From Dust of Iron & Steel to Epics of Iron & Steel —
Concepts and Practice of Po-Chun Liu’s Steel Sculpture
Author／Jen-I Liao（Ph.D. of Aesthetics, Université de Paris-X Nanterre Director, Taipei National University of the Arts Library）
During the swerve of contemporary Taiwanese sculpture, Po-Chun Liu has played a significant role. His ideas have greatly broadened the perspective of Taiwanese sculpture and urged dialogues between Taiwanese art and international trends.
Since the Japanese Occupational Period, Taiwanese sculpture has advanced from modern sculpture to contemporary sculpture, thanks the efforts of artists of all generations. Taiwanese sculpture had been influenced by initial modern art since the 1920s, the first Taiwanese modern art sculptors carried forward the representational realism that deviated from classicalism since Auguste Rodin. After the Second World War, in the 1950s, abstract art became a rushing tide in Taiwan, artists advanced toward modern art. Abstract forms were common in the works of the second generation of Taiwanese modern art sculptors. And in the 1980s, streams of thought of contemporary art flew into Taiwan, bringing great impacts to local sculptors and the direction of their art. Thus sculptors of the third generation introduced the abstractness of modern sculpture; meanwhile absorbing the installation art from contemporary art and brought their works into a wider field to outline the relationship between their projects and the spaces.
And since 2000, the fourth generation of Taiwanese sculptors, who stand on the widened field, began their expedition of contemporary art by pushing Taiwanese sculpture onto the stage of contemporary sculpture. They have opened up a more expansive perspective and multiple facets of their art, successfully directing sculpture, a profession has a long history in Taiwan, to a leading role in contemporary Taiwanese art. Among artists of this generation, Po-Chun Liu is one of the most notable, a pioneer. When confronting the overwhelming ideas of contemporary art, he chose not to follow the tide blindly, instead, he stands at a higher position in order to ponder over them. Liu reexamines the formal expression as well as materials of contemporary sculpture. He goes back to the materials before they are made into artworks and investigates their physical traits before picking up a reflective standing for the thinking and practice of his sculpture. Then he commences his figuration.
Today Liu has opened up a completely new perspective for Taiwanese contemporary sculpture and he is deemed the navigator of artistic theories and practice during the transition of Taiwanese sculpture.
1.The Incubation and Growth of an Art Career
A sculptor gradually matures since 2000, Liu did not stand where he stands now in the beginning. In fact, he never stays in a certain phase of his creation, but explores and evolves his art unstoppably.
Po-Chun Liu was born in 1963, in Chung-Ho District of Taipei County (now New Taipei City), a satellite town at the edge of the metropolis. He grew up witnessing the lands once belonging to plants and animals to be yielded to concrete structures and electricity towers. He saw the decline of agriculture, and the rise of industries. We can assume that Liu must be an out-going child who resented to be dominated by others. He must be an agile young man with sharp eyes to keep himself from a distance with the world so he would be able to reflect upon it. His body must be like an igniter of sculpture which makes him an expert of materials; he transforms and shapes them into sculpture.
With such a talent, Liu acquired solid skills of plaster mold casting as early as a senior high school student. Knowing his unusual faculty, Liu actively sought for opportunities and environment to have his body communicate with materials. Later he entered Department of Sculpture, National Taiwan Junior College of Arts(now National Taiwan University of Arts), the only sculpture department at that time. The academic training has prepared him with comprehensive skills of manipulating materials and figuring. Liu graduated in 1987 with outstanding performance. Expected to be an artist, Liu went to Paris and studied in the École Supérieure Libre d’art in the Latin community.
Academically trained Taiwanese artists at that time were expected to represent things our eyes are used to and were proud of such an ability. Liu naturally was good at it and believed it was the precondition of an outstanding artist. But when he arrived Paris and saw the center of classical and modern art with his own eyes, he recognized the past he was familiar, the present he was eager to know, and the future he couldn’t wait to discover. He also realized that realistic sculpture was only the basic skill for a sculptor, preparing him to follow the steps of great sculptors in the past. To be in the world of modern art and contemporary art, Liu had to excavate what was unknown to him through examining what was familiar to him.
