From One to Multitude
— LIU Po-Chun’s Steel Romance
Author／ Tzu-Chieh Jian （Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts, National Kaohsiung Normal University）
The Iron Man series, which artist Liu Po-Chun has developed over a decade, might seem to be about the motif of “the human image,” an integral series that has evolved according to the spirit of the time, and praised to be Liu’s most original series by many artists and art critics. Although such evaluation that prescribes the series a certain position has given the Iron Man series an almost substantial status in the theoretical discourse, one realizes that to consider these sculptures part of “a series” with the motif of “iron man” is merely a result of art criticism or the writing of art history. In actuality, the “iron man” not only involves completely different forms and strategies of spatialization, they are also a multitude of existences posited between real entities and fictional characters. In terms of the issues discussed in the series, it is indeed as the notion put forth by scholar Liu Chun-Lan in her discussion—the “iron man” denotes a vast and irreducible “system.”1
Based on the concept of “romance” in Steel Romance, Liu’s latest solo exhibition at Remarkable Cultivation Art Museum can be viewed as a thorough and detailed display of the “iron man” system that the artist has developed for over ten years. This nearly five-thousand-word critical essay serves as a response to this thorough examination.
In this essay, I will discuss the origin of the humanoid image of the iron man, viewing it as a main creative form that epitomizes the past decade of Liu’s creative work while conceptualizing “iron man” as an intermediary vehicle for exploring certain issues. From between the form and the discussed issues, it becomes clear that many of Liu’s works in the Iron Man series adopt the plural form, which serves as a social metaphor that empowers Liu to convey his interpretations in his art practice despite the traditional connotation of “iron man,” or “vajra,” which carries a certain transcendental meaning. Furthermore, the iron man, which is converted into a multitude, is both macrocosmic as well as microcosmic, and has implicitly and indirectly embodied Liu’s unique creative inspiration in a characteristically humorous way.
Monumental Yet Approachable Iron Man
One could spot two 4.5-meter sculptures, entitled Matsushima Iron Man, standing outside the entrance of Remarkable Cultivation Art Museum from a few hundred meters away. Like many of Liu’s works in the Iron Man series, they showed slightly bending knees with powerfully flexing arms. They appeared to be in a majestic, guardian-like and rather aggressive manner; however, when one approached them, it became obvious that, first of all, they comprised iron objects of different sizes; secondly, in addition to their two legs that were facing us, they in fact had two more legs that ran perpendicular to the front of their bodies. Therefore, as one became aware that these iron men were standing extremely firmly on their four legs, one also realized that they were reminiscent of the cross structure used in some paper decoration; a functional structure that one usually found on tiny trinkets made of feeble materials.
The aggressiveness one perceived from afar also subsided and changed in a critical way as one moved closer and closer to the sculptures. This was because the increasing nearness allowed the details to be seen more clearly. These details, in comparison to the humanlike contour of the “iron man,” also elicited our interpretation; nevertheless, the “readability” of these details stemmed from a different semantic level. One first realized that the iron objects, which suggested “organs” of these iron men,” were mostly large industrial metal scraps. These iron objects possessed such “readability” from a sculptural or “purely formal” perspective because they were uncommon in daily life.
One might be curious about where these components came from and pondered on how these unrelated “organs,” having nothing in common except material, came to be assembled together by the artist. They were called “organs” not because they had any functions in terms of the overall organization of these iron men. One became convinced that they were put together for a playful, spontaneous or poetic reason. Yet, be it spontaneous or poetic, they decreased the quality of the previous magnificent, 4.5-meter tall iron men that one created an awe-inspiring first impression.
As a matter of fact, the two iron man sculptures were indeed constituted of iron parts that had been meant for melting and casting. When one discovered that the monumental structures before one’s eyes were assemblages of readymades that were about to be eliminated, the iron men suddenly came down from their transcendental height and acquired an approachable aesthetic texture. They were no longer some awesome transcendental subject. In other words, their transcendental presence was suddenly incorporated with the approachability and accessibility of public art installations that enabled parent-children interaction and were often found in highway service areas. The enormous metal structures seemed able to alter their presence; and the moment that the initial feeling of aggressiveness disappeared, what ensued was an amusing, humorous effect.
Upon entering the exhibition, one was first greeted by Lines of Iron Men with a posture identical to the other two outside the door. However, this set of seven 2.5-meter iron men were in a silver tone because their surface texture was changed with the method of hot-dip galvanization. Different from Matsushima Iron Man, of which the surface would become weathered and eroded after time, their galvanized surface would remain unchanged for a long time. Nevertheless, this attribute did not promise permanence; as they acquired a different color, this difference also diminished their transcendence as iron men. Like automobiles waiting for sale that could be transformed with a custom paint, their merchandise-like quality also hinted at a world of semantics without a sense of reality.
