At Art Basel Hong Kong, a sculptor uses more than his hands
For his debut at Art Basel Hong Kong, Taiwanese artist Hsu Yunghsu — and the Taipei gallery that represents him — decided to think big. Really big.
The centerpiece of his six works on display at the art fair will be “2021-3,” a sandstone sculpture with swirling cocoon-like sections that Mr. Hsu has molded and pressed with the power not only of his fingers, but with his whole body. Approximately 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide, the artwork is made up of two 650-pound pieces stacked vertically, making it a far cry from a typical artwork to take on a trip of any length to a world art fair.
Still, “2021-3” is typical of the unconventional artistry Mr. Hsu (pronounced SHOO), 67, is known for and his ambitious way of molding, twisting and pinching it. Liang Gallery in Taipei, which will also feature seven other artists in its section, including video artist Ting Tong Chang, will feature two more clay and three porcelain sculptures by Mr. Hsu, which vary in length or height by less than one foot to almost five feet. Each has a similar pattern: swirling masses of what could be seen as a cluster of cells, with lights and shadows dancing at dozens of angles.
The “2021-3” sculpture, whose title simply means it is Mr Hsu’s third artwork in 2021, resembles a giant, undulating sponge crossed with a piece of coral reef. Showing his technique in bulk, he has thousands of his fingerprints covering the fluid surface, kneaded into the clay. The ovals and cascading curves are stacked, but some segments are only about a centimeter or about a third of an inch thick, creating a delicacy that seems to defy gravity.
“I always want to use my body to express my ideas, and by repeating and stacking, my ambition is to identify how far I can push myself and the material,” Mr Hsu said through d an interpreter in a telephone conversation from his studio in Tainan City, southern Taiwan. “I create holes in the structure again and again with my bare hands. This work documents my relationship with clay and my dedication to creating a visual “wow” moment for the viewer.
It’s a bold approach in a 40-year career that has involved taking more of a risk. Born in 1955 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Mr. Hsu graduated from a teachers’ college in the 1970s and worked as a teacher and professional musician, becoming a master of the guzheng, the classical Chinese zither. After 22 years of teaching in primary school and just before qualifying for retirement, he quit teaching in 1998 and in 2003 began studying ceramics at the National Tainan University of the Arts.
Since changing careers, Mr. Hsu has held artistic residencies in Taiwan, South Korea, China, Japan and the United States, and his works have been exhibited around the world. He has won accolades, including the grand prize at the 2008 International Ceramics Competition in Mino, Japan, where his work triumphed over more than 3,200 pieces by artists from over 50 countries and territories. Last year he was also one of the big winners of the Taiwan Ceramic Awards, which honor artists in the country.
“What sets Hsu apart from other artists is the way he uses his body, and the repetition and stacking shows his will and the physique it takes to create his works, but there is also a lightness in all of this,” said Weng Shu-Ying, an independent curator who will curate “Ingenuity in Minimalism,” an end-of-year exhibition at Liang Gallery that will include Mr. Hsu’s sculptures. “Anyone who stands in front of one of Hsu’s works will be overwhelmed with the size and detail of what ceramic art can be. That is why it has been awarded inside and outside of Taiwan.
Adeline Ooi, Asia Director of Art Basel, also finds Mr. Hsu’s sculpture special. “It sounds deceptively simple, but the process of creating with clay is laborious and demanding,” she said.
Mr. Hsu’s techniques range from flattening a clay surface by throwing his entire body weight onto it, to delicately pinching dozens or even hundreds of pieces. Like “2021-3,” many of his works from later years have empty, swirling pods that feel safe and inviting. They became his central imagery.
The size of “2021-3” makes it difficult to exhibit outside of Taiwan, said Claudia Chen, director of Liang Gallery, which is celebrating its eighth visit to Art Basel Hong Kong, “and we wanted to share not only the reputation of Hsu as a ceramic artist, but also the breadth of his work. We really wanted to show that to the world, and this art fair is a great way for people to experience Hsu and Taiwanese art in general. As a gallery, Liang wants to show what great artists we have in Taiwan and celebrate the great freedom they have in their creative process.
For Mr. Hsu, his debut at Art Basel Hong Kong is both an honor and a chance to be exposed to visitors from all over the world, some of whom might first be surprised by “2021-3”.
“People might find the size intimidating and be afraid it will fall apart, but the volume of the piece and the delicacy of all angles allow the viewer to feel its energy,” said Mr Hsu, who will only attend. not in art. just due to Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules during the coronavirus pandemic. “But I see it all as portraying not only my limitations and those of the material, but also the strengths of both of us which can sometimes be surprising.”