An Te Liu is one of the best post-architects I know. Having graduated from SCI-Arc just about two decades ago, he has spent the last 20 years exploring what is left over from architecture and turning it into something he presents and sells as art. All the while he has taught at the University of Toronto, where he was also Chair of the Department of Architecture for a period. Now a monograph, An Te Liu (Black Dog Publishers, 2015), presents his work in a manner that lets us see the beauty of what remains as designers attempt to dissolve our universe into almost nothing.
For years, one of Liu’s pieces (Soft, 1998) hung in our bathroom (a former research assistant, he has remained a friend since his Los Angeles days). It is a grid of rectangles, each one brightly colored and slightly porous. Both a continuation of the exploration of the grid that has preoccupied so many artist and architects and a rebuke to the finish fetish in which most of these minimalists engaged, it is also a collection of kitchen sponges, light and slightly imperfect. Designers have been dreaming of pure form for centuries; mass production achieves it every day and sells it to us with a cheery matter-of-factness that lets us ignore the monotonous and repetitive reality of modernity until somebody like Liu turns it into what we concentrate on, which is to say, into art.
When I organized the 2008 International Architecture Biennale in Venice, I placed one of Liu’s armada of air conditioners and purifiers (Cloud, 2008) in the first exhibition room. Hovering overhead, the collection of white objects recalled the spacecraft from Star Wars movies and the utopias of 1960s architects, but it also made us see the heaviness of the streamlined machines that are so much a part of our daily environment. Finally, it made you think about the work they do in a manner you cannot see, as they continually make our spaces more perfect and commodious by filtering out heat, dust, and pollution.
Architecture in its most traditional sense has rarely been the focus of Liu’s work, with the exception of series of paintings in which he picked up on the patterns of suburban homes as we might see them from the air (Pattern Language, 1999-2007). Yet, architecture in the broadest sense has always been his main concern. In more recent pieces, Liu has concentrated on turning what is left over into objects that evoke both the explorations and explosions of pure forms created by artists from Duchamp to Brancusi, and the beauty of the negative, the mold, and the remains.
His body of work since 2012 turns Styrofoam molds and other forms of packaging into ceramic objects—with evocative names such as Trickster, Loki, and Xoanon—that he burnishes with all the care you expect to see in a Japanese tea cup. He does not leave well enough alone, as he has done in repurposing consumer objects and images in most of his other work, but cuts, rotates, and assembles the packaging to create sculptures that glory in the beauty of each nub and indentation, each curved corner and thick plane that once padded some part of a computer or consumer plaything. Indeterminate in scale and definite in luster, Liu’s objects are monuments to what we leave out, memorials to waste, miniatures of modernist aspirations, and glorifications of the beauty of what the machine produces and the artist transforms.
Liu’s alchemy is one that depends not only on the craft of remaking these artifacts, but also in his editorial vision, which dissects and digs out the inherent geometry or form lies hidden in the geology of human accumulation all around us and then selects those solids that best embody the negative. This artist works by implication, by reversing what we value and what we see. If buildings are the remains of a larger project to build a modern world that is perfect, then these are the scale models and the refined essence of buildings.