The Liuli China Museum
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The Liuli China Museum:
Herald of history and labour of love
In Memoriam Yi CHANG (1951-2020), Writer·Director·Liuli Artist
Eileen SUNG, Jenny TSAI, the Liuli China Museum
【Abstract】The Liuli China Museum was founded in 2006 by Yi CHANG and Loretta YANG. With its inauguration, contemporary glass art was introduced to the Chinese public. The rich history of Chinese produced glass, even those of imperial Qing-dynasty origins, had long since been forgotten. Sought for its ability to mimic jade in both colour and texture, ancient Chinese glassmakers used the lost-wax casting method to shape glass into popular forms such as: bi discs and burial ornaments. CHANG and YANG revived common interest and knowledge in this medium by naming their studio: Liuligongfang, which literally translates to Liuli Studio. Liuli was the antique Chinese name for “glass”; its usage later fell out of favour in preference to boli, which signified foreign or imported glass. Eventually, Liuli disappeared from modern lexicon to be replaced by boli, which encompassed the material of glass, regardless of its origins. CHANG and Yang have not only reclaimed this historic term, but they have also reignited national pride in domestic glass and proven that Asian glass can be just as innovative and breathtaking as European glass. Housed at the Liuli China Museum are more than 200 pieces of glass artifacts from more than two thousand years ago. They are displayed alongside an overview of Loretta YANG and Yi CHANG’s many artistic series. The museum also prides itself on its international collection which spans from French Art Nouveau to American studio glass to present day British kiln-cast glass. Celebrated for revitalizing the lost art of pâte de verre, CHANG and YANG were shocked by the lack of communication and expertise surrounding this technique when they first forayed onto the glass scene during the late 80s. As a result, the duo made it a studio mandate to foster relationships and build bridges with other artists and institutions. As such, the museum has held multiple solo/group exhibitions for international contemporary glass artists. This inclusive characteristic is vitally important since glass owes its artistic reclassification to the Art Nouveau movement in France, before which, glass had been seen as a purely industrial substance. It became crucial to Loretta for the museum to highlight not only glass’s past in China, but also its transition from practicality to modern wonder. Under YANG and CHANG’s direction, the Liuli China Museum allows the viewer to sample different forms of glass art, which span several eras, techniques and hail from various corners of the globe.
Art Nouveau was influenced by its precursor: Aestheticism; Art was being pursued for Art’s sake. Political and biblical narratives no longer mattered. Movements were popping up all over Europe under different names: Jugendstil, Modernisme, the Vienna Secession…etc. as a revolt against academic art. The conservative notions of “fine art” such as paintings and sculpturing were being redefined to encompass decorative furnishings and architecture made of iron and ceramics in a celebration of modernity. One of the key influences in this movement was Orientalism – the East had long since prized ornate objects that were both beautiful and practical.
Chinoiserie had gained popularity in Europe during the 18th century, but when Japonisme was introduced for the first time at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, Orientalism hit a new frenzy. Émile GALLÉ, a major authority in glass both during and after his lifetime, was actually inspired by Qing dynasty glass works. An imperial glass workshop had been founded by the Kangxi Emporer in 1696. Glass production reached its peak in China during Kangxi’s grandson, Qianlong’s reign, during the latter half of the 18th century. This makes it extremely probable that the Chinese glass which Gallé spent two weeks in 1885 studying in Berlin, were of imperial origins.
However, two millennia before the term, “arts décoratifs” had even been invented in France, on the other side of the world, glasswork went by another name: Liuli. It was the name given to glass during the Han dynasty. The earliest Liuli working via the lostwax method unearthed thus far, came from the tomb of a Western Han dynasty prince, buried circa second century BCE. In time, the Chinese language evolved to use both Liuli – denoting Chinese glass – and Boli, the modern day term which used to denote Western glass. However, the original name attributed to glass in Chinese, was Liuli.
It is due to this fidelity and affinity to history we have maintained our dedication to honour the intricate marvels of the Art Nouveau period, rather than shift towards colossal exhibition works as many contemporary artists have. For us, this choice to stay old-fashioned is intensely personal. After all, how does one compare different eras of art to each other? How can we begin to weigh the virtues of Renaissance art to impressionism to cubism? Instead, this decision is influenced in part by our objective to impart Chinese culture to both the next generation and foreign viewers by presenting these complex narratives through accessible means. As a result, much of our artworks are inspired by canonical Buddhist sutras, Tang dynasty poetry, Song dynasty paintings, or even Chinese courtly etiquette. We believe that exploring one’s heritage is of vital importance in this homogenizing world. Even in this globalized society, we still witness many unique traditions sacrificed in lieu of Western practices.
This disconcerting revelation was rapidly grasped by YANG and CHANG while conducting research for a movie they were working on. As two of the most sought after celebrities in Taiwan, they first came into contact with glass art on the set of a film. Not only did they recognize that much of what is appreciated around the world, hails from French pâte de verre, Venetian blown glass or Bohemian crystal, but it also made a profound impact on them that – other than scholars and aficionados – few had heard of Chinese glass despite its considerable history. This vacuum haunted them and eventually drove them to abandon their Hollywood careers and cross over to an entirely new profession. Since then, they have fought to create an unprecedented Asian space in a medium that has largely been dominated by Western countries.
