The Incarnation of Iron Man

Return to the Origin of Art
— Po-Chun Liu’s Contemporary Sculptural Field


Author/Pin-Hua WangAssistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts, National Changhua University of Education)

Living in the 21st century, we have perceived the prevailing global wave of contemporary art, which only started three decades ago. The 20th century witnessed the fast development of human civilization that rapidly altered the collective fate of mankind and this planet. When the period of early modern art reached its end at the fin de siècle, modern art had already emerged at the dawn of the 20th century. Modern art was later replaced by the sweeping force of the post-modern thinking discussed extensively in the 1970s before the torrents of contemporary art began to take over the world in the 1980s. How then should we discuss contemporary art in terms of its diverse and interdisciplinary qualities? Since the 1960s, “sculpture” has evolved into varied forms unrestrained by horizontal line through entering the open environment as part of the landscape; since then, it has become more and more challenging to define “sculpture.” This essay adopts the perspective of art creation study to examine the sculptural creation of an artist and discuss the subject of contemporary sculpture. The topic of how contemporary sculpture defines itself in between the past and the future serves as a curious starting point of this investigation.

I believe that the most widely accepted definition of contemporary art is that it is primarily “our” art. Walking towards the art museum that housed Liu Po-Chun’s Steel Romance, two four-meter Matsushima Iron Man stood outside the entrance. A quick look of the exhibition revealed that the artworks on view were mostly large-scale steel creations. One could not help thinking: would it be possible to pinpoint, in this very exhibition, the artistic subject of Liu, an artist who has always been thinking about “art” and whose career has unfolded in a rich and profuse way? This subject of art creation is not merely related to “our” time. Through the discussion of it, would it be adequate to answer the question proposed in this essay: how does contemporary art define itself? The trajectory starting from this point of departure has mapped out the structure of this essay, which has been an exploration of art and the formative context of a creative language; it is also a journey to confirm the development of contemporary art. To focus on this artist and propose this problematic is because his exhibition has embodied the developmental characteristics of sculptural art from the period of modern art to that of the contemporary art—a process that involves historical changes as well as paradigm shifts in art history.

From the artist statement, I learned that this exhibition epitomized the artist’s “comprehensive work” over the past decade. The exhibition embodied a field of sculptural forms derived and transmogrified from the image of “iron man.” These sculptural objects, created with a wide range of sculptural techniques such as the dimensional change between macrocosmic and microcosmic, replication and variation, assembly and division, complication and multiplication, etc., were converted into sculptural installations displayed in the exhibition space. Through the interaction between material and color, the dialogue between concrete and virtual forms as well as a combination of still metal and dynamic mechanics, it became clear that the creative context of Liu’s “iron man” has been a constructed system founded on a multifaceted language. Amidst the aforesaid techniques, his sculptural concept has surfaced as polyphonic. Naturally, to discuss the image of “iron man,” one should begin with Liu’s creative context. So, how should we retrace the origin of his creative subject?

From Medium Experiment to a Field of Man-made Information

To begin with, the exhibition showed a rather eye-catching feature, which was the unignorable, monumental Matsushima Iron Man standing outside the entrance of Tainan’s Remarkable Cultivation Art Museum. The two sculptures made of metal components and steel pieces with industrial numbers, revealed to the audience the raw state of the metal material while suggesting that these components came from industrial factories. Upon entering the exhibition, one was then immediately greeted by a set of seven sculptures, Lines of Iron Men. Walking among these two-and-a-half-meter statues, the audience was immersed in a spatial relation surpassing the scale of the human body. Judging from these enormous sculptures, one could tell that the artist adopted an approach that demonstrated the candid roughness and properties of the material. At the same time, he also emphasized the volume and presence of the object materialized with steel. These large sculptures constructed a fresh perceptual dimension similar to comparing the size of the human body to high architectural buildings.

