The Force of Things

Text/ Renate Ferro

As we gather over the next few days to contemplate Lee Kuang-Yu’ s sculptural work we consider not only his art and productivity but his life. Lee, a Taiwanese artist studied art in Spain in the mid-eighties studying the craft of sculpture. He returned to Taiwan to teach at NTUA and now many years later is enjoying a period of rich and focused production after teaching. It is evident that as he has matured as an artist his work has evolved, manifested not only physically within the expansive “voids” of the work but also conceptually as a metaphor for his Buddhist practice. “…the learning of Buddhism has influenced how I look at things. Buddhism is similar to art. Both discuss the questions of human being and their principles are interchangeable,” writes Lee Kuang-Yu.
I would like to thank Yang Shin-Yi for this lovely invitation and opportunity to visit Taiwan, to learn more about the sculptural work of Lee Kuang-Yu but also to propose an opportunity to think about the relationship between life and art practice. What are the resonances and qualities of both entities that not only reflect and influence each other but also create tensions. From experience, I can speak as an artist as well about the interconnectedness between the two for it is in the essence of perspectives and experiences, identity or political views, daily habits and circumstances that provide a platform for my practice of art. The United States artist Carmen Wiant has written recently, “Practice, as a noun and a verb, already contains its own thorough contradictions, according to the official lexicon: it is a word that both engenders action and forestalls it, that seeks to promote success while provoking failure. It is the application and its procedure, the event and its endless dress rehearsal. Practice is how we carry out our lives, and constitute our worlds.”
This week as I reflect on Lee Kuang-Yu’s sculptural practice I think of my own journey. Working as an artist in the area of fibers and weaving and then a bit later in printmaking. The practice of forging unlike juxtapositions, re-assemblage, inversions, deconstructions, reversals, repetitions were also a catalyst for me as I breathed a sense of living movement into enlivened materials and objects I worked with.
It is through the walks that I take on this particular day between the hours I am writing a paper on the sculptural work of Lee Kuang-Yu and teaching that I pause, seven thousand six hundred and thirty miles away from Taipei. I walk in the expanse of our 14 acres of snowy landscape in rural upstate New York. Rolling hills, bare trees, an icy pond, fallen branches strewn from heavy winds from last week’s most recent Nor’easter. The ashen brown trees sway lightly casting bluish gray vertical bands layered one behind the other into infinity.
The political theorist, Jane Bennett has written extensively on the random networks of humans, non-humans and their environments. Her research uses ecology, philosophy, and political theory to illuminate on the energy forces that exist between the characters of life’s’ networks. She suggests that these players have equal agency called “Thing-power.” I am in fact inspired by a walk that Bennett took in her sunny Baltimore neighborhood as described in her book Vibrant Matter . Human sensing allows immediate the immediate network of human presence, objects, and environment to join synergistically. Despite the thick cover of snow and ice on my walk in the middle of winter, there is a small patch of green displaying an assemblage where a broken piece of orange rust brick, a yellow tinted small flower bulb, a sliver of wood, a dried glob of construction glue, an empty seed pod, piece of plastic, and a pine cone lay next to one another. Despite the fact that these objects have been laying in a frozen state beneath the tundra of several feet of snow, they now lay in a patch of melt adjacent to the upright green blades of soon to be snowdrop flowers.
Perhaps it was Thing-power that caused me to notice the brick, the bulb, the wood chip, the dried glob of construction glue, the seed pod, the piece of plastic, and the pine cone. These objects produced a response in me. Was it the contrasted hue of the objects set against the snow melt or was it the reflection of the light? Or perhaps it was the mere fact of their randomness. Bennett’s interest in Thing-power and networked agency is inspired by the writings of Thoreau whose specialty includes the practice of looking, the power of the enlivened animate as described by the philosopher Spinoza, as well as Merleau-Ponty’s writings on perception and phenomenology. “These objects are “vibratory—at one moment disclosing themselves as dead stuff and at the next as live presence: junk, then claimant; inert matter, then live wire.”
Bennett’s theory of the “political ecology of things” suggests that the organic flower-bulb, sliver of wood, empty seed pod, and pine cone are just as alive as the piece of brick, the dried glob of construction glue, and the piece of plastic because each object in its own right. possesses object energy, “even the humblest forms of matter have the potential for self-organization beyond the relative simple type involved in the creation of crystals.” Using both laws of physics and philosophers, Bennett sets out a thesis throughout her book, Vibrant Matter, to propose that everything has “vital-materiality.”
