Fresh Air. On the work of An Te Liu

Jan Winkelmann

An Te Liu is both a trained architect and an art historian. In his artistic work he draws upon his substantial knowledge of these two areas of cultural production, yet refrains from focusing exclusively on one or the other. Still, this interdisciplinary approach triggers a subtle dynamic, which runs as a leitmotif through the artist's varied body of work.

Liu's installations and sculptures often consist of industrial appliances and devices that acquire new attributions of meaning through uses and functions in contexts other than those normally ascribed to them. In the artist's oeuvre, the works with air purification units are a kind of crystallization point in which various thematic threads coalesce.

The sculpture Airborne (2000) can be seen as exemplary for Liu's practice. On an enamelled plate that appears to float above the floor, the artist groups various models of home climate-control units, portable air conditioners, ionizers, and air purifiers. All of the casings appear in various tones of white, which outwardly communicates their functional roles of generating (air-related) hygiene and cleanliness.

The primarily rectangular, sometimes round, and often squat forms – as well as the ventilation slits or lamellae typical of these appliances – are reminiscent of housing-project blocks with their corresponding architectural components, such as ventilation systems on roofs or window facades with exterior blinds. One thus associates groups of appliances of a similar style with rows of apartment blocks; and these, placed beside other groups, are in turn evocative of master plans for concepts of urban development. The ensemble appears to be a sterile miniature of a zone determined by modernist constructions. And in addition to this mimetic quality, a functional dimension palpably and audibly manifests itself: all of the appliances are operating, transforming their immediate environment by filtering, ionizing, cooling, and cleaning the air in the gallery or exhibition space.

Here, another layer of reference comes into play: the enormous presence of such appliances in our living environment is both an indicator and a symptom of the industrial world's pervasive obsession with cleanliness, which is reflected in an increasing need for sanitation and hygiene. Interestingly, their purpose stands in ironic contrast to the environmental pollution caused by their production and especially their operation.

For Liu, this aspect goes back even further: "The Modernists had a persuasive rhetoric of fresh air, hygiene and greenery, which accompanied huge utopian architectural schemes such as Le Corbusier's La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City)."(1) In his eponymous book from 1935, Le Corbusier published his urban vision of a utopian city with large apartment houses surrounded by "service units" in the midst of ample green spaces.

Le Corbusier demanded a radical change in architecture as a logical consequence of the rapid technological developments and corresponding lifestyle shifts at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. Similar to ideas of the Bauhaus, a new design encompassing the entire living environment was propagated. In this, Liu sees the origin of efforts still continuing in the 20th century to not only actively shape one's individual living environments, but also to increasingly control these.

In 2001, the artist realised another work within this series with the installation Exchange, which was on view in the exhibition Condition at Henry Urbach Gallery in New York. By stacking groups of eight identical appliances on top of one another, seven columns were constructed, which, extending from floor to ceiling, were reminiscent of pillars in real life. Connected to the power supply through cables hanging from above, the appliances were constantly in operation, completely circulating, filtering, and cleaning the air in the exhibition space every 21 seconds.

Here, in contrast to the more model-like presentation of Airborne, Liu creates a space on a scale of 1:1 with respect to the viewer. The pillars are perceived as an architectural intervention; the appliances' effect is equally palpable through the movement and cooling of the air. Although the machines' function is immediately perceptible to the viewer physically, their beneficial effect – cleaning the air of microscopic dirt particles – is not really comprehensible and is left entirely to the power of the imagination.

For his contribution to the 2008 Architecture Biennale in Venice, the artist has continued this series. In this project, more than 120 air purifiers, air handling units, and ionizers have been screwed together to form a large cluster, suspended from the ceiling like a space vessel or model of a futuristic city and surrounded by several smaller clusters. Cinematographic associations to Star Wars, Blade Runner or 2001: A Space Odyssey are equally evoked here as are architectural references, for instance to Moshe Safdie's concept for prefabricated modular houses, Habitat 67, which was realised in the context of the World Expo in Montreal in 1967.

While this most recent work relates to the model-like character of the work mentioned at the beginning, the number of appliances and size of the installation create a perceptible shift in scale and a simultaneous monumentalisation. Where in the previously described works a subtext of modernism, architecture, urban planning, and urbanism is implicitly inherent, the new installation unmistakably refers to utopianism and science fiction. But, as the artist observes, we primarily construct visions of the future or fantastical worlds based on models of the present.(2) And in this sense, projections into the future are not least an examination of the problems and fears which we are dealing with here and now.

(1) Quote from "Safe Haven", interview with Aaron Betsky, Surface, no. 25, Fall 2000.
(2) An Te Liu in conversation with the author, April 2008.

(Translated by Kimberly Bradley)

Published in: BE Magazin, No. 15, 2008.

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© 2008 Jan Winkelmann