Soul Guardians: In an age of disasters and calamities



Director, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, U.S.A.

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker


Our present world is unsafe and full of mishap, the pace of uncertainty ever greater, the gods are no longer benign.


The Artist’s Garden

Entering Li Chen’s garden, especially in torrential rain, is to be transported to a place of meditative stillness sketched in shades of ink black and verdant green. The first monumental bronze to be seen as one passes through the gate, feet first and sliding away to a mountain top on which he rests, is Pure Land. One of Li Chen’s signature works, this sculpture dates from 1998, and was included in his first solo exhibition, Energy of Emptiness, in 1999. The title of the work refers to a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, Pure Land, which emphasizes faith and devotion to Amitābha Buddha[1] and is distinguished by its accessibility to all mankind rather than by its elite or esoteric spiritual practices. It is in this context that the comments of the renowned Chinese curator and theorist Gao Minglu regarding the broad appeal of Li Chen’s work, and its lack of distinction between the high and the low arts, are especially relevant. [2]  In creating sculptural objects / spiritual metaphors within the Pure Land tradition, Li Chen is expressing his commitment to a form of spiritual and artistic practice that is accessible to a broad audience.

The second monumental sculpture in Li Chen’s garden is Dragon-Riding Bodhisattva from 2001, the year in which the artist began an on-going series of works titled Spiritual Journey through the Great Ether. The Wisdom-Being Avalokiteśvara, the embodiment of compassion, and his carrier mount, are depicted full-bodied, smooth-skinned and abundant with life-force or qi. The tail of the dragon, thick like the branch of a tree, has protruding scales and is reminiscent of those found on ancient Chinese tripods or cauldrons. Each foot of the dragon, which was also inspired by designs on ancient ding[3] vessels, rests respectively on a dragon pearl, a lotus flower, an auspicious cloud, and a heavenly flame.[4] The third monumental figure in the artist’s garden, to the left when one enters, is of Siddhārtha Gautama, Buddha, who is portrayed with his hands clasped together and his eyes closed in meditation. The robes of the Buddha - one with his body – are depicted in great simplicity reminding the visitor of the verse: “The blessed robes at one with the Buddha’s unobstructed self”. [5] Titled All in One, and dating from 1998, this early work in Li Chen’s oeuvre is more traditional than Pure Land in its representation. Nevertheless, it too reveals a new tendency in his work. When viewed from the rear or the side, the sculptures of Li Chen change their nature: the figural becomes abstract, the body becomes landscape, the being and its carrier mount become one. The title of this sculpture evokes the harmony and peace of the Three Jewels of Buddhism as One: the Buddha (The Enlightened One), the Dharma (The Teaching), and the Sangha (The Community).

The final object in Li Chen’s garden is a replica of a black and red lacquer Qing dynasty chair with Eight Immortals[6] carved into the narrow, central support of the backrest. It is on this chair that the artist sits in his garden and meditates on the figures before him: Buddha (Śākyamuni), the enlightened one Amitābha, and the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara on his carrier mount. Each sculpture recalls a stage in Everyman’s spiritual passage to enlightenment and evokes the compassion which is offered to all those who wish to take this path. The three works, which belong to the series Energy of Emptiness (1998-2000) and Spiritual Journey through the Great Ether (2001- present), also trace Li Chen’s artistic passage away from the traditional aesthetics of Tang and Song dynasty Buddhist sculpture towards a personal, and highly distinctive, iconography of spiritual passage in contemporary times.


The Domestic and the Spiritual

The interior of Li Chen’s house, which is spread over three levels, is rich in objects, wooden furniture, art works, books, and textures. No distinction is made between the domestic and the sacred. The first object one encounters on entering the first floor is a large-scale bronze of Avalokiteśvara or “Lord who looks down” dating from 1999. Over two meters tall, the bodhisattva stands with his head bowed and arms wide open as if to embrace us as we enter the room. To the right of Avalokiteśvara, in the corner of the large and inviting living room, are sculptural works by the artist that have been combined with two framed scrolls (with couplets on enlightenment written by Li Chen’s father-in-law) to create an altar-like installation. The Three Bodies of Buddha, dating from 1998, are placed in the center. The middle Body is that of Buddha or Śākyamuni, his hands clasped together in his lap in the position of the dhyāna mudrā or spiritual gesture of meditation. The second Body, to the left, is Amitābha Buddha, this time with his right arm bare and pointing down, palm open towards the viewer, in the exposition or varada mudrā while his left hand holds an earthen bowl in the position of wish granting. The third Body, on the right, is the Buddha of Healing whose left arm is bare and raised in the gesture of the shunya mudrā while his right hand rests, palm upwards, in his lap. This mudrā is associated with healing of those who have difficulty in hearing. Each of the three Bodies is wearing an antique necklace made of silver and precious stones such as turquoise, amber, and coral. The central Body, Śākyamuni, is holding a candle whose soft light is reflected on the surface of his body.

