, in which American-ness and foreignness are held in tension, presciently alludes to more recent debates about the subject. After all, the fortune cookie, a longstanding symbol of Chinese culture, is an American invention.2 The fragility and heft of these cookies can be seen to embody the speculative risks taken by waves of Chinese immigrants who came in the mid-nineteenth century to San Francisco, which earned the nickname “Old Gold Mountain” during the California Gold Rush. Most earned their living building the transcontinental railroad that connected prospectors from the eastern United States with their anticipated fortunes in the West. The hushed glow of Liu’s piece is tempered by its reference to the ancestral burial mounds of her family, an homage to the hundreds of Chinese laborers who perished while laying tracks through the Sierra Nevada section of the Central Pacific Railroad grade.

Linking to this elegiac gesture, Tai Cang—Great Granary presents edibles from each province of China, arranged in a map-like formation. These staples would have been traded from the coastal city of Taicang (known as “Great Granary” for the port’s many storehouses of grain) from the third century C.E. to distant destinations via the Silk Road. Liu’s Music of the Great Earth II was inspired by a Silk Road treasure: the painted walls of the Dunhuang caves. It depicts layers of dancing apsaras (Hindu and Buddhist celestial figures sometimes seen in representations of the jakata, the stories of the past lives of the Buddha) and taotie (zoomorphic patterning found on Shang-period bronzes). Depicting a kind of historical and spiritual cosmos, the mural—which Liu describes as a “ghost”—echoes the geographic arrangement of the dou with a different kind of map entirely.3

References to celestial figures and past lives call up the Chinese immigrants referenced in Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), who were colloquially referred to as “celestials” by nineteenth-century Americans. Their spirits, one imagines, could reside somewhere among the topographic allegory of the mound of cookies and the unseen fortunes they contain. Together, the two installations bespeak Liu’s deft handling of major themes such as history and time and the translation of these themes into form as the artist’s own cartographic gesture.

In this sense, Liu’s three-dimensional investigations recall Robert Smithson’s in their relationship to history: almost mystical, obliquely referential, and fueled by an intense curiosity about how we make meaning out of distant places and times. In a conversation I had with the artist, she revealed her affinity with Smithson who, familiar with her love of poetry, once told her, “The language of poetry is not a dead language but it’s dying. So the dying is still happening—it’s always dying, always in the process of going from one condition to another.” To link closure with death, and decay to its constant deferral, is to preserve life for that much longer. This belief resounds in Offerings, as Liu rallies between criticality and celebration, decay and creation, between the allusive signs of history and the impossibility of representing it.




Hung Liu: Offerings is on view at the Mills College Art Museum, in Oakland, through March 17, 2013.


1. Kenneth Baker, “Chagoya’s Culture Clashes,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 1994, p. E1.

2. The fortune cookie as known to Americans was introduced in the late nineteenth century by the Japanese immigrant and landscape designer Makoto Hagiwara, at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. There is no accurate translation for “fortune cookie” in Chinese.

3. From the author’s conversation with the artist on January 29, 2013.

Comments ShowHide