In 1984, the newly opened Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) caused an uproar in Taiwan’s art community when its acting director Su Jui-ping (蘇瑞屏) had Lee Tsai-chien’s (李再鈐) Finite to Infinite (低限的無限) painted gray without the sculptor’s permission because a retired Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) soldier complained that from a certain angle the work resembled a red star, China’s symbol of communism.
The controversy, which ended almost two years later when the museum returned the sculpture to its original red, soured relations between Lee and TFAM for the following two decades. In 2003, however, TFAM commissioned Lee to make another sculpture, which today is on show at the front entrance of the museum and is called Homerun (紅不讓). Scaled-down versions of both sculptures form part of a solo exhibit of Lee’s work that is currently on display at Main Trend Gallery (大趨勢畫廊), a five-minute walk from the Yuanshan (圓山) MRT Station.
“I called it Homerun because of what happened with the museum,” Lee said in an interview with the Taipei Times last week. “It was a victory after 20 years.”
As the title of the latter sculpture suggests, Lee, 80, approaches both his life and work with a playful sense of humor. Though underpinned by philosophical and mathematical principles, the sculptures, Lee implies through his gestures and speech, are meant to enlighten the intellect.
Lee is known for his monumental sculptures that adorn the lobbies of large corporations or the plazas of art museums. The 20 works at Main Trend, though smaller, retain the geometrical features that define his work. Some are made from stainless steel and metal with enamel — hallmarks of his earlier work — while the later sculptures were constructed using scrap metal, which gives them an almost primitive feel.
Between Falsehood and Reality (虛實之間) is vintage Lee both in the shapes and materials used. What appear to be two cubes stacked one on top of the other is in fact a group of interlocking triangles welded together. The upper half is made of dull and polished stainless steel while the lower half is made from rough copper plating. The piece combines opposites, dark and light, good and evil, yin and yang.
Lee said the sculpture’s architectural features have led more than one architect to comment that it should be made into a house or building.
“It would look a lot better than [Taipei] 101,” he quipped. It isn’t difficult to imagine the stable vertical and horizontal lines being used to construct a structure similar to the Central Chinese Television (CCTV) Headquarters building in Beijing.
As if Alive (恍若在世) resembles the spires of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and conjures up ideas of religious worship. The five narrow and tower-like edifices are fashioned from the parts of used car engines. Lee said that Buddhist funerary pagodas that house the ashes of dead monks inspired the sculpture. He said that the pieces of metal, originally used in vehicles, are here transformed into a work of spiritual significance.
Lee has recently shifted his focus to the expression of emotion, and translating his own experience into his work. Considerate and Warmhearted (古道熱腸) is a five-segment, primitive totem-like structure constructed from exhaust pipes and painted in blue, green, orange, yellow and red. When I asked Lee if the colors symbolized the five elements (五行) — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — from Chinese cosmology, he replied that they bear a more personal resonance.
“They represent the materials, such as wood or stone, we sculptors use in our art,” he said. After thinking for a moment, he added, “They do look like sausage links.”
Lee is an artist who doesn’t take himself too seriously, even though he works with Buddhist and Platonic concepts. The simplicity of his later work reflects Lee’s recent approaches to sculpture, one that finds him stripping away all extraneous form. “It’s minimalist,” he said.