An Te Liu: Tradition and the Historical Sense
by Shannon Anderson
But the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.
– T.S. Eliot
An Te Liu’s sculptural practice is heavily rooted in an awareness of art history’s past. His most recent body of work makes simultaneous reference to multiple time periods, culling from the distant past, the recent past, the present and the future (not to mention past conceptions of the future). Created in ceramics or “traditional” materials such as bronze, concrete or plaster, his sculptures are based in broad cultural research that teases out recurring essential forms.
The series Eidolon (2014) consists of small, stocky figures that Liu calls “Janus-like” in reference to their two faces (tellingly, one face of Janus looked to the past, the other to the future).1 While their fronts are clearly figural, their backs contain hollow impressions that echo the indentations seen in Styrofoam packaging inserts. The series conjures the stylized figures of ancient Polynesian sculpture, while the hand-held scale lends them a playful innocence since the crude shapes also resemble toy robots or early arcade game characters. They also embody Liu’s distinctive “polyglot” approach: he describes his sculptures as “assimilating and expressing multiple identities,” and wanting to speak “different languages at the same time and to be chameleon-like in character.”2
Liu’s titles are always telling, enfolding various clues for deciphering his particular references. Eidolon derives from the Greek root for “idol” and also references spirits of the dead. Liu’s contemporary animas reflect a basic anthropological form that manifests itself again and again throughout history. This iteration holds true for other pieces from his current work, which are rich in associative potential and circuitously reference a multitude of eras through a single form.
Liu’s sculptures contain an uncanny aspect: they seem like something already known, something seen before. But they don’t escape this unsettling condition, as their appearances continually suggest other objects without ever focusing on any one thing in particular. They are always both this and that, occupying the past, present and future simultaneously. “All the pieces want to have a chimeric quality about them,” Liu says, “something recognizable you can just start to put your finger on, then slipping into something else at the same time.”3 He deliberately morphs together various associations at once, sometimes in a vague sense, sometimes quite specifically. Hard Edge Kawaii Subtraction no. 2 (2014) is one such specific instance. The smooth, curved exterior derives from what Liu calls a “liberal interpretation” of a Chinese porcelain garden stool, while the void is cast from his own Hello Kitty humidifier. This is the kawaii element of the sculpture, which is the Japanese term for the kind of “cuteness” that envelopes Hello Kitty culture. That said, save for the clue of a graphic flower at its centre, most of the humidifier’s original form is difficult to ascertain, due to Liu’s choice to present the form as its absence, as a void. The sculpture brings together two distinctively different references to Asian culture: a conservative object from the traditional past and a commercial object from the pop-culture present. But the unification of these objects has birthed an entirely other set of appearances. Sharp edges and a bronzed surface lend the sculpture a futuristic aura; its austere helmet-like shape is suggestive of some kind of prop from a 1970s sci-fi film set (Liu says it reminds him of a Cylon Raider from the Battlestar Galactica television series). Additionally, Liu’s sculpture enacts a formal play between positive and negative space in a manner that evokes the traditions of modernist sculpture, such as Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy (1964-66).
Liu’s cast sculptures originated in a 2012 artist intervention commission at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto: the museum’s collection of funereal ware inspired him with its burnished surfaces and ambiguous functions. In turn, he became interested in exploring the resemblances between archaic forms and modernist sculpture, particularly in the works of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Constantin Brâncuși. He decided to work in ceramic slip casting (while the preeminent medium showcased by the museum is ceramics, its commission program has no requirement to work in this medium) and spent many hours apprenticing and experimenting in Angelo di Petta’s ceramics studio in Millbrook, Ontario. As a decidedly contemporary contrast to the traditional medium and references, Liu used Styrofoam packaging as a source material. It was largely sourced from the remains of shipped domestic electronics and appliances, including a flat-screen television, a blender and an iMac. Working intuitively, in terms of selecting Styrofoam pieces that had evocative potential, he sliced, shaped and merged pieces together to sculpt the end results.
