Charles (Chang-Han) Liu was born in Shanghai, grew up in Taiwan, and studied art at the National Taiwan Academy of Arts and Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, Spain. He has lived and worked outside of Taiwan for more than three decades and that international experience has informed his work on many levels. A US citizen, he currently works from his studio in Houston, where he pursues his dual career as artist and as freelance curator of exhibitions of contemporary art from Taiwan.
In his paintings, Charles Liu deftly employs traditional Chinese brush and ink techniques to create scenes of North American landscapes that blur the geographic differences between East and West and confront issues of displacement, alienation and assimilation inherent in a life that straddles different cultures.
In this exhibition of new work, Liu focuses on water as a symbol of life in Eastern and Western philosophies through video, sound, sculpture, and paintings of waterfalls and streams, including several based on the Ithaca area.
The Museum is grateful to Cornell history of art professor An-yi Pan for introducing us to the work of Charles Liu and for writing the exhibition brochure.
Chief Curator and Curator of Asian Art
Water has no fixed shape, no permanent state; water is soft, yet able to cut through the hardest rock. Water is the source of life; before birth, a fetus lives suspended in amniotic fluid in the mother’s uterus. After birth, a human body is seventy percent water. Water is essential to our daily lives. Water is also the source of human civilization. All major civilizations originated near water, such as the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Near East, the Nile in Egypt, and the Yellow and Yangze Rivers in China. On our planet Earth, water most often originates from deep within mountains; it brings fertile soil and nutrients to form alluvial plains; it helps to regulate our climate; it is an integral part of our lives. When searching for extraterrestrial life, scientists first seek signs of water.
Rapid globalization combined with human population explosion have threatened our environment, and pollution of water has directly threatened our existence. Fighting for water rights among people along a water source will one day threaten world peace. Recent Nobel Peace Prizes granted to environmentalists affirm the important link between the environment (water) and world peace. Governors of several Southern states are negotiating water rights, further indicating that the importance of water may one day surpass national or political unity.
Water plays a significant role in many cultures. The ancient Greeks revered Poseidon; Eastern cultures also worship the Lord of River. The Four Elements in the West and in Buddhist philosophy, and the Five Elements
in Chinese culture all include water. The ancient Chinese text Daode jing expounds that water symbolizes the highest virtue: “Superior virtue is like water. Water benefits myriad things, but does not compete with them. Water exists even among the worst beings. So water is close to the Way.” Another Chinese aphorism warns rulers: “The ruler is the boat, and people are water. Water is capable of floating the boat or capsizing it.”
Chinese artists developed shanshui hua (“water-and-mountain painting”), the counterpart to Western landscape painting, revealing a special perspective on nature and emphasizing balance. The softness of water and the imposing mass of mountains represent the two opposing forces in nature; the gravitational pull of falling water and the upward thrust of mountains in Chinese painting are powerful illustrations of the perpetual motion and balance of nature.
Charles Liu names this exhibition Dance of Water, for water is fluid yet has no fixed forms. Though his primary medium is ink painting, Liu combines ink with mixed media installations and video projection to express how water and life are praised and celebrated in the East. First visiting Ithaca in 2005, Liu was struck by its water-eroded landscapes, and came to appreciate how the sentiment “Ithaca is Gorges” captured the power of water in the creation of local scenic beauty. Millions of years of water erosion resulting in today’s geological formations of this amazing landscape reflect the relationship between water and mountains in Eastern philosophy. In a few works depicting local waterfalls—Ithaca and Beebe, for example—there emerges an unmistakably Eastern visual effect.
Some art works relate to Liu’s cultural background and environment. Distant snowy mountains above clouds recall the “Roof of the World,” the Himalayan region that nurtured Chinese, South Asian, and Southeast Asian cultures. The long, winding river gloriously reflecting the twilight connects distant snowy peaks and human civilization, embodied in the rice fields cultivated on steep mountainsides.
Water is often used as a boundary between states and nations, an arbitrary separation of people to codify the notion of belonging. Liu defies this artificiality. The visual effects of his work reveal that art, like water, should have no boundaries; his paintings of Ithaca’s scenic vistas transcend a preconceived notion of how this beautiful shanshui should be represented. If the Ithaca landscape serves as the “text,” Liu’s actualization of it makes its appeal multifaceted. The art helps to transcend the sense of ownership (who owns the land), and to reach the shared universal value, water’s selfless virtue expounded in Daode jing.
Associate Professor, Department of the History of Art