Installation art began to become an overwhelming trend in western art when Liu was in Paris, and was expanding toward every direction, including Paris. Unwilling to be left behind, Liu also started creating installation artworks. His debut was a project he exhibited in an art event titled “Incidents” at Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière in 1991. The works was laid on the ground instead of erected on a podium. It was a wooden object reminiscent to a cut-open betel nut commonly seen in Taiwan. This work was no longer realistic sculpture, it abstractly referred something undetermined. In short, at that time Liu already got away from figurative thinking and developed an abstract style. It might not be a challenge for sculptors who are not very good in figurating, but for Liu who had been so proud of his figurative skills, it was a struggle. He had to give up what he was best and start all over again. Nevertheless, the new exploration brought Liu to a broader field with innovations and adventures.
Liu returned to Taiwan in 1991 and continued his laborious exploration. He was faced with many difficulties. In 1993 when Liu earned a teaching position of his alma mater, his life settled and his creation stabilized. Nevertheless, a complete new approach for his forms after a long and tough journey did not bring him a turning point until 1997. Since that time, Liu’s creation never stops; he has established an art world of his own.
Liu’s creation is his reflection upon art of many levels, and at each level he goes to the back from the front, and to the meta-thinking from the appearance. His meta-thinking made him able to see how the world was becoming through how the world has become, so he could find a new starting point; from there he decided how, when and where the world should be reshaped. The artist recaptured his autonomy regarding figuration, materials and space.
Liu’s art after 1997 has accentuated three levels of reflection, and his thoughts are significant to the development of contemporary Taiwanese sculpture.
The first level is about figuration. Liu set himself free from familiar forms so his ideals of forms as well as figurative elements are set free. Thus his sculptural forms could be incubated and raised with greater freedom.
The second level is about materials. Liu let the matters and their traits covered by forms to be looked into again. They are no longer the materials simply representing some objects, their immanent qualities and physical conditions are restored to be the unadorned sources of his sculpture.
The third level is about space. Opposite to other artists who decide the locations of their works according to the environmental conditions, Liu decides a project’s relationship with the space according to its materials and forms. Thus Liu’s sculpture and space goes through one another; the space is not the frame of his art, but a relationship created by his art.
2.The Liberation and Rebirth of Figuration
In each phase of Liu’s art career, we see his continual efforts in the exploration of figuration. Listing his major exhibitions of the past two decades we will see Liu’s changes during these times.
His major exhibitions include:
1997, “Convergence and Divergence I”, National Taiwan College of arts
1999, “Convergence and Divergence II”, Taipei County Cultural Center
1999, “Forms‧Separating‧On Site”, Taipei Fine Arts Museum
2005, “Between Concreteness and Buoyancy: Penetrating Space”, Ju-Ming Museum
2006, “Space, Body and Intermediary Texture”, Hsinchu County Art Museum
2006, “Steel Construction Ι: Body, Signs, and Spatial Expression”, Arts Center, Soochow University
2007, “Steel Construction II: Nature, Space, and Intermediary Texture”, Arts Center, National Tsing Hua University
2008, “Contrast & Reproduce”, Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Gallery
2009, “Imitate& Summon”, Ju-Ming Museum
2010, “Steel Forest”, National Taiwan University of Arts
2010, Artworks presentation of the Artist Residency at Tung Ho Steel Enterprise Corp.
2012, “Iron Man Transformation”, Seoul Royal Gallery, Korea
2013, Artworks presentation of the Artist Residency with Phillip King at Tung Ho Steel Enterprise Corp.
From these art shows and the artist’s studies of figuration, we can induce four phases of his art: (1)Phase of Dissolving Forms, (2) Phase of Developing Signs, (3)Phase of Industrial Epics, and (4)Phase of Meta-Industry.
The first phase of Dissolving Forms (1997~2004):
Liu’s artworks of this time were mainly the representation of dismantled objects. The shapes were freed, or, it was the artist’s anti- figurative attempt. Human bodies or sceneries were no longer integral, instead, they were dismembered, unrealistically presenting broken shapes. Or, they presented the dissolution of forms. Each part seemed to be cast out, away from where it was supposed to, becoming an isolated object. The physical connections between them disappeared. These projects with scattered parts in space suggests that, in reality, things don’t have uniformed shapes, and their statuses we used to perceive come from a convention need to be reexamined. And the space is not a real physical existence, it might not be able to decide our definition of the shapes of things. Liu’s solo exhibitions after he returned to Taiwan have expressed his thinking upon figuration. They were “Convergence and Divergence I” & “Convergence and Divergence II” in 1997 and 1999, “Forms‧Separating‧On Site” in 1999.
