Dust in the Light: Chiow Liang-Cherng Solo Exhibition
Earthen Alchemy – Liang-cherng Chiow’s Clearing in the Woods
by Bochen Shen
Looking at the temporary kiln formed around artist Liang-cherng Chiow’s clay forms, I am reminded of a verse from the Chinese classic I-Ching (or Book of Changes): “Fire burns at the foot of the mountain, slowly fading. Like an elixir, its brilliance illuminates all things.” From humanity’s most primitive red clay pottery to Liang-cherng Chiow’s works, the entire history of civilization is spanned. Still, that crudely fired red clay is still crudely fired (using kilns of opportunity), and its initial color is still cinnabar red. And thick, heavy ceramic forms are still heavy ceramic forms, yet the red dust no longer circulates, whilst the red clay is no longer fashioned into pots, plates, and bowls. The dust illuminated by the fire’s light out in the open and the constantly transformed floating light from the open fire back in those days have come to comprise the name of this exhibition in Chinese – Dust in the Light – only that ancient floating light and fine dust do not come from the artist’s memories of a quiet life. The various artistic changes and constants over history seem perceptible in Chiow’s work. Like the word “change” in the title of the Book of Changes, containing three layers of meaning: simplicity, transformation, unchanging. Liang-cherng Chiow’s tenacious attitude is simple, and over the process of formation and refinement his works evolve – what remains unchanged is the artist’s approach and thinking in relation to art.
I. Wild Firing and Uncertainty
“That’s your problem, not mine.” This was Liang-cherng Chiow’s Zen koan-like response to a question on the relationship between his works and contemporary art theory. As part of the “contemporary” strain in which art theory dominates the overall artistic power structure mechanism, Liang-cherng Chiow’s clear, simple, cool, even Zen-like response, is nevertheless perhaps not “contemporary enough.”
It is perhaps this sort of “clarity” that places mental blocks before those setting out to describe and interpret Chiow’s art in contemporary art criticism. The artist’s unequivocal manner and bearing take away such terms and phrases as “uncertain, nebulous, murky, divergent, diverse” from the those available to describe the artist’s elusive manner or interpret his works. Still, Chiow has confronted this “uncertainty” all along in exactly this manner, thus from a certain perspective the daily challenges of this lingering “uncertainty” behind the artist’s unequivocal bearing have always been present, and this uncertainty derives from the inevitability of the artist’s itinerant kiln establishment. In contrast to the precise scientific control characteristic of the contemporary ceramics industry, red clay crude firing is a product of the era of pre-civilization. Yet it is precisely this method emulating pre-civilization kiln making that creates an uncontrollable crack between the artist and his works.
As the kiln fire begins to flit about, the potential changes caused by this uncontrollable fissure are a matter of waiting and listening. Whether the crackles of combustion bursts or crisp, steady pops, these sounds illustrate the fundamental “uncertainty” of yakeno (wild firing), or perhaps described in terms closer to the artist’s beliefs: “itinerant.” This is the outcome that the artist need not conceive and see through in detail; or perhaps it can be said that having chosen such a creative approach, such factors as “uncertainty” and “ambiguity” are baked into the creative process, and the artist thereby gives way to an impassable fissure. Accordingly, just by virtue of opting for the quasi-primitive wild firing approach, in a certain sense Liang-cherng Chiow’s “old school” approach achieves a very “contemporary” state.
II. Signatures and the Times
In his Beyond the Vessel series, “industrial traces” or “remnants of industry” have always struck the viewer first about the outward image. Stamping corrugated metal sheets used in building gives Chiow’s works the appearance of exploring such contemporary topics as the environment, earth, the decline of civilization, and capitalism; nevertheless, before any of the aforementioned issues can transpire, we must first consider the clear existence of signatures over the history of ceramics; the first signature on sculpting clay perhaps being fingerprints left on raw sculpting clay. Re-examining Liang-cherng Chiow’s works in terms of signatures it can be said that he truly inherited the tradition in art history of how symbols are transformed on clay. It is worth noting that it is precisely such symbols that enable us to take a peek at an era and imagine its stories.
III. Force, heat, and emotion
In the wake of the Beyond the Vessels series, Chiow successively introduced the Mindscape and In the Other Place series. In these series, whilst stamped marks remain prominent, perhaps what is more worth noting is the works’ scale – in particular that of their “force.” Even though the artist exercises increasingly precise technical control, he continually challenges the limits of the works’ scale. Still, rarely do ceramics artists treat “force” as an emotional aesthetic element – and this is perhaps the most unusual aspect of Chiow’s emotional exploration compared to other artists. From Mindscape to In the Other Place, not only has the scale (height, length, and width) of Liang-cherng Chiow’s works grown, so has the thickness. Here, Chiow uses such techniques as cutting, piercing, alternating, rearrangement, and restructuring to interpret the various possibilities of space. These creative techniques in turn accentuate and draw attention to the works’ structural properties. And it is precisely this three-dimensional structure that allows Liang-cherng Chiow to freely pick up inner memories and imagination. Through experimental formal arrangements reminiscent of Constructivist, Futurist, and even the Bauhaus movement, the artist’s Mindscape series becomes the tangible expression of his personal mindscape, as implied by the title. And although the artist’s challenges to technical limitations are nothing unusual, treating inevitable creative barriers as aesthetic qualities is most certainly unusual. In contrast to scale, incremental increases in thickness are undoubtedly catalysts of uncertainty in firing ceramics. Still, it is precisely in this aspect that Liang-cherng Chiow has chosen to confront even greater uncertainty, which he leverages to express the detachment and temporal stillness of the works, as well as a profound air of light faintly penetrating from the depths.
IV. A personal clearing in the woods
As a high school student Liang-cherng Chiow had the good fortune of encountering art teacher Yuan-tai Yang, the man that would mentor and impact his life of creative pursuit. Still, the true creative artist must always go his own way. As Chiow relates, “When you see yourself, you become yourself.” And this road that must be traveled is perhaps that which Heidegger called a “clearing in the woods.”
If ceramics is Liang-cherng Chiow’s personal clearing in the woods, then each new series is the artist’s new footprints. From the signatures of the Beyond the Vessel series, to Mindscapes’ spaces, and the force and warmth of the In the Other Place series, each of Liang-cherng Chiow’s series firmly strides toward a path of simultaneous return and progress. In Dust in the Light, the traces of his previous experiments and explorations naturally and harmoniously form a body of work. These sculptures with the form of bulbs and the texture of iron implements, with twisting lines of corrugated metal, appear like peak after peak in a secret mountainous realm. The upper portion, rendered in Constructivist style, is unexpectedly linked to an ancient vat-like base, and all conflicts and synthesis are constructed naturally in unique ways. It is within this sort of harmonization that we are fully convinced that Liang-cherng Chiow has always recognized his own clearing in the woods – a long and winding path to a clearing in the woods scattered with sparks of warmth.