The importance of vibrant materiality to sculptor Lee Kuang-Yu is apparent throughout his expansive art practice from the time he was a student in Spain. For Lee the enlivened sculptural materials of metal sheets, wire, plastic sheets, and molten bronze have given way to his physical process of welding, bending, puncturing, and molding giving each sculpture a presence. Lee explains his creative urge to break apart or to “deconstruct” and then reassemble. “So, I smashed them on the ground or sawed them in to pieces to reconstruct them. The liveliness of the reconstructed forms exceeded my imagination and surpassed my habitual thinking.” In much of Lee’s casting work the act of dripping and dipping hot bronze metal, a molten combination of liquid tin and copper, combine with hand-formed casts imbuing each sculptural piece with what Jane Bennett would identify as an aliveness called “vital-materiality.” For Bennett, the life force of metal and many other inorganic matters is comprised of highly irregular crystals that can be densely packed together depending on physical character of the material. Between each of these grain-like irregular crystals of the bronze mixture, atoms slip between. These atoms are not still but move incessantly. Lee’s physical process disrupts the positions of the atoms further. Though the material itself appears lifeless and solid both physics and the creative process causes to animate each sculpture.
The Life of Holes, Voids, Expanses
Lee Kuang-Yu’s making and unmaking has manifested itself, even distinguished him from many western artists. Lee’s expressive emotions are manifested through the imprint of fingerprints, scratches, and modelling marks. Dr. Shin-Yi Yang has characterized these expressionistic marks as possible pre-cursers to later work. The expressive quality and marks of the artist’s imprint though most probably influences by the art historical trends of expressionism went beyond. Yang proposes that these gestures or emotive expressions are those that reside in an interstitial state lingering between the concrete and the abstract.
For me Lee’s modeling marks are marked gestures in that they play along with the larger form and intent of each piece of sculpture. In a recent publication, The Minor Gesture , the Canadian theorist Erin Manning, embraces Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s conception of the minor gesture as one that “is the gestural force that opens experience to its potential variation.” For Manning, a choreographer and artist as well, she encircles an argument for the minor gesture that is full of shifts, rhythms, transformations, and indeterminate openness to flux that is interlaced within the structure of the major gesture. Using Manning’s metaphor, Lee’s expressionistic fingerprints and scratches are connected to the sculptural form but in their speculative nature they are responsive to a network of occurrences that are in effect: Who might be observing the work, in what light, or in what environment? What meaning do they might conjure for the viewer? For Manning the beauty of the minor gesture is in its potential to disturb or disrupt.
The minor gestures of Lee’s expressionistic markings in his early work give way to more defined openings into space. Specifically, in two works of art, Mundra (1991) and Running Water (1997), Lee physically twists metal material to emanate flows of expanse or gestures into space. It is in these works that the openings have been described as “voids” manifested within the internal spacial structures of each piece. In Transcendental Existence (1990), and Transcendental Existence II (2001), and Lotus Pond (2007), the open work of the sculpture becomes enlivened and animated. The holes, voids and expanses provide a relief map where the viewer can complete the conceptual resonances of the Buddhist Practices that Lee intends: practices of wisdom, kindness, and compassion and the mediations of insightful calm where the viewer can ponder and deliberate. While Dr. Yang makes the art historical connections between Lee’s work and the practice of Buddhism I would like for us to consider the writings of philosopher, Michel de Certeau. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life De Certeau ponders the construct of space. “A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables.” Very similar to Manning’s conception of the minor gesture or the space-of-variation, de Certeau’s space is composed of the intersections of mobile elements “It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, temporalize it and make it function in polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. “ In Lee’s sculpture the irregular crystals, vibrating atoms, expressionistic fissures, formed and modeled openings provide a pathway or map that summons the observer to inhabit. The open “voids” personify active mobilized spaces where viewers connect. Dr. Yang suggests that Lee’s “void” spaces are sites or receptors of “oriental” sensibilities inspired by Buddhist thought. Through holes, voids and expanses Lee “allows the work to fully open up, extend, and exist in space.”
Within the sculptural gestures that Lee molds, he opens up internal areas that create more surface areas allowing viewers to trace mutable, changeable, variable, and shifting paths of experience. I would like to suggest that these openings are enlivened by both the participation of the observer and the site-responsivity of the actual sculptures themselves to their surrounding environments of the exhibition space. The British curator, Joanne Morra, writes extensively of the site-responsivity of spaces “where histories, objects, memories, uses, values, practices, and ideologies exist…” Also interested in de Certeau’s notion of space, Morra asks these questions, “In such a space, one of the most important questions a curator can ask is: How are the works of art to intervene within it sympathetically while at the same time, introducing new possibilities and ways of understanding the museum, its spaces of practice, and the artworks on show. “ For Morra the artworks are site-responsive to the environment where the work is placed in an “intervention into space” or “a critical interjection that responds to and activates the site.”
Within the sculpture gardens that they reside, Lee’s sculptures open themselves up to the lush, green gardens, the changing weather patterns, the blowing wind, and the shifting light patterns. The intense smells of the natural environment co-exist with the lively niches and rich temporal markings of the sculptor’s hand and the spectator’s revelations. In essence Lee turns the sculpture inside out to enable a communion, a contemplative yet awakening union, between viewer, sculpture, and surrounding environment.