Travel in Taiwan Arts

Chinese Tradition and Modernity in Metal Sculpture

By Melanie Seligman


Ju Ming's tai chi sculpture.

The art of sculpture in Taiwan is still in its infancy. Yet what it lacks in history is more than compensated for by its extraordinary vitality. A visit to Hanart Gallery, or Yuyu Yang's Lifescape Sculpture Museum, both in Taipei, shows the beauty and power of contemporary Taiwanese sculpture.

Traditionally, sculpture was limited to the carving of religious figures and decorative pieces for temples. Regarded as the work of common laborers, it was not considered a fine art and sculptors did not enjoy the same prestige as successful painters and calligraphers from the scholar class.

Early this century, achievements by pioneer artist Huang Tu-Shui made sculpture into an aesthetic art form in its own right. He studied the art in Japan, which was heavily influenced by Western thoughts and trends--including the work of world-renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Later Huang returned to Taiwan and developed his own personal style, combining realism with folk sculpture. His work left a lasting impact on succeeding generations of Taiwanese sculptors.

In recent years, outstanding exhibits at international art shows and exhibitions have brought unprecedented attention to Taiwanese sculpture. Often exploring the roots of the island's Chinese cultural heritage, the beauty and originality of this art transcends cultural barriers.

One person who has utilized heritage as a source of inspiration is Ju Ming (朱銘). His gigantic bronze tai chi series is both modern and inspired by the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi chuan. Born in 1938 and apprenticed to a carver of wooden images for Buddhist temples at age 15, Ju soon became a master craftsman and set up his own workshop. Driven by a need for self-expression, in 1968 he began a second apprenticeship with Yuyu Yang (楊英風) in Taipei. Yang had studied sculpture in Tokyo and Rome, and was beginning to establish an international reputation for massive polished-steel sculptures of abstract shapes.

Evoking Nature's Power
Working together, both teacher and pupil liberated themselves from the realism of traditional figures and pared away unnecessary detail to reveal essential, simplistic shapes. Yang's smooth steel sculptures reflect his belief in nature's forces and his desire to portray harmony. The fluid lines of his shapes are evocative of natural forms and he strives to create a balance between "yin" and "yang" or the personal and the universal.


Balancing yin and yang--works by master sculptor Yuyu Yang.

Yang has been commissioned to work in the U.S., Italy, and throughout Asia-- including commissions by the National Museum of Singapore and the International Golf Course in Japan. This year he will hold a major retrospective at London's Chelsea Harbor, organized by the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Yang's Lifescape Sculpture Museum in Taipei opened in 1992.

Yang urged the small and wiry Ju Ming to take up tai chi, an ancient spiritually oriented martial art, in order to strengthen his body and to develop mental discipline. Through daily practice, Ju Ming learned about the union of body, mind, nature, and spiritual health. The application of tai chi fundamentals to art seemed so natural to Ju Ming that he was surprised it had not been explored before.

In sculptures such as Single Whip (單鞭下勢), he employed postures used by practitioners of tai chi to great effect, infusing a sense of energy and motion into his sculpture. Sometimes this is so tangible that figures look like they could fly up into the air. "The form of tai chi has something to do with the sculptural form," Ju says. "But the most important issue is the nature of tai chi itself, which involves both activity and quietude. Both tai chi and my sculpture are about releasing inner forces."

Shining Elegance and Instinctive Passion
Although both Yang and Ju's sculpture creates a feeling of harmony while emanating a sort of spiritual energy, the artists differ in their handling of material. Yang gradually works towards a burnished final product. His refined metal forms have smooth, elegant lines, revealing the discipline and skill of the hand which made them. Ju Ming's style is more instinctive, human, and intimate. He carves so quickly that surfaces remain rough, with cuts and gashes suggesting an imperfect inner spirit. "When one sculpts at high speed, cutting strokes follow closely upon each othernd attention is focused on the fleeting moment....It is the power of instinct that brings the work to completion," he says.

Ju's sculptures, like those by Yang, are best seen outdoors. His giant figures in richly patinated bronze and rough-hewn wood seem to absorb the energy of the wind and water that surround them. Ju Ming's figures are at home in natural settings because they seem to merge the human spirit with nature. His tai chi pieces, which portray human shapes but not individual human features, are timeless and universal.

These qualities make Ju Ming's work almost as much at home all over the world as it is in his native Taiwan. He has sculpture in Hong Kong, Singapore, London's South Bank Centre, Yorkshire's Sculpture Park, and Max Hutchinson Sculpture Field in New York. Last year, the Hakone Open-Air Museum in Japan held a major exhibition of his, and later this year, Ju's tai chi sculptures will appear along the Champs Elysees in Paris. Ju is also putting together his own museum in the town of Chinshan, Taipei county.

Chinese Characters in 3D Bronze
Another artist who also draws on Chinese culture when developing his sculptures, is Fung Ming-chip (馮明秋), who made his name as a carver of traditional seals or chops--carving Chinese characters on the bottom of wood, ivory, or stone to make stamps. Fung then branched off into wood-block prints before exploring the portrayal of Chinese characters in the three-dimensional medium of bronze sculptures. One sculpture might resemble a single Chinese character--equivalent, but not limited to, a single meaning. But in his sculpture,


Kou (Female) is one of Fung Ming-chip's three-dimensional depictions of Chinese characters.

Fung focuses on the visual aspect of characters and not their literal meaning. His elegant bronze pieces Kai (male) and Kou (female) resemble characters and have the appropriate gender qualities. The characters he uses are entirely contrived; they have no actual or understandable meaning.

Fung's bronze Command of Wind and Rain (呼風喚雨) shows a figure holding a bolt of lightning in one hand and a swirling shape representing wind in the other. The Chinese character for a powerful man and material wealth becomes a figure commanding the elements. To best appreciate Fung's ideas, it might be helpful to have a good understanding of Chinese characters. But even if your knowledge is limited, like mine, it is still easy to see how Fung Ming-Chip has utilized Chinese culture in the realm of modern art. "If we could just retain a breathing space for literati culture in this media-choked world, it would allow a channel for historical wisdom to shine through when we need it," he explains.

Where to go: Hanart Gallery, 104 Chungshan North Road, Section 5, Taipei; tel: (02) 882-9772. Hanart has a permanent collection of both Ju Ming's and Fung Ming-Chip's sculpture. The Yuyu Yang Lifescape Sculpture Museum is located at 31 Chungking South Road, Section 2, Taipei; tel:(02)393-5649.


Travel in Taiwan Arts
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.