Hybrid and Simulated Beings
The Mythological Characteristics of Ping-Cheng Liang's Sculpture Artworks
The Sculpture Research Semiyearly Issue No. 6（2011.09）
Hui-Hui Chang 張慧慧
Graduate Student, Department of Arts and Design, National Taipei University of Education
The appearance of “hybrid” in contemporary art has historic origins. All kinds of physical changes in various forms between man and creatures or among creatures have long been depicted in myths. These legends and folk tales can be considered as representations of worship of “abnormality” of such hybrid interpreted as “paranormality” by primitive people.
With the employment of weight-reducing, quasi-figuration and quasi-pragmatic approaches, Ping-Cheng Liang (1958- ), a contemporary sculpture artist, excels in manipulating heterogeneous media in his creations to showcase characteristics of “hybrid” and “simulated beings.” Starting from an aspect of multidimensionality in Liang’s artistic career, this article explores Liang's creations and discovers that his expressive forms cover both the organic and the inorganic as if supernatural creatures possessed by deities while the use of mixed media surpasses limits set by traditions and modernity and opens more possibilities in sculpture. Furthermore, the technique of “carving respecting the nature” allows his artworks to exhibit haptique with flowing shadows and regain somaticity in stainless art creation. Through media and forms, Liang deconstructs the dualism of simulation and reality, paranormality and normality, and myths and history, responds to man’s ultimate philosophy of universe, and pursue infinite possibilities in life and art by establishing connections between oneself and all beings.
As an image expression common seen in contemporary artworks, “hybrid”has long origins in myths and fables. Mythical figures that can assume different forms,Eastern and Western alike, are derived from ancestors' pursuit of life possibilitieswithout being limitedby time and space, and imaginationfree from confines of shapes or forms. For example, in Greek mythology, Zeus taking the form of a bull when abductingPhoenician princess Europa;Thetis, a sea goddesspossessing incomparable shape-shifting capabilities;in Egyptian mythology, Horus,a tutelary deity depicted as falcon-headed;Anubis,with the body of a man and the head of a jackal,beinggod of the underworldwhile portrayed in Classic of Mountains and Seas,a Chinese mythic book, are various beasts and plants. Such characteristics of freely transforming shapes and forms described in myths have been reckoned as representations of “abnormality”and interpreted as “paranormality” to be worshiped.
As Ernst Cassirer pointed out,primitive thought’scomprehension of lifeincludes totems, power of nature, encounter ofrisksandshapeshift to flee for life.To the primitive mind, life is not fragmented but exists as a total, and flowsamong different beings with no insurmountable obstacles. Shapes and forms of all beings are changeable. Beingstransform to other beingsthroughmetamorphoses.Based on belief and imagination of metamorphoses and simulatedbeings, primitive people overcome and change corporeal mortality to spiritual immortality,which is “strong and unshakable denial to death.”1
Besides, the understanding of life constructed withprimitive thoughts in myths is total rather than general. In other words, based on the thoughtsof “investigating to the bottom the laws of all things once and for all”the way of speculation of the uncivilized mindto consider that “all cannot be interpreted without the understanding of everything” contradicts scientific thinking. The “civilized”mind longs to decompose things without overlooking any details and resolve difficult problems into numerous smaller parts that can be solved one at a time. Systematized division of labor and hierarchy have become the lines that separate a primitive society from a modern one.，
Clues of the above imageryhave been revealed in the works of contemporary sculpture artist Ping-ChengLiang. Liang's works come in weight-reducing, quasi-figurative and quasi-pragmaticfeatures plus heterogeneous media manipulation.The characteristics of “hybrid” and “Simulated Beings” exhibited in his "Book &Illegible Book" Series, "Mask" Series, "Flying" Seriesand numerous works of simulatedbeings exemplify creative techniques of expression and artistic perspectives. Following next, the author explores Liang’s artworks from an aspect of multidimensionality in his artistic careerto discover that the use of mixed media surpasses limits set by traditions and modernity and his creations have been transformed to cover both the organic and the inorganic as if supernatural creatures possessed by deities.Tracedback to Auguste Rodin,Liang’s“carving respecting the nature” technique allows his artworks todemonstrate haptique with flowing shadows,respond to man’s ultimate philosophy of life and pursue infinite possibilities in life and art by establishing connections between oneself and all beings.
