Hung Liu – Peeking Opera, 1989
Dimensions: 72 x 104″ unframed
Medium: oil on canvas with object
Peeking Opera is a word and visual play on Chinese culture. The viewer’s left panel features an anamorphic image portraying a couple making love. The anamorphic image cannot be deciphered unless you hold the tank shell (placed on the floor in front of the painting) perpendicular to the floor so that the top of the shell touches circle painted on the painting. This circle would become a key stylistic element of Liu’s paintings featuring Chinese subject matter throughout her career.
This work is highly significant. Painted in 1989–the year of Tiananmen Square uprising in China–the tank shell is a reference to the oppression that was felt by the society in general. The well-known photograph of a single man holding a lunch bag, confronting the tank in Tiananmen Square, directly references one of the highest tension moments in Chinese and world history.
The tank shell works as a key to decode the painting, and the same shell references the tank in the image. So through this epic work, Hung Liu is saying that only by truly understanding and using the knowledge of history, can we decode and make sense of how to move forward.
On the right panel of the painting is a Chinese bride dressed in a red bridal garment. She has her face covered as if she cannot see. And by presenting her in this way, Liu is revealing truths of society that both prevent and unlock our ability to read history to find real truth.