The Infinite Manifestations in Steel Romance —
Po-Chun Liu’s Steel Sculpture Exhibition in 2020
Author／Kuang-Yi Chen (PhD in Contemporary Art History, Université Paris Nanterre Professor, Department of Art and Dean, College of Fine Arts, National Taiwan University of Arts )
Po-Chun Liu is more than capable of mastering all sculptural materials, however, he has extensively using steel since 1997, an expressive material that is characteristic of the modern time. In particular, he started collaborating with Tung Ho Steel Enterprise Corporation in 2008, which has led to the creation of the Iron Man series, an artistic motif that he has developed continuously ever since. Through the Iron Man series, Liu has not only carried out keen reflection and subversion regarding sculpture, but has also brought the unique expression of steel sculpture to the extreme. In addition to being a motif, “iron man” is also a creative component that embodies a wide range of diverse dualities, such as content/form, figural/abstract, body/ soul, time/space, signified/signifier, etc. Over the course of a decade, the artist has created an epic “steel romance” with his interpretation, and this masterpiece is still ongoing.
Characteristics of Steel and Its Historical Background
The steel industry emerged in the beginning of the 19th century. As the most ideal industrial material, steel played an integral part in the Industrial Revolution, and the number of steel production and sale has often been used as an indicator of a nation’s economic development. Driven by modernism, steel almost immediately entered the field of art, along with glass, as a new material of modern architecture. As time progressed, various types of alloy steel that are erosion resistant and highly supportive have been developed for architecture. Therefore, many sculptors, when using steel as their material, tend to emphasize on its relationship with architecture rather than sculpture. For instance, Richard Serra (1939-) once mentioned,
To work with steel, not as an element to build a landscape, but as a construction material in terms of its mass, weight, counterweight, loading capacity, concentrated loading, compression, friction and static, that, has always been separated from the history of sculpture. However, it has had direct applications in the history of architecture, technology and industrial construction.1
Consequently, Serra not only frequently uses architectural COR-TEN steel (weathering steel) but also employs architectural or industrial logic to process his sculptures. Nevertheless, his previous generation of American sculptors, including David Smith (1906-1965), Ibram Lassaw (1913-2003), Theodore Roszak (1933-2011), David Hare (1917-1992) and Herbert Ferber (1906-1991), preferred a metal sculptural language closer to action painting in spirit and liked to use welded steel or alloy with subjective, imaginary and aggressive approaches. For example, Smith believed that painting and sculpture were not separated, and his sculptural expression was essentially derived from his painting, with a distinctive feature of linear structure similar to calligraphy. Colors, moreover, had an important place as it strengthened the expression of plane, line and volume. His approach was naturally influenced by Picasso and Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942). In 1927, Picasso was inspired by the project for a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) and returned to sculpture. In the spring of 1928, he and his peer sculptor Gonzalez created a series of colored metal sculptures using cutting and welding techniques.
What material can be this close to architecture or painting yet so distant from sculpture?
Thus, it is clear that steel was a new material created and provided for sculptors during the Industrial Revolution; it is essentially a new sculptural language of the 20th century. It allows artists to replicate industrial processes and equipment in their own art studios, and even to transform industrial scraps into inspiring works emblematic of our time. Furthermore, steel as an unbreakable and enduring material that can be used in a fast and free way symbolizes the industrial technology of the modern society. On the other hand, however, the dual aspects of steel – its solid and liquid forms, resilience and fragility, sturdiness and malleability – also symbolizes the constructiveness and destructiveness of human’s industrial achievements as well as the two conflicting forces within humanity. Its ductility and malleability enable the complex and varying expressions of steel: it can be molded, cast, cut or joined; it can be a monumental mass or paper-thin; it can be exquisitely carved, polished and shined; it can also be welded directly to look rough and unrestrained; sometimes it can be delicate and refined, but it can also achieve a large plane or volume that other traditional materials are not able to. The hard, cold and rigid metal can demonstrate tender movements and elegant forms, yet it can also retain its natural roughness and sense of power. In addition, the way steel has evolved with time is the reason why so many contemporary artists are drawn to it. Internationally renowned sculptors, such as Mathew Lane Sanderson and Tom Hill, have been making use of the ductility and weatherability of alloy steel to create many public sculptures that merge well with the surrounding environment.
