The Seduction of Waste Steel —
Human, Nature, Materials and Sites in Po-Chun Liu’s Steel Sculpture
Author／Zhe-Xiong Wang（Ph.D. of Art History and Archeology, Université Sorbonne- Paris IV Former Director, Department of Fine Art, National Taiwan Normal University Professor, Graduate School of Industrial Design, Shih Chien University）
I. About the Title of This Article
“Layered mounds of waste steel inspire the imagination of artists, they crave to approach them. The landscape of the accumulating steel changes daily as trucks carry the materials in and out. Everyday there are new, fantastic scenes awaiting to be given new meanings, it is how metal sculpture is motivated (Sep/01/2009).”
“I have wished to find a place in a mountain to house my sculpture since a long time ago. With the inexhaustible piles of iron and steel in the plant of Tung Ho Steel, I dream to dig a cave and construct a hut at the hillfoot nearby so I can work with steel and iron from dawn to dusk, like dancing with them everyday throughout the daylight hours (Sep/02/2009).”
The above paragraphs came from Liu Po-Chun’s diary of residency1 that reminds me of Hieronymus Bosch’s (1450-1516) Triptych of The Temptation of St Anthony (a. 1501, oil on panel, 131 x 228 cm, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, Portugal). Bosch lived in the medieval age of unreligious, tumult feudalism and moral failure. With a sarcastic and illusional style, Bosch illustrated how St Anthony faced the seduction and challenges of devils, and cultivated his sacredness in austerity. And Liu, a sculptor lives in the 21st century of highly developed technology and industries and is seduced by the waste materials provided by the Tung Ho Steel. He wishes to build a hut in order to stay with these materials all the time. What connection between these two artists living in completely different ages and backgrounds made me associate them?
The reason is actually quite simple. Through The Temptation of St Anthony, Bosch expressed his anxiety over his time. And through steel sculpture, Liu divulges his joy as well as regret of the mass production and mass consumption in industrial civilization. Thus I compare what tempted St Anthony with waste steel. To be more clear, St Anthony’s tempter or waste steel, they are the mediums of the artists’ messages about facing their own world. The word “seduction” I chose seems to be tricky since the former was sacred, the latter is secular, but after a long time of consideration, I decided to use “seduction” for the title of this article because it best carries out my ideas.
Ⅱ. Messages from Industrial Civilization and Consumerist Society
Liu wrote in his diary that, “The world is changing quickly and drastically, and new cultures emerge endlessly which alter our inner values. The world formated by technology inspires our desire of a second nature, which dominantly divides our view of nature.”2
Indeed, it was the industrial civilization created by the three waves of industrial revolution overturning our world. Activated in the 18th century, industrial revolution was the result of the birth of capitalism as well as the innovation of technology, production and communication. The ripple effects activated modernization, a continuous, cross-generational movement. Although historians still have different viewpoints about when and where it initiated, most of them agreed that it began from Britain during the 18th century.
The first wave of industrial revolution was mainly the mechanization of industries, such as textile, mining and metallurgy, thanks to the invention of steam engines and the applications of coke, as well as the machines for fabric production and mining. The success of industrialization also could be attributed to the prevalence of credit loans from banks. The surging dynamism in industries and businesses brought in mass emigration of people from countrysides to cities. Nevertheless the living conditions for the people from the bottom did not improve as much.
The second wave of industrial revolution began around 1880, triggered by the usage of petroleum, gas and electricity among other new energies. Traction motors, electrical illumination and telephones were invented. During this time, industrialization was fueled by newly discovered energies, which stimulated the expansion of colonialism/imperialism.
The third wave took place in the latter half of the 20th century, powered by the revolutionary development of quantum physics, information technology and digital science that made networked communication possible. Before the globalization overwhelmed the world, the triad of US, Europe and Japan were superpowers, leaving China, India and other rising economic entities behind.3 This wave of industrial revolution shook the world, today all the countries have no choice but to jump into the game, and artificial natures, cyber humans or robots are fabricated one after another.