Iron Man — the Collective
The figural image of Liu’s Iron Man series, in other words, is not a straightforward delineation of masculinity. The whole and the partial of the iron man produced an ambiguous incongruity. In truth, “iron man” has frequently been used as an intellectual key throughout the artist’s various works, as if it were a button of imagination and narrative that introduced an unexpected result when pressed. For instance, in the exhibition space, apart from the four silver-toned iron men that demonstrated a slightly overbearing physicality, there were many small iron men in the exhibition, which served as certain modular units or symbols, creating a collective image with their formations. These small iron men seemed like controllable objects created to form an array or deployment. Moreover, the basic element “iron” used throughout the entire Iron Man series was not the material used to build the powerful iron men anymore. More than often, it was an element connecting the iron men and the surroundings; moreover, they also materialized as trees or plots of land as the site in the works.
Most of the works on view in Steel Romance displayed this quality of site. They served as a viewing framework whereas the iron men were minimized to a semantic element to foreground other emphases. These semantic iron men were replicated and assembled in varying ways by the artist, and were almost freely used in a wide range of imaginary narratives. For example, Iron Man Ascending to the Heaven that was lit with blue light revealed a group of pillars comprising of small, stacked iron men. From a distance, they looked like surrealistic plants grown in some strange dimension. Yet, these iron man pillars were holding asteroid-like objects of an unknown nature. The pillars also appeared in Altered Territory lit with green light and Altered Land, in which iron also formed the land that innumerous iron men were standing on.
In Mysterious Landscape, iron was even transformed into structural objects like trees whereas small iron men were scattered in different kinds of environment, with the characteristics of iron work unifying both into an integral whole. However, one could not help noticing that these miniature iron men appeared to be unfamiliar with their surrounding environment. There seemed to be a sense of inferiority resulting from the contrast between their unfamiliarity and their masculine, strong posture. Furthermore, the theatrical lighting reinforced their unawareness of the situation despite the solidness they shared with the entire setting—that is, the land they were standing on, which was restored to iron’s natural property.
Iron Man : From One to Multitude
Whether the size of the iron men, their hardness or fragility, and no matter they possessed individual power or they represented the unknowingly manipulated collective, they were not enough to comprehensively convey the complexity of Steel Romance. Like I have said before, the complexity might point to the narrative-oriented sensibility content, but these potential narratives or sensibilities were to be understood in terms of the iron men being sculptures. They preserved a certain sense of presence allowing the audience to feel that they were confronting objects. However, the narrative here did not imply that there was a pre-conceived storyline that the artist could follow in the creation of his works. This narrative was more like a certain form of allegory, in which the change of forms served as the narrative, whereas the entire scene not only symbolized the artist’s worldview but also beckoned at the story of art itself.
In the museum, there were a few sets of metamorphosed iron men that almost defied the normal function of human retinas and adopted an unexpected approach to produce an implosion of the sculptural form—namely, The Incarnation of Iron Man, Multi-shadowed Iron Man and Whirling Iron Man. Some of them made sounds through vibration; and some were arranged in a systematic array as if they were certain ethnographic specimens. As a matter of fact, they shared a common ground—that is, they all used the mere “form” of the iron man. The artist first bent multiple iron rods into the contours of iron men, and then layered these contours together to form the work. Although one could recognize the posture of the powerful iron men with bending knees and flexing arms, they were not only turned into symbols and even became flatter. Their internal space remained hollow; so, when they were layered together, it was more difficult to recall their contours. Visually speaking, the iron men changed from one to multitude; it could also be that the iron man was one, but it quivered continuously to the point that both its form and the formal boundary separating the work and the site became blurred.
This type of iron man, which has been playfully called “puffy” by the artist himself and other scholars, challenged the existing sculptural form—that sculpture would absolutely occupy physical space. In reality, the multitude of layered iron man contours housed a hollowed space that created, instead of the volume that occupied space, a viewing framework, through which the spectator could see through. On the other hand, although the work touched upon the topic of exploring the expansion of site, which would surely involve the most ambiguous formal relation between sculpture and non-sculpture, the extensively layering of the iron man contours revealed a non-material quality reminiscent of image despite its materiality. Therefore, it preserved the pureness of modernist sculpture in a paradoxical way.
Between the Microcosmic and the Macrocosmic
From one to multitude, the iron man in the works also changed from being singular to plural. In various works themed on “iron man” that used iron to construct different settings, the iron men conveyed a collective image. Even the large iron man sculptures at the exhibition entrance also adopted the form of a group. Like processions constituted of iron men, the approachability made possible by their details also seemed to imply that these iron men did not exist in solitude and seclusion. Not only were they interrelated, welcoming visitors at the entrance, they also engaged in a dynamic relationship with the site and their surrounding environment.
