Walking on South Broad Street in Center City, you can’t miss two large digital prints on vinyl—an unlikely meeting of two historic figures: George Washington and Mao Zedong. These large-scale works, Washington Crossing Delaware River and Mao Crossing Chishui River, come to us from Siyuan Liu, a young Chinese artist. They’re part of the Hamilton Hall Public Art Initiative at the University of the Arts.
By putting two key figures in American and Chinese history together in his unique artistic expression, Liu creates multiple layers of contrasts in his current UArts installation: the past and the present, the leadership and the people, the East and the West. Liu’s choice of the narrative of crossing the water in both historical events is also an ingenious reference to the escalating hardships of the current trade war between the United States and China.
Right time, right place, right people
There’s a Chinese saying that does a good job of summing up this artistic happening on Broad Street: “Right time, right place, with the right people.” The timing of this exhibition, running June 1 to July 31, 2019, coincides with the month of America’s Independence Day. As for place, the Avenue of the Arts runs south from City Hall, and Philly’s rich history includes its own 10-year stint as the US capital (from 1790 tp 1800). And Liu is the right person to present this artwork.
His perspective is unique, thoughtful, and meaningful. As a Chinese citizen who has lived and studied in the United States, his profound experience in both countries has brought him insightful understanding both of the past and present, as well as an opportunity to see his own cultural background from another side. His works encourage other students and people from overseas to express their concerns and reflect on their own experiences.
George Washington and Mao Zedong
When Americans see Liu’s Washington Crossing Delaware River, the image (based on the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze) will probably be strikingly familiar, referencing a historical event which came to represent the independent spirit of the US. When facing British forces in Pennsylvania during the American Revolution, General George Washington proposed a surprise attack on unwary Hessian troops in Trenton by crossing the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776.
Mao Crossing Chishui River depicts an important moment in Chinese history dating to the mid-1930s, when the Chinese Red Army escaped from the powerful Nationalist Government’s army by unexpectedly crossing the Chishui River. This saved the principal force of the Red Army, and became a turning point of the time.
History as a river
Liu’s two images also invoke the theory of Yin and Yang. Washington Crossing Delaware River is done in the style of a silhouette—only the shape of the major image. In Chinese engraving language, this is called Yang Ke (阳刻). Meanwhile, Mao Crossing Chishui River employs the opposite effect: the image’s figures are white cutouts on a colored background. This visual effect is known as Yin Ke (阴刻). Such well-designed contrast incorporates Chinese philosophy into Liu’s artistic creation.
Each of these works choose the elements of battles, rivers, and great leaders. Liu calls the river “an apt metaphor for history because it is flowing eternally.” As we see these two works suddenly appear on a major avenue of our city, the artist leaves the question to us: What is the river we are crossing? Will we make it to the other side and find success in our lives?
Writer Wenlu Bao is a graduate of the University of the Arts.
What, When, Where
Hamilton Hall Public Art Initiative presents Washington Crossing Delaware River and Mao Crossing Chishui River, by Siyuan Liu. On view through July 31, 2019, at 320 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia.