The Transfiguration of Po-Chun Liu’s Sculpture —
Issues Begin with Dimensions
Author／Chun-Lan Liu（Ph.D. of Art History and Archeology, Université Sorbonne- Paris IV、Director, Yo-Chang Art Museum Professor, Department of Sculpture, National Taiwan University of Arts）
Human bodies are the core theme of Po-Chun Liu’s sculpture.
In the history of sculpture, human bodies undoubtedly have been the motif of presentation since old time, and it is naturally a familiar subject for Liu, an academically trained sculptor who had taken solid courses of human body figuration. In the end of the 1980s, Liu, who just left school, won many awards from national, provincial and local levels of competitions with his sculpture of human bodies. In the following years, Liu began his various art experiments, including his exploration of abstract art during his time in Paris. After returning to Taiwan and stayed down for several years, in 1996, Liu began applying iron and steel for his sculpture. He had his first solo exhibition in 1997 and determined to have a “body turn” for his art. Bodies became his subject again which has lasted throughout his art career ever since.
If we accept what Georges Bataille’s ideas that art is an action of ceaseless altering, then the prior goal of art is not forms but the alteration of forms1. What alteration Liu has conducted to the human bodies of his sculpture? And what variations have been presented? As a steel sculptor, how does Liu make use of materials from modern industries to rethink or to challenge this motif that has been so common and so familiar to himself and other sculptors?
“The human bodies in my sculpture have various sizes,” Liu said2. Indeed, among his human figures, one sees a few of life size first, then will be impressed by those with “unusual” sizes — unusually huge or small. Some of them are as big as four or five meters high, and some of them are only several centimeters tall. Some projects are human figures of different sizes welded together. The meanings of sizes in sculpture belong to a field worth more investigation. From large outdoor projects to works displayed on desks or shelves, to exquisite micro-carving, the dimensions of sculpture usually depend on the prescribed locations they will be shown. In terms of their significance, a long time tradition can be described as such: large sculptures are often monumental, heroic and magnificent; small or micro sculptures often are modest, delicate and sophisticated. Nevertheless, these rules don’t always work on Liu’s art.
Liu’s presentation of human bodies commenced from his exploration of complete and incomplete bodies during the early phase of his art career. Furthermore, through the variations of dimensions, conflicting images and concepts interlace, secretly forming a “relativity” deep under the obscure structure and orders. A topographic connection as well as an art semantics are developed, and ideas regarding “relatively” and “relationship” have been rethought again and again.
Complete and Incomplete
Looking back Liu’s presentation of human bodies throughout his art career, we undoubtedly can make out 2009, the year he had the residency in Tung Ho Steel, as the great divide. Before that time Liu’s human bodies were dismembered, limbs and torsos scattering around, compared to the whole bodies of symbolic human figures afterwards. Arms and legs, and decapitated torsos were the fundamental elements in Liu’s early works. In the catalogue of his works during 1997 to 1999, he used the title “An Incomplete Beginning” to introduce the armless torsos by Auguste Rodin, Antoine Bourdelle and Aristide Maillol, as well as the egg-shaped heads by Constantin Brancusi. Liu talked about the “complete autonomy” in the pure aesthetics accomplished through the incomplete bodies. Liu takes the incomplete bodies of the past artists as the beginning of modern sculpture, and also the starting pointing of his creation3. In order to catch the context of the artist’s human bodies, we have go back to the origin, where the dimensions became crucial conditions of his concepts and expressive tools that continued to be practiced in his later creation.
Comparison of complete and incomplete human bodies in sculpture, or, in other words, the appreciation of incomplete human bodies, is not a new thing. Writer Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about Auguste Rodin and Archaic Torso of Apollo in his essay and poem in 1903 and 1908 respectively, in which he pointed out that the expressiveness of incomplete bodies overpowered complete bodies. Rilke referred two key texts in the history of representing body fragments. The aesthetic value of remnants from ancient sculpture has been confirmed by art collectors as early as the Renaissance, and Michelangelo especially appreciated the Torso Belvedere, he praised its beauty of perfection and believed that it did not need to be restored. Michelangelo’s art was heavily influenced by Torso Belvedere. Nevertheless, the aesthetic autonomy of body fragments was not established until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.4 Rodin, whose art was greatly in debt to Michelangelo and probably had duplicated Torso Belvedere as his practice, played a crucial role in the establishment. Rodin’s influence made body fragments a popular theme in sculpture during the beginning of the 20th century. A headless, armless or legless human figure could be deemed as an integral, final sculpture. Body parts, such as heads, arms, palms, legs or feet could be independent projects. Like the work of Brancusi was his probe of pure forms in parts of sculpture, he had deduced a possible path toward abstraction. There are not without reasons that Rosalind Krauss strongly believes that “modern sculpture was born from classical archaeology”.5
Awarded a governmental scholarship and studied in Paris, Liu obviously was inspired by such “incomplete aesthetics”, he tried to have dialogs with this tradition. The deep and poetic charm in his “Incomplete Beginning” comes rather from all kinds of incompleteness of human body structure than from the completeness of incomplete bodies under the gaze of pure and automatic aesthetics. Liu has produced torsos without head or arms or legs in his Untitled (1997), Torso (1999) and Industrial Duplication (1999); a body chopped at the waist of the Lower Half (1997); dismembered head and limbs of the Represented Statues (1997), and a head, hands and feet without torso of the Body and Space (1997)… The artist’s incomplete bodies are not only his focusing on partial areas framed by artistic views out of the author’s selection, but also from truly shattered body parts. Not only the incompleteness is accentuated, but also the broken, fragmentary remains scattered around.
