The work of Po-Chun Liu
Author／Phillip King（Honorary Doctorate, Cambridge University Past President of the Royal Academy）
I have come to know the work of Liu only in the last three years. From the outside both the man and the work look a bit wild, untamed and unpredictable. It seems as though Liu wants to have a bit of fun, and treat everything as a big joke. I don’t understand Chinese but I expect that there is quite a bit of poking-fun going on as well as self-deprecation generally. But, underneath the surface lies a serious and sharp mind that is thoroughly trained and tuned to carry out and deliver whatever sculptural inventions come to mind.
Liu is someone who has had a good training both academically and in the practice of sculptural techniques. He is thoroughly at home with the techniques of carving in wood and stone as well as metal work and other sculptural techniques, as he knows well the historical developments of sculpture in our modern era, and its wider aspects which enables him to also deal with social issues.
I prefer to begin with the work I most acquainted with and have seen at close quarters and that is the superman〔Iron Man〕series beginning in 2009.
To most of us Superman is just a cartoon character, a fancy of the imagination. In films Superman operates in our contemporary world and is imbued with the same consciousness as the average citizen. He fights for the good against evil. A loner from another world comes to save ours. Liu’s earliest superman has a partner superwoman, they are single isolated figures with the well defined outline, flexing their muscles at us, legs akimbo slightly bent at the knees like the Maori rugby players who at the beginning of a match stand in a row in such a posture for the Maori Haka, this in order to put the fear of god into their opponents. Warriors ready for battle. But these super beings don’t seem to frighten us even though like in the classical ecorches we can still see in the corridors of art schools, they have their internal organs of the human body on display.
Their internal anatomy spilling out, cogs wheels all kind of junk material one can find in a scrap yard, all assembled together. Metal rods are ligaments, skin is torn metal revealing unlikely organs in wild profusion. Reassuringly a flowerpot with living flowers hang from legs making this action man a non-action person incapable of doing us any harm. A figure of fun which in another context would not seem so.
Anthony Gormley’s is a clear demonstration of this point. In his last show at the Haywards Gallery in London, Gormley had a number of the same single standing figure, basically a cast in iron of his own body, perched on various buildings near the gallery which could be viewed from the various balconies of the Haywards. It became a game during his show to count how many such figures one could find. Many people including me found them quite threatening, like some malevolent observers, or snipers ready to fire bullets at you. Gormley cleverly uses the environment to place his figures in positions where they become quite threatening. Liu’s work by contrast leaves us with a bouncy feeling and we can share the same space and feel comfortable. Both Liu and Gormley share an interest in abrupt changes of scale. Gormley has probably made the largest figurative work in Europe, “The Angel of the North”, which is as tall as a Boeing jumbo jet standing on its tail, and some of the smallest works ,like his groups of 10,000 tiny figures all staring in the same direction which are quite disturbing but we can also be funny. Liu also jumps scale to suit his purpose, making supermen a few centimetres high as well as 4 metres giants. They also both share a fascination to exploit the material Gormley uses, rusted cast iron which makes us aware of the weight of that material and as a result make us also aware that these figures are in no way real but only there to carry some sort of message, and with Liu we a aware that he is exploiting the strength and pliability of steel with Liu he especially exploits this in the later series of pull out supermen where a continuous outline of superman is drawn repeatedly like a line spiraling inwards and then the metal cut along the drawn lines to be finally pulled out and spread into space.
Although these joined up figures seem to invade our space, and in their exuberant profusion are somewhat overwhelming, as in all his work they do not become threatening. We instinctively feel that they all could fold back into a sheet and put safely in a box, like the mannequins cut-outs, cut from a single sheet of paper that children cut out and then pull out into a long string of figures. The way these figures take up the floor space creates what seems an impenetrable forest, but it’s a friendly forest. One superman may seem awesome but 400 become a circus and we can laugh and enjoy ourselves. It is also quite possible to enter the forest and negotiate this metal labyrinth and watch other viewers merging with the various outlines of countless supermen.
An army of supermen seems absurd and ought to be frightening, the fact that they are all drawn to the same outline and seem all jumbled up and in no particular order makes us laugh .Their self-important and boastful pose actually leads us to perhaps also laugh at ourselves. Aren’t we all also a bit puffed up and a bit too self-important is the message these works seem to convey. Like with Gormley a social consciousness seems to be to be at work in Liu’ work as he is trying to make us aware if only subconsciously of the dark side of life through various mechanisms like replication and constant repetition which is a mechanism also used by artists like Warhol who however never makes us want to laugh but also by comics and psycho-therapists to make patients get over their phobias. Constant repeated exposure in a safe environment to what causes anxiety eventually gets us over our fears and it is even more effective if it is made to look funny as laughter is after all the greatest therapy of all.
Liu’s earlier work although quite different reflects nevertheless similar sculptural concerns though perhaps in a less original form. In the early 90’s he had an exhibition at Saint Louis de la Salpêtrière which also shows a similar concern for material and space as in the later work. What appears to be a cored apple is cut up in section and displayed in an expanded form on the gallery floor. The next few works may best be described as installation works, with a theme running through that might best be described as “Ritualistic”.
In his exhibition at the Taipei Museum of Fine Art, in 1999, Liu used only marble, perhaps because the floor of the gallery was already also marble. Placed in the center of the gallery is a marble mattress or thick carpet with 2 marble feet, which appear to belong to a marble torso floodlit and in the middle of the wall, there is also a floating marble hand that seems to belong to some enormous invisible statue, six marble stools, cube like that invite us to sit and stare ,and on another wall a marble staircase invites us to climb a vertical wall leading to a miniature marble staircase on a rectangular marble background hung like a picture, Against another wall a series of marble heads on pedestals stand in a row, like some display of Roman senators in a museum, but these head have all suffered some disfigurement which seem quite arbitrary as though the sculptor was coldly going through the permutations of applying to each head a different incision with surgical precision and as though the marble had the character of a clay like substance that can therefore be easily imprinted with whatever physical action the sculptor has decided to apply. In this work all our expectations are denied, is this really marble we are looking at? Are these heads looking at us or are we looking at them? Are these cubes for sitting on or are they part of this ritual tableau? We are left with a mystifying puzzle that can never be solved. We ask ourselves “Is this a rendering of some ritualistic sacrifice?” No humour there to relieve the tension and this apparent unease seems to reflect on us as spectators, as though we ourselves may be responsible and we can ask ourselves “Are we there to participate and turn this display into a ‘tableau vivant’ ? ”
In another work a decapitated cow moves back and forth along a short track that points to a forest of trees stylized to look like a cutout cardboard forest. This cow can never enter the forest. The track won’t let her and she can’t even see it. Again our expectations are thwarted our sense of logic confounded ,a sure way to open the road to our unconscious, something that may not be welcomed by everybody as it can be a frightening place to go to.
Does Liu want to unlock something in us? Laughter is one way of doing it, defying our expectations is another. Who would have thought that a cow could become something absurd and thereby reveal something about ourselves? I would say that in this case our perplexity also leads to laughter. Could the cow be looking at her lost head in the forest? This earlier work and others too are like story telling. The story draws us into ourselves, this is helped by the controlled lighting and the closed in space of the gallery. The superman series relies less on the confined space of a gallery and reaches out to a world beyond walls, and can work just as well indoors as outdoors. Although technically well accomplished and extremely engaging, the earlier work fits into a familiar category of works that have been already exploited by others. I personally find the superman series more sculpturally challenging. For me these later works operate in more unfamiliar territory and therefor will linger longer in the mind, their originality evident and memorable.