The Touch of Air

Text/Timothy Murray

As I open this reflection on the provocative work of Lee Kuang-Yu, I invite you to join with me in an experimental process of attending to the work of sculpture. Somewhat contrary to the conventions of art criticism, I ask you to indulge me for a moment by engaging in an imaginary visual experience. No, I am not inviting you to meditate or even to hallucinate. Rather I invite you to engage with me in phenomenal thinking about the making of sculpture through exploratory means.
So please join together through the paradoxes of darkened vision to imagine or to visualize, if you will, the spectacle of the flow of a sculptor’s hands. Can we imagine the lyrical choreographic motion of fingers as they deftly pinch, push, and shape clay? Can we even put into motion our visual and hand coordination by imitating the shaking or wiping of the hand to free it from what we can imagine as the sticky detritus remaining from such touching and pinching of clay?
Yes, feel free to activate your senses through such motions of your hands as we also spin into vision the imaginary of numerous other digital movements in the sculptural studio. Can you sense the scraping off of earthy material from an unformed earthy clump? Do you visualize the gestural violence of the impromptu carving or etching of incisions on stone or wood? Can you follow the sculptor’s hand in the unpredictable chiseling out of empty space with the aim of transforming the particularity of the gesture into the universality of the sculptural form? Or figure, similarly, the straining motion of the sculpture’s arms as they bend, move, break or even smash incredibly heavy and resistant materials in way that transforms motion itself into material. Add to this creative choreographic process the combined force and delicacy of the hand’s reattachment of deconstructed material as it refashions previously finished materials into the marvelous apparitions of new unintended configurations. And if you were to visualize a sculptural result of this gesture, perhaps you would see something like Lee Kuang-Yu’s, lyrical yet monstrously gestural sculpture from 2007. Here the contortions of the hand are seemingly frozen and cast mid-motion as an artistic expression itself. Or maybe you would visualize something like the 2014 dance of “Empty Procession”whose choreographic figure might easily evoke the movements of the sculptor as he balances in extension over a large work-in-progress. Or, ultimately, maybe you could imagine even the transformation of the digital gesture of previous citations of “The Thinker” into the more open and lyrically gestural posture of the action of thought, rather than the subject of thought, which is enacted by Lee’s 2016 piece, “Thinking,” an artwork that exemplifies the pliant gestures sweeping through the Venice Biennale installation of “To Have and Have Not.”
Taking this lead, I would like to dialogue with the work of Lee as a means of thinking about the broad sensations of “having or not having” or, similarly, “being or not being.” To have or have not, to be or not to be. These are frameworks somewhere between the fantasy and reality of space-time with which Lee approaches his 2017 Venice Biennale project. With the title of Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel lurking in the background “To Have and Have Not,” we could imagine Lee’s work referencing the fluid time-space of Hemingway’s world of illegal trade and immigration in which goods, like art forms, easily trade places and reference the inequalities of possession. Lee situates this title, moreover, as analogous to the famous question haunting Shakespeare’s character, Hamlet. “To Be or Not to Be.” Put otherwise by Lee, the aesthetic style and arrangement of his recent exhibition is haunted by the ontological paradox, “To Have is to Have Not.”
While we could probably somehow force a sociological reading of Lee’s work to dialogue with the romantic underbelly world of deceit and immigration haunting Hemingway’s fiction, we might do better by reposing the question of just what might “having” and “being” constitute in this particular artistic context. In one sense, we might turn to the sculptural tradition of “objecthood” on which the American art historian, Michael Fried, has written eloquently. In referencing the Western philosophical distinction between “mind and body” or “subject and object” in focusing on the objecthood of minimalist sculptural, Fried means to elicit a kind of interaction with the sculptural artwork. He emphasizes what he calls the novel “theatricality” of contemporary object sculpture. Referencing the work of Donald Judd and Robert Morris, Fried suggests that the largeness of their minimalist works, “in conjunction with [their] nonrelational, unitary character, distances the beholder – not just physically but psychically. It is, one might say, precisely this distancing that makes the beholder a subject and the piece in question … an object. . . . The object, not the beholder, must remain the center or the focus of the situation; but the situation itself belongs to the beholder—it is his situation.” In this case, being the subject constituting the theatrical relation between objecthood and beholding, the beholder “has” or “possesses” the object. Put otherwise in the paradoxical language of Lee, “To Have” for the beholder is the equivalent of “to have not “for the sculpture.
Yet it is precisely this firm distinction between subject and object that Lee’s work forcefully eschews. One hand, he references the influence of Eastern philosophy on his work which transcends the seedy world of Hemingway’s social strife and the dialectically ontological world of Fried’s possession of objecthood. “Many of our obsessions,” writes Lee,” are the source of social strife, while much Eastern philosophy – the oneness of heaven and humanity for instance – may help us to return to a point when mankind and nature resided in harmony.” Yet I also appreciate how the formal dynamics of his work resists the very dialectical tension between object and subject characteristic of sculptural traditions preceding his. Consider his strong interest in hallows and planes that bring alternate spaces and perspectives together rather than render them separate. For example, numerous essays in this collection reflect on the significance of the “void” in works like Lee’s 2016 bronze, “Shadow of Wind.” As Yang Shin-Yi has written about Lee, “These structures no longer occupied the space with their weighty volume but signified the existence of space with parts that were opened up or removed.” Similarly, the importance of a “deconstructive” strategy of creation has Lee dissembling finished sculptures whose polished object is lacking in spark and sensation. These he breaks and smashes only to reincorporate the fragments and waste into something unanticipated by the artistic conventions of form and completion. If more time permitted, I would be tempted to dwell on Lee’s importance, in this context, as something of an ecological compositor, who refashions the refuse of nature and culture into unanticipated textures and shapes. In his recent work, moreover, Lee also brings together contrasting planes by compressing thickness into thinness in a way that enlivens the lightness of the movement of spatial interactivity, as in the sequence of “Tactful Matador,” “Grenada,” and “Red Passion” from the Biennial show. The planar thinness of the pieces almost seems to flow naturally into one another, thus creating an enigmatic mise-en-scene of fluid zones of time and space rather than the works’ titular referencing of Hemingway. Lee explains that “my works over recent years are mainly planar sculptures, compressed to a slim thickness with an abundance of pictorial elements. In sum, they are a world where two dimensions intersect with three dimensions.” Rather than staging mise-en-scenes of pictorial depth, whose hallows leads the eye beyond surface object to something ontologically deeper or into a social commentary referenced symbolically by the work, Lee’s conjoining of 3-D and 2-D lend themselves to the compression of surface where volume itself lies embedded in the slim thickness of artistic skin. This is very much akin to what the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, referenced as the thickness of “flesh” in which subject and object fuse into one phenomenological intensity. Dialectics give way to interactive partaking.