It is noteworthy that the difference between Liu’s art and modernist sculpture lies in the relationship between his incomplete body parts; the remains scattered around appear to be wishing to get reassembled. The titles of Liu’s exhibitions — “Convergence‧Divergence” and “Forms‧Separating‧On Site” — indicate this subtlety contained in their gathering or separation. But they are incomplete human puzzles with pieces missing or mismatched in sizes. Big torsos are given small heads or slim torsos left with big heads and limbs. It’s impossible to put them up together, and our optimistic wishes to restore destroyed.
The variations in sizes are one of the artist’s expressive methods. In his statement for the “incomplete” series of human bodies, he described the dimensions of each project with great trouble. It proves how much he cares about them.6 Not only the objects from his projects, Liu takes great care of the volume of each exhibition venue before deploying his incomplete body parts with various sizes. Looking back at the themes of his solo exhibitions — “Forms‧Separating‧On Site” (1999), “Between Concreteness and Buoyancy: Penetrating Space” (2005), “Steel Construction Ι: Body, Signs, and Spatial Expression” (2006), “Space, Body and Intermediary Texture” (2006), “Steel Construction II: Nature, Space, and Intermediary Texture” (2007) — we see how important the space is to Liu’s creation. Our senses of spatial dimensions come from our own bodies as well as the spatial relations between the seeing subjects and seen objects, for example, their distances. It echoes what Robert Morris said, “In the perception of relative size the human body … establishes itself as a constant on that scale… The awareness of scale is a function of the comparison made between that constant, one’s own body size, and the object. Space between the subject and the object is implied in such a comparison.” 7
Alberto Giacometti’s art provides the best example of thoughts upon spatial dimensions. Giacometti experimented on the sizes of sculpture with great effort, he enlarged or shrank human bodies to create the effects of perspective in painting. The smaller the objects are, the easier it is to represent to whole. When he shrank the head, he was to “avoid focusing on details too much. In order to see the whole, the figures must recede further and further, and the head must be smaller and smaller…”.8 If Liu considers the sizes of his body parts in the same way of Giacometti’s, then his attempt of making them with incongruous sizes is to destroy the spatial order by causing paradoxes in it. Enlarged or shrunken human parts without the same proportion are equal to compress the depth of planes and to juxtapose, mix or displace objects for the purpose of dissolve the rules of perspective. Thus a peculiar, unmeasurable field of montage emerges, everything in it has obscure relation with one another, human parts are misplaced, some are even hung in the air; it reveals the loss of the calibrated relation.
Through the variations of sizes, the artist deals not only with the bodies in space but also with linear structure to present “bodies in bodies”, “spaces in bodies” among other layered wrapping manners. In Liu’s Reflection in 1997 and the 7-piece Figures series he developed two years later (1999), there were, inside the enlarged human heads made by webs, small torsos, miniature houses, trees, rocks, clouds, frogs and mirrors. The web heads, not unlike cages, were the imposing symbol of humanity and nature, it was the artist’s attempt to investigate the relationship between humans, the society and nature. 9 In addition to deconstruction, Liu also tried to “penetrate” bodies to develop another type of incompleteness for the purpose of revealing the conditions inside and outside human bodies during the advancement of civilization. Thus the incomplete bodies are the disclosure of symptoms developed in modern society, and respond to the fast changing and disconnected reality.