This is why Po-Chun Liu has been drawn to this material since 1997. The theme of this exhibition, though continues his Iron Man series developed since 2008, the variations of the series nevertheless demonstrate the artist’s comprehensive understanding of the material as well as his mastery of relevant techniques: direct techniques such as laser cutting and welding that enable fast completion of works; the mixing of indirect techniques such as melting and casting; the weighty “steel slag” left from molten steel that supports or erodes the burned and deformed small iron men, symbolizing the fluidity of steel while vividly preserving traces of burning and branding. The technique of polishing gives the steel surface an unhindered shine, contrasting the thin layer of coating resulted from galvanization and responding to the clear mirror surface of stainless steel. The mesmerizing colors of Iridescent Ironmen also echo the splendid colors projected into the exhibition space. On the other hand, the unaltered industrial scraps ready for use are solidly made into collage and assemblage as industrial giants standing in certain corners of the city. The extending line and the volume that occupies the space seem to orchestrate a symphony of the varying states of the material. Liu has explored every possible characteristic of steel, fully demonstrating that Steel Romance is foremost a splendid embodiment of his professional knowledge and techniques. His steel sculpture defines sculpture by means similar to architecture or painting while shattering the framework of sculpture that allows him to create sculptures beyond sculptures.
Space / Time / Landscape
However, steel is not the only material that Liu uses. For a sculptor, the flat space (two-dimensional space) and negative space (the hollow space) are equally important to his steel structure and sculptural form. When a sculptor deals with the material, he also creates the in-between space. Sometimes he conceives his works from negative space, developing them from the inside out; and at other times, it is the other way around. The charm of sculpture indeed lies in the interplay of positive and negative space. The “two-dimensional” aspect of Picasso’s sculpture brings out the“three-dimensional”aspect; and Giacometti’s“void”creates the“substantiality.”Liu’s “iron men”are created by cutting steel plates. Although these iron men are solid forms, they are also highly two-dimensional, which reminds us of paper-cutting designs that can be turned three-dimensional with a slight twist or a cut and fold. Liu’s Lines of Iron Men are created with welded industrial scraps. Its enormous volume is infused with a sense of lightness due to its porosity. The Incarnation of Iron Man spans and occupies the gallery space with its innumerous silhouettes of linear iron men that seem to dance in the room, creating an illusory effect as the light and shadow flicker and shake. By doing so, it produces an almost insubstantial existence—the“emptiness,”“dispersion”and illusion.
The dimension of a work and its relationship with the surrounding environment are also a revelation of space. Although art galleries and museums are common venues to display sculptures, outdoor space has always been where sculptures are installed. The difference between indoor and outdoor space is not simply a matter of artwork dimension. As Dewey points out, “space is room, Raum, and room is roominess, a chance to be, live and move.” According to Dewey, the space that people experience can be reduced to three general themes, which are “room,”“extent” and “position.” “Room” provides “the opportunity for movement”; “extent” denotes “mass and volume of an object”; and “position” is “the feeling of energy…of this or that power in the concrete… For there is an energy of position as well as of motion.” The experience of space is fundamentally applicable to the experience of time. Dewey argues that, corresponding to the aforesaid three attributes of space, the attributes of time are “transition,” “endurance” and “date.” He even states that the combination of sound and time can produce “enormous volume in space.”2 From Dewey’s words, we can see that, apart from the interplay of positive and negative space, an artist’s manipulation of space also involves an artwork’s dimension, volume, position, energy of movement, momentum, along with other elements that affect spatial expression, including actual movement, sound and color.
