An Te Liu is a study in balance. On the one hand he’s an acclaimed artist with works in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Canada, and on the other hand he’s a full-time academic, having taught at the University of British Columbia before taking up his current posting at the University of Toronto. Much of his art is created using found objects and materials, old giving way to new. He even counters his writing with a glass of wine, as was the case when we touched base via email.
From his home in Toronto’s Kensington Market, with his cat Pookie at his side, here’s what Liu had to say about his multifaceted professional life, his most recent works, his recurring subjects and his foray into those darn ceramics.
Interview by Jessica Iverson
Portrait by Seth Fluker
Photographs courtesy of An Te Liu
On finding his inner teacher
In 1995 Liu earned a Master of Architecture degree from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles. Two years later he started teaching architecture at UBC. The transition was unplanned, but Liu found his footing.
“I had co-founded an interdisciplinary design studio in LA after finishing grad school and one day a friend and former professor of mine invited me to teach for two semesters in Vancouver, where he had relocated. To be honest, it never occurred to me to teach, but I needed a change and said, ‘Why not?’ As it turns out, I guess I am a ‘teacherly’ person at heart, and this is why I have continued with it and enjoyed it so much.”
Despite his lust for learning, Liu says he won’t be pursuing a doctoral degree in the future.
“I love the idea, but at this point I can’t imagine taking seven months away, never mind seven years.”
On bridging the art world and the academy
Liu’s artistic accomplishments are extensive; he has consistently produced solo or group exhibitions every year since the late-90s. And yet, he has simultaneously managed to hold significant academic positions at U of T and UBC. In Toronto, for instance, he spent six years as Director of the Master of Architecture Program. Balancing the two may seem at odds, but Liu says it has always felt quite natural.
“It was totally new territory for me at the beginning. I was learning how to be a professor and survive in a university at the same time that I was cultivating the beginnings of a studio art practice. I think that being utterly naïve about both academia and the art world was actually a good thing. I just followed my interests and intuitions—strange as they can be at times—and it developed from there. In both roles I try to test ideas, look closely at what happens, discuss, and then try it again. Being an artist and being an academic both entail a mix of self-interest and selflessness, but in different permutations.”
Another seemingly opposing aspect of Liu’s dual role of artist and academic relates to his field of inquiry. Although he studied architecture as a graduate student, and currently teaches it, he hasn’t produced any architecture in years. But again, Liu has found middle ground.
“I decided to teach architecture because of my love and fascination for the discipline, but to pursue my personal creative goals through the making of art and installations in gallery and museum contexts. I see art and architecture as distinct fields, unlike many who wish to elide them somehow. But a good architectural education is one of the greatest generalist educations I can think of. It entails technics and science while bringing to bear a huge range of possible concerns and fields of study, from politics, philosophy, geography and history to literature, cinema and music. It’s all a continuous body of knowledge that you can do anything with.”
Liu even manages to reach a compromise should he ever have to choose arts or academia.
“If I was forced to give up one, it would have to be the academy, because I could not forego making things all the time in studio. In studio I am fortunate to be working with talented and curious assistants who are game to learn all kinds of things about making and meaning—so I get to teach too.”
On his most recent exhibitions
Mono No Ma, a solo exhibition, opened in Toronto’s Gardiner Museum in 2013. The works were sculpted from salvaged polystyrene foam packing. This foam is usually discarded without a second thought, but Liu used the medium to make his audience do just that: think twice.
“The result was archeological in a sense—in the pieces you can read impressions and traces of things from our material world, there is something fossil-like about the work.”
In his two upcoming shows, In Absentia and The Knowing Nothing of the Thing, this idea is expanded. Liu says hours spent in anthropological and natural history museums influenced his art.
“I am fascinated by what you could call ‘ethnographic’ display in museums—how to describe the customs of peoples through artifacts. My new exhibitions are caught up in this ongoing endeavor, asking who we are, what we believe in, what we make, and the remnants that survive when we are gone.”
The Knowing Nothing of the Thing breaks new ground on another front: it marks Liu’s first exhibition in China. Liu’s family emigrated from Taiwan to Canada when he was young, so the show resonates on a personal level.
“I am excited to do a show in China. It is a homecoming of sorts, but at the same time it will be a pretty exotic experience for me.”
On the theme of themes
Many of Liu’s works are woven together by coherent discourses. Archeological themes run through his latest works, but perhaps the most striking examples are the household air purifiers of Airborne, Exchange, Cloud, Blast and White Dwarf that spanned over a decade. As pronounced as the results may be, the conception was organic.
“At the time, I was really interested in our contemporary preoccupation with hygiene—antibacterial soaps, air cleaners and the like. My thoughts then turned to themes in modernist architecture, which also addressed themes of purity and hygiene, both aesthetically and functionally. The design of buildings and cities promised better health, wellbeing and orderliness. I happened to own an air purifier/ionizer which looked much like an iconic piece of modern architecture, so I went about collecting tons of these devices and arranged them as a kind of utopian settlement, or something that looked like a modern office park. In a way I was collapsing historical visions of ideal living with what we have ended up with today—somewhat sterile seeming precincts, and a bevy of household devices consumed in order to pursue a certain quality of life.”
Liu takes a self-reflective approach to his propensity for themes. He looks to his family’s emigration as a possible source of his overarching motifs.
“I grew up a foreigner here. Maybe that’s why themes of ‘foreign-ness’, displacement and ruptures in understanding and recognition figure in my work.”
On learning to work in ceramics
Mono No Ma was Liu’s first venture into ceramics, and the medium taught him an important lesson.
“Ceramics are a bitch. Things crack and explode in the kiln, glazes are really unpredictable, it is always a guessing game to see if a piece works out.”
Still, Liu identifies the yin to level ceramics’ yang.
“It is hugely rewarding when you don’t have a disaster on your hands. I was surprised at how many people have actually worked with the medium at some point, and how we seem to have a natural affinity with it. There is something powerful about earth and fire. And toil.”
An Te Liu is currently showing In Absencia curated by Ryan Doherty, at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, until November 23, 2014. He also has an upcoming exhibition The Knowing Nothing of the Thing at Art Labor in Shanghai from October 23 to November 25, 2014, and will be participating at the 2014 Canadian Biennal: at the National Gallery of Canada, from October 17, 2014 to March 8, 2015