Perfect and Hollow
However, the very representative of Liu’s body sculptures are not the “incomplete” figures, but his Iron Man series with complete contours, which well-known British sculptor Phillip King recognizes as the most challenging and most creative project of Liu’s. 10 Since 2009, Iron Man has become the most frequent motif in Liu’s art, and although it is called series, it is actually a development of an entire system. Iron Man combines the immortality of Buddhist warriors, the invincible heroes in chivalric tales, and the undefeatable victors from myths or sci-fi. The shapes of Liu’s Iron Men come from bodybuilders; they are strong, muscular, robust and firm. They lift arms upward with great confidence, their herculean bodies represent what the artist stated “ideal and perfect flesh”.11
Georg W. F. Hegel had commented in his writing Esthétique that bodies are not represented according to how the bodies really are but our ideas about the bodies. Ideal canons are those bodies carry rich significance, such as the Greek sculpture of perfect proportions or Vitruve or Da Vinci’s “Homme dans le cercle” whose body could be perfectly fit the circle. But for Liu, his earlier incompleteness of human bodies was the prelude of his response to the real world, and the super bodies of the robust Iron Men are more about a crucial turning toward the artist’s contemplation upon a Utopia in modern society shaped by the civilization of iron and steel industry. Liu’s turning was facilitated by his residency in Tung Ho Steel in 2009, where he grew a deep understanding of industriality through personal experience. The overwhelming massiveness of the industrial site was no less a scene in sci-fi movies to Liu.12 “Iron and steel constitute the ideal world,” Liu said, “so I created Iron Man series.” 13 Iron Man symbolizes the world of which people dream, and his desired body of perfection is the body of Utopia craved by modernity. Liu incarnates this body in athletic giant profile.
German esthetician Immanuel Kant recognized the sublime beauty of the gigantic objects, and was echoed by French philosophers Louis Marin and François Lyotard later.14 Gigantic sculpture has a long history and could be dated back to ancient Egypt, Greece, pre-Columbian America and the stone caves in China… Religious sculptures were to represent the sublime sacredness by dwarfing ordinary people so they would be awed and marveling at them. The effects of gigantic objects have been experienced since ancient times; they influence the physical spaces and people’s perception. In the history of statue making, the proportion of sizes implied the statuses of the characters, which is seen in both the eastern and western culture. During the Renaissance, Pomponio Guarico wrote On Sculpture (1504), analyzing the relations between dimensions and levels of sculpture and suggested suitable sizes for figures belonging to various ranks. Guarico also provided very interesting suggestions: Life-size figures are suitable for wise men or virtuous men, 1.5 times of life-size are suitable for great leaders or emperors, twice of life-size are suitable for heroes, and colossal figures that are more than three times of life-size are for gods like Zeus or Apollo.15
Liu’s Iron Men are often larger than life-size, many of them are as tall as 3, 4 or even 5 meters. With the monumentality, the “sublime” dimensions, Liu formulated an ideal world for modern deities; the Iron Men are divine heroes with great power. His recent The Incarnation of Iron Man—The Deity and Transformed Iron Man — The Deity (2013) are best examples.
Liu is very clear about the power and effects of large sizes and makes use the iron and steel; he processes them with modern machines. In the series of Iron Men, Liu applies two patterns for his fabrication which continues up to today. They induced two directions of series works, one is linear, such as the silhouettes cut by laser from steel panels. Another one is assembled iron scrap. What more important is, in each series, Liu re-originated the meanings of large sculpture, in some occasions he even reversed the ideas of sublime beauty and perfect forms.
First, Liu relies more on industrial machines to produce the linear series in order to subvert conventional ideas about large sculpture. During manufacturing them, the artist emphasized several times that what he was not cutting from papers but solid, heavy steel panels. And it proceeded no more difficult than paper cutting because “the powerful force of industrialization”.16 And while representing such a powerful force, Liu eliminated the overpowering mass and weight usually related to the monumental sculpture. The Iron Men were hollowed out, and with contours only, the sense of heaviness disappeared, replaced by emptiness. The showing off Iron Men without “internal” did not fit the perfect image of heroism and invincibility, “…they are bluffing,” the artist said.
With “the powerful force”, Liu manipulates his projects with great alertness to present his large groups of Iron Men: from outside toward inside, one after another contour line was cut out, just like cartography. Then the contour lines were stretched out to become groups of figures. From 2-Dimensional to 3-Dimensional, the artist plays ideas of painting in his sculpture, and transforms heavy iron and steel into the lightness of streamlines. The numerous figures hung in the air in Flying Iron Men (2012) are a perfect example of the artist’s endeavors of reversing weightiness into buoyancy. It’s a smart scheme; the author’s clever ideas and maneuvers are seen throughout the procedure of his manufacture as well his final products.
Borrowing the fashion of paper cutting, Liu created effects of complex with seemingly endless reproducing layers in a limited space. Splitting from one to multiple, like cell division, the unstopped self-mirroring is not unlike mise en abyme, the hall of mirrors, one single image is endlessly reflected and repeated.
The contour lines of the grouped Iron Men are flowing freely with great dynamics, reminiscent to Gilles Deleuze’s comment on the “folds” in Baroque oil paintings: the curvy, endless and continuous extension seems to grow for its own purposes. It diverted from portraying the objects, brimmed over the framework of representation, and accomplished an unusual expression.17 The final contours are decided by it, which possesses robust expressiveness, unparalleled, varying, and deducing an abstract aesthetics from the playful streamlines. It deviates from the utopian bodies of the Iron Men, and almost can be seen as a counter-text of another layer, and in it, the bodies of Iron Men are further hollowed out or dissolved.
The overlayered outlines of Liu’s hollowed Iron Men bring to mind David Smith’s “drawing in space”, but cover a more ambitious scope of aesthetics. Liu was not trying to define contours, on the contrary, he attempted to make blurring forms move or change, so their shadows interlace in light. Under the changing light and shades, the layered body shapes and curves constituted a perplexing poetry that looked so impossible to be created by iron and steel. The Iron Men are not only hollowed out, they are hallucinating. For example, Liu’s works for the 2010 Taiwan Biennale and SOMA Museum for Art in Korea in 2013 were large, shadowy and illusory. The strings cut and pulled out from steel panels had been bent or folded by the artist to accentuate the subtle dynamics of the layered contours. They reminded us the continuous shots of French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, each movement was caught and shown. In some projects, Liu installed machines to slightly shake the figures, or glistening LEDs to enhance the hallucinatory effects.
The hollowed, giant Iron Men furthered Liu’s experiments on the relationship between sculpture and space, especially his attempts to bring the audience to participate in the interactions, not just as bystanders. The aforementioned “bodies in bodies”, “space in bodies”, or “penetrated bodies” are more thoroughly embodied in large projects. The hollowed Iron Men become shells to be stuffed, and people stroll through their emptied bodies. The emptied bodies of Iron Men are made into containers, or frames, the real scenes are thus filled by the time and space. Thus the subjects and objects exchanged their places, and the empty bodies of Iron Men are altered all the time as the infill changes, dissolving the conventional ideas about iron and steel: firm and unchangeable. In the Iron Man Tree, the subjectivity of Iron Men was, further dissolved, becoming a part of nature. People and trees, industrialization/civilization and nature, sometimes integrate into one another, sometimes cross examine one another. Whether the bodies are filled by time and space, or melted into the “artificial nature” or “second nature”, the metamorphosed Iron Men are the evidences of Liu’s energetic “body transformation”
Imperishable and Perishable
In the series of assembled Iron Men of recycled iron and steel, the giant, robust figures reveal their components are nothing but irregular pieces of scrap. American artist Claes Oldenburg, whose works are exaggeratedly enlarged commonplace objects, had said, “When we magnify a thing, we force people to observe every part of it.”18 We can’t avoid seeing the scraps consisting of the Iron Men even we try not to gaze at them. Dismantled, cut, pressed, or twisted during the recycling procedure, the scraps display unexpected variations, attracting the artist to explore them. The visual allurement of these odd metal pieces is nevertheless so contradictory to the imperishable, idealist image of the Iron Men.
These pieces of scrap are like exposed, brittle entrails of the Iron Men. Or, the Iron Men are like the skinned bodies for anatomy classes. The innate world of human beings is still a mystery despite the progress of technology. It is a small universe, no less complex than the large systems of cities, societies, countries and world. The voluminous publication Fragments for a History of Human Body (1989), compiled by Michel Feher and contributed more than 40 authors, investigated the mechanism of organs and tissues under the skin, and compared them to the operations of human societies or the structures of universe, full with metaphors. The exposed body tissues of Liu’s Iron Men are the recycled parts from buildings, weapons, vehicles or daily metal tools…. they mirror the modern civilization and consumerism, the “simulated image of an industrial society” Liu calls.19 The bricolage of a large number of objects represents human bodies, refracting the relationship between human beings and products. Later Liu also referred his human figures to the medical mannequins for acupuncture to accentuate the comparison of small universe and big world. The City Bodies (2013) and The Transfiguration of the City (2013) are the artist’s efforts to compare human bodies to the cities with the meridians and acupuncture points carved on the Chinese medical mannequins. The texture of scape and the tissues of the bodies are the context of the cities as well.
