Hung Liu’s 2013 tapestry edition September depicts a Manchurian bride in formal marriage attire, including an elaborate embroidered headdress which the artist has overlaid with the stylized image of a wild duck. September translates Liu’s kaleidoscopic vision into five hundred colors of woven thread; beneath its eye-catching surface lies a compassionate link, connecting a moment experienced by millions with a single instant in the life of a woman whose story has been lost to history. The tapestry’s composition presents an intoxicating bouquet of symbol and color, combining a figurative, photographic portrait with the cascading rivulets and washes of oil that Liu uses to dissolve the viewer’s sense of photography – and by extension, history – as a complete or trustworthy record.
An 1871 photograph of an anonymous Manchu bride by John Thompson served as the basis for the painting upon which September is based, which Liu completed following the events of September 11th, 2001. The expression of the bride in Thompson’s photograph, Liu says, reflected a moment of uncertainty, a feeling of being at the brink, which she saw echoed in the collective emotional response to the 9/11 attacks. In Liu’s re-imagining, the bride is endowed with the delicate strength and elegance of the wild bird in flight, whose design Liu based on a 10th-century Song dynasty ink painting. Traditionally painted with its head up, the head of Liu’s duck is instead deliberately bowed, as if in mourning or descent. In the wake of 9/11, the artist told me, “the bride symbolizes people involuntarily wed to an unexpected relationship – a new era in our political consciousness.”
Ultimately, September’s vibrancy is reminiscent of those moments in life – whether tragic or hopeful – when our adrenaline and excitement heighten the senses, making colors brighter and passions stronger. These moments where the beauty all around us is suddenly revealed, blooming like the colors surrounding Liu’s bride, are made both more powerful and more fleeting by the knowledge that afterwards, our lives will never be the same.
– Nick Stone