II.Characteristics of mixed elements with Chinese and foreign cultures
Born in Pingtung County, Taiwan in 1958, Liang founded “Stupid Bird Artist Group” in 1982 and won the First Prize in the 8thLion Art Young Artist Award in 1983. A few years after graduation from Western Painting Program in Department of Fine Arts, Chinese Cultural Universityin 1985, Liang pursued further study in New York University. Under the gradual influence ofthe city with a key position in avant-garde art development, “Liang has got his musefrom the excitement and stimuli rendered, andheconsiders such experienceshavebrought him‘closer to the essence of art’.”2After returning to Taiwan, Liang’s creationshave been broadened to cover art forms besides paintings. Throughserendipity, Liang went to Sanyi, the woodcarving kingdom in Taiwan, to make breakthroughsin the then traditional woodcarving industry by changing its mass production mode,3 and developed his own unique creation techniques, which coincided with the “Conceptualism, mixed media, installations, abstract systems”in the classification system of contemporary folk woodcarving in Taiwan established by Ariel Chen (Chi-hsien Chen):
To determine by induction the styles and types of woodcarving artists and their artworks in this classification system,one may conclude that media, artistic crossover and mental pursuit have been attempted toblur the line that distinguish woodcarving from other modern artistic forms and the sculpture category. As active demonstration of certain creation attitude to identify itself with the essence and concept of "modernity", “conceptualism, mixed media, installations, abstract systems” have made woodcarving to becomea “particularly open discipline.”
Based on his life experience in Pingtung during childhood, Liang has shown immense interest in nature, mythology and innate cultural elementsas well as strong passion towardmountains. In addition, two-yearexperiences ofstaying in New York in the early 30’s allowed Liang to integrate Chinese and Western sculptural concepts and think outside the box when shifting to woodcarving.The change from a single medium to mixed media,combination of woodcarving and stainless steel, and carving skills rootedin painting in early years open up more possibilities for carving creations.
Throughconcepts, mixed media and an abstract system,Liang has allowed the viewers toperceive an object in various ways other than the existing one. Just then he calls forth viewers’ experiences and memories and opens up possibilities of different perception. Liang once said, “I’ve been exploring one’s inner world. I used to acquire information from the outside when I was young. Starting the days in Sanyi with woodcarving, I have become intensely concerned about the inner world rather than the outside world."5
Launched in Liang’sfirst solo woodcarving exhibition in 2001, the “Flying”Series appear as eagles but actually not and appear as dragons but really not, either. They look more similar to the rare birds and animals with metamorphoses portrayed in the Chinese mythic book, Classic of Mountains and Seas. As Liang put it in the artist’s description of the exhibit, material is the process presented toconvey the inner world. The appearance is not reality while internal essence is where the reality exists. With the “weight-reducing”technique the bulk of material is chopped off to remove heaviness of the material. Then the object with metamorphosis is to be “carved respecting the nature”just likewhat Claude Lévi-Strauss refers to as “a myth is excogitated by people with instigation ofthe myth itself unknowingly.”6 The approach adopted by Liang inart creation to bewithout preparation of preliminary drafts and without rehearsals is just like the artwork drives him to conceive it without knowing it.
Asan important starting point for Liang’s woodcarving creation, “Flying”is contemporary subjective thinking presented in an ancient myth system with characteristics of “hybrid” and “simulatedbeings” exemplified under primitive mythological thoughts based on artist’s technique plus employment of modern stainless steel media to pass through barriers between all times and all countries.
