Taiwanese Sculptor Ju Ming’s Last Act

Taiwanese Sculptor Ju Ming’s Last Act
Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

What you need to know

From a hardscrabble youth in colonial Japanese Taiwan, Ju Ming ascended to the heights of the international art scene. His last act has been turning a wasteland in New Taipei City into a large-scale sculpture park — a "museum for everyone."

Like many characters in literature and history, Ju Ming’s life is marked by a distinct moment when he came into his own by taking on a new name.

Born Ju Chuan-tai in 1938, when Taiwan was a Japanese colony, Ju spent a hardscrabble youth in Miaoli apprenticing under a famous local artisan of traditional wood carving, Lee Chin-chuan. Ju became a woodcarver and launched a successful crafts business.

While there are some thematic traces of his early years on the sculptures that made his name, the Taichi Series and his Living World Series, Ju mastered one of the skills that would be one of the signature methods of his sculpture: woodcarving. Though his sculptures would later incorporate rock and metal, he never completely abandoned his first sculpture method.

When Ju was 30 years old, he sought out the world-renowned sculptor Yuyu Yang, showing up at the master’s door with sculptures in hand but without an appointment. Yang accepted him as a student on the spot, and eventually became the teacher that bestowed on Ju the name that would not only become known across Taiwan but help put the country on the map in the international art scene.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
Ju Ming's Living World Series, pictured here and in the next two photographs.
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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

From Taiwan’s Nativist movement to the Living World Series

In the 1970s, Ju created pieces that included native elements and images as a participant in Taiwan’s Nativist movement. He sculpted water buffaloes, symbols of Taiwan’s agriculture, and the spirits of Taiwan’s traditional farming families.

His work from this period earned Ju recognition as one of 10 Outstanding Youths by the government in 1976. But Ju was not one to be easily satisfied by achievement and popularity. He was looking for more innovative ways of expression in sculpture.

Around the time of winning the award, Ju developed his Taichi Series, creating a collection of abstract outdoor statues of people in various tai chi poses to convey the practice’s dynamic movement into his carvings. The idea originated from Ju’s own practice of the ancient form of Chinese martial arts.

The Living World Series was created in the following decade, coming about through a trip in 1980 to New York to look for a higher level of artistic languages and creativity. Reflecting Ju’s keen observation of human relations and human society, the series comprises sculptures of people from all walks of life. At this point, Ju was expanding into clay, sponge, copper, stainless steel, and his work was being exhibited internationally.

“After all, I belong to human society and I know humans better than anything else. This subject allowed me more creative freedom, and it gave me an opportunity to look more deeply into the problems of life. I was hoping that I might be able to discover some truth during the process of creating sculptural works,” Ju said on why he chose the Living World theme during a 1992 interview. Ju has continued to work on the series to the present.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
Ju Ming's Taichi Series in the foreground, with the Living World Series in the background.
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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
Ju Ming's Living World Series, pictured here and in the next photo below.
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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng

A museum for everyone

Aiming to contribute to Taiwan after winning plaudits abroad, Ju turned a wasteland in Jinshan, New Taipei City into a large-scale sculpture park beginning in 1987. A little more than a decade later, this park became the Juming Museum. The museum is now the largest outdoor art museum in Taiwan. In 2017, the Juming Museum was the only institution in Asia granted a Best Practice Award by the International Council of Museums.

Almost all of the Living World Series and Taichi Series is “housed” at the museum. Joy Lai, who became curator of the Juming Museum in 2019, said, “By creating the Living World Series, Ju has given himself freedom. What he knows the best is to throw away what he does not need and make his best effort for what he wants.”

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
Joy Lai, curator of the Juming Museum.

This economy of artistic expression may come from his childhood deprivation. As Lai said, “Ju Ming tells a story of how a shepherd boy who only finished elementary school education became a world-known master.”

The museum does not take its possession of the lion’s share of Ju Ming’s classic work for granted. The team works hard to attract new audiences. It continues to hold events like night shows, taichi yoga, and pet days. “We want the Juming Museum to become a museum for everyone, not just Ju Ming’s museum. This is why we keep creating different visiting experiences for visitors to keep coming back,” Lai said.

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Photo Credit: Baliyoho Cheng
The Taichi Series.

The Juming Museum has taken a special interest in childhood education programs. “Ju believes that art can't be learned; he believes that children are the hope of art,” said Lai. Every year, they train many local children from Jinshan and Wanli district to be the museum’s volunteer tour guides.

Though Ju’s appearances at the museum are increasingly rare as he ages, there’s a small chance you might catch him. He’ll be wearing his cap, maybe talking with children or keeping a low profile as ambles amid his creations.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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