The waste steel and iron seductive to Liu had established the framework of mass production under the overpowering capitalism and consumerism as early as during the first wave of industrial revolution. And the discovery of energies, the invention of machines and tools for sheet metal and steel during the second wave gave wings to the manufacture of metal products. Electronic communication developed during the third wave has successfully constructed a ubiquitous network of marketing in order to implant new ideas of demand-supply into the public. Brainwashed by tempting slogans of better food, clothing, dwelling, traveling and entertainment, consumers were taught to replace the old with new as quickly as possible. They are lost, trapped in the “consumer society”4 Jean Baudrillard pointed out. Sociologists are worried, environmentalists are warning, politicians are spreading propaganda, and the only party enjoys itself is the corporate trusts which exploit laborers, merge smaller businesses and monopoly economic artilleries, wealth and power.
In such an atmosphere, by no means artists could remain silent. Embracing or repelling, worrying or greeting, accepting or criticizing the coming of industrial civilization, artists were the most sensitive people about the changes. As early as in 1844, British romanticist painter J.M. William Turner (1789- 1862) had praised new transportation in industrial age with his work Rain, Steam and Speed The Great Western Railway (oil on canvas, 91 cm x 121.8 cm, National Gallery, London). But not until the 1960s did the art society collectively respond to the mass production and mass consumption of industrial civilization through the Nouveau Réalisme that took shape in France. Called by art critic Pierre Restany (1930-2003), artists gathered in Milan on April 16, 1960 and announced the Nouveau Réalisme Manifesto. On October 27 of the same year, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and other artists signed la Déclaration constitutive du Nouveau Réalisme in her apartment at Rue Campagne-Première, Paris. The terse declaration was handwritten in white chalk on a blue paper Klein usually used (100x66cm). It was said that, “Artists of New Realism are aware of their unique collectivity; New Realism is a new approach to our perception of real things.”5
In addition to Klein, another seven artists signed the declaration, they were Armand Pierre Fernandez (1928-2005), François Dufrêne(1930-1982), Raymond Hains (1926-2005), Martial Raysse (1936- ), Daniel Spoerri ( 1930- ), Jean Tinguely (1925-1991), and Jacques Mahé de la Villeglé (1926- ). And Restany also signed. Each one of the nine members kept a copy of the declaration. Two members did not attend the signing, they were César Baldaccini (1921-1998) and Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006). Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) and Gérard Deschamps (1937- ) joined the group in 1961, when it became most active. And Christo Vladimirov Javacheff (1935- ) did not join it until 1963.
Tinguely employed used steel wheels and traction motors to produce moving artworks that made sounds, it was his kinetic art. César welded and pressed steel parts or products, such as abandoned panels from cars, to make his sculpture. The original functions of the parts and products were altered. Arman expressed his love and hate among other contradictory feelings about consumerism through accumulating, cutting or smashing ready-made products for daily use. Nevertheless, Nouveau Réalisme is often mistaken by Americans as the same movement of Pop Art that also responded to consumerism. In fact, they set out from quite different standpoints and drove toward different directions. American Pop Art also made use of industrial products, new, used or abandoned, but most of the artists focused on the phenomena of consumerism and the direct presentation of excessive commercial images, not unlike the style of Baroque. And artists of French Nouveau Réalisme reflected upon the damages to civilization and environment caused by mass production and massive waste, and their creation magically transformed used or trashed products into art.
