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An Te Liu’s exhibition at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum (September 7 – November 11, 2013) is called MONO NO MA. The show’s title has been translated from the Japanese as “a thing of the void” and “space of the thing”; the title is hard to pin down and the sculptures are just as evasive.
Featured image: An Te Liu, Aphros, 2013. Press molded earthenware with sawdust additions, copper oxide slip, and pigmentation. 42 x 45 x 13.5 cm, plaster base 28 x 44.5 x 10 cm
The Canadian artist used discarded Styrofoam packaging from a variety of consumer goods to create the slip-cast ceramic sculptures in the exhibition. The sculptures use “remnants” of the contemporary world to evoke a wide range of references, from ancient funerary wares to Modernism. While each sculpture bears the imprint of an object in use today, the ambiguity of their origin invites reflection upon our relationship to things, both utilitarian and artistic, old and new. As such, the nineteen works of MONO NO MA stand like fossils of an evolving, unconscious present.
In a review called “An Te Liu: Modernizing the Modern” for Canadian Art, Richard Rhodes wrote that, “Liu goes undercover as a faux modernist to present a series of sculptures that resemble the carved, totemic abstracts produced by artists like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi in the middle decades of the 20th century.” Modernism’s devotion to purity of material and form and its complicated relationship to ethnographic art are direct subject matter for Liu. As he is “plundering” Styrofoam packaging, it could make for very interesting anthropology for future civilizations.
If An Te Liu’s sculptures have high-modern references to Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, objects of value that have prices or are priceless, the origins of his sculptures imply obsolescence. In his review of the exhibition for The Star, Murray Whyte observed, “There’s a cheeky comment about art-making implicit in this that all of Liu’s work seems to make – art is the ultimate useless commodity, from a practical-purpose point of view at least – but it’s also a semi-sincere reclamation effort.”
Whyte mentions in his review that one of the sculptures, a “Brancusi-esque column”, began as a chunk of foam from a computer box in the IT department where Liu works as an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Architecture. Whyte goes on to write:
In moments like these, Liu’s cheeky dualities fade, at least a little, and a glimmer of those early Modern ideals shine through: A pure form, devoid of function, but to create a contemplative space of wonder? Sounds awfully Modern to me. For all the clever reversals, Liu’s best trick is to work that undeniable magic that only the best art can conjure: Taking the old, and making it refreshingly and bracingly new.
An Te Liu is a Canadian artist with a background in art history and architecture. He was born in Tainan, Taiwan in 1967, and is based in Toronto and Berlin. His work reveals new cultural resonances within everyday found items such as wallpaper, old clock radios or T-shirts. The artist uses these materials to tease out the larger social implications within them. Liu’s work is in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 2008, he was the Canada Council for the Arts’ artist-in-residence at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin.
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