Journey: Solo show by RueyShiann Shyu

November 4 - 29, 2011

Tenri Cultural Institute of New York







The geometric point is an invisible thing. Therefore, it must be defined as an incorporeal thing. Considered in terms of substance, it equals zero. […] Thus we look upon the geometric point as the ultimate and most singular union of silence and speech. The geometric point has, therefore, been given its material form, in the first instance, in writing. It belongs to language and signifies silence.

Kandinsky, Point and line to plane, Munich, 1926



A journey is a quest towards an objective. A circle which can be seen as the path to this goal, at any point, can signify the beginning or the end of that journey. Within all the microscopic and macroscopic levels of the universe, everything revolves like a circle. From point zero into infinity, all things eventually return from the infinite to the zero. Journey is a record of things documented in time and space, in terms of progress and movement. It implies the beginning and the end of life and of all creation on earth. But is the end merely the passing of life, or the beginning of history? 


In kinematics, almost all movements, mechanical and physical, generated by tiny daily objects to oversized mechanical structures, are related to the circumference. This exhibition takes the circumference as a metaphor for the totality of life. The connection between movement and object, motion and structure, is akin to the abstract landscape of history and memory. Each object tells the story of a journey, imbued with personal experiences and gives meaning to the idea of history and memory. This is art-making informed by the action of invoking, retaining and recreating memories.


Artists have struggled since the 19th century to overcome the staticity of sculpture and painting. As seen in Degas’s dancers and horses, he signaled movement by using pentimenti in parallel strokes by their legs. This element was also evident in Matisse’s dancers. Boccioni and the futurists attempted to produce dynamism in their works by using repetitive line. But, it wasn’t until actual moving sculpture was invented that artists were successful in reaching their goal. The history of Kinetic art reaches back to Duchamp and his readymade Bicycle Wheel, 1913 whose single wheel was secured atop a kitchen stool. Duchamp was interested in the accidental effects of movement as opposed to Shyu’s painstakingly created pieces whose very motion is studied. The Constructivists Naum Gabo, Antoine Pevsner, as well as the Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and the American Alexander Calder created kinetic sculptureas early as the 1920s. Today kinetic art has incorporated sophisticated digital technologies, as well as light and new mechanical methodologies that drive sculptures via wind power, the principle of equilibrium of weights, etc.


This essay comprises several kinetic sculptures and a series of pencil drawings usually shown together in Journey. These works document movement through space and time as well as the process of creation. Traveler’s Wings is made of collected railroad ticket stubs that Shyu placed on mechanical motors that when moving imitate bird migrations. The opening and closing of these tickets sound and look like flocks in movement.Shyu’s Mom’s Drawerconsists of a drawer that he mechanized to open and close. When in the open position from its interior emits a blurry image. Like a sepia photographs it recalls bygone eras and historic pasts. The clicking of the drawer’s repeated motion is reminiscent of the ticking of a clock and the relentless quality of the passage of time. Time and Beingapproximates the creative process in its repetitious circular movement. Brushes and palette knives are adhered to a motion sensitive contraption set within a metal frame that is canvas-less serving as a tabula rassa for Shyu’s metaphor packed artwork. Other of his pieces such as The Beginning and the End, or Shadow’s Journey, Traces, and Unfinished Journey actually contain moving parts that allude rhythm, precision, and can even be associated with Chan aesthetic. In the latter, prosaic tasks and repeated movements bring the acolyte to enlightenment. 


Shyu has been working with mechanical power ever since he launched his first series of this kind in 1997. The artist explores the nature of dynamic movement through the use of precision and inconceivable complexity to create works that challenge the viewer but that also touch the human heart with narratives from his own Taiwanese cultural background. His materials and working methods combine to result in artistic creations that explore the very nature of life.






Memory Machines

By Richard Vine



Shyu Ruey-Shiann’s intriguingly titled Self-Portrait (1997) is a highly skilled exercise in indirection—one might even say in misdirection, the subtle “look here not there” technique magicians use to distract us while they accomplish their tricks. To all appearances, the sculpture is a mechanical mishmash of parts (many of the sort used inside various clothes washers) suspended in an assemblage shaped vaguely like a stretch motorcycle. But the pseudo-vehicle goes nowhere. Instead, when electrical power surges through it, the work whirs and shakes horrifically, noisily, as though about to fly to pieces from internal stress. One thinks immediately of the kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely, famously concocted to move but accomplish nothing—and, at times, to self-destruct. Tinguely’s goal, apart from sheer fun, was to satirize industrial efficiency and subvert the postwar doctrine of material progressivism (“building a better world with . . .”).


Shyu’s aim, however, is at once more modest and arguably more profound, because it is rooted in a strained family history and his own lingering psychological distress. What can it mean for this 46-year-old Taiwanese artist to portray himself as a shuddering, seemingly pointless construction? Why seek to express—or encode—personal identity in a jumble of rods, belts, gears, and flywheels?


Hints abound in Shyu’s work. The River of Childhood (1999) sets in rocking motion multiple ceramic forms resembling the folded-paper boats that Shyu, a poor student in elementary school, would fashion from the sheets of math homework and launch wistfully on a stream near his home in Taipei. Even at that early stage, making toylike aesthetic objects provided a release from anxiety. Traveler’s Wings (2011) comprises many pairs of thin copper plates flapping slowly like wings (of butterflies, birds, or angels?), each imprinted with one of the train tickets that Shyu accumulated during a five-year sojourn in France, following the suicide of a beloved sister. Miss Secretary (1999)—which brings together a quill, a typewriter keyboard, a pair of glasses, a stool, and a red rose—was made in grateful tribute to a school clerk who helped and comforted the artist often during his foreign studies. The erratic motions of furniture-roller sets in Eight Drunken Immortals (1997) echo the “drunken kung fu” moves of one of the artist’s brothers, a martial arts enthusiast. (The Eight Drunken Immortals of Chinese legend were high-level adepts of Buddhistic meditation, who traveled together and, overjoyed at having attained immortality, put on demonstrations of extraordinarily, seemingly carefree physical agility.) In Mom’s Drawer (2011), a single drawer slides repeatedly out of the wall, causing a series of family photos to be projected on the ceiling overhead, like ghosts of the past released from their resting place in a maternal dresser.


Other examples, equally mechanical, are more oblique in their references, more tenuous in their links to Shyu’s personal life. The plumb bob and vertical pointed metal rod of The Beginning, The End (2011) keep the same interval of separation as they move simultaneously up and down, recalling the evocative empty space to be found in every section of a traditional Eastern paintings, imbued throughout with absence and loss. The Law of Relativity (1999), in which a pair of high heels and a pair of masculine wingtips tap away independently of each other, suggests that men and women are always slightly out of step, living their lives to different drumbeats. Numerous pieces allude to the quiet, redemptive power of drawing, writing, painting, or music: Traces (2011), with its wall-scribbling charcoal crayons at the ends of two long and swaying vertical rods; Writer’s Vessel (1997), featuring old quills that wriggle on the extended spokes of a bicycle wheel; Time and Being (2011), whose host of quivering paintbrushes both rotate on a wheel and slide horizontally on a steel frame; Play a Melody (2004), a wall of variously colored conductor’s batons waving in separate rhythms.


Shyu seems to equate art with recourse to the mechanical, with systematic interactions among clearly distinct elements, with complicated objects that stand in for complex states of feeling. This is a strategy in keeping with T.S. Eliot’s famous “impersonal theory of poetry,” which holds that true art arises not as a direct expression of personality but as the full, skillful realization of a given medium. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,” he writes; “it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”


Certainly the machine parts that Shyu collects or fabricates, and the strict mathematical laws that dictate their coordination, are utterly devoid of emotion. Indeed, we sometimes use the word “mechanical” as a synonym for “unfeeling, heartless.” But the medium, contrary to Marshall McLuhan’s claim, is not always the message. The coldest steel can, in fact, be put to the most hot-blooded use—as every sword attests. Which is why, in Shyu’s case, it is important to remember the balance of Eliot’s formulation: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Given his traumatic family history, Shyu is an artist with much to flee, much to sublimate and rechannel into the precise workings of his artifacts.


Shyu’s father, anguished by youthful displacement from his home on the mainland and by years spent chauffeuring the rich while he himself remained poor, became a heavy drinker, frequently beating his wife and children. The artist’s illiterate mother was—and remains—a woman who wanders the streets in search of recyclable materials to be turned in for cash. His sister, who esteemed Shyu’s talent and vowed to support him in his artistic development even if he could not attain proper formal training, killed herself at the age of 24. (Suffering from a disastrous romance, she deliberately drank pesticide in the family home and died in a hospital three days later.) Shyu has done much to compensate for these early travails by earning college degrees, exhibiting his work internationally, teaching industrial design at the university level, marrying happily, and helping to support his aged parents. His father is now well cared-for in a geriatric home; his mother occupies a fine apartment in one of Taipei’s better neighborhoods. Yet even these satisfactions are shadowed by the fact that Shyu himself, after years of cutting and grinding thousands of metal components for his art, now suffers from lung damage and respiratory difficulty—a fact that, nevertheless, has not changed his obsessive work habits.


Still, it would be mistake to view Shyu’s life as a tragedy. In fact, he is a man who laughs as easily as one of the Drunken Immortals, and who constantly speaks of infusing his metal sculptures with “warmth.” He has clearly found—and repeatedly manifests in his work—a deep sense of meaning in hand-wrought fabrication, a spiritual calm amid the sometimes frantic movement of his devices. Within every rotating circle, after all, lies a still unmoving center. Key to Shyu’s worldview is Pregnancy (1999), a transparent half-globe, round as an expectant mother’s belly, within which a whirling mechanism occasionally begins to spin. The motion is analogous to the soul’s animation of the human body, a token that there is, within or behind this otherwise mechanical universe, some enlivening power. In the West, people long called that Unmoved Mover by the awesome name of “God.” Times have changed and terminology has grown more cautious, but the mystery at the heart of all creation remains.







“Journey" : RueyShiann Shyu


    By Josiane Lai



Traveling around a circle, the beginning is the end is the beginning. All living beings cycle from point zero, expand into infinity and retrace to the origin. In kinematics, almost all of the movements are related to circular motion,no matter if it’s a small household item, or a giant mechanical structure. 



RueyShiann Shyu'ssoloexhibition,”Journey”,takes place at Tenri Cultural Institute of New York in Nov. 2011.From visual standpoint, it’s based on circular movement, through the change of structural links, it creates the interplay between the motion and object,each piece tells a story of journey. From an abstract perspective, every circular motion projects a repetitive and somewhat abstract landscape. These landscapes are not realistic imagery, yet simple and subtle, they invoke, retain, and maybe even create memory.RueyShiann Shyu works in kinetic art medium; he breathes life into the cold steel.


Journeycould simply be a quick visit to the grocery store right around the corner, or a long distance trip to an exotic land far away; it might suggest the journey of life, even the movement of the vast universe. Regardless, it always leaves traces of footstep whether it’s visible or not. This exhibition presents seven pieces of artwork; six of them are kinetic art installations, and the other is a series of sketches. Through different medium these works recorded various objects during the journey and the imprints of time and space. The creation process is also a journey of exploration for the artist himself. “Traveler’s Wings” was created over a ten year period intermittently due to shortage of funds. While studying in France, Ruey collected national railway tickets. These tickets were reprinted on copper film, shaped as wings of migrating birds, and installed on a mechanical, motorized base. The sound of flapping wings evokes the motion of the railway, the movement of time and space.


Mom’s Drawer”is installed within a wall. Viewers will see a small old drawer slowly sliding out from the wall; it projects a blurry photo image onto the ceiling. The image will become clearer with synchronized motion of the drawer. Whence the drawer reaches its furthest point, audiences will see clearly a faded childhood photo or a worn out family portrait. Then it starts to retreat, the image on the ceiling will gradually fade away. The opening and close of the drawer recall our childhood memories; they are so far yet so near, so blurry yet so clear. “It reminds me of my Mom,”RueyShiann Shyu says. Like every mother, she grew from a teenage girl to a married woman, started her own family. She gave birth to her children, and raised them to adulthood. During all these years, she collected snippets of images; put it away in that drawer aging alongside her. To the mom withered by age, the memories of life’s journey gradually fade away; the past may resurface once in a blue moon, but it surely disappears as fast as the bloom of orchid cactus. The sound of opening and closing of the drawer creates a sense of distance, but it also reminds us of the relentless ticking of the clock, always marches on. 


Time and Being” is a three dimensional painting hanging on the wall. A hollowed steel frame replaces soft cloth canvas, and a three-dimensional dynamic structure takes the center stage instead of a traditional painting. The structure is motion sensitive; when a viewer approaches the artwork, the circular wheel on the upper right hand corner starts to move, which brings a fine handmade frame into motion; the brushes installed on this round frame begin to dance rhythmically, freely creating their own image; simultaneously the painting knives placed on the upper left hand corner swing gently. It is a replay of the artist’s creative journey, reaffirming his self-identity, and the existence of “time and being”.


The Beginning & the End”, a slender steel bar slowly rises from a hollowed iron pipe installed on the ground; at the same time, a plumb-bob suspended from the ceiling moves up in unison. Two of them always keep certain distance, and move in a synchronized fashion. RueyShiann Shyu has deep interest in Chinese landscape. It creates distant misty atmosphere which is beyond the description of words, Ruey is always searching for ways to recreate the abstract mood through mechanical means. “I walk to the river’s end, sit and watch the rising clouds”, these lines were written by Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei. Wang was climbing the mountain along a creek, whence reached the top the stream vanished without a trace, clouds covered the tip of mountain, it offered completely different scenery. It is hard to define the beginning or the end of journey, even when you thought you might reach the end, it could signal the beginning of another. “Beginning & the End” reflects the state of renewal and balance, part of Zen tradition. 