Restany, deemed as the mentor of Nouveau Réalisme, pointed out that the birth of this movement came from the preference of realism after the Second World War. Realism at this time reflected people’s concerns of the reality in life. He further explained, “It is industrial, urban, and is regard to mass media.” Using Klein’s actions as the example, Restany defined the reality he had referred as a “modern nature” which never could break away from a civilization of images, or consumerism6. His comment sharply distinguished Nouveau Réalisme from Pop Art, “The moderation or intervention of artistry is crucial to Pop, but such significance has been reduced to zero by the Nouveau Réalisme. It’s our eyesight deciding the art and taking the ethical responsibility of beauty appreciation.”7
Liu’s attitude toward the temptation of waste steel and iron was consistent to that of Nouveau Réalisme artists. Liu said, “Consumerism has produced excessive goods and their duplicates, and technology has compressed time and space. New inventions accelerate the replacement of old things, and in such distorted time and space, our values are decided by materialist economy. These mounds of waste iron are the most powerful proof.” 8
Ⅲ. Human, Nature and Site
The subtle relationship between humans and nature has been the frequent topic of discussions, research and presentation of philosophers, sociologists and artists in the history. Writer and philosopher Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814) was born in the beginning of industrialization and had witnessed the sea change. He said, “Before becoming a member of the society, I belonged to nature.”9 It well depicted how people thought when the world turned from agricultural to industrial. In agricultural era, people had inseparable relationship with nature that decided their life and death. Today, in the digital era with highly developed technology, humans disassociate themselves from nature and tighten the bonds between one another. But do not forget that in the immensity of universe, humans are still extremely trivial and are incapable of understanding the borderless nature our survival relies on. Humans, among all beings, could extinguish simply without clean air and water. And although humans feel closer to one another through digital technology, such bonds are virtual without temperature.
Our changed ideas and attitude toward nature in a world of highly developed technology bring the artist delights as well as worries. On one hand we enjoy the speed, precision and efficiency of the industrial society, on the other we witness the destroyed ecology, increasing gap between rich and poor, worsening rural and urban disparity, as well as problems resulting from imbalance, such as high unemployment and social indifference. Through his art, Liu seems to cry out, I am a member of the hi-tech civilization as well as a human being, and I respect and take care the space for my survival.
Take his Iron Man Series for example, Liu’s choice for the image of human in the industrial civilization and consumerist society was based on his exploration of humanity, rather than on his consideration of forms. He raised questions to himself, “How to interpret the current situation of humans? How can I present the ideal world humans wish to construct through shaping these metal materials? … with the torso and limbs of a bodybuilder, the Iron Man is to symbolize the utopian idealism.”10 Liu’s Iron Man with the image of bodybuilders suggests extravagance (British master artist of Pop Richard Hamilton also used similar image in his Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) of consumerism. The artist also uses it to satirize the naivety of humans who are so determined to change nature because they are convinced that their strong bodies are able to overpower it. In his diary, Liu wrote, “The essence of a bodybuilder is the steel and iron, not the man. The firmness of body is the ideal quality people pursue today.”11
The steel and iron Liu applies include steel panels that had been forged and cut repeatedly, or whose malleability had been increased in high temperature. He picks out recycled parts or products for welding and surface treatment, he makes use the machines, tools and chemicals available in the factory, as well as the slag found under the furnace. As a sculptor, Liu created a new semantics and grammatical constituents for the entire domain in order to deal with his contradictory feelings about industrial civilization. Liu’s definition and extension of his formal language, as well as his endless invention of exciting, legendary working procedures, have distinguished him from other metal sculptors.
Just like the comparative study of the romanticism of Eugène Delacroix and the romanticism of others, Théodore Géricault (1791- 1824) for example, it wouldn’t establish without studying the truthful thoughts the artist had written down after calm deliberation in the Journal de Eugène Delacroix. To outline the difference between Liu’s creation through his thoughts on humanity before deciding his forms and other sculptors’ priority of forms, I must quote his diary again and again.