The scraps made into bodies of Iron Men carry a lot of background stories. Liu praises their peculiar characteristics shaped by irresistible forces, and borrows their signifying functions to construct his archaeological angles─ He looks at “now” with a view from the future, the world and modern civilization we live in at this moment. Inspired by the “incomplete aesthetics” of the “classical archeology”, Liu comes up with the ideas for “archeology of modern world”. To him, a variety of waste metal pieces are the ruins of modern world, same to the fragments excavated in archaeological pits. He calls them the “archaeological objects of modern civilization”, or “historical marks of archaeology”. While surrounded by mounds of scrap during his residency in Tung Ho, he felt he was in “an unusual occasion of archaeology”. They were the “pyramids of industrialization”, or “monuments of people living in the twentieth century”.20 Liu is deeply fascinated by the ruins made by large piles of scrap and discarded parts. Moved by the “incompleteness”, Liu recalled, “I was totally overwhelmed when I walked near them.”21 The waste is treasure to him. A treasure “of mysterious profundity”, “beyond imagination”, “aspires people to approach it.” And the site is “an ancient castle”, “a domain for information and messages”.22 Being in the fantastic “modern ruins” that contain abstruse secrets, Liu’s poetic ideas have been greatly evoked. Not unlike the thoughts of French romanticist writer François-René de Chateaubriand when he was immersed in the grandeur of Roman ruins, “…when one was in the city of eternity, each time he takes a walk he learns something from the rocks he steps on, or the dust his footsteps kick up, about the greatness of human beings.”23
Seeing the ruins in Roman, Babylon, Memphis, Mycenae, Troy, Athens and Carthage among other historical sites…from all the glorious past engraved in the decayed historical remnants, we realized that the monuments and ruins are actually the two sides of one thing. The embodiment, the artist’s feelings and imagination of the scrap, with the giant figures is his interpretation of monuments that have a tradition closely related to large sculpture. The pieces of broken metal, discarded or buried and eventually ended up in Tung Ho, contain memories and meanings waiting to be dug out. Liu collected those historical pieces to make monumental Iron Men, and at the same time, making the bodies of the Iron Men into unsheltered ruins. They are the monuments presenting the author’s aesthetics for ruins; they are carved with the past, storing memories, flashing the ephemeral glory that has faded away into dilapidation quickly.
The discussions of monuments-ruins lead us to the aforementioned mutuality of big and small universe implied by Liu’s Iron Men of scraps. The gigantic and robust Iron Men are the embodiment of the idols of consumerism and industrial production. On the contrary, the organs of the Iron Men, the broken, rusted metal pieces no longer serving any functions, give startling looks that are contradictory to the heroic image of Iron Men. The body remains, despite their muscular contours, reek a rotting smell of vanishing life, connecting the scrap Iron Men with the theme of Vanitas. The Vanitas motifs, the fading prosperity and the ultimate death often symbolized by skulls, remains among other perishing things, have been resumed and represented through contemporary artists and artworks all over the world in questioning the existing conditions of human beings in globalization.24 Is Liu trying to suggest the shattering dream of Utopia, the failure of industrial civilization, or the corruption of consumerism? Furthermore, is he suggesting how it was has become how it is, and certainly will become how it will be?
Liu added bonsais to his enlarged Iron Men (Iron Man and Iron Woman in 2009, Matsushima Iron Man in 2013). Like the vines we found from the seams and cracks of collapsing walls, the lively natural phenomena give life to the scenes of ruins. Plants in abandoned sites are undying hope for lives. In his Prometheus Unbound (1820), British romanticist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley praised the vigor of nature in Roman ruins with his heart-touching verses, he deemed it the power of future. British botanist Richard Deakin who had recorded more than four hundred species of plants he discovered in the ruins of Roman colosseum, said, “They… teach us hopeful and soothing lessons… though without speech, they tell of that regeneration power which reanimates the dust of mouldering greatness.”25 Are the scrap Iron Men that integrated natural elements Liu’s implication of hope and comfort?
The aesthetics of ruins and the angle of future archaeology might come from the artist’s nostalgia, but they are certainly his deep feelings about the overpowering modern civilization, and his latent worries about the living conditions of human beings. Liu’s melancholy is heartfelt, and with the peculiar bodies of his sculpture made by large amount of scrap, he addresses his feelings by tracing the path of our pursuit of technology, production and consumption. They introduce the footprints of civilization, the speed of consumption, the pace of development, as well as the ruins generated by civilization and stick to civilization like its shadows. The bodies of the scrap Iron Men are the same venue of the modern Utopia and modern ruins, the civilization and its opposite side are shown here.
Triviality and Grandeur
And Liu’s miniaturized Iron Men further demonstrated his manipulation of dimensions. During his second residency in Tung Ho in 2013, he developed an unusual experimental system for different ways of expression and different meanings. From steel panels, he cut many Iron Men of 60cm, 45cm, 35cm, 25cm, 20cm, 15cm and 10cm. Then he assembled or grouped them with a free style, and a new direction of his sculpture of small Iron Men has been created.
Is the shrinkage of sculpture about the change of mass or volumes only? Does it induce the change of quality? Claude Lévi-Strauss had observed that, “A shrunk object appears less frightening because quantitatively diminishing leads to qualitative simplification.”26 The qualitative change of small sculpture has been investigated by many art critics and artists with approaches opposite to the concepts of monuments. Tony Smith has contemplated upon the dimensions of his own sculpture and was convinced that a large sculpture is equal to a monument, and a small sculpture is no more than an object.27 Robert Morris discussed the sizes of sculpture with ornaments and monuments, and with the relationship between subject, object, and space. Morris identified small sculpture as “intimate mode” for they are “essentially closed, spaceless, compressed and exclusive”. Viewers must approach them and watch them at a short distance, within a shrunken viewfield.28 Later British sculptor Paul St George seemed to echo Morris, he manufactured a series of Minumental (1998) that were the miniatures of well-known contemporary gigantic sculptures. St George reveals the fact that the “monumental sculptures rely on their massive size and weight”29. David Musgrave compared the 10.5cm miniature of the Angel of the North to Antony Gormley’s original and commented, “Once the element of monumentality is removed… Minumental Angel of the North… has the character of decorative charm.”30 The relativity of different sizes is the fundamental thinking of Liu, his miniaturized Iron Men are to resist or overturn the existing understanding of small statues, and further induce ideas overbrimming the conventional frames.