III. Hybrid myth with organic integrated with inorganic
The core of "hybrid" lies inthe paranormalitydistinct from the normality. The process of “change”to produce “hybrid” is one of the elements in myths that tuck at people’s heartstringsthe most, which not only shows the imagination of shapeshifting based on primitive thoughts but contains hidden ancient views of life and the universe. However, “change”can befurther disintegrated as “change”and “transformation.”As Kong Yingda, an influential Confucian scholar in Tang Dynasty,put it in his Commentary on Yuèlìng (Government Proceedings in Different Months) in “Book of Rites,”“To change and to transform mentioned in The Principle of Actionof I Ching (Book of Changes) shall mean that based on the existing old form, change refers to a gradual alteration while a sudden alteration is transformation. If there is no existing old form, a changewithout resemblance is transformation.”7
“Change” refers to alteration of the original form, which is minor andwithin the system, such as the growth of living things.“Transformation” refers to sudden alteration of the form, which is a complete transition from the original form that break away from framework and restrictions imposed. From such a point of view, “change” conforms to the principle of nature while “transformation” breaks the law of nature and lead to mixture of species.
As a result, all hybrids in mythology are equipped withparanormal power, taking no cognizance of biological limits butdemonstratingimagination of supernatural power of primitive minds through special traits of distinguished abilities or distinctive features, such as wings (for flying), antennae (for protruding and attacking), beaks (for attacking andpreying) andcoat patterns (for protection). Lévy-Bruhl once stated: “In the Huichols world, ‘Flying birds can see and hear everything with mystic power inthe plumesof their wings and tails.’Once wearing these plumes, shamans‘are capable ofseeing and hearing everything from below the earth and all points of the world.’”8With body parts and source of power associated, primitive people believe that even if the source of power is separated from the body, the source can still function on its own while the combination of different creatures is regarded as augmentation of power.
With stainless steel as the medium, “Date” (Figure 1) and“Fe-Po” (Figure 2) are Liang’s artworks in 2006, exhibiting great power of twisted metals through curliness and waviness. Squareand linear fluid patternsare employed in the “Date” to depict pointed beaks andfeathers floating in the air, supplemented by sturdy lion bodies and beast feet. Similar patterns appear in “Fe-Po” to portray the very moment before crouch-and-jump of the little creature with the body extremity curling up like a tail or a wing. Viewers’ stereotype of stainless steel is to be totally changed by such combination of hybrid animal characteristics. Revealed in the design of configurationsare Liang’s careand respect toward non-human creaturesthrough the integration of simulation and reality as well asdeities and beasts.
“God’s mount” (Figure 3), an artwork of 2009, further escalatesthe representation tension. With Taiwan camphor wood as the medium, protrusility in the powerfultentacles of a giant deep-sea creature has been presented through delicate totems and patterns neatly engraved on its surface. The orderly arranged patterns seem to contain ancient magic tricks hard to be understood allowing the wood texture to convey silent mystic powerto surprise viewers. The hybrid of different creatures, a seeming fish and a seeming beast, confuses viewers’ ordinary perception. The technique of “carving respecting the nature”might be compared to the liberal-mindedness of letting things take their natural course in Taoism, and dynamics hidden in the artwork makes it to appear ina natural organic form. In addition, the quasi-pragmaticcharacteristic in Liang’screation concept dislocates ancient paranormalmyths in modern daily life, constituting a unique “species” of another kind.
