ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Finding her story in China’s troubled history—artist Hung Liu’s retrospective, “Summoning Ghosts,” at the Oakland Museum of CA, closes June 30, 2013

Hung Liu's work , "The Heroines," from 2012, addresses patriotic stories in Chinese picture books, or "xiaorenshu," from her childhood.  oil on canvas, 96 x 160 inches, Collection of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley.

Hung Liu’s “The Heroines” (2012), is part of a new body of work that revisits patriotic stories in Chinese picture books from her childhood. Like little graphic novels, these picture books told stories of heroic figures and deeds, with an eerie propaganda supplanting the charming fable. These new paintings can be understood as homages to all the artists who lost their art during China’s revolutionary epoch. (oil on canvas, 96 x 160 inches, Collection of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley).

The ghosts of the Cultural Revolution, the tragedy of Tiananmen, the horror of the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake, her mother’s death, treasured images from childhood comics—all these are revived in artist Hung Lui’s first major retrospective, Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu at the Oakland Museum of CA (OMCA) through Sunday, June 30, 2013.  Hung Liu, now 65 and newly retired from 20 years of teaching painting at Mills College, is the most accomplished Chinese-born American artist of her generation.  The exhibition explores her creative output from age five through the present.   Together for the first time are 40 of her large-scale portraits of women, children, the elderly, workers—nameless victims of history.  Surrounded by birds and mythical creatures, floral motifs, symbols of past and present Chinese culture, and things an innocuous as bubbles, these vibrant gestural portraits are teaming with spirit energy and copious spills and drips of paint, evoking the blur of fading memories. Hung Liu rescues the disenfranchised from the oblivion of history, celebrating them without diminishing the suffering that has characterized their lives.

Hung Liu was born in 1948 and came of age in Beijing in the repressive era of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  Her father, an intellectual, was imprisoned and, at age 20, after finishing high school, she was sent to a labor camp in the countryside for four years of “re-education” where she worked with peasants in the rice and wheat fields.  Instead of crushing her, as it did so many, she used these traumatic experiences to fuel a vital inner flame which she kept burning as she resumed life in Beijing and studied and taught art.  Many years later, she was able to emigrate to the U.S. in 1984, at age 36.  She arrived with two suitcases and $20 and pursued an art education on scholarship at Visual Arts Department of UC San Diego.  Within a year, she had connected with Allan Kaprow and was participating in several of his happenings.   Summoning Ghosts, organized by René de Guzman, OMCA Senior Curator of Art, presents Hung Liu’s compelling life story, told through her artworks, as well as the larger human story of the souls crushed in China’s slow crawl to superpower status. It’s an unflinching and remarkably vital story of humanity.

Painted in the aftermath of 9/11, "September 2001"  depicts a traditionally-rendered Song dynasty duck crashing through the face of a young Chinese bride, each image disintegrating into the other. (2001, oil on canvas, 66 x 66  inches.  collection of Driek and Michael Zirinsky.)

Painted in the aftermath of 9/11, “September 2001” depicts a traditionally-rendered Song dynasty duck crashing through the face of a young Chinese bride, each image disintegrating into the other. (2001, oil on canvas, 66 x 66 inches. collection of Driek and Michael Zirinsky.)

"Mu Nu" (“Mother and Daughter”), 1997, is one of several large-scale paintings that addresses Chinese women at work in stooped labor and domestic chores. (oil on canvas, 80 x 140 inches, Collection of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art).

“Mu Nu” (“Mother and Daughter”), 1997, is one of several large-scale paintings that addresses Chinese women at work in stooped labor and domestic chores. (oil on canvas, 80 x 140 inches, Collection of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art).

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Video Clips of Hung Liu in discussion with OMCA’s René de Guzman (all from the March 14, 2013 press conference)

Early Work: 

In 1968, as part of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Liu, who had just completed high school, was sent for four years of re-education in the Chinese countryside which entailed manual labor under grueling conditions.  With a borrowed camera, she photographed the peasants with whom she lived and worked in the fields and also drew their portraits.  The film was kept undeveloped for decades until 2010, when she became interested in printing at these images.  She also kept portraits she had made of the local farmers and their families and they are on display.  In the video-clip below, Hung Liu discusses these photos.

Current work:

ARThound’s previous coverage of Hung Liu and “Summoning Ghosts:”  CAAMFest 2013—Jin Dan’s masterpiece “When the Bough Breaks,” examines upward mobility’s downward emotional toll on a Chinese migrant family as days, months, years pass

Special Docent Tours:  each Sunday at 1 p.m., through June 30, 2103, knowledgeable docents will walk visitors through the exhibition, sharing insights about Hung Lui’s processes and artworks.  Meet in front of the Great Hall lobby.   Free with museum admission.

Details:  The Oakland Museum of California is located at 1000 Oak Street, Oakland.  Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m, except Fridays when the museum is open until 9 p.m. Admission is $12 general, $9 seniors and students with valid ID.  Parking: Enter the Museum’s garage entrance on Oak Street between 10th and 12th streets.  Parking is just $1/hour with Museum validation. Parking without validation is $2.50/hour. Bring your ticket to the Ticketing booth on Level 2 for validation.