Lines of Iron Man
《Lines of Iron Men》,Galvanized steel,190×240×90cm each (7 pieces in total),2019。

To contextualize this discussion within the paradigm shift from modern sculpture to contemporary sculpture, two distinctive features in this exhibition must be acknowledged regarding the emphasis on experimenting with media during the period of modern sculpture. One is the material characteristics consistently displayed throughout the artist’s work, and in particular, the texture and characteristics of steel in Liu’s Iron Man series. The other is his approach of employing the material characteristics and the basic sculptural unit, such as the replication with variation, assembly and division, complication and multiplication that have been mentioned at the beginning. These features have in fact been embodied by all of Liu’s work, which exhibits the rough texture and physical properties of steel while embodying the sculptural logic through variation and replication. Both features have their origin in modern art that emphasizes on medium experiment—a modernist emphasis originates from the global modernization after industrialization.

On view in a smaller room on the right of the large entrance hall was Earth Iron Man. The work revealed an oval pool of iron sand on the floor with several thin columns of interlinking small iron men standing amidst the sand. Taking a walk around this “landscape” that looked like a Japanese-style rock garden, one suddenly realized that the columns in fact formed the outline of Liu’s iron man. Moving one’s eyes towards the columns of small iron men standing on this island of iron sand, one was reminded of the scene in Gulliver’s Travel, when the “giant” Gulliver was tied down to the ground and the Lilliputians were busy climbing up and down their captive. From the large-scale outdoor iron man statues to this indoor microcosmic representation of an island, the artist deliberately contrasted the magnified and minimized iron men, giving rise to a richly stimulating context of the material. The work in the museum and the sun-lit streetscape outside of the building framed by the large glass windows also wove a surreal, fantastic experience.

Earth Iron Man
《Earth Iron Man》,steel,Dimensions variable,2020。

Entering the next large room after Lines of Iron Men was like venturing into a time corridor segmented with different colors of light. In the zone of green light was Altered Land, a microcosmic archipelago landscape inhabited by multiple small iron men that was created with slag produced from smelting furnaces in steel plants. Taking a closer look at this rolling landscape, all sorts of group activities were taking place: some looked like groups of people building something collectively; some seemed an apocalyptic scene, in which people were running for their lives. In the process of viewing the details in this microcosmic landscape, what surfaced in one’s mind was the panoramic, catastrophic image of a barren, steaming land with bubbling lava in movies like Lord of the Ring. After Altered Land was a mounted work, entitled Fossil of Iron Man, in which meteorite-like metal objects were lined up in a minimalist manner according to their sizes. Viewed from the side, the work looked like a procession of spaceships flying towards the deep space or a formation of meteorites.

Altered Land
《Altered Land》,steel,Dimensions variable,2019。

Fossil of Iron Man
《Fossil of Iron Man》,steel,Dimensions variable,2020。

Iron Man Ascending to the Heaven shown in a zone of blue light in the middle section of the gallery was a hexagonal area formed by a set of thin, tall columns. As the blue light shone through the work from the bottom, the entire scene looked like a galactic island with high-rises in the middle surrounded by a mysterious blue water. The thin columns were stacked small iron men, and the top one was holding a spaceship-like or meteorite-like metal object. However, these lengthy columns seemed like continuous linear forms extending into the sky, immersing the audience in a scene of an ancient city crumbling away in dusty whirlwind. The installation of blue light was also reminiscent of some glimmering galaxy in Star War or Miyazaki Hayao’s Castle in the Sky. Did the blue water beneath and the artificial structure suggest a spring of natural life?

Iron Man Ascending to the Heaven
《Iron Man Ascending to the Heaven》,steel,Dimensions variable,2019。

Through the blue light zone was another zone lit with green light. As viewers walked towards this section, the entire Altered Territory seemed like the middleground and background of an ink landscape, of which the foreground showed a landscape that could be carefully and microcosmically read. Its hilly metal topography and thin columns constituted an image of landscape painting, whereas a projection on the wall fantastically surfaced as an intergalactic colony. In this feeling of fantasy, one detected a sense of anachronistic space-time. The overall arrangement of the physical objects in Altered Territory guided the viewer to perceive it as if it were a landscape painting, yet the array of elongated column comprising of small iron men brought to mind the lengthy, contracted figures in Alberto Giacometti’s work. The intensity of the projection on the wall amounted to that of the physical sculpture, producing a spatial painting interwoven with the real and the unreal. The virtual projection somehow conveyed an imagination of a galactic world in the future.

