Beijing Censors Have Forbidden the Ullens Center From Staging a Survey on the Chinese-American Artist Hung Liu

The show was scheduled to open in December.

Hung Liu in 2014. Photo by Kelliu52, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The city of Beijing has canceled a survey of the work of 71-year-old Chinese-American artist Hung Liu, which was scheduled to open at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art on December 6 and run through March 2020. The news that the Beijing government has declined to approve the show comes as China ramps up its censorship of the arts in recent months.

“There has been a tightening of the civil sphere in China,” Ullens Center director Philip Tinari said in a letter addressed to “Colleagues, Lenders, and Admirers of Hung Liu. “There has also been an increase in tension between Hung’s native and adopted countries of China and the US. Topics that were once relatively open for discussion are now increasingly scrutinized. An exhibition that might have been green-lighted a few years ago—such as this one—must now be canceled.”

All exhibitions mounted in Beijing must be formally approved by the city’s Municipal Bureau of Culture, which reviews images of proposed works and issues documentation that can be submitted to Beijing Customs for an import permit. After several months of back and forth with the bureau, Tinari said that the Ullens Center’s request was declined—less than a month before the show’s opening.

Liu, who was born in Changchun, China, and emigrated to the US in 1984, is known for her expressionistic painted portraits of working-class Chinese citizens, often based on old photographs. Liu, has exhibited numerous times in Beijing and elsewhere in China. But now, she says, things are different. 

Hung Liu, Twelve Hairpins of Jinling (2011). The painting was based on a photograph from World War II. ©Hung Liu.

Hung Liu, Twelve Hairpins of Jinling (2011). The painting was based on a photograph from World War II. ©Hung Liu.

“You always had to be aware of the authorities’ sensitivities, of course, but things were open a dozen years ago in a way they aren’t today,” the artist told The Art Newspaper.

“I don’t think the cancellation is based on nationality at all, unless it has something to do with me being an American citizen who grew up in revolutionary China,” she added. “My work has always been about human struggle in epic times. There are lots of exhibitions in China, often by foreigners, in which the art is more experimental and in many ways more daring than mine, so I can only guess that, perhaps because of who I am, there is too much history in my work.”

Of the approximately 30 works proposed for the Ullens Center exhibition, Beijing officials initially objected to nine, Liu told the New York Times. Of these were a 1993 self-portrait depicting the artist as a young woman during the Cultural Revolution, and a 2011 painting of schoolgirls in uniforms donning gas masks during a World War II-era air raid drill.

“The message is anti-war so I thought it was OK,” she told the Times, “but when I talked with my Chinese artist friends about it, they just said one word: Hong Kong.”

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