Liu does not like to polish his sculpture, thus his Iron Man miniatures don’t attract the audience with delicate craftsmanship or intricate details, but the inherent traits of iron and steel. Given that small sculpture requires close observation, the artist seems to provide a wholeness easily to be reigned by viewfield, so the viewers will focus on the dynamics carrying out by their poses. The artist also shaped their flesh by bending their burned and softened metal torsos and limbs. Their bodies demonstrate different movements, and their voluptuous bodies seem to ooze sweat.
Liu has always been fascinated by the melting process of iron and steel. In his early sculpture of incomplete bodies, he had tried to pursue a path different to Julio Gonzalez and manufactured human figures with welding. From the making of the Iron Man miniatures, his earlier effort has found a breakthrough. It is not only about the methods of sculpturing but also the investigation and demonstration of the traits of iron and steel. The changes happening during the melting in high temperatures induce the qualitative changes of the small Iron Men, they are made into human figures with flesh. Some of them have dissolved bodies, and their images are constantly in changes. From the immortal, invincible Iron Men with super bodies to the small, fragile and ephemeral flesh not unlike the mortal lives, they demonstrate a return to nature. It is the opposite of the standardized and repetitive duplication of the same figures under the order of mechanical reproduction, and at the same time bringing back the deified Iron Men back to the mundane world.
Liu’s sculpture applying large pieces of slag includes “Altered Territory” series, which made his miniaturized Iron Men look even more trivial and fragile. But the artist arranged a panorama view of spectacularity and magnificence which extended our viewfield with overwhelming visual effects. The slag from the cold coagulated residual in furnace are irregular, rough and fragmental pieces, looking closely, they present an odd landscape of primary and ruggedness. In the obscurity of the earth, these miniaturized Iron Men are further humbled, no bigger than ants. Altered Territory- Onset I is the scene of the genesis, the birth of man. Altered Territory- Onset II and Face of Mother Earth are the scenes of armageddon and the end of all lives. And the four pieces of Altered Land constitute an expansive landscape. In this project, slag was used as the base, the rugged, pressed earth plates formed by coagulated lava, and one might fall into the abyss from the cracks on the broken surface. Innumerous Iron Man miniatures scattered here and there are in danger, they are on the verge of being killed.31 From an aerial view, the Iron Men covering all over the earth give out a shocking scene of life and death.
Alberto Giacometti, who also created miniaturized figures, said, “Having an object of half-centimeter under control is more likely to feel the entire universe than bragging about producing the sky.”32 But Liu is not satisfied with this philosophy of “seeing a world from a grain of sand”, he continues to construct micro universes. Liu’s micro worlds are comparable to Alexander Calder’s Le Cirque, or Pablo Picasso’s tiny cardboard stage in a cigar box, and Chapman Brothers’ innumerous mini figures for Hell and The Sum of All Evil.
But the proportion of sizes in Liu’s work is different to other miniaturized sculpture. After Immanuel Kant’s saying “everything seems to be trivial compared to it”, Florence de Mèredieu reminded us that in today’s art scene, there are more phenomena as “everything seems to be gigantic compared to it.”33 This contrast is exactly what Liu tries to present in his Iron Man miniatures. Similar to the murky scenes before the formation of universe or the destroyed earth after the end of world that his Altered Territory had created, the stark contrast in dimensions of the Iron Men, as well as the opposition between the primitive, irresistible forces of nature and the humble, feeble existence of man, the artist has successfully generated powerful visual impacts. The dramatic tension is epic.
The visual language of comparison and contrast is also applied by the artist in his medium-sized works, examples are Dreams in Altered Territory, Clouds over Altered Territory and Landscape in Altered Territory… in these projects the Iron Men hold up mountains and forests, they carry the world and shoulder many people. The dramatic juxtaposition of human figures with different sizes makes any rational proportion disappear, and the image of giants of unusual power who are tall enough to reach the sky emerge despite their medium sizes. They are Pangu who opened up the sky and the earth, or Atlas who carries the globe. It is Liu’s reinterpretation of mythology, and through his return to the ancient fancies, the artist investigates our desire for a modern Utopia.
Liu shattered the ideas of triviality and grandeur in his series of Iron Man miniatures once and again. When the small figures are given flesh, their grandeur is dissolved. And beside the large pieces of slag, these Iron Men are not merely “less frightening”, but docile, ordinary, and even trivial, absurdly showing off their bodies that no longer look fit. Nevertheless, by exaggerating the contrast in dimensions, small figures might look gigantic and gain totally different characters.
