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The Essential Chineseness of Ai Wei Wei, Guiseppe Castiglione, and Hung Liu

05/07/2015 07:17 am ET | Updated May 07, 2016

A recent visit to the Palm Springs Museum affirms for me that all artists are immigrants. If not in a literal sense then in a figurative sense, they are strangers to the society surrounding them. In the desert resort city, populated by celebrities in steel houses, the local museum is exceptional. At the moment, it has exhibits by both Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident renowned the world over, as well as Hung Liu, a professor of painting from China who has become a citizen of America.

Their very names show their differences: Ai Wei Wei is written in the Chinese style, with the family name ("Ai") preceding the given name, while Hung Liu is written in the Western fashion, with the family name ("Liu") following the given name. Ai is the more renowned, but Liu deserves respect too.

In Palm Springs, Ai has on display his zodiac heads, a "circle of animals" showing the dozen creatures (ram, horse, dog, dragon, rat, and so on) that form the astrological pantheon of his culture. Although they have been portrayed in a range of tastes, from simple to gaudy, they have been cast uniformly in bronze and then gilded. He has made multiple versions in other materials.

Ironically, Ai's re-creation is an homage to and play on the original set, sculpted by Giuseppe Castiglione. Also known as Lang Shining, the Italian Jesuit was an example of assimilation against the prevailing norms. A missionary turned Chinese court artist serving Qing emperors in the eighteenth century, his earlier heads were fountains at Beijing's Old Summer Palace until Western troops absconded with them.

When the national treasures reappeared recently at an auction, a Chinese bidder won two of them but then refused to pay in the name of Chinese patriotism. As observers have not tired of pointing out, the Chinese esteem for the Castiglione figures raises enduring issues of identity: the Chinese claim an Italian within their heritage. (Castiglione also did a lovely series of paintings portraying dogs, reproduced by Taiwan on stamps two generations ago.)

For that matter, Ai is associated with, even if he is opposed to, the Communist regime of the mainland. He is indelibly Chinese. Yet Ai spent a decade in that most cosmopolitan of contemporary cities, New York. He developed while there a reputation and a following. He was compelled to return home, because his father fell ill. Most recently, he has exhibited a collection of his photographs from his sojourn abroad.

Liu likewise has embraced the complexities of a life journey through multiple settings. Her images blends conventions. Her subject matter, Chinese history, is depicted unexpectedly, as if through American eyes. (The Japanese earlier came up with a term, "yoga," for Japanese working with European techniques, as distinguished from Japanese who continued to prefer Asian techniques.)

She arrived in 1984. She has recounted her "re-education" prior to then, when she turned out to be a good shot with a semi-automatic rifle. Even when she came here, she was an oddity: the other Chinese coming then were studying "engineering, chemistry" -- as she said, "you know, real things."

Her autobiographical production includes a canvas entitled "Resident Alien." It is a parody of her green card. Her name has been replaced by "Cookie, Fortune." Those in the know would be aware that the iconic end to a Chinese meal in America is very much American: Chinese in China do not serve the snack. It was invented in San Francisco (or perhaps Japan or even Los Angeles by a Japanese American).

In reflecting on her ambiguous status, Liu explained she is constantly "becoming American." By that she meant she is "learning everything new," understanding she "can never be the same, as though [she] had never left China."

For both Ai and Liu, racial lineage, affinity with a culture, allegiance to a government, and formal status as the subject of a sovereignty do not necessarily correspond. That is increasingly true for those of us who are more ordinary, not possessed with the same imagination. Ai, Liu, and presumably Castiglione before them, suffer the compliment of exoticism, though Ai in his pre-fame years did not and Liu even now does not enjoy the revered status that Castiglione held as an outsider.

Strolling through the galleries, I was struck by how many of the creative spirits, not only from our era but earlier, were labelled -- literally described on the label accompanying their output, which viewers spend as much time gazing upon as they do what is cataloged -- as having been born in one place before settling in another place. Perhaps the source of their creativity, and its result, is that ambiguous status: dynamic, in transit, unsettled and unsettling.