Therefore, Liu’s Iron Man series encompasses the “microscopic” aspect of figurines and the “macroscopic” aspect of public sculpture as well as include the scale of puppetry, gallery exhibition and urban landscape. In addition to exploring a wide spectrum of scale and volume, the artist also steadfastly utilizes methods of reproduction, addition, connection, deployment, motor power, coloring and lighting to alter the way these iron men occupy the space. Through these methods, he is able to produce a sense of spatiality dissimilar from that of ordinary sculptures, incorporating dualities ranging from crowdedness and vacantness, penetration and obstruction, aggregation and dispersion, boisterousness and quietude, darkness and lightness, to restlessness and stillness. As a “basic unit,” the iron man reminds us of atoms that carry out an unending process of interaction informed by reproduction, connection and proliferation, introducing both quantitative and qualitative changes. Additionally, the “iron men” in cities and landscape prompt a flow of energy and transform the surrounding atmosphere in connection with the expansiveness of their installation sites as well as the changes in these venues at different time of the day.
Liu adopts the approach of in situ to ensure a corresponding relation between his works and the environment and to create sculptures that “adapt” to different types of space, employing the continuously form-changing “iron men” to intervene into and re-define varying space. His thinking and grasp of space also bring “physicality” (physicalité) to the foreground in his sculpture. The “physicality” not only refers to the differently sized and personified body of the “iron men” but also the audience’s body – an instrument possessing both sense and sensibility as well as spirit and flesh – that is used to measure and experience space. Posited between sculpture and installation, his approach enables the audience to walk around and observe the sculpture or to enter and traverse the internal space of the sculpture.
In terms of temporality, the oxidized and eroded surface of an outdoor steel sculpture is the manifestation of time and shows temporal traces caused and left by the environment. In The City Bodies and Green Iron Man, Liu ingeniously incorporates the growth and changes of green plants into the temporality of his works, forming a contrast between plants’ continual growth and the steadfast deterioration of the mineral. Contrarily, Liu utilizes the technique of hot-dip galvanizing (HDG) to “seal” and “preserve” his Lines of Iron Men. This method can be viewed as an attempt to freeze or delay the progression of time. The shaking of linear iron men, the continuation of various sounds and the changing light colors are all different forms to portray the element of time.
However, when a spectator enters Liu’s work, he or she not simply measures, detects, and experiences space and time with the body, but also dives into a theatre constructed with his symbolism; so, one must choose the most advantageous position to see and comprehend the majestic Steel Romance.
The concept of “theatricality” (la théâtralité) was only theorized in Michael Fried’s and other art critics’ works at the end of the 1960s, and the concept unexpectedly sparked artists’ enthusiasm and interest, who later frequently employed the concept to reflect on the audience’s position when viewing artworks. This concept originates from classical painting and relief, in which the formal space has been viewed as a stage, and a tale or story (historia) taking place on the stage is displayed in a fixed way of viewing through a certain process: the audience’s line of sight is normally guided by the perspective system to envelop them into the virtual space created in painting or sculpture. Therefore, classical painting/sculpture is created for the single purpose of viewing; similar to the theatre, it lacks the self-defining capacity when the spectator is absent. The concept of theatricality, in this regard, speaks directly about the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. From the perspective of contemporary art, the meaning of theatricality is twofold: firstly, it is the “framing” (cadre); that is, to employ “mise en scène” to frame a work. Secondly, it denotes the dissolving of the frame, meaning the erasure of the boundary dividing a work and its audience, even to the extent of incorporating the audience into the work. The seemingly conflicting aspects, in fact, present no contradiction because the most fundamental and evident concept of the theatre is to generate a comparison between “reality” and “virtuality.”