The effects of the gathering of many individuals are also the artist’s intention. He debated and overturned the relationship between smallness and forces. In Altered Territory- Onset I, Liu created a scene as ants moving cake to suggest the possible power of collective actions. Each Iron Man is a unit for the entirety, and the artist’s imagination, from forms to content, grew freely to evoke the collective power. The endless Human Column, the impressive Door of Iron Men, and the six-meter, magnificent Mountain of Iron Men show us examples of large projects assembled by small components. Opposite to other sculptors’ ideas about small statues, Liu reversed their delicacy, ornamentality, cuteness, loveliness or buoyancy. From the triviality and weakness of small individuals, the artist has discovered unlimited possibilities, including transforming them into great forces and considerable grandeur.
Setting out from the concepts of “completeness” and moving toward experimenting and presenting sculpture of incomplete human bodies, Liu broke the wholeness as well as the standards of dimensions to remind us the forever lost integrality of bodies. He represented a shattered, irremediable situation.
Up until today, Liu is still developing his signifying Iron Men and constructing his personal and idiosyncratic “Body Typology”. He explores all the possibilities of Iron Men with various sizes and metaphors in order to challenge the conventional aesthetic ideas about large and small sculpture. In addition to different dimensions, Liu derives differences from the repetition of paradigm to update the structures of his works and to extend new meanings for his art. The folds of different meanings, folded and unfolded, are the evidence of the artist’s sophisticated, sensitive and extensive creation.
Liu’s exploration on incomplete bodies and his idiosyncratic Iron Men display his efforts of reflecting the reality in bodies. With his heartfelt art language, Liu interprets the world with Utopian and Heterotopian scenes, which come from his long term contemplation upon nature, civilization, industrialization, as well as individual and collective human conditions… The artist’s concern of the current reality leads us to the two opposite ends — the genesis of universe and the termination of the world — through his allegorical or mythical sculptures. With “bodies” as his motif, Liu never ceased trying to have dialogs with a bigger world. In his art, the small universes and the big world always refer one another, namely, intercontextuality.
Liu’s human bodies are not only the mixed bodies of multiple metaphors but also the compound of heterogeneity. Iron Men are supermen of deified bodies, whose nature and characters are altered. They might have become decayed or hollowed, broken and dissolved objects in ruins, and although some of them are nothing but little ordinary figures with almost authentic flesh, when many of them gather together there will be powerful forces to overturn the existing conditions. The artist seems to bring up the paradigm of heroism, but demonstrates his anti-heroism at the same time. From the bodies of Liu’s sculpture, we see the “dialectical images” full of contrast and paradoxes suggested by Walter Benjamin. The artist responds to the stereotypical images of gigantic, tough, grand, ideal, integral, sublime, immortal, stable… with ideas of waste, decay, broken, illusory, dissolved and fragile… The juxtaposition of these contrasts stimulates interactions but not mediation. The differences, opposition and even conflicts between them are related and mutually affecting one another, like the contrapuntal composition of a fugue, and a subtle dynamics has been generated.
After all, what is grand? What is trivial? What is perfect? What is imperfect? What makes eternity? What causes fluctuation?… There are endless debates in Liu’s sculpture. The human bodies in his art have been altered always to shake or overturn the absolute definitions of things. It is like cycles of dialects that try again and again to get away from being conditioned, to explore the possibility of breaking up with habituality and the history. It is Liu’s principle of creation and his approach of knowing the world. From the dramatic contrast, the multiple ambiguities in the dialectical tension, Liu built up strong power of heterogeneity, which is where the unique style of his art comes up. Just like Antonin Artaud had pointed out, “… human body … a war field where it would be worth if we return.”34 That is exactly how Liu’s sculpture returns to the stage, overwhelmingly.
- Cf.“L’artprimitif”, Oeuvres complètes, I, Paris : Gallimard, 1970, pp.248-254.
- Interview of the artist by the author, June 30, 2015,
- Po-Chun Liu: Convergence and Divergence: Work and Concept of Po-Chun Liu, 1997-1999, Taipei: Wun Ching Book Co., LTD, 2000, pp.9-11.
- Anne Pingeot: LeCorps en Morceaux (intro.), Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1990, pp.22-26.
- Rosalind E. Krauss: “Object (Petit) a”, Part Object Part Sculpture (ca of exhibition curated by Helen Molesworth), Ohio State University: Wexner Center for the Arts and Pennsylvania State University, 2005, p.87.