In contrast to bursting and exaggerating feelings of the supernaturalbrought to viewers’ apparently by hybrids of animals mentioned above, Liang’s “Mask” Series of artworksmix together characteristics of humans, animals and plants to present steadiness and solidity through concepts and approaches of combining different creatures. With wood of Taiwan camphor and Taiwan yew as media plus delicate and glossy grains,artworks of “Gold Mask” (Figure 4) start sculpturing with a piece of seeming inorganic material in the form of a Chinese steleand produceshapes of organic beings in minor details, such as limbs, whiskers,scales and fins, to suggest a stern and forbidding atmosphere within the inorganic framework. Representationof “dual viewsheds” with positive and negative space has been emphasized by Liangtocreate seemingly right but actually wrong and seemingly wrong but actually right metamorphosed hybrids with both normality and paranormality.Artworksof the “Mask”have functioned as evasion and defense of subconsciousnesssymbolizing unreality of communication and expression. With golden paint applied on the wood and a memorial tablet plus a scepter arranged at sides as emblems of authority,the artwork faintly reflects glances of viewers on the hazing paint.What would be interesting is whether it is the viewer that stares at the false face or the false face that reflects reality. The dialectic of visual dominance subordinacybecomes blurred in the change sight lines. Liang conveysthrough “Gold Mask”the core value of his creation as “seeking inner essence” leading viewers to face up to the core of life and indicating the past and the future.
IV. Heterogeneous media with tradition and modernity
In Taiwan, the development of woodcarving has always been closely linked to people’sday-to-day life and has become one of the important artistic forms reflecting civic culture. Rooted in woodcarving, Liang has developed series of stainless steel creations. Through medium crossover and spiritual pursuit, he breaks with conventional woodcarving processes and has another look at traditional connectionswith spatiality, practicality and life toshow his subjectivity with his unique creative styles and forms.
However,the conventional woodcarving transition shall not be considered as simple as either traditional or modern.As Ariel Chen (Chi-hsien Chen) put it, the transition is “two time axes,one latitudinal and the other longitudinal, coexisting as the time of modern capitalism business world and the time of traditional folks.”9With the “dual time” characteristic, Taiwan woodcarving gets away from the time sequence of Western modernity and rationality to construct unique developments of dislocation and collage. Interestingly, contrasts exist between the two media chosen by Liang as the warm, organic and traditional wood vs. the cold, inorganic and modern stainless steel,which coincide with hybrid characteristics of his creations, allowing his artworks not only to present wonderful aesthetic tension in shapesbut also to give viewers perceptions different from or even opposite to existing ones through the media employed.
As the first artist to introduce stainless steel to art creation in Taiwan, Yuyu Yang (Yang Yingfeng) once described his love for stainless steel,“The nature of hardness and impetuousnessof stainless steel implies strong modernity, fully exhibiting one aspect of ourlife in today’sworld of highly-developed science and technologies with inflexible and mechanical characters.”10 Yang’s advocacy of landscape sculpture concept has beenrevealed in his series of stainless steel creations. Stainlesssteel is highly stable thanks to its corrosion resistance capability, and artworks made of such demonstrate hardness, modernity and industrial mechanical feel while the falsehood and verities created with the reflection of surroundings on themirror polished surfacefurther substantiate modernization characteristics of the medium itself.
In contrast to the treatment of stainless steel artworks in a cold toneby the pioneer artist Yuyu Yang,which highlight the inherent characteristics of stainless steel as being rational, mechanical and modern, Liang opens up more possibilities of the material itself in a completely different approach to liberatethe “Ocularcentrism” contained in the material,11whichdisrupts the vision supremacy as a unidirectional authority demonstration andbring back more multifacetedsensory experience in sculptural representations with stainless steel media.
With stainless steel as the medium, the artwork of “Platinum Triangle Fertile Land” (Fig. 5) in 2008 is a continuation of creation concept of the woodcarving Triangular Fertile Land No. 1 (Fig. 6) in 2006. A look at stainless steel artworks would be a good start to explore Liang’s interpretation of the connotation of such material. As Liang put it in the artist’s description of an artwork, “Apiece of fertile land in the field nurtures the highly developed life form of humans. When bustling and flourishing fades away, things in the material world may change. But artistswill start to try, explore and create, producing artworks that will last over time and exist in people’s mind.” Therefore, based on “nurturing”as the theme of creation, this piece of artwork continues the artistic representation of “simulatedbeings”in the past and have the texture of stainless steel changed byimages of ancient hybrids and simulated beings. With power similar to “disruptive creation”12set forth in Modernity,the artworkallows viewers to have perceptions of the material different from existing ones in their mind and present a reverse or upset virtual space and extend the single requirement for stainless steel in terms of sense of sight.Such physical recalls make this stainless steel work to become full of warmth to be felt and perceived. The material of stainless steel with traditional impressionsof being rigid, bright and rational begin to build a natural and organicimage in Liang’screations showing flavor of mystery with hybrids of modern material and ancient myths.