The second phase of Developing Signs (2005~2009):
Liu’s works of this phase were featured as simplified signs. The transition from nature to industries made the artist realize the changes of the world. He not only sees the changes of bodily activities and experience, but also the definition and boundary of a space. Liu stopped representing substantial objects with realistic figuration because he knew that there were things beyond our naked eyes could capture. Baptized by abstract art, Liu gave his artworks multiple levels of meanings with abstract forms of signs in order to lead his audience to directly face the fast changing industrialized world. His exhibitions during this time expressed his thoughts on the evolution of signs in figuration. There were “Between Concreteness and Buoyancy: Penetrating Space” in 2005, “Space, Body and Intermediary Texture” in 2006, “Steel Construction Ι: Body, Signs, and Spatial Expression” and “Steel Construction II: Nature, Space, and Intermediary Texture” in 2006 and 2007 respectively. Signs of bodies, signs of nature and signs of space are signaling the multiple paradoxes between individuals and the world. Also, from Liu’s works during this phase, we see the artist’s anxiety over the tension between the earth and signs, and from his view of this time, we see the “Contrast & Reproduce” in 2008 and “Imitate& Summon” in 2009 have continued Liu’s exploration of signs and their evolution.
The third phase of Industrial Epics (2010~2012):
Liu walked away from the paradoxes he had seen earlier in this phase and from the original statuses of things, he found the poetry of earth. Every age had its own epics, from nomadic to agricultural, and industrialized age is not an exception. The epics of the industrialized age could be embracing industrialization or resisting industrialization. They also might provide suitable materials and techniques for the creativity of man. On one hand the overpowering industries have endangered our world and our values, on the other we’re benefited by industrialization that lifted many of our limitations. Supported by Tung Ho Steel, Liu was able to create works beyond his physical limitations. His presentation as Tung Ho’s artist-in-residence in 2010 and his “Steel Forest” in the same year have composed a powerful epic of industrialization. The motif of these exhibitions was the ironman of a body welded by iron and steel. Like the giant in ancient myths, born in the chaos before time, he led his people to create the sky and earth. This phase, we might say, was the rebirth of figuration after the artist has released forms earlier.
The fourth phase of Meta-industry (2012~2015):
After setting forms free, the rebirth of figuration to Liu doesn’t mean embracing another forms. Liu is not interested in advocating industrial forms; his continual thinking upon figuration makes him a meta-thinker of figuration. We live in a society of all kinds of industries and as an artist employing iron and steel, Liu must deal with the facts that, from the materials to the techniques, all he needs are from industrialization. Above all, industrial technologies made it possible for Liu to directly investigate the materials of his art— their conditions before being made for production or for his art. Liu’s understanding of the properties of the materials enables him to imagine how they were like before being extracted from nature. The origins of materials take us back to the birthplaces of forms— the natural, primitive stages of materials carry the knowledge of formation. Through industries, the artist goes back to the pre-industrial age, and finally to his meta-industrial phase. Since the “Iron Man Transformation” in 2012 and his exhibition with Phillips King in 2013, Liu has discovered the power of original elements of figuration, thanks to his understanding of the natural properties and conditions of materials. Now, industrial techniques are same to the artist’s techniques of creation, and his forms are formless, responding to Lao Tzi’s “great images have no shapes.”
3.The Discovery and Transformation of Materials
His exploration of forms brought him to his investigation of materials, and his investigation led him to the very beginning of forms. His thinking of materials plays a significant role in his art.
Like many artists, Liu had been trained to create art by thoroughly transforming materials so they will carry meanings. Materials are nothing but the matters used for forming. Once the forms are established, materials are no longer visible. They are either covered by shapes or defined by colors. They are gone from vision. But Liu’s profession made him familiar with every sculptural material; wood, stones, metal and multimedia. Every material could be made into excellent sculpture by his hands. However Liu began focusing on metal and multimedia since 1997, especially those welded by iron and steel.
As early as the days in Paris, Liu already tried to free himself from all thoughts regarding figuration and explore the properties of sculptural materials. He attempts to find the principles of figuration from the nature of materials. Thus when facing iron and steel, Liu doesn’t simply take them as matters for his art that would be unseen after artworks are completed. Instead, he takes great care of the properties of the iron and steel. The so-called meta-investigation means that, Liu doesn’t allow his artworks to overpower the materials, neither the materials to overpower the matters. He goes back to the origins of the materials and investigates the mechanism of transforming them into artworks. By doing so Liu’s meta-thinking and the viewpoints on figuration he generates would have been carried in his art.