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June 11, 2013 Posted by | Art, Oakland Museum of California | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAAMFest 2013—Jin Dan’s masterpiece “When the Bough Breaks,” examines upward mobility’s downward emotional toll on a Chinese migrant family as days, months, years pass

Two young Chinese girls from a migrant family that has relocated to a big city struggle to earn money to pay for their brother’s schooling and are forced to abandon their own studies, putting their futures in jeopardy in “When the Bough Breaks,” directed by Ji Dan, one of China’s preeminent female documentary filmmakers.  Image: CAAMFest

Two young Chinese girls from a migrant family that has relocated to a big city struggle to earn money to pay for their brother’s schooling and are forced to abandon their own studies, putting their futures in jeopardy in “When the Bough Breaks,” directed by Ji Dan, one of China’s preeminent female documentary filmmakers. Image: CAAMFest

It’s hard to top recent Chinese documentary masterpieces like Ghost Town (Zhao Dayong, 2008, 169 min), Fortune Teller (Xu Tong, 2010, 129 min) or Last Train Home (Lixen Fan, 2009, 85 min).  And yet Ji Dan’s latest film, When the Bough Breaks (2011), maintains remarkable dedication to its difficult subject: a family of five Chinese migrants living on the outskirts of a city, their fragile state worsening with time.  It ebbs and flows with high drama as well, pulling us into a family tragedy involving innocent children that seems informed by the great master storytellers.   

In China today, over 120 million migrant workers have sacrificed everything for a country that barely acknowledges them, gambling all their resources on the dream of a better future. China’s dirty little secret: it’s turning its back on these workers and choosing instead to focus on rapid modernization—at their expense.  To tell this story, Ji Dan focuses on two girls and their brother, all of whom desperately need and want an education and their parents, two trapped and defeated individuals who are unable to provide it.  

Ji Dan is one of the most important filmmakers in China today.  Her past works include Spirit Home (2006), Dream of the Empty City (2007), and Spiral Staircase of Harbin (2008), which won prizes at both the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival and the China Documentary Film Festival.   To create such an intimate portrait of this fractured Chinese family living on the outskirts of Beijing, she spent three years following and getting to know them.  She even took up residence in the teacher’s dormitory of the school they attended.  The film screens today, Saturday, March 23, 2013, at the Oakland Museum of California at 2 p.m. (details here) as part of CAAMFest 2013’s final weekend.

Trash is an active metaphor. The family wades through trash heaps from dawn till dusk and the father collects and sells scrap metal, while family’s three vulnerable children fight against all odds – including their own parents – to continue their education and pursue a better future. But this is no ode to victory at the end of a long period of tribulations, it is instead a compelling examination of how life can leave one with a series of choices that all lead to undesirable outcomes. The parents, especially the disgruntled drunkard dad, do all they can to maintain some semblance of control, while the two pre-teen twin daughters struggle to hold the family’s long-term financial vision, though they too exhibit their father’s impatient proclivity for conflict. As the two headstrong girls try to negotiate a path to independence, security, and adulthood, the film reveals how some children are forced to make their own way in the world, assuming the responsibilities of adulthood long before they should have to.

Here’s what critic Brian Hu of PAC-ARTS (Pacific Arts Movement) said when the film screened at the San Francisco Asian Film Festival —Long, impeccably-shot verbal arguments that seem to into stretch into hours are riveting not so much for the yelling, but for the minutiae, in particular the silence of the son, whose fate motivates much of the conflict. Through it all is a sense of environmental doom: the weather, the military jets, the sounds of firecrackers in the distance. When the film comes to a close following a Lunar New Year unlike any other, a visceral transcendence is achieved that numbs the skin and pounds the heart.

Renowned Chinese artist Hung Liu, who currently has a retrospective at OMCA, “Summoning Ghosts, the Art of Hung Liu” canceled her appearance at today’s post-film conversation, but sent this statement about Ji Dan and her filmmaking—

As a filmmaker, Ji Dan spent a long time working with the family, not just on them. Her film is thought provoking and raises questions about family dynamics, personal and societal relationships, and class issues when people live physically and psychologically on the edge. The film shares a harsh reality and is truly moving. It shows us that there are many families living in isolation on the cusp of society, as if on an island. When the film was screened in Shanghai in 2011, several younger members of the audience asked why the film was long. In response, Ji Dan articulately and eloquently expressed her commitment to the need for longer documentary filmmaking in order to tell the full story. I was compelled to speak up and support Ji’s dedication in the face of Hollywood’s influence to train the viewer to absorb only shorter films. As I shared with Lori Fogarty, the Executive Director of the Oakland Museum of California, I am truly impressed with the dedication of women filmmakers from Beijing who challenge film industry standards with their engaging full—length documentaries. They are bold enough to tell dramatic stories about real life, about real people in the contemporary world. I think we must show that we care about humanity by watching and supporting these female filmmakers coming out of China. Ji Dan made an impression on me, and I hope to bring many female filmmakers and their documentaries to the attention of US audiences. With filmmakers like her, who follow a family for seven years to capture their story, we must respond with support. Hung Liu

Details: CAAMfest 2013 runs March 14-24, 2013 at 8 screening venues in San Francisco and Berkeley. Regular screenings are $12 and special screenings and programs are more. Click here to see full schedule and to purchase tickets online.

March 23, 2013 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment