Li Chen - The First Decade


Thomas Lee
Chairman, Asia Art Center


A conversation with Li Chen is invariably a fascinating experience because he is always brimming with new ideas and boundless imagination. An almost childlike energy infuses his talk of creativity as he strives to see his flights of fancy made real. In addition, such a level of commitment can be highly infectious and helps to motivate those around him. Li’s earlier works, whether Beauty of Emptiness, Energy of Emptiness, Spiritual Journey Through the Great Ether, Soul Guardians, Immortality, The Beacon, Ordinary People, Ethereal Cloud, or his oil paintings, showcase the richness of his artistic genius. If one looks at a single piece then what stands out is the quality of the work, but taking a step back to get a better understanding of the creativity that underpins Li Chen’s artistic oeuvre reveals something far more profound.

In the ten years since Li last held a solo exhibition in Taiwan he has created a great many new works. In late autumn 2011, Asia Art Center organized Greatness of Spirit at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, the first solo exhibition of Li Chen’s sculptures in Taiwan. This was also the first time the memorial hall had ever hosted an outdoor exhibition of sculptures. The 22 works displayed were all unique and more than 1 million people visited the exhibition, eager to experience firsthand the results of the 12 years the artist spent pursuing “sculpture imbued with a spirit of the East.”

Over the last few years, Li has created eight series of work which can be divided into two categories. On the one hand, there are those pieces that speak to his pursuit of spiritual “perfection” as represented by such works as Beauty of Emptiness, Energy of Emptiness, Spiritual Journey Through the Great Ether, The Beacon and Ethereal Cloud. In terms of the artistic and spiritual nature of his art, Li Chen seeks out perfection and by honing his skills and artistic philosophy over the years he has got ever closer to that goal. As to the necessary detachment from reality and imaginative process, Li once described it as a matter of: “spiritual self healing, because life is imperfect.” However, Li Chen’s creative ideals are not limited to the purely spiritual plane. Early works such as Wish (Avalokitesvara) (1996), Butterfly Kingdom (1996) which was part of his first solo exhibition, Travel through Time and Space (2000), Puzzle (2000) and Collective Consciousness (2006) reveal his abiding interest in “human nature” and “society.” In fact, the reason Li pursues unattainable “perfection” is exactly because he is so aware of the inevitable chaos of reality and complete exposure of worldly failings and flaws, that he embodies social metaphor such as manifested in Soul Guardians, Immortality and Ordinary People. When we view the art world of Li Chen what we see is his soaring imagination and the projection of social activities, a backdrop against which “reality” and “virtuality” are two juxtaposed aspects of the same creative approach.

Li Chen was captivated by art from the very first moment he picked up a paintbrush at the age of seven or eight. As a student he studied Western thought and his first job was carving traditional Buddhist idols, while still learning about different types of art from around the world. It was only later that Li started to reflect on having grown up in the East and his own cultural identity. As a result, he came to realize how oriental philosophical concepts approximated to his own way of thinking and that classical literature was full of images that dovetailed perfectly with his own sense of aesthetics. On the other hand, he appears to have enjoyed exploring shapes and materials, he alters the sculptures in order to create various texture and visual experience, and for him sculpture offers the optimal form of self-expression. Despite the fact that he has not researched realistic human proportionality, Li Chen is adept at sculptures of human figures, utilizing Chinese “freehand style”which not only ensures balance, but also creates a feeling that is simple and warm. They reflect Li’s state of mind which seeks a combination of classical and contemporary, while reveling in the joy of life.

On viewing the work of Li Chen at the Venice Bienniale in 2007, Stuart M. Gibson of the State Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg, Russia, was moved to say: “When it comes to Eastern architecture of the last thousand years, what I can say is that the sculptures of Li Chen belong to a specific time and represent something completely new.” Seen from the history of sculpture, traditional religious art and the products of ancient political power – unearthed sculptures – continued into modern history, so what exactly makes a sculpture epochal? We have seen that Li’s sculptures are young and imbued with modern visual language while highlighting the local nature of life, and as such can be considered examples of an evolving form of eastern sculpture. 

After 18 months of preparatory work, the Greatness of Spirit outdoor solo exhibition was held at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in November 2011. Many people, including myself, the artist and countless others worked very hard to plan the display area and lighting, transport logistics for the pieces, conduct structural calculations, and to overcome installation and lifting quandaries. Finally, our many months of effort came together in the form of an exhibition that proved to be a great success. Although it is now 12 years since I first met Li Chen, I remember it like it was yesterday. Since that time we have worked together on a number of important exhibition tours in cities around the world and become good friends. Li Chen had not held a solo exhibition in Taiwan for a decade, which made this exhibition, the largest in Asia, even more important. On that note, I would like to extend a special thank you to SinoPac Holdings for its exclusive sponsorship because without that support this important exhibition could not have happened. Finally, it is my hope, shared with fans the world over, that Li Chen will continue to regale us with breathtaking art for years to come.

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