On the left of the Three Bodies of Buddha is a smaller sculptural work from 2001, Landscape in Heaven. A smiling Buddha, his eyes closed in contentment, offers us golden mountains held high in his right hand while he proffers a thin eddy of water made out of silver with his lowered left hand. The horizontal fluidity of the water evokes the principle of yin or female while the bold, vertical mountains rising from the valley of the Buddha’s palm espouse the principle of yang or male. The mountains’ deep crevasses, their smooth, eroded surfaces, and the fullness of their contours bear witness to the life-force or qi which rises from within while the surface of the water is marked by the breath of wind, by the flow of the tide, or by a falling stone. The word for landscape in Chinese is shanshui or "mountains and water."  These mountains, this water, this landscape, have been captured, as if from a literati painting, and transported to Heaven, to Buddha, who, in turn, offers them to us as a spiritual refuge.

On the right of Three Bodies of Buddha is another sculpture by Li Chen, Meditation, dating from 2002. This work is especially radical in its experimental re-constitution of the (heavenly / human) body, and in its co-joining of the abstract and the figural. Larger than Three Bodies of Buddha and Landscape in Heaven, it depicts a devotee whose raised arms cradle a seated, golden Buddha in a state of enlightenment.[7] The body of the devotee, who is standing on a cloud made of silver, has been stripped of all detail. His head is positioned at the center of the sculpture, his extenuated arms the same length as his body and legs. A diagonal line crossing the devotee’s body suggests robes. If, however, one circumambulates the sculpture, the body of the devotee is transformed when viewed from the rear. It is now inverted, headless and truncated; the raised arms have become legs giving way to buttocks. Circumambulating to the front of the sculpture again, the devotee’s head now suddenly appears to be in the position of his genital organs.[8] Such transgressions in the depiction of sacred subject matter, and the constantly altered “meaning” of Li Chen’s sculptural works depending on the position of the observer, distinguish much of his later work, especially in more recent years.

On the far side of the living room, in front of the window facing the garden, and suspended above the sofa, is The Sound of Nature from 2004. This sculpture depicts a truncated, stylized Buddha, this time in the form of a voluminous, hollow bell. In his left hand the Buddha holds a mallet with a small head in bronze wrapped in cloth tied together with a strip of leather. Each ring of the bell is an echo of the heartbeat of the person striking its surface and a unique record of their life experiences. Suddenly one is aware that the Buddha is wearing headphones designed to aid spiritual hearing. The irritation caused by the presence of the headphones, and by the breach with traditional iconography, are intentional. In an interview reproduced in this volume Li Chen notes that “some people think that I have abandoned Buddhist iconography. But I am looking for something which meets my own spiritual needs.”[9]

Among other art works in Li Chen’s carefully choreographed living room are Cause from 2003 and Visiting Fairyland from 2004. The former consists of two figures, one black the other silver, embracing on a mountain in a state of bliss. The title of the work refers only in part to the principle of “cause and effect” and the Buddhist concept of Karma, the cycle of suffering and rebirth.[10] Instead, the artist explains, the central theme of this work is transmigration of the soul and the notion of yuanfen or “predestined relationship.”[11] The second sculpture, Visiting Fairyland, portrays another blissful figure, leaning strongly to its right, with a black body and silver head, and evokes “a realm of innermost emotion of riding the wind and becoming one with nature.”[12] Although both these sculptural works refer to spiritual subject matter, they depict cross-over figures who would be as comfortable in the narratives of popular culture and mass media as they are in their role of spiritual metaphors within the traditions of  Pure Land Buddhism.