- Just as Liu’s description of his solo exhibition “Convergence and Divergence II” (Taipei County Culture Center, 1999): “Within a space of 29m long, 9m wide and 8m high… erecting four stone columns (300×60×50cm) with an ancient style around the center… in the field framed by the columns is a 810×360cm floor assembled by 30×30cm stainless steel mirrors. Above it is a copper rectangle frame (320×320×120cm), held up by four white marble stairs (30×30×30cm)… In front of them is an aluminum foot of a child, sinking into a cubical box (30×30×30cm) of translucent resin. At the back is a pyramid of 270×270×40cm, constituted by 45 iron boxes of 30×30×30cm…”; Liu described his “Forms‧Separating‧On Site” (Taipei Fine Art Museum, 1999): “In the center of the 25m long, 15m wide and 4.5m high space, is a marble quilt of 3×6m, assembled and carved by two hundred heavy marble stones (30×30×15cm)…”. Steel Forest: Stu–dy of Po-Chun Liu’s Works, 2010, pp.219, 230 (Printed by the artist, unpublished).
- Robert Morris: “Objecthood and Reductivism”, in Art in Theory: 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Oxford, 1992, p.831.
- Alberto Giacometti: Écrits, Paris:Hermann, 1990, 273.
- Po-Chun Liu, cit., 2000, p.28.
- Cf. Phillip King: “The work of Liu Po-Chun” .
- Po-Chun Liu: “Iron Man Transformation” , Power, where does the beauty lie?, exhibition catalogue, Seoul Olympic Museum of Art, July 12th- September 22nd, 2013, p.46.
- Chun-LanLiu:“The Way to Steel Sculpture － Interview with Po-Chun Liu”, Extraordinary Relation 0, Catalog of the Residency of International Artists in Tung Ho Steel, Taipei: Tung Ho Steel Culture Foundation, 2014, p.58.
- Po-Chun Liu: Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, 04, 2009.
- Florence de Mèredieu: Histoire Matérielle et Immatérielle de l’Art Moderne Contemporain, Paris: Larousse, 2011, pp.256-257.
- Pomponio Guarico: De Sculptura, and trans. by André Chastel and Robert Klein, Geneva, 1969, pp.102-105.
- Po-Chun Liu: Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, Sep. 21, 2009
- Gilles Deleuze : Le Pli. Leibniz et le Baroque, Paris : Les éditions de Minuit, 2002, pp.48-49.
- Claes Oldenburg, interview, in Art Press, 20. Quoted by Florence de Mèredieu, op.cit., p.264.
- Po-Chun Liu: Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, 01, 2009.
- Ibid., Sep. 13, 2009.
- Yi-JuSu and Jui-Wei Hung:“It Makes Artists Great?! Po-Chun Liu’s Experience in Tung Ho Residency” (Interview). http://www.anb.org.tw/news5_show2.asp?tp=4&id=62&id2=670（ac– cessed July 04, 2015）
- Po-Chun Liu: Diary of Tung Ho Steel Residency, 07, 2009; Oct. 09, 2009; Dec. 03, 2009.
- Claude Moatti: À la Recherche de la Rome Antique, Paris: Gallimard, 1989, 172.
- Such as the works of Subodh Gupta, Saâdane Afif, Damien Hirst and Pei-Ming About the various facets of Vanitas in contemporary art, see Les Vanités dans l’Art Contemporain (sous la direction d’Anne-Marie Charbonneaux), Paris: Flammarion, 2010.
- Flora of the Colosseum, London: Groombridge and Sons, 1855, preface, vi. https://books.google.com.tw/books/about/Flora_of_the_Colosseum_of_Rome.html?id=ok0DAAAAQAA- J&hl=zh-TW（accessed July 07, 2015）
- Claude Lévi-Strauss : La Pensée Sauvage, Paris : Plon, 1962, 35.
- Robert Morris: “Notes on Sculpture” (1966), in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (ed. by Gregory Battcock), University of California Press, 1995, pp.228,
- Robert Morris, cit., p.231.
- http://www.angelfire.com/la/aelyn/minumental.html (accessed July 06, 2015)
- David Musgrave: “The Relative Scale of Things”, Locus Solus: Site, Identity, Technology in Contemporary Art, eds Julian Stallabras et al., London: Black Dog Publishing, 2000, p.33.
- I’ve written about Liu’s “Altered Territory”series in the essay discussing the residency in Tung Ho of Liu and Phillip Kin See “Extraordinary Relation: Artworks vs. Products — Phillip King and Po-Chun Liu’s Creation during Their Artist-in-Residence in the Tung Ho Steel Factory”, in Extraordinary Relation 1.0: The Tung Ho Steel International Artist-in–Residence Program (edited by Chun-Lan Liu), Taipei: Tung Ho Steel Culture Foundation, 2014, pp.24-28
- Quoted by Florence de Mèredieu, cit., p.261
- Antonin Artaud, 1946. Résumé de l’Oeuvres, Paris : Gallimard, 2004. http://www.fabula.org/actualites/article9125.php（accessed July 06, 2015）