Metals have been the materials for sculpture since a long time ago, especially bronze casting that has a long history. Iron, steel and stainless steel became sculptural materials after industrialization, and are often employed for abstract sculpture. Industrial materials suit better for abstract art than realistic art, and became especially popular when installations stand out in contemporary art because the properties of materials can be outlined in installation art. This development parallels Liu’s exploration of materials during the different phases of his sculpture, and from his studies we clearly see that he is very familiar with Julio Gonzalez’s crude iron welding, Alexander Calder’s H-shape steel structures, César’s pressed cars and Anthony Caro’s assembly of steel panels. Liu has analysed their thoughts about materials and their positions as creators. In recent years, Liu worked with British artist Phillip King and further sharpened his own ideas about materials. Now he is able to manipulate materials in his work easily.
Liu’s research of figuration led the changes in his art, so did his investigation of materials. During the four phases, Liu’s manipulation of materials might be the results of his thoughts about figuration, and vice versa.
From the phase of his dissolving forms we see Liu’s efforts of freeing shapes and figuration. He created installations mostly with multimedia in order to present the changes in materials during the formation of works. One example was his “Convergence and Divergence” series in late 1990s that he actually dissected the shapes and presented the status of metal during the melting and forging. The artist seemed to deliberately maintain the traces of the changes.
During the phase of developing signs, signs of bodies, nature or spaces contained in Liu’s works were cut from iron and steel with industrial tools. With “Between Concreteness and Buoyancy: Penetrating Space” in 2005, the artist accentuated the materials in almost every respect; they decided the shapes of the leaves. “Steel Construction” series in 2006 also was the artist’s demonstration of having bodily signs and spatial signs decided by iron and steel. During this phase, Liu was exploring the material aesthetics in an industrial world.
During the phase of Industrial Epics, Liu’s research had led him to the primary conditions of iron and steel, where he found the rebirth of figuration. It was the most important turning point of the artist, and in 2009 he was invited to be the artist-in-residence in Tung Ho Steel. Tung Ho Steel has played a significant role in Taiwan’s steel industry, and the only one recognizes the unusual connection between the development of industries and art. In 2009 Tung Ho Steel launched a project of artist-in-residence which provides venues, tools, technical support, staff and expenses for artists to create. This residency gave Liu the richest and most intimate experience with iron and steel. He was immersed in a world where iron and steel haven’t been transformed into industrial materials or art. To an artist, it was like entering the chaos before the world was born. Liu once wrote down his surprising experience:
“Mounds of waste iron become high mountains, artists aspire to approach them. Trucks of iron and steel come and go, everyday is different and surprising. Different scenes, different content, waiting to be given new meanings. It is the origin of metal sculpture”
(Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, Sep 1, 2009)
Such experience of materials made Liu more convinced that he has found the very beginning of metal sculpture, and has witnessed the artistic originality contained in these materials. Inspired and encouraged, the artist was given explosive energy in his creation. When the energy was released, one after another artwork was completed, made by pieces of scrap. In Liu’s “Steel Forest” in 2010 and “Iron Man Transformation” in 2012 we see the artist has found the inherent logic of the hard metals and cleverly represented them with industrial tools.
Liu began using big flame to melt steel in his meta-industrial phase. On the surfaces of his works he presents a burned texture not unlike lava, and with pieces of slag, the immanent language of iron and steel is accentuated. In other words, in this phase, Liu is able to allow the inherent logic of materials to be freely expressed. Industrialization is not merely about technologies of production, it has accumulated a power beyond itself. Liu’s Altered Territory — Onset in 2013 has gone beyond industrial production, it is a metal choreography of the artist.
4.Breaking through and Expanding Spatiality
According to some contemporary art theories, how sculpture is present has become a part of the creation, even the core content. Thus contemporary sculptors need to exhibit their works at the right venues with right styles of display to fully express their art. Some even need to create their works on certain site. During Liu’s nearly twenty years of art career, we observe that his path from modern art to contemporary art did not miss how art should be presented, and how installation art turns toward contemporary sculpture.