“The oxidization of iron induced by acid liquid results in fast erosion. The sense of time solves in such quick damage. Thus metal ready-mades become archeological symbols of the history. The piles of waste iron have been converted into an unusual site of archeology full of objects of modern time for modern people to excavate.” (Sep/05/2009)
What messages Liu has disclosed in this paragraph? First, he focuses on the materials. A steel sculptor, Liu is very clear that materials are the mediums as well as the languages of artists’ interpretation. They are the flesh and blood of sculpture; the embodiment of the images artists bury deeply in their mind. French philosopher and art critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was the best interpreter of Cy Twombly’s (1928-2011) art, he talked about Twombly’s abstract pencil sketches, “Materials represent the nature of art, showing us the certitude of pencils.”12 The post-structuralist art critic equaled Twombly’s pencil and his painting because of his deep understanding of the artist and his insight of the persuasive power of materials. Secondly, Liu associates rusted iron with archeological sites and marks the mounds of waste iron as a special domain with archeological significance. It is an archeological site of modern civilization in the eyes of people today. In terms of the actions or approaches of creation, Liu’s art could have completed at this stage, the rest of the tasks are his own personal experience with people, nature and materials, as well as his definite interpretation.
The Transformed Iron Man— The Deity (2013, Steel & Iron, 246×180×410 cm) was manufactured with the steel panels forged by waste iron provided by Tung Ho Steel. Liu drew the figures of iron man and repeatedly cut out his profile like paper-cutting, only it was cut with high temperature of oxyacetylene flame. From the seams between cuts, the lines of the iron man were pulled out and extended to constitute multiple layers of changing images. The tree leaf the iron man is holding suggests the paradox between iron- symbol of industrial civilization- and leaf- symbol of nature. It is the artist’s observant conclusion about human’s wish to integrate both in a Utopia. Through the contrast of piles of waste iron and the sharp images of the iron man, the artist’s messages are spread with even stronger signals.
Liu is very good at expressing his sophisticated thoughts through masculine materials and vigorous forms. Lines of Iron Men (2013, Steel & Iron, 10×200×240 cm) was also manufactured with waste iron at the recycling site of the Tung Ho Steel. It is a combination of iron men of different sizes and similar movements. Arrayed iron men standing orderly among the interlinked mounds of waste iron, each has its unique quality. They revitalize the arid recycling site, the discarded materials are given lives and stories by the artist.
The City Divergence I (2013, Steel & Iron, 550×560×400 cm) demonstrates the artist’s thoughtful handling of issues regarding human, nature, materials and sites through the puns of art language in both 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional spaces. As early as Liu began metal sculpture he has “set human as his motif and configuration as the framework of interpretation. And the images of human are about the content of configuration that develops from the outside toward the inside of steel panels.” 13 The profiling proceeds repeatedly at intervals and gradually alters, and the 2-dimensional figures are regrouped and deployed around the site; their contour lines overlock and constitute pictures of dynamic and rhythmic sketches. They are 3-dimensional linear sculpture with ever changing void and solid. This type of sculpture with lightened volumes has a new trend in the international sculpture society, one example is highly acclaimed Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa (1955- ), who weaves human heads or huge human figures of letters with stainless steel threads. His works have been installed in at least twenty countries all over the world.
Mentioning Plensa because two works of Liu can be compared to his hollow sculpture, they are The Mountain of Iron Men (2013, Steel & Iron, 650×450×600 cm) and The Door of Iron Men (2013, Steel & Iron, 105×13×245 cm). In terms of constituents, Plensa refers local customs and folk stories to select letters from keywords among other significant symbols. Liu also shapes his iron men referring local traits. The art of the former comes from abstract linguistic elements, the later from figuristic visual symbols. Both artists have their hollow sculpture with lightened volumes to establish an intimate relationship with the sites. Plensa carefully polishes the forged letters to emphasize the precise calculation of hi-tech in industrial civilization, and Liu cuts out iron men of the same scale with laser before burning their surface with fire gun. He twists them slightly when the iron is softened and gets rid of sharp angles through melting them in hot fire in order to create plain, even rough surface. Such a style is Liu’s opinions about the contribution as well as the violence brought up by industrialization. Liu refuses to accept industrial civilization without preconditions, but he makes his preconditions uncertain. Perhaps it’s his strategy to avoid being labelled. In short, the deepest difference between the two artists is their attitude toward the relationship between human and nature.