Their success in constructing a distinct Chinese aesthetic is fuelled by their commitment to endless enlightenment and a profound appreciation of culture. The depth of knowledge and skills shared within this ‘marriage of true minds’, is genuinely staggering. Yi CHANG once said, “To acquire dignity, one must first possess culture”. It is so rare to meet a true Renaissance man or woman nowadays. Much like “art for art’s sake”, these champions of knowledge embark on a neverending mission to study and learn for curiosity’s sake.
Our late founder, Yi CHANG, who passed away in November 2020, was such a rarity. A novella writer who received critical acclaim in his university days, he went on to become a leader in New Wave Taiwanese Cinema with his school friends. At the height of his film career, he received the Best Director, Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay Award by some of the most prestigious film award ceremonies in Asia. It was during this period that he met Loretta YANG, who was often cast as his leading lady. She, too, was a master of her craft and a three time award winning Best Actress. Then, at the pinnacle of both their careers, they decided to depart the film industry in order to kick start the contemporary glass art scene in Asia by establishing Liuligongfang.
This particular brand of courage, allowing them to leave their safety net and start anew, showcases their pioneering spirit: a characteristic that proved crucial since the beginning of Liuligongfang’s days were littered with mishaps and fiascos. From the copious amounts of commercial candles they consumed before realizing there were better industrial wax alternatives, to the exploding kilns caused by plaster that was too wet, Loretta reminisces how they used to cut up her nylon stockings to layer the silicone mould with so it wouldn’t tear when they peeled it off the clay positives, while Yi CHANG jokes that the kiln-salesperson used to park in their front yard because they were burning through kilns at such an alarming rate.
This trial and error struggle was a necessity since pâte de verre had once again fallen out of fashion by the 1980’s. Many artists had flirted with but abandoned the method due to its fickle nature and low success rate. It became a carefully guarded secret with the only surviving studio from the Art Nouveau period refusing to divulge their century old technique. Perhaps this very attempt to protect one’s craft is what led to its decline. Desperately wanting to revive the intricate details possible only through pâte de verre, YANG and CHANG refused to give up.
As a reaction to all the resistance they encountered, when YANG and CHANG finally perfected the 12 step technique we use today in our studios, they shared their newly-acquired intelligence with the world. In 2010, YANG taught a one week pâte de verre workshop at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. Together, they have lectured at Tsinghua University’s Academy of Fine Arts, Notojima Glass Art Museum in Ishikawa Prefecture and the Centre International du Verre et Arts Plastiques in Marseille, France. This openness has led to multiple collaborations with leading figures such as Lino TAGLIAPIETRA, Antoine LEPERLIER and most recently, a mesmerizing joint work created by Loretta YANG and Colin REID titled, Loretta’s Orchids.
Since Liuligonfang’s foundation in 1987, CHANG has been dubbed “the founding father of Asia’s Glass Studio Movement” by the New York Times; YANG is the first Chinese artist whose work has been acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Alan BORG, the former director of the V&A museum stated that “Loretta YANG has revived the legacy of pâte de verre. England’s collection of Chinese artists stopped with the Qing dynasty but restarts with Ms. YANG”.
While their work was being acquired for permanent collection by over 20 world renowned museums, they never stopped aspiring for a space of their own to exhibit. For YANG and CHANG, glass holds a symbolic meaning as well. Reflecting the material work with, they believe in transparency. YANG constantly reiterates her goal of attaining the Buddhist ideal to be “calm and clear like Liuli, both inside and out”. Though, it has often seemed like a farfetched dream, when the Liuli China Museum opened in 2006, YANG and CHANG were finally able to realize their dream and share with the public the extraordinary history of Chinese glass alongside the journey of pâte de verre.
We need only look at their backgrounds to ascertain their steadfast championship of education and the liberal arts. With the establishment of the Liuli China Museum, they began privately collecting priceless glasswork to exhibit publicly. On the second floor of the museum, we begin in the 19th century where visitors can follow the rebirth of glass as an artistic substance through the vibrant works of Émile GALLÉ, before witnessing its transition to pâte de verre via pieces by Henry CROS and François DÉCORCHEMONT. They, then, follow the growth of glass art into the modern era where they can admire the œuvre of legends such as Paul STANKARD, Stanislav LIBENSKÝ and Jaroslava BRYCHTOVÁ.
The museum takes a tranquil, Zen-like turn on the third floor when spectators reach the area showcasing Loretta YANG’s and Yi CHANG’s art. The oriental flair of their creations is quickly distinguishable from the energy of the west. Curated by CHANG to provoke contemplation, each work of art radiates Eastern philosophy. Thousand year old pieces of glass are displayed alongside the duo’s magna opera. By piecing together the many facets of glass art, from ancient China to Belle Époque France, to the 50s in America, the Liuli China Museum weaves a fascinating tale centered around its own 30 year journey, while highlighting the numerous styles and accomplishments of contemporary glass maestros around the world.