Altered Territory
《Altered Territory》,steel,Dimensions variable,2017。

With the alternation of green and blue light, this section instinctively separated four spatial installations. From Untitled in the previous gallery room to the content and details of works in this section, Liu used smaller iron man as a basic unit, whereas the constructed objects included elongated columns and the use of slag. He continually used repeated and constructed structures to create imaginative and extending landscape from a microcosmic perspective. These varying and intriguing scenes seemed to communicate a multilayered meaning. With the metal material and the language of repeated basic units, these works formed a field of man-made information—one that could be constantly interpreted but only with a sense of uncertainty.

All four works in this section were immersed in an ambiance generated with the green or blue light. Whereas the subject matter of these works conveyed an apocalyptic image symbolized by industrial ruins, the green light evoked the green spectrum of nature and the blue light beckoned at the indigo ocean that has always been the source of life. One might guess that the artist intentionally created this contrast using the objects and the two colors of light.

From the aforesaid works, it is clear that Liu’s works have all created imageries of specific fields, with the most direct revelation of steel’s properties and medium characteristics as his basic language, as I have mentioned earlier. In terms of his varying techniques, he used “iron man” as a basic unit that he could enlarge, shrink, repeatedly replicate and differently reconstruct. Apart from the two fundamental features, Liu’s approaches to handle the material, with his various sizes of iron men, elongated columns and the use of slag, demonstrated an extremely delicate and natural metal drip produced from melted steel in high temperature—a unique technique that Liu himself called “steel corporealization.” To combine this free-flowing, dripping expression with the hard, cold steel added a sense of warmth into the material while preserving the organic feature originated from unaltered physical phenomenon. This is a proof of the artist’s medium experiment to induce the material’s distinct potentiality.

Because of Liu’s fundamental approach towards his handling of steel as well as his construction of different fields with similar basic iron man units, columns and slag, an interconnecting dialogue between the fields was generated through the process of the repeated variation. The viewer was able to read a work by making the previous work a text of interpretation for the next, introducing intertextuality between each work. Another feature is the assemblage of these works. One could imagine that Liu’s work has been created with a loose, open logic, allowing the artist to organically assemble the installations in a free way to match the change of space and themes. The basis of using sculptural material and linguistic logic as such has started with the medium experiment found in modern art, and become completed with Liu’s construction of a field of man-made information.

In the varying context of these works, the image of “iron man” has either embodied the collective image of the human society in an evolving civilization, or panic-stricken crowds at the apocalyptic moment after nature has been conquered by modernization. It also represents “steel” itself—that is, a material that symbolizes human being’s ability to smelt and extract steel from iron, which has been used to create the powerful man-made civilization. On the other hand, it also indicates the conflict and opposing forces after a sweeping wave of a certain enormous power. As a result, in the field created by each of Liu’s work, there have always been diverging directions of interpretation. One could not help wondering: could such diverging thinking imply that the artist, while embodying the plasticity, openness and constructivity through his method of “steel corporealization,” still hopes to keep a potential appeal to sensibility and emotions as a way to return to art, that is his ideal world?

A Dialogue between the Sculptural and the Painterly

As the audience walked into another room, Mysterious Landscape lit by green light seemed to continue the landscape imagery depicted in Altered Land, except that the former more directly embodied the theme of mountains with sizable tree branches. On the acrylic shelves mounted on the wall were tree-like works that looked like potted plants, which reminded viewers of the pines and cypresses used in landscaping for gardens and suggested the image of bonsai that implied a strong sense of human intervention. These three-dimensional sculptures in a flat form elicited the charm of appreciation. Added on top of each tree was a flowing image of ethereal clouds. Another work created with a painterly image was Landscape of Jungle displayed next to Mysterious Landscape. Also delineating the motif of trees in landscape, the neatly and geometrically arranged trees formed the shape of a mountain on the wall, and in front of it was a freestanding tree. The metal objects found in Mysterious Landscape were gone, and one could see tiny figures on the branch-like forms. This scene brought to mind the view depicted in ancient poetry—“dried-up rattan, age-old trees, and perching crows at sunset.” In the twilight hours, the view framed by the crisscrossing twigs and branches of ancient trees indeed created a memorable impression.

