Where Is Mao?



Where Is Mao?

by Hung Liu

View an image of an artwork from the series

Miniature portraits are scratched into canvas. Powdery pencil marks hang off the coarse texture. Thin and unfixed, the graphite would flake on our fingertips if disturbed. The contrast is low, with dingy shadows and glaring light diluted in a wash of grey. Lines and tones appear to fill a printed pattern. Transposed from photographs, the drawings inherit the proportional shortcuts of the camera. The size of the hands is understated; shoulders swell too broadly. Across the series of vignettes, the image surface provides a grainy continuity.

Mao Zedong is instantly recognisable in each sketch. We identify his beam through the straining outline of facial muscle, and the concertina crease of his neck. But specific features have been omitted, either forgotten or removed. His comrades and confidantes are seen with greater clarity: Jiang Qing, Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev. Scare quotes cradle captions, and temporal annotations are imprecise: ‘after 1966, before 1971’. We are left with a patchy graphic narrative, ready to be eradicated at a moment’s notice.

Words by Elizabeth Brown

Looking through Hung Liu’s series of sketches, it is easy to imagine her pencil darting about, quickly mapping out the composition to capture a fleeting moment. Inspection reveals that these are copies of well-known images in Chinese political history: a handshake between Mao and Nixon, for one. The drawings are rough with minimal background, creating the impression that Liu was present to document these key events.

In every image, Mao’s face is completely featureless. Following an act of deliberate erasure, only the outline is visible, yet his profile remains identifiable. By putting Mao’s absence in the spotlight, Liu gives a knowing nod to the proliferation of his image in art and propaganda, alluding to his omnipresence as a man who cannot ever be truly rubbed out. The question of the work’s title is left wide open; the viewer is left to decide upon the answer.

Words by Katherine Fieldgate

More to discover

View the whole series on Hung Liu's website here. Rachelle Reichert has interviewed Hung Liu for Art-Rated, as has Rebecca Gross for the National Endowment for the Arts. Jesse Hamlin has written about the artist for SFGate.

Question of the day

Can art erase history? Share your thoughts on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

In an evolutionary sense, no. It can, however, inform and act as an instrument of growth.

– Blanck Mass, electronic music producer (World Eater, Dumb Flesh) (via The Brief →)

I think that nothing can truly ‘erase’ what has already occurred, but art can certainly reshape and affect our memories of the past, experiences, etc.

– Leah Hayes, graphic novelist (Not Funny Ha-Ha) and musician (via The Brief →)

Read more: Drawings and sketches