As an extension of the “Mask”Series,the “Butterfly” (Fig. 7)in 2008 combines pine and stainless steel to consistently show the characteristics of “hybrid” and “simulated beings.”But techniques employed in representation are different from those in the past. Rather than persistently interwoven totems and patterns, the artwork presents a concrete wooden human torsothat can be clearly identified with cavities in the wood deliberately reserved to naturally depict muscle curves. Although both are in the theme of “reality,”“Gold Mask” calmly presents in adetached mannera expressionless concave triangle facing the viewer,while the “Butterfly” shows a stainless steelmask in the shape of a butterfly with a half-hatched egg in the center plus a pair of flapping wings. The head slightly inclining to one side looks as if the wings are listeningto it and about to take off. The image of hatch implies a new life but presented in a protective unyielding posture while the body is nakedand defenseless. Themask becomes the only arm to defend but the distinction betweenorganic facial features and the inorganic mask has been blurred. The boundaries between organic faces and inorganic masks and the employment of heterogeneous media makes the artwork looks like a hybrid creature, neither a human nor a beast, but more similar to an alien in contemporary science fiction movies.
“Hybrid” and “Simulated beings,”Laing’s major artistic representations, plusthe technique of “carving respecting the nature”allowartworks to be neither humans nor beasts with concrete figures. The mixed patterns and totems would rather be regarded as the vast universe fantasized by ancient primitive people than realities. With painting integrated with woodcarving, Liang’stechniques have allowed him to exhibit unique hybrid characteristics in forms and shapes of his artworks,drawingmulti-aspect discussionsin terms of East vs. West and tradition vs. modernity. The artworks of Book & Illegible Book(Figure 8)in early days have exhibited dynamics through their cultural features and concrete representations while recent creations, based on artist's imagination and inner spirit, have enhanced the media employed to qualitative transitionand deconstructed the dualism of simulation and reality, paranormality and normality, and myths and history. This is exactly as what Claude Lévi-Straussdescribed as “primitive” thoughtsand “modern” mind:
If we are led to the belief that “There will be no material or fundamental differencebetween what happens in our mind and the basic vital life phenomenon itself.”If we are further led to the understanding that “All chasms between humans and other life forms (animals and plants alike) can be crossed,” we may realize a wealth of wisdom far beyond what we can imagine.13
To certain extent,the “authenticity” of mythshasbeen confirmed in the discourses of structuralists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss.Inthis context,whatwas once regarded as absurd has been endowed value again. Life and thought cannot be distinctly distinguished as what the dualism of René Descartes has claimed since the 17thcentury.
Characteristics of hybrid and simulated beings in Liang’s artworks coincide with the philosophy of universerichly contained in mythology.The integration of organic and inorganic characteristicschanges viewers’ ordinary perceptionand makes the artworks to be enveloped in mythological unearthly power.Through the employment of special materialsLiang has broughthis creation into deified space formed by the artwork itself, making breakthrough to the modernity framework represented by metallic materials. Liang transfers his familiarity with the warmth of wood to configurationsand unique representations of metals, giving viewers’perceptions of stainless steel opposite to the existingcharacteristics of brightness, homogeneity and coldness andputting back haptique to the course of Taiwan's sculpture modernization in the past century. The return of somaticityhas enriched stainless steel sculpture with more possibilities and thereby establish mythological sculptural languages and subjective thinking. Without sticking to the materials usedbut surpassing limitations thereof, Liang has opened new perspectives on contemporary sculpture.
Ping-Cheng LIANG 梁 平 正