The residency in the Tung Ho Steel has brought Liu a thorough advancement in metal sculpture, leaving him a mark of milestone. Altered Land (2013, Steel & Iron, 240×210×110 cm；210×220×100 cm；160×170×50 cm；210×110×90 cm) is a large theater constituted by four groups of sculpture. They are small steel human figures manufactured by slag, each group has three to five of them with slightly different positions. They are performing dramas of love and hate, of survival competitions of humans. This project reminds me the dramatic tension in the mysterious ruins created by French sculptors Anne and Patrick Poirier (1942- ). In addition to Altered Land, Liu’s Altered Territory — Onset I (2013, Steel & Iron, 230×123×227 cm), Altered Territory — Onset II (2013, Steel & Iron, 120×100×248 cm) and Face of Mother Earth (2013, Steel & Iron, 210×140×230 cm) all present his strong concern about the archeological connotation in the metal. His “archeological conscious” pushes his art beyond simply being decided by its formal beauty, and his “archeological imagery” shows the depth of his work. He maintains the appearance of slag, suggesting an end of the misfortunate of human, whose fate has been devastated again and again; it also suggests the final return to earth. Altered Land is Liu’s revelation for industrial civilization, and Altered Territory — Onset I& II are like the documentary of human evolution, with it he intends to wake up our awareness. And the Face of Mother Earth can be used as a maxim to remind people in our time how we could be trapped in trading time and value in industrial civilization.
Liu always thinks reversely about the formal language of steel and iron as the symbols of industrialization and mechanization. He makes use of machines but refuses to become a machine. Instead, he responds to the mechanic, standardized world through making organic things with temperature, life and vitality. The large outdoor sculpture Roaming over Clouds (9×9×3m) Liu completed in 2014 consists several towering trees. The small branches from the tree trunks are releasing messages, and the outlined white clouds on the top are shaped by irregular, rough steel threads, not unlike Townbly’s scribbles, and the sky without boundary is his canvas. Sophisticated in thinking, free in formal language, Liu never lets go any chance to be the messenger of his time. With the pun, Roaming over Clouds contains ideas of nature as well as up-to-date technology.
Passing Through the Divine Tree (2015, Iron & Stainless Steel 20×20×4.5 m) is a spectacular project of public art, installed in the park next to the Chiayi County Hall. An entire picture of how these giant trees are arrayed can be seen only from above: concentric circles planted iron trees with the images of red wood in Ali Mountain, an arcadia is created. An inviting project for visitors to stroll in it, to experience the man-made nature of steel trees. Through this project, the artist brings up the issues plaguing us: What we have pursued hard is not what we want, and we loath what we had desired. Wake up, people in industrial era!
In the same park, Liu’s another public artwork The Dance of Life (2015, bronze, 7×3×2.5 m) continues the organism of the slag iron men in 2013. To respond to the site in a public park, the artist sought a formal language compatible by the surroundings with bronze cast of his earlier bodybuilders of rough appearance, and their surface are maintained peeled and patinaed. Elves dance in an expansive green field in a newly formed universe, they radiate magic aura and passion, reminding people to take care of themselves as well as all beings. It is a project pleading for environmental consciousness. Liu never ceases expressing his concern of human and nature in his art.
Liu earned his master degree emphasising sculpture from École Nationale Supérieur des Beaux-Arts de Paris in 1994. From 2004 to 2006 he headed the Department of Sculpture, National Taiwan University of Arts. In 2011 he took the position of Museum Director of NTUA. Liu never allows his burdening administrative work affecting his creation and has solo and joint exhibitions in Taiwan and overseas frequently. Liu’s works had been exhibited among acclaimed artists including forefather of video art Nam June Paik (1932-2006) from Korea, minimalist sculptor Phillip King (1934- ) from the UK, David Nash (1945- ) from the UK who creates with stone and trees among other natural objects, avant-garde sculptor/illustrator Mimmo Paladino (1948-) from Italy, minimalist sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro (1926- ) from Italy, landscape/environment/ecologist artist Alan Sonfist (1946-) from the US, and sculptor Nikolay Vladimirovich Polissky (1957-) from Russia who creates gigantic projects with wood among other natu- ral materials. Exhibiting with these artists, Liu’s earns himself a glorious curriculum vitae.