Some of these sculptures reveal their origins quite specifically, such as Obsolete Figure in Space (2013), where the viewer can detect the distinctive hollow where an iMac would have once been nestled. The piece is also a direct nod to Brâncuși’s Bird in Space (1923). Other pieces come about this from a different direction: Brutalist Rice Cooker (2013) has a boxy shape and jutting, cubed extensions, suggestive of the form that might result if one cast the negative space of a rice cooker’s original packaging. But Liu based the form on an image of foam packaging he saw online, disconnected from any known source. And so the focus lies on the foam’s expressive potential. The finished object’s harsh density is underscored through the use of grey, crackled stoneware, and it could easily be mistaken, in another context, for a piece of genuine Brutalist sculpture.
Formally, a key connection in the Gardiner pieces lies between Styrofoam packaging as an object embodying negative space and the slip-casting process that involves working through negative and positive space. This, in turn, reflects a conceptual dialogue about use value and obsolescence. On the one hand, the usefulness of Styrofoam’s shape-specific forms disappears once the packaged item is opened; on the other hand, the objects these forms temporarily house have highly limited lifespans. Such lifespans are shortchanged on many fronts – from the rapid proliferation of the next “generation” of an electronic device, to planned obsolescence, to the lack of affordable repair options – all of which tend to send domestic gadgets to the dump long before a more ecologically conscious economy would deem acceptable.
Liu’s Styrofoam-derived sculptures not only generate a new kind of usefulness for these materials, but they also draw attention to their curious forms, allowing them to be viewed as objects in their own right. Repurposing the material gives it a second life, incorporating it into something of relative permanence with physical, conceptual and cultural weight and substance.
Throughout Liu’s practice, he has played with the notion of functionality, creating works that occupy a charged zone between useful and useless. Cloud (2008) is one of a series of works the artist has generated from discarded domestic appliances. The sculpture incorporates air purifiers, conditioners and humidifiers, all hung together in a cloud-like configuration from the ceiling and allowed to run continuously. They may operate, but their functionality is made redundant. Each object is pure white, metaphorically referencing people’s need to control their surrounding environment by constantly purifying the air, an obsessive attempt to create sanitized spaces that only further contaminates the atmosphere.
And although his recent works are less concerned with a dialogue about obsolescence, the type of objects that make up a piece such as Cloud still have a place in his work, as the presence of a Hello Kitty humidifier in Hard Edge Kawaii Subtraction no. 2 attests. As his work has shifted away from a reliance on negative forms for casting, Liu plans to return to his collection of domestic appliances in future works, exploring their potential use for these cast sculptures. His use of Styrofoam has also evolved it into a material that is used partially and non-specifically. While he has always “assisted” the material to suit his formal needs, the works currently in progress in his studio graft together all manner of residual materials, including remnants from demolition sites. This key shift reflects a focus on what his materials suggest as “stuff” and its associative potential. Formation V (2014), for instance, merges a geologically inspired foundation with blocky towers, alluding to a vision of architectural remains, buildings swallowed by erosion and decay. The piece intentionally evokes the ruins commonly depicted by Romanticists, especially Arnold Böcklin’s moody landscape paintings. But it also echoes aspects of prototypical science-fiction architecture, where elaborate towers tend to arise from rocky outcroppings, leading one to wonder if Liu’s buildings are falling to ruin or rising up from the rock. It’s difficult to say. Rather than referencing any single image, Formation V reveals a more general pull towards these kinds of scenes. “There’s something in our basic human nature that has an affinity for ruins,” Liu says.
Liu’s most recent sculptures expand his source material and his repertoire to include the full expanse of art history and museum studies, dipping into archeology, anthropology and geology along the way. It’s wide terrain, so one has to ask how he makes his choices and reins in the impulse to get lost in the research of forms. He describes the evolution of these forms as works that are “more about a proliferation of evidence and anthropological artifacts in general.”4 And so, his process begins in sifting through a huge body of cultural production and honing in on the forms that return again and again, adopting a method of looking that cultural historian Michael Prokopow calls his “curatorial mindset.”4
That modus operandi often involves time and patience.“It takes me a while to decide to make something,” Liu says. “I need to keep looking at something until my eyes get fooled into seeing something else or morphing into something that suggests something from another genre or another time or another classification of objects.” As a matter of course, Liu’s objects examine multiple typologies at once, referencing various moments across time, including the future, so that time’s cyclical nature comes to the fore.