How do the audience construct their personal narrative? When discussing theatricality, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) states,
What is theatre? A kind of cybernetic machine. When it is not working, this machine is hidden behind a curtain. But as soon as it is revealed, it begins emitting a certain number of messages. These messages have this peculiarity, that they are simultaneous and yet of different rhythm; at a certain point in the performance, you receive at the same time six or seven items of information (proceeding from the set, the costumes, the lighting, the placing of the actors, their gestures, their speech), but some of these remain (the set, for example) while others change (speech, gestures); what we have, then, is real informational polyphony which is what theatricality is: a density of signs.3
Liu’s sculpture does not convey messages in a single and unidirectional way. Viewing his sculptures of massive volume, the audience receive an enormous flow of messages comprising of form, color, mass, weight, texture, pattern, light, shadow, sound, posture, movement, smell, temperature, climate, text and sign, which formulate “a perceptual blast” on the audience via different frequencies, potently engaging the audience’s senses. Although the artist does not provide clear explanations about his works, the audience can employ their mind and sensibility to interpret and generate the meanings of the works as they are immersed in “the semiotic depth.”
Steel Romance and Its Interpretation
It is essential to remember that art has become something more than aesthetic endeavors since Duchamp and gradually evolved into a semiotic system amidst the linguistic play and construction of reality. “Nomination” (nommer) becomes extremely important because it involves the technique of using the linguistic system to stimulate the audience. Over the course of a de- cade, Liu has consistently referred to his work as“iron man”( 金剛 , pronounced“jing gang,”in Mandarin;“vajra”in Sanskrit). Semantically speaking, the Sanskrit word “vajra”means “diamond”or“thunderbolt,”which is a highly important symbol in the Buddhist culture and can be seen in expressions such as“the indestructible vajra body.”As a ritual object, a vajra symbolizes the invincibility and indestructibility in face of obstacles. Its Mandarin equivalent also hints at metal, especially an unbreakable material such as steel. In terms of form, Liu’s “iron man” has slightly outward bending legs and raised arms, with strong biceps and quadriceps. It is the image of a bodybuilder or someone with unusual strength, suggesting the power obtained through physical training. From the perspective of popular culture and sub-culture, the Mandarin title of the series also hints at the classic movie King Kong, originally screened in 1933 and a remake in 2005. It also beckons at the movie’s model, Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête), a story mixing good and evil, nature and culture, masculine and feminine, which has inspired countless artists since 2 AD. For younger audiences, the title can be associated with the Japanese toy line Takara, its later adap- tation as “Transformers” that has been made into a sci-fi movie franchise, Marvel’s heroic character “Wolverine” in X-Men, or the competitive video game “King Kong.”
As a signifier (significant), “iron man” denotes the signified (signifié) in innumerous ways, be it Eastern or Western, past, present or future; in short, it transcends the limit of time and finds its foothold in various cultural contexts and imagination. Steel Romance, presented at Remarkable Cultivation Art Museum this year (2020), is Liu’s grand epic and creative narrative that unfolds and extends from the outdoor space to the indoor space of the museum. In front of the towering architecture that houses the art museum, two 4.5-meter tall sculptures, entitled Matsushima Iron Man, capture the audience in awe with their matching glory and the power of industrial production. Upon entering the exhibition space, seven 2.4-meter tall Lines of Iron Men constituted of industrial scraps demonstrate herculean strength majestically with their shining galvanized surface under the museum lights. In the gallery room on the right of the entrance, bright beams of light create sun-like discs whereas multiple towers of different heights formed with stacking small iron men, entitled Iridescent Ironmen, rise from a circular area paved with iron sand. Looking from above, one realizes that they in fact form a large image of an iron man, as if they are singing about some industrial wonders achieved by pulling small efforts together.