Origins and Sources: The Library

Western audiences and critics tend to see Li Chen’s sculpture as being firmly established within the traditions of Oriental art. In the words of the writer Ian Findlay, he has made “a modern version of Buddhist iconography that speaks directly and simply to the world today without sacrificing the spirituality of it”.[13]  Critics from Asia, especially China, on the other hand, who are familiar with Buddhist iconography, look at Li Chen’s work “in terms of the differences to traditional sculpture.”[14] Indeed, in an online review of Li Chen’s most recent series of works, Soul Guardians: In an Age of Disasters and Calamities, Deka Xia remarked, “I've come to believe Mr. Li's art is a dialogue with Western art and ideas.“[15]

If the choreography of Li Chen’s living room traces the artist’s spiritual and artistic passage from 1998 to 2004, his study / library on the second floor of his house is dedicated to his artistic and intellectual development, and to the sources of his inspiration. His library confirms that Li Chen is well versed in Western art and culture. In addition to numerous volumes on Chinese applied and fine art there are monographs on Western sculptors such as Michelangelo (1475-1564), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). A volume on the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) complements surveys of contemporary Western art. Of particular interest is the presence of numerous publications on African and Oceanic art. Among them is ART/artifact, an important exhibition catalogue from 1988 published by The Center for African Art in New York, which addresses the complex issue of how “art museums deal with art made by people who do not call it art” and how “Western outsiders have regarded African art and material culture over the past century”.[16] This catalogue addresses not only the finer aspects of historical and contemporary African art but also fundamental issues surrounding the ordering and presentation of non-Western art in Western art institutions. One of the distinguished authors of the catalogue, Arthur C. Danto, introduces his catalogue text with a quotation from Rudolf Witthower’s Allegory and the Migration of Symbols: “We must sharpen our critical judgment, for the pitfalls of superficial affinities may lead and have led to strange misconceptions.”[17]

While wishing to avoid strange misconceptions of the work of Li Chen based on superficial affinities and chance purchases or gifts that have found their way into his library, I would nevertheless agree that his work is in dialogue with Western art and ideas as Xia Deka noted.[18] The more important discovery, though, is that it is African and Oceanic sculpture, fine examples of which are to be found in his study together with numerous Taiwanese folk art and Chinese Buddhist sculptures, which have enriched his art. Li Chen, commenting on the influences on his work, remarked, “The primitive energizes and excites me. It is about earth, real experience. I can look at the ancient and the primitive for days. Looking at Rodin one sees the real but it is more intellectual. I appreciate the skill but it doesn’t excite me. The primitive is mysterious.”[19]

Among the splendid mixture of books, sculptures, carvings, hi fi speakers, and lacquer furniture in Li Chen’s study are a handful of early works he produced between 1992 and 1997. As has been noted on numerous occasions, the first “independent” sculptural work he produced was Water Moon Avalokiteśvara (1992). Thereafter he made one work per year. “The first difficulty for me“, the artist noted recently, “was to liberate myself from the tradition of Buddhist sculpture. It took me seven years to break from the tradition, to feel that I had found my own sculptural voice. From then on I felt free.”[20] In other words, regardless of how traditional Western audiences may consider Li Chen’s sculpture to be, regardless of how close the subject matter of his works of art may be to the tenets of Pure Land Buddhism, Li Chen regards his art works as being free of the sculptural tradition which had originally informed it. It is in the differences to traditional Buddhist sculpture, and in the differences to Western art practice, that we need to seek Li Chen’s sculptural voice.


The Atelier

In nineteenth-century Europe the artist’s atelier became an elaborate theatrical environment eminently suited to self-staging and marketing rather than to creative production. Numerous portraits and self-portraits of European artists in their ateliers from this period transformed the notion of the artist’s workshop-studio into a sacred-secular space dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of the Master rather than the art itself. Li Chen’s atelier on the top floor of his house is the antithesis of this. Private, intimate and messy, it is a place of intense experimentation. While two large warehouses are necessary for the production and storage of his monumental sculptures, it is here, in his private atelier, that Li Chen experiments with wood, ropes, clay and wax, creating small models that, at a later date, will be transformed into large-scale sculptures and installations. These highly expressive clay models, molded expertly over wooden skeletons, are, Li Chen explains, bodies. Some he keeps “alive” by applying water to their surfaces; others are allowed to “die”, their bodies tearing apart to reveal wooden skeletons underneath as the clay dries and separates. These clay bodies, both alive and dead, are extraordinarily powerful.

Only a single wax model is to be seen in Li Chen’s atelier: the Three Bodies of Buddha (2001) which, enlarged and in bronze, provides such an important focal point in the artist’s living room. Among the clay models is that for the seated golden Buddha held high in Meditation (2002). Another clay head in blissful reverie has been slightly modified for a number of works such Cultivated by Mist and Cloud (2000), Cause (2003) and The Sound of Nature (2004). The most powerful objects in the atelier, however, are undoubtedly the clay models prepared for Li Chen’s installation Soul Guardians: In an Age of Disasters and Calamities at the Asia Art Center Beijing in October 2008. This series of works marks a turning point in the artist’s oeuvre and can be regarded as his most important to date. Choreographed as precisely as his domestic space but with a new intensity and concentration, the installation Soul Guardians offers a rich, complex narrative on contemporary life in the twenty-first century.


Soul Guardians: In an Age of Disasters and Calamities

If Li Chen produced singular bronzes of exceptional harmony in the past, the spectacular series of sculptural works titled Soul Guardians: In an Age of Disasters and Calamities has been created for an era marked by natural and man-made disasters, warfare, decay, and global economic and ecological calamity. In commenting on the startling new direction of his work Li Chen noted: “Everything is uncertain and has an illusionary sense of value in this age of disaster.”

The presence of Yanluo, the God of Death and Ruler of the Underworld, pervades Soul Guardians. He takes center stage, holding a brush in one hand and a book listing every soul and the allotted time of death in the other. Two eyes, two mouths, two brushes, two books of the dead are visible as he vibrates in anger and retribution. We are invited to sit at his feet on a small red chair as he passes judgment upon us. Two assistants, figures over three meters tall and coated in gold leaf, Mind-Taking Guard and Soul-Taking Guard, flank Yanluo in his manifestation of Judge of the Underworld and bear down on us. Mind-Taking Guard, on the left, holds a convex mirror. As we stand before him we are captured on its golden surface, upright but reduced to tiny figures in a bulbous world of illusion. Each and every detail, all that is beyond the scope of our foveal vision, is suddenly present; periphery and center are one. Regardless of our location in the room we are held captive on the surface of the mirror. Soul-Taking Guard to the right of the Judge also reaches out his hand to us, offering a golden concave mirror. [21]  If we stand close to Soul-Taking Guard we see ourselves greatly magnified on the surface of his mirror. If, however, we step back, we enter a gyre of uncertainty. Suddenly we see ourselves inverted, and reduced in size. At the exact focal point of the concave mirror, our image disappears. Have we been sucked into the purgatory of the realm of the dead? 

As we circumambulate Soul-Taking Guard we find ourselves no longer circling a threatening figure but a form that rises up from a range of mountains on which one foot of Soul-Taking Guard rests. At times this form appears to be a cloud rising from the mountains; a few steps further it has become a high-collared mantle, or a tree bearing a heavy load of snow. The surface of the body-mountain-cloud-mantle-tree-landscape is covered with glacial-like striations awash in a burnished golden glow as if it were burning from within in the setting sun. As we draw near, the stub like fingers of Soul-Taking Guard become broken branches of thick wood whose many rings indicate an ancient past. The mountain range on which Mind-Taking Guard rests one leg is higher and does not fall away to the plains. As we circle his striated, golden body it too becomes increasingly abstract, a place of transformation and evocation. We observe vertebrae protruding from the upper spine of Mind-Taking Guard, just as we have seen on the body of Soul-Taking Guard, and are reminded of the loci of qi (life force, spiritus or elán vital) in the human body which are employed in traditional Chinese acupressure to invigorate our vital energy and to promote longevity.

Two other guardians of our mortal souls, one suspended from the ceiling, also bear down on the viewer. On the left of Mind-Taking Guard is Lord of Fire, red with flames protruding from his bodily orifices and flesh. On the right of Soul-Taking Guard is Lord of Wind, black and voluminous. They represent two of four natural phenomena (Wind, Fire, Thunder and Rain). Lord of Fire hovers over a circle of charcoal while Lord of Wind is suspended over a circle of sand, its surface marked as if by the passage of wind. As Li Chen explains in an interview in this volume, the circle of sand is meant to evoke the crippling sandstorms which regularly sweep across Beijing from deserts which are encroaching on the capital city. Lord of Fire, holding the Chinese character for fire with his raised right hand, transmutes into abstract forms as we circle the burned charcoal below. But it is the flames which shoot out of his body, his mouth, his head, his anus, and from under his feet, which rather capture our attention. It is only from a distance, front on, that one notices for the first time that the position of Lord of Fire’s left arm, his body, and legs held wide apart, creates a skewed symbol reminiscent of the Chinese character for fire. The body becomes the sign.

Circling the vast black body of Lord of Wind we become aware of its fullness and the calligraphic abstract forms it creates when viewed from the side and the rear. In close proximity, we can see that the surface of Lord of Wind’s skin has different qualities of black, sometimes rough and cloudy, and at other times smooth and shiny as if rushing air has passed over it or as if it has been pulled taut over the body’s inner life force, qi. The choice of black for this figure reflects Li Chen’s preoccupation with the aesthetics of different translations of ink. As he explains, this bringing together of heaviness and lightness comes from a new understanding of the nature and quality of black ink which he has acquired through meditation.[22] The effect of different qualities of black is achieved by applying pitch-black lacquer over the surface of the bronze sculpture.

At a slight distance from the Soul Guardians, and in a permanent state of transcendental peace, is a large-scale bronze of Ksitigarbha, one of the four principal bodhisattvas (enlightenment-beings) in Mahayana Buddhism and an important Taoist deity. One of the names of Ksitigarbha is Earth-Store or “the one who encompasses the earth”. True to tradition, Ksitigarbha is depicted by Li Chen as a monk with a shaven head, holding in one hand a staff to force open the gates of the Underworld and to dispel darkness and, in the other hand, a jewel to symbolize the treasure of enlightenment.[23] Ksitigarbha is seated on a highly stylized Qilin, a mythical hoofed figure whose dance is characterized by fast, powerful movements of the head. Revered for having vowed not to achieve Buddhahood until all suffering souls are released from the Underworld, Ksitigarbha is known as the bodhisattva of those who have been condemned to purgatory. Widely venerated in Taiwan, where Li Chen was born, Ksitigarbha protects his worshippers in times of disaster, especially earthquakes such as that which devastated China’s Sichuan province on May 12, 2008. Here he is depicted in a state of absolute stillness, with elongated ears and one foot resting on a lotus symbolizing his release from the cycle of rebirth. The body of Ksitigarbha, and that of the Qilin he rides, are depicted by Li Chen as smooth-skinned and abundant with life-force or qi. The Qilin has a soft horn on his head; his eyes stare at us, and remind us that Ksitigarbha has come to release us from the Underworlds of this age of disasters and calamities.

If we stand behind Ksitigarbha we catch a glimpse of another Qilin in the distance, past Mind-Taking Guard and Soul-Taking Guard, past Lord of Fire. This Qilin is the central figure of a work from 2008 dedicated to Wuxing, an ancient, cosmological system of classification of elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal. Each is associated with a heavenly creature and represents one of five cardinal points (Earth - Qilin – Middle; Water - Tortoise – North; Fire - Phoenix – South; Wood - Dragon – East; and Metal – Tiger - West).  Wuxing has been described by scholars as “a correlative cosmology” with “an immense system of correlation-building … among various domains of reality in the universe, correlating categories of the human world, such as the human body, behavior, morality, the sociopolitical order, and historical changes, with categories of the cosmos, including time, space, the heavenly bodies, seasonal movement, and natural phenomena.”[24] By virtue of these complex correlations, wuxing is not a static cosmology but one based on the principles of constant interaction and change: “The five cosmic energies [conquer and generate] one another in circular sequence.”[25]  In the circular sequence of Li Chen’s Wuxing the Tortoise, Phoenix, Dragon, and Tiger are positioned at the true cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) while Qilin is placed at the center or zenith of the circle.[26] The heavenly creatures are placed on a large-scale Luopan compass, a cosmological map employed by Feng Shui masters[27], with symbols and characters embedded in concentric rings on its surface. Among the symbols one can identify are the eight trigrams of the I Ching (Yi Jing), the ancient Book of Changes, which advocates the idea of the dynamic balance of opposites and an acceptance of the inevitability of change.

Although in the West wuxing tends to be associated exclusively with cosmology, ancient mythology and the sacred, in China, as Li Chen has pointed out, it is also associated with real world politics.[28] Among key figures of the reform movement in China in the early twentieth century who examined the political context of Wuxing was the scholar and philosopher Liang Qi-chao (1873 – 1929).[29] Li Chen’s Wuxing should therefore be read not only as a cosmological representation of our physical world (time, space, the heavens, and natural phenomena) but also as a metaphor for human behavior and the sociopolitical order. He reminds us with this work – where the head of each heavenly creature / element / cardinal point has been intentionally placed in the position of the genital organs[30] – that human desires and greed, and the abuse of nature, has brought us to this age of disaster and calamities.

In another section of Soul Guardians Li Chen presents for the first time two of the highly elaborate, over three meter high wooden structures he created in the process of producing his sculptures. The remarkable skeleton-like figures of Mind-Taking Guard and Soul-Taking Guard exude extraordinary power in their severe reduction. Still bearing traces of the clay which was used on their surface during the casting process, they create intimations of death and decay. If, as noted earlier, Li Chen had in the past created singular sculptural works which evoked harmony, compassion and spiritual reassurance, the present installation of multiple, interrelated works of art exhorts Li’s viewers with a hereto unknown sense of urgency that the hour is nigh. Uncertainty envelopes us; death awaits us. Our world has been catapulted into disaster, Li reminds us, through the excesses of materialism, and through an indifference to the necessity of balance and harmony in everyday life. “There is,” he notes,” an even greater need for the spiritual in our lives, a greater need for spiritual belief.”[31]

The final two works in Soul Guardians straddle the spiritual and the mundane world: Thousand-Mile Eye and Wind-Accompanying Ear. These figures, as Gao Minglu astutely observes in this volume, could be described as “cute”. They certainly provide an ideal backdrop for snapshots by enchanted visitors.[32] The ease with which the mythological figures Thousand-Mile Eye and Wind-Accompanying Ear slide into the mundane world is not only due to their headphones, black eyes and Li Chen’s artistic sleight-of-hand. In “real-life” they are key characters in an extraordinarily popular secular-religious event: the seven-day and three hundred kilometer[33] long Dajia Mazu pilgrimage which begins in Taichung County, Taiwan, near to Li Chen’s home. In 2007 the Mazu pilgrimage included not only traditional religious events conducted with great spiritual fervor but also bull fighting parades, dragon dances, drum performances, pop singers, Western-style rock music and “glittering and well decorated vehicles [with] performances telling stories of life today, vision of government policy, commercial advertisements.” As the official website for the pilgrimage notes, over the centuries the goddess Mazu and her two Guardians, Thousand-Mile Eye (Qianli Yen) and Wind-Accompanying Ear (Shunfeng Er), were assigned more and more duties as people were confronted with environmental disasters, epidemics and the plague.[34]  The two Hero Guardians (who also figure in the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West) have recently taken on additional duties in the popular television series Ten Brothers. In 2005 the Hong Kong based production company TVB produced the series in which a couple swallows ten pearls and subsequently gives birth to ten, fully-grown sons who fight off danger and evil. Among these defenders of justice are Thousand-Mile Eye and Wind-Accompanying Ear. Perhaps the most bizarre of modern transformations of these two mythological figures is to be found in surveillance equipment available on the internet – the Thousand-mile Eye Wind-accompanying Ear Telescope Sound Collector - which enables its owner to hear sounds and conversations from over one hundred meters.


Iconography, Pantheons, Folk Religion

Buddhist iconography, the pantheon of Taoist immortals, and Taiwanese folk religion have provided an extraordinarily rich breeding ground for Li Chen’s artistic experimentations. His understanding of the intellectual and artistic strategies of Western artists and his appreciation of the rich iconography and forms of African and Oceanic art, have resulted in an extraordinary body of work that refuses to conform to a single canon or tradition. It is for this reason that the reception of Li Chen’s sculptural works and installations is often equivocal and results in equally appropriate but at times contradictory interpretations of his work.

The artist himself welcomes these “different perspectives, different viewers, different understandings.” The expression of “religious belief, and its processes, through art works” in a manner which goes “beyond national boundaries” requires, however, that complex ideas need “to embody a certain simplicity [and be] almost naïve in nature.” Li Chen uses the strong emotions his works generate, and its unexpected transgressions, as a means “to have some kind of impact, to create a collision with the audience.”[35]

Inevitably, though, the response of the individual viewer will be culturally nuanced. For audiences in China – as mentioned earlier - the “distance” between the iconography of Li Chen’s work and that of traditional Buddhist sculpture will be a determining factor in the response of those schooled in its refinements. For younger audiences, however, who are not familiar with the nuances of Buddhist traditions, the complex iconographical references in his ouevre will appear alien and exotic. As Fan Di’an, Director of the National Art Museum of China so eloquently expressed it, the works may appear to have travelled “from the outer reaches of space” or to be “scriptures from a remote antiquity.”[36] This can result in a “rather embarrassing situation”, as one Chinese critic noted in a review of Soul Guardians, should Westerners take on the role of explaining the “incomprehensible” references.[37] 

For Western audiences, however, another form of exoticism comes into play and “strange misconceptions”[38] are inevitably generated when the work of Li Chen is ordered in a Western cultural context. As Gao Minglu points out in this volume, art works do develop out of their cultural background. “But,” he asks”, can you only use this background to define the art itself?”

