Margaret Shiu Tan, Marvin Minto Fang, Frances TJ. Shao, and ChenChou Liou contributed installations to the recent exhibition “Six interpretations of Clay: Handmade in Taiwan.” Tan’s Life is But a
Game (so what’s the next move?) (1996-97) is a large, floor-based game board that supposedly invites viewer participation through a throw of the dice. Abstracted ceramic figures move about like chess pieces over squares of Chinese-language newspapers with mock headlines or instructions to the game players. The whole piece is an elaborate (and not so subtle) metaphor for the choices and potential pitfalls of life in Taiwan today. Social and political options are offered along with domestic, family, and career moves. Closest among these artists to a didactic, Confucian mindset, Tan’s work is also the most conceptual, that is, the least visually satisfying but the most intellectually challenging.
Multiple players that symbolize humanity or the Taiwanese population are also part of Heal the World (1996) by Frances T J. Shao. With headless earthenware figures atop 12 skinny metal ladders of differing heights all connected by a string web, Heal the World raises issues of competition, varying abilities, and the interconnectedness of the individual, family, and state in modern-day Taiwan. At the center is a gold-glazed human heart.
Gold luster is also a uniting material in Handustrialization (1996) by Marvin Minto Fang, one of Taiwan’s leading contemporary artists who showed at last year’s Venice Biennale. Like the others, Fang was educated in the United States and his nine stainless-steel tables are as sleek and minimal as a Donald Judd box. Set atop each table, however, are eight hand-built ceramic bowls, completely covered in gold. Whether or not the use of gold “subverts value judgments” (as Fang claims in his catalogue statement), it nonetheless acts as a richly allusive material that has its own symbolic weight.
The commodification of industry overpowering the tradition of the handmade is a real issue in Taiwan, with the nation’s manufacturing capacity tied to export goods-and financial stability and independence. By laboriously building each of the 72 bowls by hand, and then gilding them, Fang redeems the handmade in the face of the machine-made. Societies like Taiwan that can balance both industrial and craft processes are thus better equipped to move on to the postindustrial, service-oriented economies of the coming century. Fang accentuates the endearing qualities of the handmade by emphasizing crudity of construction with a humorous klutziness.
Somewhat more strained, though also dealing with the interface of industry and nature, Clouds (1996), by Chen-Chou Liou features dozens of “floating” white cloud forms on metal rods above cone-shaped earthenware bases. Variable in Position, Clouds creates its own dialectic between nature and the rote repetition of industry. Although each cloud stand is different, when seen together, they present a
cold, arranged view of nature. ln Taiwan, as in Japan, nature is now permanently mitigated by the
proximity of industrial facilities, not to mention pollution and other potential ecological disasters. Ray J.C. Liao’s work is closest to current American ceramic sculpture. Floating Seedlings (1996) are tall carved and patterned obelisks with seedpod-like forms. With a battle between decorated surface and eccentric profile, these sculptures make up in tactile properties what they lose in monumentality. The allusion to nature is a stretch here, too (as with Liou), but the unique character of each sculpture aligns the work more with Modernist abstract sculpture than with installation or social commentary art.
Finally, most Western of all and least indebted to installation art, the five clay and wood sculptures of Cheng-Hsun Chen may have been set on a white pebbled ground but could easily stand on their own without such a tacky carpet. Reminiscent of Anthony Caro, Michael Heizel and Ulrich Rückriem, Chen’s blocky assemblages of clay with cut-wood insets have a blunt material beauty all their own.
Like architectural fragments or corners of old buildings or entryways, the “Clay & Wood” (1995) series bridges East and West more successfully than the other works and are the farthest away from Chinese clay traditions. And yet, because of the residual sense of humanity’s intervention in nature (wood set into fired earth), the sculptures remind us that Chinese civilization has a long archaeological and architectural heritage as well.
– Matthew Kangas