A taste of the Bay Area’s East-West cultural fusion can be seen at Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, where the current exhibition, Hung Liu: Offerings, is on view. The exhibition consists of two large-scale mixed media installations along with related paintings and prints. Oakland based artist, Hung Liu, reflects on her personal journey of leaving one changing culture to merge with another. Through her own stories she tells a deeper history of complex and melding cultures. Using edible commodities for continuity, the work examines themes of immigration, memory, history, and cultural identity.
Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China, in 1948. Trained in Beijing as a socialist realist and mural painter, she came to the United States in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego. After receiving her MFA, she moved to Northern California and began teaching in the Art Department at Mills College in 1990. She continues to live and work in the Bay Area and exhibits her work locally as well as internationally. Hung Liu is primarily known for her paintings that speak of cultural migrations and are often inspired by historical Chinese photographs. This is a rare opportunity to see two of her large installations that combine currently completed work with new iterations of earlier projects.
Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), 1994, uses rich visual metaphors to communicate the history of Chinese people in California. Originally exhibited in 1990s at the de Young museum, the piece retains a contemporary potency, perhaps even more so now. In the well-proportioned piece, hefty segments of railroad tracks form a cross on the floor; implying the crossroads or intersection of cultures. Historically the track builders in California were primarily Chinese immigrants. The laborers called San Francisco “Old Gold Mountain”, as a place of wealth and hope in the new world. Instead of gold nuggets the tracks are heaped with golden fortune cookies, over 200,000 of them. The center is piled high with cookies and the resulting pyramid shape evokes traditional Manchurian Chinese burial mounds. The fact that the fortune cookie is said to have been invented in San Francisco by a Japanese entrepreneur further reflects on the East-West mingling of cultural ideas, styles, and cuisine. The appropriate pairing of materials—heavy metal tracks with fragile cookies—both symbols of hope and irony in their own way, convey the complex content and inspire curiosity to know more of the deeper layers of the story.
The installation is accompanied by number of correlated paintings on the surrounding walls. Hao Yun (Good Luck) is a series of 21 square panels completed in 2012. At a distance what looks like large delicate pink and white blossoms painted on gold leaf, turns out to be fortune cookies—the Westernized symbol of Chinese good luck.
In the next room, the concept of food staples as cultural context is continued with Tai Cang—Great Granary, 2008. The installation, shown for the first time in the U.S., is comprised of two major parts. Arranged on the gallery floor are 34 antique dou, which are a traditional Chinese food containers as well as units of measure. The presentation roughly replicates a map of China with its 34 provinces or regions. Each dou is filled with food staples, such as grains, beans, or mushrooms from different regions of China. The staples were not only traded between regions of the country, but also far beyond its borders, helping to build the country’s economy. The other component, a huge 40-foot painting called, Music of the Great Earth II, 2008, is a reconstruction of a mural painted by Liu as student in China that had been destroyed. In the recreation, Liu took elements from the old painting, which were saved in photographs, and overlaid them with contemporary motifs. The units work together to describe how aspects of personal and ancient histories can change, merge, and endure through distance and the passage of time.
The show at Mills College closes on March 17. A special dance performance is scheduled during the closing weekend. The performance, Haunting, is a new piece created by choreographer, Molissa Fenly, in response to Hung Liu‘s artwork. For more information check their website, www.mcam.mills.edu.
If you miss the Mills College show, there will be other opportunities to see her work in the Bay Area. Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu opens at the Oakland Museum of California on March 16, and continues through June 30, 2013. The retrospective features approximately 80 paintings, as well as personal ephemera such as photographs, and sketch books. It also includes work completed in China before she arrived in the U.S. For more information check their website, www.museumca.org.