In the West, one never defines Modernism according to an artwork’s cultural background but rather according to its philosophical and aesthetic issues, language, moral and spiritual meaning, indeed many different aspects.[39]

What then are the philosophical, aesthetic and language issues which inform the work of Li Chen? Fan Di’an argues that it is the co-existence of the transcendental and the worldly in the subject matter, and above all in the forms, of Li Chen’s work which is its key philosophical characteristic.[40]  The aesthetics which inform his sculptures are, according to Fan, primarily those belonging to Eastern traditions (Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist) unified with western sculptural language in a highly distinctive “dual composition”.[41] The “material language” of his sculptures, Fan Di’an suggests further, consists of the use of pure materials such as bronze and stone, a black, grey and white color system “based on eastern aesthetics”, and the integration of color and luster.[42] 

Among the philosophical principles informing Li Chen’s sculpture are also what the artist terms personal religious belief (and what Gao Minglu would call an individualized spirituality[43]) beyond national and cultural boundaries. Another is plurality (in form and meaning) within the singular, and the constantly changing perspectives and points of observation this implies in a sculptural context.[44] The “correlative cosmology” on which wuxing is based, its complex correlations among various domains of reality, and its principles of constant interaction and change,[45] are also governing principles in the work of Li Chen as is the form-giving concept of qi or life-force.

The underlying aesthetic principles in Li’s sculpture are based not only on a “dual composition” of Eastern traditions and Western sculptural language but also on an ongoing dialogue with the spiritual and material cultures of Africa and Oceania. This can be recognized in certain re-constitutions of Li Chen’s sculptural bodies and in his co-joining of the abstract and the figural in a manner that is quite distinct from that within the Chinese ink painting tradition on which Li draws heavily for his inspiration. The aesthetics of ink, as mentioned by the artist, are crucial to his ability to bring together heaviness and lightness.[46] Most critics agree, however, that it has been above all the fascinating and complex cultural and sociopolitical conditions of Li Chen’s birthplace, Taiwan, that have enriched his work and imbued it with specific aesthetic characteristics, especially the presence of elements of folk culture and local religion in his work, the easy co-existence of the fine arts and craft, and the forays into the “cute” and the “popular” referred to earlier.

The material language Li Chen employs, as noted above, consists of the use of pure materials such as bronze and stone, a black, grey and white color system “based on eastern aesthetics”, and the integration of color and luster.[47] The application of pitch-black lacquer over bronze surfaces to achieve different qualities of black has been mentioned earlier. The recent use of fiber glass instead of bronze in order to greatly increase the scale of his works, has been an important step in the development of Li Chen’s ability to communicate with his audience in new and exciting ways. “I am willing, “he commented recently, “to bring religious iconography with which I am familiar into another context, to bring a thousand year old tradition into the contemporary world, to transform something that you think you know…I will always be creating new forms, and new languages.”

After a spiritual journey lasting ten years during which Li Chen mourned the loss of his father by creating cathartic works of great harmony,[48] he has now embarked on a new stage of his artistic and spiritual passage. Powerful, monumental figures in states of constant correlation, interaction and change, and the wooden skeletons that remain after their production, are the Soul Guardians which Li Chen has conjured forth to aid us, and to warn us, in this age of disasters and calamities


[1] Amitābha is the principal Buddha in Pure Land Buddhism.  

[2]  See “International Curators’ Dialogue“ in this volume.

[3] A ding is an ancient Chinese vessel with legs and a lid that was usually made of ceramic or bronze.

[4] Jiunshyan Lee, “The Energy of Emptiness,” Li Chen: Energy of Emptiness (52nd. Venice Biennale, 2007), 11. 

[5]  Li Chen: Energy of Emptiness (52nd. Venice Biennale, 2007), 47.

[6] The Eight Immortals - Immortal Woman He (He Xiangu), Royal Uncle Cao (Cao Guojiu), Iron-Crutch Li (Li Tieguai), Lan Caihe, Lu Dongbin (Leader), Philosopher Han Xiang (Han Xiang Zi), Elder Zhang Guo (Zhang Guo Lao), and Zhongli Quan – are popular figures in Taoism.

[7] This sculpture suggests the happiness which is attained through the contemplation of the Buddha within oneself.

[8]  See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[9]  See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume

[10] In Pure Land Buddhism the Amitābha Buddha has the power to destroy the Karma which would bind one to the constant cycle of rebirth.

[11] Li Chen in correspondence with the author, February 4, 2009.

[12] Li Chen in correspondence with the author, February 4, 2009.

 [13] Ian Findlay-Brown, “In Search of Spiritual Space”, Li Chen: Energy of Emptiness (52nd. Venice Biennale, 2007), 22.

[14] See “International Curators’ Dialogue“ in this volume.

[15] Deka Xia, “A Face-to-face Dialogue: Li Chen’s Sculptural Art”, artzine China, October 2008 (

[16] Susan Vogel, Introduction and Foreword, ART/artifact (The Center for African Art New York and Prestel Verlag Munich, 1989), 10-11.

[17] Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art”, ART/artifact (The Center for African Art New York and Prestel Verlag Munich, 1989),18.