At this moment, Liu is working on Dragon (2015, Bronze, 42×64×21 cm) commissioned by the Musée de l’Homme in France. It is an honor. The Musée is under remodel, according to news, and is scheduled to reopen in the end of 2015. It will be a double blessing when Liu’s work is completed and displayed for the inauguration. Liu also is commissioned by Roma Lifestyle Hotel in Italy to create three large outdoor sculptures. They are Kiss (In manufacture, Dyed brass 245×205×265 cm), Praising Life (In manufacture, Dyed brass, 150×115×500 cm), and The City Divergence II (2015, iron, spray paint, height 360cm, three pieces). These three artworks will be permanently displayed at the plaza in front of the hotel. For a sculptor devoted himself in sculpture for only twenty-four years, it’s indeed an unusual achievement.
Before starting steel and iron sculpture in 1996, Liu actually had tried different materials and methods, including clay, marble, granite and FRP among other ready-mades. But he realized that the art of sculpture should not alienate itself from the reality of our survival; it should not be appreciated as treasure only. Steel and iron are the symbols of industrial civilization and consumerism, thus he devoted himself in this tough and challenging tasks without hesitation. Steel and iron are Liu’s mediums, the carriers of his critical ideas of humanity and environment among other social issues. The cold steel and iron are given temperature by Liu’s art, he gives them lives and certain destinies.
When an artist’s style is recognized by the international society, he will feel the energy and the power in himself. Liu Po-Chun is at the peak of his creation, an explosive dynamics is awaiting. We cheer for him, and expect his greater achievement.
- These paragraphs were found at the back of the cover of a catalogue without date of publishing or name of publisher that Liu had given me. I inquired about it to the artist, he said it was his diary during his residency at Tung Ho in 2009. The period of time of this diary spanned more than three months (2009/09/01-2010/01/03), expressing his thoughts of being seduced by waste steel and iron, his ideas for creation, his meditation, his challenges of new techniques such as new methods of welding, his decisions of formal language, his experience and relatedness in/to the site, as well as his reflection upon the conflicts and balance between human being, nature and industries. The verse-like writing seems to be playful and stressless, but it tells me what keeps the artist’s mind busy. It is an indispensable reference of Liu’s art.
- Po-Chun Liu: Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, Sep 11, 2009.
- Jean Baudrillard, La Société de Consommation, folio, Paris, 1970.
- Bernard Ceysson, Vingt-Cinqans d’Art 1960-1985 en France, 1986 Larousse, Jacques Legrand a., p.95:“ Les Nouveaux Réalistes ont pris conscience de leur singularité collective. Nouveau Réalisme＝ nouvelles approches perceptives du réel.”
- Pierre Restany, Une vie dans l’art － entretiens avec Jean-François Bory, Ides et Calendes, Neuchâtel, Suisse, 1983, pp.18-20.
- Bernadette Contensou, 1960Les Nouveaux Réalistes, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1986, Un entretien avec Pierre Restany, p. 21: L’intervention du compromis artistique, chère au pop est, dans le Nouveau Réalisme, réduite à C’est le regard qui crée l’oeuvre et en assume la moralité esthétique totale. ”
- Po-Chun Liu: Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, Sep 17,
- Je suis l’homme de la nature avant que d’être celui de la société.
- Chun-Lan Liu, “TheWay to Steel Sculpture”, Extraordinary Relation 0, Catalog of the Residency of International Artists in Tung Ho Steel. Tung Ho Steel Culture Foundation, Taipei City. p.60.
- Po-Chun Liu, op. cit., 2009/10/04
- Roland Barthes:“La matière va montrer son essence, nous montrer la certitude de son nom : c’est du crayon ” (Texte inclus à Cy Twombly : Cinquante années de dessins, catalogue de l’exposition au centre Pompidou, 21 janvier 2004 – 29 mars 2004.)
- Chun-Lan Liu, ibid., p.54.