Liu’s creative approach of placing the iron men within specific sites to unfold the relationship therein undoubtedly responded to the problematic he aimed to highlight in Steel Romance, “to respond to not only industrial development and modern civilization in macrocosmic and microcosmic ways but also nature, universe and the human condition.”2
Why is it necessary to emphasize on both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic ways in responding to the industrial civilization? The answer lies in the monumental and/or plural iron men that have been discussed so far—the enormous iron men surpassed the scale of a regular human body, but their largeness also highlighted the artist’s direct engagement in creating these works. In a way, they were the crystallization of Liu’s passion and zeal. In this regard, they were the mighty sculptures that both the artist and his audience have witnessed. Nevertheless, these gigantic iron men at more times embodied a microcosmic view—because the microcosmic denoted that nothing, however small, would be overlooked, and would always be treated seriously. In comparison, the macrocosmic denoted an aerial perspective. Therefore, we would see processions of tiny iron men that reminded us of ants. They allowed the audience, or the bystanders, to observe the entire scene from an overall perspective—a perspective enabled by taking a step back; and as a result, there was a quality of things being viewed from a meta-perspective.
I once wrote in an article mentioning that the artists of Liu’s generation, including the artist himself, has often encountered a specific situation in their creative career. In a nutshell, this generation of artists usually have a complete Western art training, and would have dedicated their life after graduation entirely to art-making for the rest of their life. However, due to the pressing need of art education in Taiwan, when they are not making their works, they have often found themselves in the “academic scene,” in which they need to constantly teach about what they know about art. Consequently, their works have incorporated an attitude that is both microcosmic and macrocosmic. For artists who work with other art forms, it might be possible to cover up this contradictory quality with lighter types of work. However, the massive volume that constitutes Liu’s sculpture contrarily calls attention to this self-reflexive attitude, with which one tends to engage and face the creative subject directly while taking a step back to make room for self-observation.
Be that as it may, after viewing a more comprehensive Iron Man series in Steel Romance, I have discovered it to be the contrary: when I tried to examine these works with the preconceived notion with the two dissimilar tendencies, a strange ambivalence surprisingly surfaced in the exhibition. This ambiguity has allowed the iron man, which should have split into two separate worlds according to the differing attitudes towards art, to remain split yet encompass the split to form an integral whole—that is, the monumental iron men possessed readable and approachable details whereas the small iron men were intermixed and restored into the raw material through the medium of iron and the design of scenes. As for the quivering iron man that evolved from one to multitude, it became a vehicle that the spectator could see through. In the meantime, such vehicle also embodied the most emblematic characteristics of modern sculpture. Perhaps, it is precisely because of this persistently ambivalent, in-between quality that Liu’s Iron Man could preserve a rather precious place for the being of art.
The Angel of History and Iron Man
One must admit that the unique attraction of the iron men in the multitude comes from their special image. If the spectator does not already have a preconceived notion that the iron man, or vajra, as a transcendental being is a divine presence, the multitudinous iron men would not incite our curiosity. Maybe the fact that Liu’s “iron man” always has an inseparable relationship with its surrounding environment is the exact reason that the sacredness of this image is reduced; and this allows “iron man” to serve as a metaphor for the mortal body despite its godly image. Nonetheless, it was between its transcendental quality and its hint of the finiteness that the audience could perceive the artist’s ambivalent, contradicting emotion towards the industrial civilization. How could a finite human being not admire the immortal divine beings to the frantic extent that he would hope to become immortalized as well? How could the finite human being not become aware of his inferiority when he realizes that the admiration is an unattainable dream?
On the other hand, it would be easier to understand this sense of inferiority within the socio-cultural context in Taiwan. Any place that has undergone colonization, be it politically or culturally, has shared a similar sensibility structure, and Liu’s Iron Man series can be interpreted through this emotional lens. Liu has expressed his extensive attention to the “industrial and technological civilization” in various occasions; and industrialization, or modernization in this matter, has always born a brand of inferiority and humiliation due to the fact that the progress of the colonized was usually a passive result of the colonizer’s lash. We have all been dialectically moving forward in the historical paradigm, of which the Other has already been assigned. However, there are moments when “the angel of history” in Walter Benjamin’s work appears and reminds us that the moment we look retrospectively in progressive historical teleology is the moment we realize that the past is nothing but desolate ruins.
After all, it is disasters that the angel of history turns its face away from, and Liu’s iron men still possess the ability to introduce a sense of humor into the scene. The iron men in their multitude are approachable. It is as if the artist, as he employs all his might to move forward and pursue the transcendental value, is turning back to smilingly inform us that he is simply trying to reach the impossible. Nevertheless, he has set his mind to this goal and can only determinedly march onward, and the iron men have collectively epitomized his resolute will.
- See Liu Chun-Lan, Metamorphosis of Ironman: Po-Chun Liu Sculptures, 1997-2015, Taipei: North Star Publishing Company, 2016, p. 76.
- See the press release of Steel Romance, the short text was also displayed on a wall in the exhibition at Remarkable Cultivation Art Museum.