[18] Deka Xia, “A Face-to-face Dialogue: Li Chen’s Sculptural Art”, artzine China, October 2008 (

[19] Ian Findlay-Brown, “In Search of Spiritual Space”, Li Chen: Energy of Emptiness (52nd. Venice Biennale, 2007), 23.

[20] Ian Findlay-Brown, “In Search of Spiritual Space”, Li Chen: Energy of Emptiness (52nd. Venice Biennale, 2007), 22. 

[21] The concave and the convex mirrors held by the Soul Guardians have „the function of reflecting all emotions including fear, happiness and sadness:“Li Chen in correspondence with the author, February 4, 2009.

[22] See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[23] In 1999 Li Chen produced a bronze titled Unceasing Cultivation (Ksitigarbha), 72x34x38 cm, in which the standing bodhisattva is depicted with small human and animal figures ascending his robes. This bronze, according to the artist, refers to Karma and the realm of purification. The present work, which was made in 2003, is closely related to the Soul Guardians series in its exploration of the cycle of life and death.

[24] Wang Aihe, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 2-3.

[25] Wang Aihe, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3.

[26] Each of the heavenly creatures holds in its hand the symbol for the element with which it is associated (Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal). The symbols on the back of each of the Five Elements are Chinese characters indicating East (Wood), West (Metal), South (Fire), North (Water), and Middle (Earth).

[27] Feng shui or “wind-water” is an ancient Chinese system based on astronomy and geography employed to ensure qi is present in life. It was used traditionally in choosing a place to live and to find a burial site. Today it is often used in architectural planning.

[28] See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[29] Wang Aihe, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China, 5.

[30] See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[31] See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[32]  See “International Curators’ Dialogue“ in this volume.

[33] Council for Cultural Affairs, Government of Taiwan (

[34]  Introduction Guide to Dajia Mazu Sightseeing Cultural Festival, Taichung 2007: “The basic groups and itinerant activities of Dajia Mazu incense-offering of the border-tour” and “Mazu Belief of Taiwan” (

[35] See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[36] Fan Di’an, The Realm of Harmonization – Li Chen’s Sculpture World“, Li Chen: In Search of Spiritual Space (Beijing: Asia Art Center, 2008), 6.

[37] Deka Xia, “A Face-to-face Dialogue: Li Chen’s Sculptural Art”, artzine China, October 2008 (“ This might have been a rather embarrassing situation most of the arts succeeding Chinese traditions are trapped in, i.e., they're incomprehensible to fellow countrymen, who then have to be instructed by westerners to understand them.

[38] Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art”, ART/artifact (The Center for African Art New York and Prestel Verlag Munich, 1989), 18 

[39] See “International Curators’ Dialogue“ in this volume. 

[40] Fan Di’an, The Realm of Harmonization – Li Chen’s Sculpture World“, Li Chen: In Search of Spiritual Space (Beijing: Asia Art Center, 2008), 6. “These Buddhist figures possess the forms, expressions and details of ordinary life, and therefore making people feel as if the figures are close to the world of human emotions, giving the forms a natural twofold connotation.”

[41] Fan Di’an, The Realm of Harmonization – Li Chen’s Sculpture World“, Li Chen: In Search of Spiritual Space (Beijing: Asia Art Center, 2008), 7.

[42] Fan Di’an, The Realm of Harmonization – Li Chen’s Sculpture World“, Li Chen: In Search of Spiritual Space (Beijing: Asia Art Center, 2008), 7.

[43] See “International Curators’ Dialogue“ in this volume.

[44] Li Chen cited in Howard Scott and Yuan Yuan, “Content in Emptiness”, Beijing Review, vol. 51, no. 49, December 4, 2008:  “Sculpting is three-dimensional, and I could move around the sculpture instead of sitting in front of a desk painting. By sculpting I can move, it is my style.”

[45] See Wang Aihe, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3.

[46] See “Li Chen in Conversation with Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker“ in this volume.

[47] Fan Di’an, The Realm of Harmonization – Li Chen’s Sculpture World“, Li Chen: In Search of Spiritual Space (Beijing: Asia Art Center, 2008), 7.

[48] Li Chen cited in Howard Scott and Yuan Yuan, ”Content in Emptiness,” Beijing Review, vol. 51, no. 49, December 4, 2008: “My early works serve as a healing method since I lost my family members. …10 years ago, my father also passed away. … For my early works …people say those works look calm and quiet and pure. Actually that is a spiritual journey for me. I avoided despondent feelings when I made these works, and the process of creating these works gave me satisfaction, so I try to heal myself in this cathartic way.”




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