From Altered Land, to Mysterious Landscape, to Landscape of Jungle, Liu built upon the approach of replicating small iron men to incorporate elements of trees and mountains, formulating the motif of landscape painting with the assemblage of basic units. However, combining three-dimensional sculptural forms and graphic images has allowed him to incorporate the imagery of landscape in classical ink painting into spatial installations with a geometric or abstract expression has been an ingenious method of amalgamation and variation that integrated the language of sculpture and painting.

The method of switching between sculptural language and painting language was further extended in another work, Multi-shadowed Iron Man, which was a work done in the bas-relief style that covered an entire wall with overlapping and intertwining linear figures. The line, unlike that in the landscape works, revisited the linear image of deconstructed iron man, employing visually entangling, interweaving and free-flowing line to produce a still, linear work with a continuous rhythm—a unique expression of converting 3D drawing-like sculpture into abstract painting. The colored, swooping lines manifested a highly dramatic sculptural expression, constituting the overall tactility of the metal material as well as the readability of the painting-like image that was the overall work.

Altered Land
《Mysterious Landscape》,steel,Dimensions variable,2018。

Mysterious Landscape
《Landscape of Jungle》,steel,Dimensions variable,2020。

Landscape of Jungle
《Multi-shadowed Iron Man》,steel,Dimensions variable,2012。

In terms of the graphic style, Liu freely converted the imagery of landscape painting informed by the Chinese culture, garden and landscaping into visual expression emblematic of Western abstract expressionism in these works. He has not only moved away from the context of medium experiment in modern art and crossed the borders between modern art media, but also integrated the graphic language in Western and Eastern art into his work. His sculpture encompasses these cultural differences and transcends formal boundaries to demonstrate the changes in art history, revealing a new form of complex art vocabularies.

In terms of the “iron man” image, Liu is no longer dealing with industrial symbols with his chosen material, steel. Instead, he now focuses on the relationship between human being and the materiality of steel. He seems to pose an essential question: can we, the modern people, really perceive the “Second Nature” simulated in cities and the urban environment through the natural experiences evoked by these steel sculptures?

Motorized Structure, Cacophonous Sound and Iridescent Light

Waiting for the audience on the second-floor gallery was Whirling Iron Man, which was a series of geometrically arranged linear iron men. Liu used a method of paper-cutting to deconstruct the 2D iron men, and turned them into 3D linear forms. One particularly larger linear iron man stood on a metal platform emitting neon light. Upon closer inspection, the sculpture was not only overflowing with colorful streams of light, it was also motorized to create subtle vibration visible from the metal lines. This freestanding iron man with neon light was also equipped with objects that looked like ritual instruments or lances. Facing the linear iron men in the geometric formation, it was like a general rallying his army before war. The scene also conveyed a comic imagination of the mythological creation of the world. From 2D to 3D, the linear forms were transformed from warriors ready to fight into deconstructed, lighter forms, introducing a lighthearted humor often seen in animation.

Whirling Iron Man
《Whirling Iron Man》(part),steel,Dimensions variable,2012。

While Whirling Iron Man embodied the vibrating linear expression of thin lines, The Incarnation of Iron Man revealed an impressive work strengthened by its bold and rough lines. From a distance, the work seemed like a metal forest. The entire image was constructed with large linear iron men while a closer look showed that the metal lines were slightly vibrating with an interval of a dozen seconds, producing clangs of metal. Carefully examining the installation, one would discover that there were electronic controls hidden in the linear structure. As the clangs lingered in the exhibition space, it created an illusion that almost transported the audience into a metal manufacturing factory, reminding people that they were immersed in a specific field constructed to embody the industrial era.