Lee’s aesthetic project thus aims not to enhance merely the distanced, theatrical beholding of his sculptures but rather to solicit the sensational liveliness of interactivity itself. Put otherwise, it is almost as if Lee promotes, in pieces such as his “The Advent of Bliss,” an artistic engagement that is counter in deconstructive method, slim thickness, and hallow materiality to the very alienation of the “objecthood” of conceptual sculpture. I couldn’t possibly state this paradox more eloquently than Lee has done himself. He explains that he seeks “a new approach to the appreciation of sculpture, by simultaneously shifting between senses and sensibilities. Too many contemporary works are conceptual, only appealing to the rational aspect of mankind. Everything in life can stir your feelings and emotions. This is not an idea or concept, but a flowing energy. To touch the sentiments of humanity we wish the audience to participate in sculpture’s spatial structure.”
While Lee’s approach is clearly aligned with and reflects his understanding of Eastern philosophy, I can think of no better interlocutor for his sensational sense of touch than the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, who reflects about aesthetics similarly to Lee and in a way that might extend our appreciation of Lee’s project as bridging “the thinking,” as he calls it via his artwork, of East and West. Nancy argues that something of a machinic shift away from the distancing of the theatrical object may require more of philosophy and art than merely “to change the optic,” to shift the apparatus through which we reflect on the dialogue between art and philosophy. More is at stake than the mere closing of the eyes at the beginning of a talk to summon forth an imaginary world. In L’oubli de la philosophie (1986), Nancy recommends a literal move away from the optical itself, to embrace a radical shift of the paradigm through which philosophy is grounded in the centering frame of perspective and its recessions. This would require the philosopher to engage with the artist in a questioning of theories that constitute the subject as centered in what Nancy calls “the present from a distance” [le present à distance].” Nancy’s writings on both imaging and listening foreground resonance, resounding, and the correlative distension of form as philosophical event that conjoins the visual and the audible in the “function of the image.” As the carrier of both intimate “force” and “intensity,” the image, even when musical, choreographic, cinematic, or sculptural, does not so much represent for Nancy as activate and intensify representation and its “touch.” The force of the “immaterial” — even in the case of sculpture — is here what lends the image both the “impalpable nature of absence” and that which it “images.” To image [imager]; this is the intransitive verb favored by Nancy neither to illustrate nor to imagine but to figure, “faire l’image,” in order to lend touch to what is by definition incorporeal as absence, what is neither in material nor in its materialization.
While distracting myself the other week by watching videos of the opening events surrounding Lee’s Venice Biennial installation, again entitled “To Have AND Have Not,” I was struck by a sequence of shots that captured the centrality of the literal touch of immateriality, or the touch of air in this case, to the figuration of Lee’s sculptures. As I conclude these thoughts on Lee’s incorporeal image making, I invite you to think back to our earlier warm up exercises, in which the motions of the hand and the choreography of the arm enabled the engine of art and its experience. Different sequences in the Biennial video of the exhibition opening depict both Lee and the spectators of his work utilizing not necessarily their distanced optical agency to attend to his work — as one would in gazing upon a work of art — but, rather, the choreography of the motion of touch. In a rather stunning sequence of different encounters with the sculptures, both by the spectators and the artist himself, the choreographic gesture becomes transferred from the space of creation to the space of reception, from the artist to the participant of the sculptural event. First the artist presents his work to the assembled critics and patrons through the choreography of touch. He moves and mobilizes his delicate hands in synchrony with the flowing lines of his thinly thick figures. Perhaps it could be said that the artist frames the reception of his sculptures in gestures that mime the figural creation of the artwork. As Nancy would have it, Lee mobilizes his gesture neither to illustrates nor to imagine but to figure his work anew, “faire l’image” in Nancy’s words. He thus lends airy touch to what is by definition incorporeal as absence, what is neither in material nor in its materialization. The spectators also are captured by video as being inclined to trace the emotive touch of the work with their gestures as they supplement the sculpture with corporeal motion. Not merely an accident of video, what I am calling the touch of air here is fundamental to the Lee’s sculptural aesthetics of touch. “The viewers have to adjust their perspectives,” the artist says, “and move their bodies accordingly in order the experience the fusion of the sculptures and the spaces they are in. Of course, evoking feelings requires emotional resonance. Without it, sentiment becomes fragile and fragmented.” This brings to mind, of course, the participatory call to arms of Lee’s earlier statement, “to touch the sentiments of humanity we wish the audience to participate in sculpture’s spatial structure.”
Paradoxically, to return full circle to my opening remarks, the multiplications of gestural interaction combine with the fragmentations of deconstructed form to lend Lee Kuang-Yu’s thinly thick sculptures the touch of their airy sensational resonance.