Aphros (2014) concentrates on the object’s associative potential in this fashion. The sculpture’s single wing-like form rises from an angled pedestal, as though a remnant from ancient Greek sculpture. Aphros is clearly connected to the Greek goddess Aphrodite; indeed, one can’t help but look at this object and think of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC). But the term, in Liu’s characteristic wordplay, also derives from the Greek root for “foam,” referencing both the material from which the goddess Aphrodite was birthed, and the work’s packaging-based origins. While the sculpture’s colourless patina recalls the surfaces of ancient Greek sculpture, the most recent iteration of this piece is actually cast using concrete, another clue to its embrace of present-day materiality. The pedestal, in particular, is a nod to Brâncuși’s sculptural methods. In a key contribution to modernist sculpture, Brâncuși recognized the pedestal’s potential, lending it equal consideration to the object it supported. In Aphros, the object’s pedestal is quite literally part of the sculpture, consisting of a piece removed from the mold, which Liu must then recast to complete the mold for future castings. In doing so, he creates not only a formal reciprocity between sculpture and base, but also a wider reciprocity with art history in this homage to modernist traditions.
In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot addresses an artist’s “historical sense,” stating that it “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” He notes that this perceptual quality is “what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”5 An Te Liu embodies this historical sense in that, regardless of whether he is drawing from the past or the future in his work, he always does so from a consciously contemporary position. For instance, Gnomon (2013) has a totemic form that evokes associations with so-called “primitive” sculpture, but it is also a clear reference to Brâncuși’s Endless Column (1938). Further, the root origin of gnomon translates as “one who knows or examines,” acknowledging the conscious level of historical research embodied within the work. Liu maps the connections between various associations, acknowledging both the influence of primitive art forms on Western art history, and the critical discourse surrounding the appropriation of such tribal cultural artifacts.
While acts of homage are not uncommon to Liu’s oeuvre, they tend to be complex tributes, ones that are made through a contemporary, self-conscious lens. His series Tropos (2014) embodies specific tributes, through his selection of four female figures from the modern age as the inspiration behind each piece in the series: Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Mina Loy. Each of these four women was renowned, in their time, for their outspoken attitudes and avant-garde postures: Stein, today the most well-known of the four, was an innovative American novelist; Barnes was also a modernist American writer and prominent bohemian; Freytag-Loringhoven was a German-born Dadaist poet and artist; and Loy was a British futurist artist and writer.
Using a similar totemic configuration as Gnomon, each of Tropos’ stacking forms twists and turns. The repetition and mirroring of the same elements speaks to the playful and experimental approach to art adopted by these four women, and also to their vivid personalities. Freytag-Loringhoven’s totem, according to Liu, is the strangest configuration of the four: stacked at a 720-degree rotation, the geometric shapes continuously rotate like a corkscrew, but the sculpture appears symmetrical when viewed face-on. This points to Freytag-Loringhoven’s provocative, unstable personality, about which tales abound. Stein, artistically, was known for working with a self-limited range of words that were repeated and manipulated in order to stretch out the possible number of meanings and associations. Liu’s playful stacking gesture echoes the experimental use of language and form found in Stein’s work, and the practices of these other like-minded modernists, Dadaists and bohemians. And so Liu’s homage embodies both the art and lives of these four women, who travelled in similar experimental artist circles as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. After their deaths, their roles were rapidly overshadowed by their male counterparts, making Liu’s homage particularly contemporary for underscoring the recent efforts of feminist art historians to reclaim the importance of these female artists.
Tropos reveals how Liu’s methods not only make associative connections, but also delve into how traditions have been received and interpreted over time. His works are intentionally slippery, playing to the changes inherent in the writing and rewriting of history. Eliot notes that “for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is the conformity between the old and new.”6 Therefore, with each new work that enters the cannon, a shift and reordering of the chronology of the past comes into play. Liu’s hybrid objects continuously occupy this terrain: they look to the past with full consciousness of the present, but with an instability that accounts for the future. In doing so, a sense of chronological reordering seems to unfold before the viewer, as traditions are revealed, interpreted and remade anew.