A conversation with the artist, Hung Liu: reflections about making.
Focusing upon the work featured in this issue, Children of a Lesser God, Hung Liu reveals the kinds of ideas that are important to her as she makes her art. We discuss her working methods, and she talks about influences on her work, other writings and the collaborative nature of her working process.
The interview with Hung Liu can serve as a model for the kinds of issues to be raised in an inquiry-based art program when students talk with other art makers. it also provides evidence of the depth of learning that can occur as a result of this kind of inquiry.
A Conversation with Hung Liu, December 17,1995
MS: Hung Liu, what kinds of artworks are important to you? What makes an artwork special?
HL: In general, an artwork is important to me, first of all, if it catches my heart. After finding a work to be visually intriguing, my response is emotional. My heart starts to beat very fast. I can relate it to listening to a piece of good music. You respond first to the sound, and then your mind starts to work. it is like smelling something sweet or even something horrible and then asking yourself, "What is it? " Good artworks catch your heart and then make you think. You ask a lot of questions. A good artwork gives you alternative ways to observe the world you live in. You think, "I never thought this kind of horrible thing could be portrayed so powerfully," or "i never thought a simple apple could be shown in such a special way."
MS: What are some things that good art can show us?
HL: The beauty of certain things, the power of social situations. It might be very small and personal or very big and political. it might be simply about a color combination that I've never thought about before. The artist translates and transforms ordinary things through extra effort. in the best work, no matter if it is literature, music, theater, the cinema, the artist has to have compassion for society. The artist must be careful, in a big sense, of the human race and of our earth. The artist must have a good heart, being careful of humans and being honest with oneself. An artist must not be self-centered.
MS: What kinds of things do you express in your own artwork?
HL: I always feel that the things I am most passionate about are the things I want to show in my work. My language is a visual language--different from poetry. I have to search for the right language. I try to find answers with my work, but I always find more questions. Art has to be relevant to the world, to who you are, to the environment you live in, your cultural-historical background, and your personal experiences.
MS: What have you expressed in your painting, Children of a Lesser God?
HL: The painting has many layers. It is not just about these children working in the cannery in Baltimore. It is about humanity, about civilization. Our lives are a lot better today because these children were used as a labor force. Some of them probably have descendants living today. We should remember these children and honor them. They lost even their childhoods, and we have forgotten them. But, many cultures have encountered the same face--the child as a laborer.
MS: Some of the children are hard to see. The paint is very thin and their features seem washed away. Why did you paint them this way?
HL: I purposefully used much linseed oil with the paint to wash away a lot of the faces. They are like ghosts--so remote. They symbolize our selective memory. This is a metaphor for memory as history. in our memory of the past, we have lost the links--the specifics.
MS: I am curious about the title you have given this painting. What does it mean?
HL: I saw the movie with the same title. it was about being deaf and using another language. My first language is Chinese, so there was this language connection to the film. But, I thought the title itself suggested some interesting ideas and questions. For instance, it suggests that there is a "lesser" or "more" God. In the movie, children of the "lesser" God were disabled, and the title suggests that their lives are not as full. The immigrant children who worked in the canneries were disabled as well. They were without shoes, without good clothes, without playgrounds; they were "nobodies," children of a lesser God.
MS: How did you decide to do this particular painting when you were working on the The Baltimore Series?
HL: The painting is based on one of many photographs I studied when I was working on the series. I was taken by it, first of all, because it was an old-fashioned photograph. it looked as if someone had come through the cannery, perhaps to document what happened there. I'm not sure why. Some of the children really intrigued me. I thought about how the photographer who took the picture had to arrange the people. The children were probably curious, maybe even a little frightened. You can see one boy near the center who is smiling. He has no shoes, yet he smiled for the camera. His smile is a heart-breaking kind of smile, an innocent generous smile. I thought about how these young people who were at different distances from the camera, all worked in the same plant. In this frozen instant, they were captured together by the camera.
MS: How do you think your own life experiences have influenced your selection of subject matter in your work?
HL: In my art education in China, I looked at a lot of Russian Socialist Realist art. The subject matter has a lot to do with the working class and their harsh conditions.
MS: You often include objects in your paintings. In Children of a Lesser God, you included tin cans, without labels, mounted on solid red cubes which protrude out from the painting. Why did you include these?
HL: Red is an alarming color. We use red lights to warn people; to tell about danger and to use caution. In China, red is the color of the national flag. It is also the color of revolution. it suggests blood. Red also is used for celebration; it is festive and is used for such things as weddings, the Chinese New Year, and red banners. I like to work with layers of meaning. In this painting, I am thinking that these red cubes are like little altars. They are shrines to promote thought about the loss of identity of those children. There is a reference to Andy Warhol's soup cans which also refer to mass production, to labeling and commercializing. I have used real, tangible, solid cans, but without labels. They have a mysteriousness about them, like the photograph of the children.
MS: How is this painting like others you have done?
HL: For the last six or seven years, I have focused upon historical references--photographs, diagrams and other references.
MS: How do you decide what to paint?
HL: I don't have a premeditated idea of what I will paint before I start, such as showing children working in horrible conditions. I look at as many images as possible--hundreds of photographs. I surround myself with these images, live with them and feel grounded with them. By looking at a lot, over and over again, I put myself in the middle. I have a relationship with these photographs. It is interesting, we all have family photo albums, but we seldom look at them. I probably look at these historical photographs more than I do at my own family photos. I cannot paint from all of them, but they are all there helping to nurture my ideas. Out of maybe a hundred photographs, I decide on about five to think about more carefully and perhaps to use in a painting.
MS: Do you work on one painting at a time, until it is finished?
HL: I work on more than one canvas a time. After I start, I know pretty much where I am going. I get into a rhythm. The kind of rhythm as I begin a painting is different from the rhythm in the middle or at the end. Sometimes, I work on one canvas for a few days and then feel like I want a change of rhythm or spirit. There is also a difference in working with a different scale. A small painting requires a different kind of body movement, for example.
MS: DO you ever experience something you liked "writer's block" in that you are not sure what to do next?
HL: Sometimes. But, if you are surrounded by your works, you learn from them.
MS: What other artists have influenced your work??
HL: Chinese poems and writings have my work. I have also learned much from historical writings I encounter in my own research. I've learned a lot from others who know what I'm interested in. People send me information and ideas. When I used fortune cookies in my work, people sent me so many things. When I visited women with bound feet, I liked them and learned so much. Beyond the actual painting, I f eel that my work is grounded because of these things learned from others. For me, making art is all a learning process.
Marilyn Stewart is a Professor of Art Education at Kutztown University in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
Resources Corrin, lisa. Hung Liu's Canton:
The Baltimore Series,"In
Search of Miss Sallie Chu,"
(exhibition brochure),1995. Lippard, Lucy.Mixed Blessings.
New Art in a Multicultural
America. New York: Pantheon
Books, 1990. Turner, Caroline, ed. Tradition and
Change: Contemporary Art of
Asia and the Pacific. Queensland,
Brisbane, Australia: University
of Queenland Press, 1993.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 1996|
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