Steel Romance, presented at Remarkable Cultivation Art Museum this year (2020), is Liu’s grand epic and creative narrative that unfolds and extends from the outdoor space to the indoor space of the museum. In front of the towering architecture that houses the art museum, two 4.5-meter tall sculptures, entitled Matsushima Iron Man, capture the audience in awe with their matching glory and the power of industrial production. Upon entering the exhibition space, seven 2.4-meter tall Lines of Iron Men constituted of industrial scraps demonstrate herculean strength majestically with their shining galvanized surface under the museum lights. In the gallery room on the right of the entrance, bright beams of light create sun-like discs whereas multipletowers of different heights formed with stacking small iron men, entitled Iridescent Ironmen, rise from a circular area paved with iron sand. Looking from above, one realizes that they in fact form a large image of an iron man, as if they are singing about some industrial wonders achieved by pulling small efforts together.
The second section of the first-floor space, unlike the first section in white, adopts a green tone under the colored light and reveals a primitive, mysterious world, as if it is telling a tale in trilogy or unfolding a triptych on a sacred altar. Altered Land displays rough, undefined and heavy steel slag, on which the artist embeds stacked figures with a fossil-like texture. Innumerous small iron men seemingly gaze into and wander in this chaotic realm, standing on top of one another’s shoulder and holding up large boulders over their heads. At the center is Iron Man Ascending to the Heaven comprising of a large number of small iron men gathering on an octagonal platform reminiscent of the ancient Imperial Sacrificial Altar with blue light emitting from its bottom. Countless small iron men stacking on top of each other large boulders held over their heads almost reach the ceiling and create a mesmerizing scene, bringing into mind human the tale about being’s ambition embodied by the Tower of Babel. Finally, Altered Territory prompts the image of a Chinese landscape garden, constructing a dialogue between the real and the unreal with the shadow cast on the surrounding walls. The small iron men seem to be climbing, relaxing, building and dwelling in these works. Does the artist’s arrangement mean to delineate the Eastern trilogy of “heaven, earth and humans” or the Western triptych depicting “heaven, hell and the human world”? Or, does it refer to the cosmic creation, its development of life and the history of human civilization? In the third section, the imagery of trees eventually appears. Does it indicate the conflicts and struggles between humanity and nature after the Industrial Revolution?
The second-floor space is occupied by Whirling Iron Man and Iridescent Iron Men that perform a different narrative. The life-sized, freestanding sculpture, The Incarnation of Iron Man, is constituted of multiple splits of linear iron men, creating a transfixing effect and blurring the real from the illusory. Mounted on the wall is Multi-shadowed Iron Man comprising of densely and inseparably interwoven figures; and covered with acrylic boxes are the variously sized Iridescent Iron Men that exude a strong sense of urban chicness, showing a splendid sheen under the changing light. The bottom of the oval-shaped Arena gives out prismatic light, shining on the swarm of iron men competing at the center of the arena, the smaller iron men surrounding them as well as the paper-thin iron men stacking into pyramids that are mounted on the wall. Unlike the sense of mystery and sublime enshrouding the first floor, the space epitomizes the fierce competition in contemporary society with its restlessness, boisterousness, colorfulness and overwhelming information.
While the large iron men symbolize heroic figures, the small iron men refer to the mundane people in this world, whose fragility still shows even if they adopt the same postures as the heroes. Steel as a sculptural material tells the story about the industrial era; however, American sociologist Daniel Bell has long announced the arrival of the “post-industrial society” in 1973. As the power of industrial construction remains indestructible as steel, excessive industrial construction has brought upon humanity many risks; the information revolution in the post-industrial era has further altered the relationship between people. Who are the heroes? What is power? Will humanity eventually retrograde back to the primitive era? As time progresses, we might have different answers to these questions. Amidst all these, however, Steel Romance that encapsulates a decade of Liu’s creative work has composed a polysemic epic that transcends time and space, in which his audience can roam, reminisce and imagine freely.
- Richard Serra. Cat. expo. Richard Serra. Sculpture 1985-1999. Musée Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, 27 mars – 17 octobre 1999, page 59.
- Jean Dewey, Art as Experience, London, Perigee, 2005, p. 217-221.
- Roland Barthes. “Literature and Signification: Answers to a Questionnaire in Tel Quel.”Critical Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1972
(1964), p. 261-62.