The Canadian artist re-imagines discarded Styrofoam packages as beautiful ceramic sculptures that capture the ghostly presence of consumer goods.
“Six months ago, I didn’t know what slip casting was,” says An Te Liu, the Toronto artist best known for repurposing everyday objects into striking and thought-provoking sculptures. For the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, he created Cloud, an assembly of suspended air purifying devices, and in 2012, for Toronto’s all-night art fest, Nuit Blanche, he constructed White Dwarf, a massive orb made up of electronic debris.
Mono Mo Ma (translated from Japanese as “space of the thing”), an exhibit on until November 11 at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum, marks Liu’s foray into ceramics. To create the 19 works on display, he first amassed a collection of foam packing materials, donated by his colleagues and students at the University of Toronto. “It was a kind of archaeology,” he says. The discarded EPS forms had previously secured in place and protected such items as ice wine from the Niagara region, a blender and an electric bike, to name a few.
After Liu slip cast the various shapes in Toronto, he carted the pile of clay forms to ceramicist Angelo di Petta‘s workshop in Millbrook, an historic town northeast of the city. Inside the renovated horse barn, the duo spent three weeks testing glazes and firing the clay works. “Some of these were cast two, three or four times. It was a lesson in patience and perseverance,” says Liu. The process required that casting, drying and firing times be closely monitored.
Just beyond the Gardiner’s main entrance, 10 large sculptures are arranged on two platforms and nine smaller works are encased in a display shelf behind glazing. The staggered sculptures command attention and are at once monumental and ominous.
Gnomom, for instance, is a tower made up of nearly identical blackened plaster forms inspired by Brancusi’s iron and steel Endless Column in Târgu Jiu, Romania; Liu’s stoneware Brutalist Rice Cooker could easily be mistaken for an early model of Boston’s city hall, built by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles in 1968; and Machinemensch, which looks like a large mechanical component, finished with a gunmetal glaze, is a nod to “The Man Machine,” an album by German electronic band Kraftwerk.
Other forms are more friendly. These include George, playfully named after Liu’s many friends with the same name, and made from earthenware with a green pigmentation; and Aphros (Greek for foam), a press-moulded clay and sawdust sculpture that appears ready to flutter away.
But perhaps Liu’s realization of the negative space that surrounds the things we buy is best illustrated by Obsolete Figure in Space. The angled L-shape clay sculpture, supported by a spindly steel rod atop a concrete base, is based on the packaging for the latest iMac. While consumer electronics and appliances like this one are built for obsolescence, Liu’s ceramic sculptures capture that moment of unwrapping something new, even state of the art, and ask us to re-evaluate our perceptions of the oft-overlooked packaging.
Mono Mo Ma runs until November 11 at the Gardiner Museum, 111 Queen’s Pk.