In the middle of the room was Iridescent Ironmen, a group of iron men with varying colors displayed on acrylic boxes piled up vertically. They invited the audience to view them from different angles. The three-dimensional form constructed based on the idea of cutting a twodimensional surface before giving it a ninety-degree twist showed splendid colors under external light. The geometrically cut planes of the iron men reminded viewers of Futurism emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, when artists expressed continuous movement of time through division. Iridescent Ironmen, in this regard, looked like an assembly of multiple stopped moments in time that were both temporal and spatial. One had to walk around the work to observe the changes of colors, which in turn reinforced the sense of flow in space. The artist in fact used the same color pigment for the coating, and the iridescent effect was created during the process of heating the metal.

Iridescent Ironmen
《Iridescent Ironmen》,Steel, spray paint, acrylic ,63x63x268cm(Multiple pieces),2016。

At the other end of the room was Arena, a round space also accompanied with neon light but in a larger scale. In the round space were differently sized iron men. The circular structure glistened with rainbow colors, and a linear iron man was hanging above it whereas two groups of figures geometrically arranged in the shape of mountains were shown on the wall, with similar colors shining below the formations. Comparing these works that were either incorporated with colorful light or motorized, Whirling Iron man, The Incarnation of Iron Man and Iridescent Ironmen have continued sculptural three-dimensionality and the variations of painting. Iridescent Ironmen constructed with acrylic boxes, on the other hand, conveyed an image of obelisk-like monument, as if the artist were to revisit this present moment from a distant time in the future. Contrarily, Arena presented an image that seemed to reverse time. In the circular structure were groups of iron men, which brought to mind the ancient Roman Colosseum or the Olympic Games held at the dawn of human civilization. These historical traces, now contextualized in an industrial technological atmosphere with prismatic neon light, also established a connection to the imagery of historical monument. From these works, one could detect Liu’s sensitivity to time and historical vicissitudes. In the overall Iron Man series known for its industrial characteristics, the artist has used these works with motorized structure and neon light to manifest the atmosphere of this era informed by technology, media and consumption while constructing a timeline based on viewing the present from the perspectives of the past and future.

Iridescent Ironmen
《Arena》,Steel, color fluorescent light, motor, and timer,800×425×70cm,2016

It goes without saying that these few works that made colored light, motorized mechanics and metal sound their expressive features have further embodied the field of man-made information mentioned earlier. Switching and interlacing a variety of vocabularies of material, form and spatial installation, they have expanded the semantic dimension in their imaginative space, with distinct diversity and uncertainty.

From the complex constitution and unique fields of the displayed works, on the one hand, one could see the multifaceted dialogue between human history and art history in Liu’s work. On the other hand, one could also spot the features different from those of Mondrian’s and Kandinsky’s abstract painting in the 1930s and 1940s stressed by Clement Greenberg to be the modern art mainstream; for instance, Liu’s use of a central axis to develop complex works that conveyed different “information,” the continuous interpretation and variation of the dialogue between the concrete, the virtual and light as well as the dialectics between still volume and motorized movement. With these features in mind, one could perceive the “deconstructive” quality of contemporary sculpture and the “field” emphasized by the artist. Liu’s analysis of these two aspects have not only demonstrated the paradigm shift in sculptural history through his creative language, it has also revealed certain new aesthetic characteristics of contemporary sculpture that await further discussion.

In general, Liu’s work has surpassed the object in geometric, abstract form emphasized by modern art; instead, he started with viewing sculptures as objects and integrated vocabularies of painting and spatial installation into his work, with which he creates new chapters with methods of replication, proliferation, multiplication, variation, amalgamation and ensemble. In terms of the development in art history, such contemporary creative characteristics have deconstructed the purity and the absolute spirit pursued by modern art, transcended the distinction of modern art media to enter the scope of contemporary sculpture that demonstrated the features of an expanded field, and evolved into a polyphonic existence characteristic of the post-industrial era, the Second Nature and the field of man-made information.