Although modern sculptures have got away from podiums, they are still often confined in the white cubicles of museums as the rising trend of new spatiality in modern art museums. They attach to the institutionalized exhibitions easily. Contemporary art, especially installation art, that attempts to break away from the conventional ideas of presentation from modern art, extends art from museums to fields outside of museums. The essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” by Rosalind Krauss, published in 1979, gave explanation of such a trend in contemporary sculpture. A sensitive and sharp thinker, Liu has seen this when he was seeking for a path for his art. Although influenced by installation art, Liu foresaw the expanding field of contemporary sculpture that is not limited by the influence of installation art.
Looking back Liu’s art career, before 1987 he went overseas, he followed the rules that sculpture were standing on podiums in the rooms of museums. These rules also decided how artworks were presented and appreciated. In 1991 when Liu exhibited his art in Paris, he already showed his ideas of installation art. His works were neither standing on podiums, nor found in museum or art gallery.
In 1997 Liu entered the phase of dissolving forms and his creation carried out his exploration of figuration as well as the consequential changing ideas of presentation. During this phase, forms came from the artist’s dissolution of shapes, his artworks were displayed at different locations, like the space of exhibition had been dissected, too. The audience was faced with artworks without any focal point, or decentralized focal points. New spatiality and viewpoints induced from such thinking about exhibition marked Liu’s path toward contemporary sculpture, even his examination of ego-centralism.
Since the phase of developing signs in 2005, Liu’s creation demonstrated his increasing concern about fields for exhibitions, which obviously became the principle of his art during this time. Through figuration of signs, Liu’s thoughts about fields have generated a sense of theatricality— narrative. Space is constructed as the text of such theatricality and narrative. Artworks of this phase still were displayed at different locations in the space, and the signs of bodies, costumes, plants and animals scattered around the venue revealed the artist’s major concern at this time. Liu kept thinking about issues of nature and industrialization, and the intervention of politics and economy. The signs he integrated in his artworks expressed apparent ideas as well as hidden connotations, implying the artist’s awareness of the tension between modernity and postmodernity.
The phase of industrial epics kicked off in 2009, and Liu’s adventure of materials was getting closer to what he had desired. Now he was able to develop forms based on the inherent logic of materials. Furthermore, his artworks interpreted the spaces displaying them, and the spaces interpreted the artworks displayed in them. The theatrical ambiance did not compromise the conciseness of its narrative. Liu’s art thinking matured during this phase, and industrial tools helped him overcome the difficulties of dealing with the hardness of iron and steel. Thanks to the giant cutting and forging machines, the unfoldable steel panels and unbreakable iron scraps were transformed into epical symbols and images. The rigorous expression of Liu’s artworks in this phase has created a 360 panorama space so no viewpoint would be distanced because of its position. Above all, the spatiality of Liu’s art now has become completely independent from the framework of installation art and more inclined to express the spatial concepts of contemporary sculpture.
2012 marked Liu’s meta-industrial phase, which indicated that after fully understanding the properties and logic of materials, the artist has gone to another level—meta-thinking, that the nature of materials are emphasized in his final products. The industrial techniques have passed themselves in art. Here we might use a philosophical comparison: Liu’s sculpture of iron and steel has brought physics to metaphysics, even to the cosmology. In other words, the artist shows us the primary status of the universe where all beings lived with matters. That’s how far Liu’s sculpture has gone up to today, and to him, it can’t be his final destination, but a starting pointing of everything. Liu’s current mutating sculpture of iron and steel are the results of the interactions between his body and the space— his dance. We no longer see the hardness of materials, but the buoyant performance.
Conclusion: Return to the Universe before Myths
Liu’s art career brings us to see a path of contemporary art clear up through his exploration. His achievement and contribution come not only from his unstopping creation but also his new ideas out of the existing sculptural thoughts that never satisfied him. He never ceases to jump over to the other side of the wall in order to break away from the status quo. He wishes to find the world before sculpture when there was nothing but dust, nothing had forms.
In this path outside of the wall, Liu has to give up something while groping forward. From 1997 to 2015, Liu has been through different dilemmas in every phase so he could harvest today. In classical period, sculpture was to praise gods, and when myths have been replaced by industrialization, a sculptor like Liu is going to take us back to the world before myths— no mountains or rivers, no day and night, but dust and ashes.
Standing over dust, Liu found the embrace of a mother for the sculpture of iron and steel. He begins to dance and compose the epics belonging to the period before myths.