San Francisco

Hung Liu

Capp Street Project

Hung Liu is a Chinese artist who now lives in Texas. She received formal training first in her native country during the Mao regime and recently in the conceptualist-oriented graduate program at the University of California, San Diego. “Chineseness,” in one form or another, but especially in its migrant forms, is the basic theme of the two installations she did at separate sites here. The more general themes are movement and difference—especially the difference, say, between being Chinese in China and in America, or between immigrants’ anticipations of wealth and the fake gold leaf on Chinese-American temple money.

All movement passes through, or perhaps ends in, difference: as Liu says, “Everybody is some kind of alien.” The larger of her works, Resident Alien, 1988, dealt elegantly with points of brittle cross-cultural distinction. Around an empty, L-shaped office space she assembled paintings, wall drawings, and groups of objects (temple money, abacuses, fortune cookies) associated with Chinese ethnicity and immigrant experience in the Western states. This complex array was bordered on all but one wall by a frieze depicting a man doing tai chi. Conceptually, the viewer’s course paralleled the large-scale cultural transience implied by the images on the walls and pillars of the room. The static setting for modes of dislocation—“China” as a kind of non-site, with its effects shunted to the provisional contemplative limbo of sheetrock, plaster, and bare concrete floor—served to x-ray the viewer’s own cultural baggage. On the pillars, Chinese characters spelled out a litany of 488 classic family names, as well as a selection of poems written on the walls of the U.S. Customs post at Angel Island by those detained there between 1910 and the beginning of World War II. One painting showed a 19th-century shrimp junk afloat on San Francisco Bay; this image registered a mediating distance between two bigger images—a dejected “slave girl” standing at a muddy Chinatown intersection and the “Beauty” from a T’ang scroll. In other pictures, a blow-up of a monstrous cartoon featured a multiarmed Chinese laborer grabbing jobs away from American youth, and a representation of a “green card” (the official sign of resident-alien status) had the artist’s mug shot, fingerprint, and the words “Cookie, Fortune” in place of her real name.

In a sense, the fortune cookie stood as the chi (or “life-energy center”) of the piece. Four spotlit mounds of them—the largest one signifying “Old Gold Mountain,” an early Chinese name for San Francisco—were set at widely spaced intervals on the floor; more were placed for the taking in a carton at the entrance. The “fortunes” were lines of ancient Chinese poems in English translation; mine read, “Someone comes home on this night of wind and snow.”

On the face of it, Hung Liu’s other installation, Reading Room, 1988, is a far simpler proposition. Installed in the community room of the Chinese for Affirmative Action headquarters (the actual site, the Kuo Building, once housed the city’s first bookstore), it may be maintained as a permanent fixture, replacing the travel posters that ordinarily have occupied the walls there. In the form of a three-foot-high “scroll,” a mural, with objects attached, tells the long history of Chinese writing and books, and ends at a case displaying four rows of modern Chinese reading matter. (Although the community room is sometimes used for reading, there are rarely any Chinese-language books to be found in it.) Liu’s selection included such items as The Pinyin Chinese-English Dictionary, a D. D. Wang bilingual opus from 1987 entitled What You Should Know About Life Among Americans, and a Chinese translation of Dante with florid 19th-century European illustrations. Liu has poised her projects, sans resentment or polemics, on the edge between agitation and the impulse, as indicated in Resident Alien, to “narrate systematically and in full detail.” With all the attendant ironies, the result in both works is a wide understanding made palpable.

Bill Berkson