Shadow’s Journey” is hanging from the ceiling; it is constructed with two small wheels and a large bicycle wheel. Whence the motor is turned on, a belt brings the wheels into motion. An old projector remodeled by the artist is installed between the wheels; it projects light rhythmically along with the movement of the wheels, creates a play between light and shadow. The turning of wheels, the sound of their turns, & the light projection accompanying their movements are all set in a mechanical fashion with precision and regularity, yet it seems they are reciting a poem silently, convey the subtle interplay between time and shadow. 



Traces” is the most compact linear kinetic sculpture in this exhibition. Two thin iron bars are facing each other, each connects with another piece of iron wire at its top. At the tip of wire, it holds a charcoal pencil. When the viewer approaches the artwork, the wire will start to dance in the air, and the attached charcoal pencils will skillfully draw trace on the wall. As time moves on, the traces thicken with wires’ tireless efforts. Visually this piece of artwork is humorous and light-hearted, yet it certainly impresses the viewer with the relentless march of time, reveals the portrait of life with passage of time.



Unfinished Journey” is the only work that is not kinetic art. It’s a collection of architectural sketches of New York buildings. Ruey began this series in 2007, so far he completed 260 pieces. “When I started this series, I knew it’ll never be finished,” Ruey says, “To mortals like us, it’s simply impossible to capture every corner of New York, a city that never sleeps. I can only draw as much as I can, record every detail that is revealed to me. Each architecture carries its own story, it might be based on antiquity or modern-day life; each of them is telling us through either its concrete form or their abstract spatial existence.” During the last four years, Ruey always carries a pencil when he wanders around the streets of New York. Whenever he was attracted by the character of a particular building, no matter if it is world famous architecture or an ordinary shop /residential building, he spent hours in front of them. Ruey carefully sketches out their profile line by line, alternates heavy or light strokes to add texture. He doesn’t intend to present the entire building, more often than not, there will be only fragments of the architecture, with large area of untouched space, it creates a mysterious atmosphere. RueyShiann Shyu continues his “Unfinished Journey”.






During the first decade of his artistic journey, Ruey focused on traditional western painting and sculpture. In 1993, RueyShiann Shyu studied abroad in Provence of Southern France. He was exposed to many creative mediums and techniques. He found iron-works and mechanics the most fascinating, which led him to start his career in kinetic art. In 1997, he returned to Taiwan after his graduation, kinetic art became his obsession. To him, it’s a never-ending challenge. Through his persistent efforts, Ruey created his own artistic language. Each of his works may contain hundreds to thousands of different objects; some are recycled from the streets, and others are handmade by him. Every object must be modeled precisely, slight miscalculation will lead to complete failure. Although his creative process is extremely complex and time-consuming, Ruey’s final products always give the impression of simplicity and pure poetry. Based on his cultural background, plus constant reflections on society, politics, environmental issues and our well being, Ruey communicates his ideas in a subtle and humorous way through stereotypical mechanical constructions, instills meaning and life into his artworks. 


The history of kinetic art starts with Duchamp and his Bicycle Wheel, 1913. Duchamp was exploring the accidental effects of movement as opposed to Ruey’s artworks where minute details are studied. Ruey is deeply influenced by Duchamp’s provocative questioning of the nature of art. It greatly expands his creative horizon and possibilities, encourages him to explore innovative artistic expressions. Moreover almost all of Ruey’s works produce mechanical sounds, sometimes they are sharp and sometimes they could be rough. The artist simply acknowledges their existence, and let the viewers to experience on their own terms. This reminds us of John Cage, one of the most influential avant-garde composers, who had the courage to abandon all restrictions and general principles imposed through tradition, being completely free. He challenged the notion of instruments (e.g. prepared piano), blended the use of silence and ordinary sound into music, introduced chance as a new creative process, and fundamentally changed the very definition of music. Both Duchamp and John Cage expanded our perceptions of objects and sounds, and challenged our sensory experiences. They inspired us to see and hear in a brand new way, liberated our creativity.



Similar to John Cage, RueyShiann Shyu is open to the selection of his materials, freely experiments with recycled, ready-made or hand-crafted objects. These objects may lose their original meaning after assemblage, and perhaps their visual appearances are partially retained or modified even though their functionalities are preserved. In a way, they challenged audiences’ subjective viewpoints. In contrast to John Cage, who employed a chance procedure to combine various natural or man-made sounds, the element of chance is greatly reduced in Ruey’s works. He applies theory of physics and precise mechanical calculations, and is responsible for drawing, welding, production, structural adjustment etc... Through the testing process and many improvements, the final kinetic art installation appears deceivingly simple, and the sound of their movements becomes part of their signature.



After all it might be unnecessary to analyze Ruey’s works. He is constantly experimenting with concepts in art, aesthetics and media. His creative goal is to express his ideas in a simple and humorous fashion, to stimulate viewers’ sensory experiences, and let them imagine freely.