Beyond Description



Following the International Curators’ Dialogue at the Asia Art Center, Beijing 798 Art District in October 2008, a conversation took place between Li Chen and Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. This conversation between an artist whose works fuse Eastern philosophy, and a scholar from the West whose interests have focused on the rise of Modernism in both the East and the West, addressed their diverse theoretical perspectives and their common passion for art.



JBD: I was wondering if we could begin today by talking about what it is like to make spiritual art for a secular society in which most people do not share your religious beliefs, or even have knowledge of them. How do you imagine that the public can respond to your art?

LC: If we look at the situation from a broad perspective, with the present materialism in our society, and its changing expectations, I believe that there is an even greater need for the spiritual in our lives, a greater need for spiritual belief. At the moment, I feel that my work needs to embody a certain simplicity, it needs to be almost naïve in nature, unpretentious. And this goes beyond national boundaries.


JBD: When you employ a figure such as a Bodhisattva in your work, but your audience has little knowledge of the function of a Bodhisattva, what role do you expect this artwork might play if your audience may not be able to “read” it?

LC: Whether the audience is from the West, or from Mainland China, whether they have an understanding of the function of a Bodhisattva or not, they can be moved whether they are Catholics, Buddhists or Christians, because of the universal nature of love, harmony and peace. They can feel it is not about frustration or anger. What I am trying to do, is to express religious belief, and its processes, through art works, both emotionally and spiritually. One can admire the work, whether one is coming from North America, from Europe or from Asia. One will feel harmony, peace and a sense of completeness. This creative process can have a spiritual effect, just as religion can. Somebody who does not really understand what a Bodhisattva is can look at a work about Avalokitesvara and be moved, perhaps feel as if the Virgin Mary has opened up her arms to welcome them. 


JBD: This may be true for earlier series you have made, but is that true of your present series of work, Soul Guardians? If your public from Mainland China, or from the West, could feel harmony in your earlier series, does this mean that they will feel anxiety in your present series?

LC: It is part of an experiment! I am attempting to depict an energy that is beyond human power, which has the strength of God. I am attempting to express it through the forces of nature, by means of fire, of wind. This is why I created the Lord of Fire and the Lord of Wind - to have some kind of impact, to create a collision with the audience. As a human being with limited power, I can only use the visual power of my sculptures, like fire and wind, and materials like charcoal. For example, the sand I placed under the Lord of Wind is meant to evoke the sand storms in Beijing. If I were to produce this work in America, I would make a whirlwind!


JBD: But one of things you have done, particularly with the present series, is to move quite far from Buddhist iconography and from traditional folklore, for example Thousand-Mile Eye or Wind-Accompanying Ear. In your earlier work from the 1990s, you remained true to Buddhist iconography. As a practicing Buddhist, do you feel that you are taking risks, or liberties, or moving away too far away from the core of your own beliefs?

LC: No, I don’t think I am. My works in the 1990s were about self-healing, about finding inner peace and a world of my own, and sharing it with audiences. The idea of Soul Guardians began ten years ago and finally materialized as a response to the natural disasters that had appeared. In addition, I am also interested in social issues and have therefore created pieces such as Butterfly Kingdom, Travel Through Time and Space, and Collective Consciousness that tackle such topics to reflect today’s society. 


JBD: In other words, in your earlier series, you were already proposing a form of artistic practice which opposes blind commitment to an iconography which would not change? You were already addressing social issues, and insisting on a multiplicity of voices in society?

LC: Yes, that’s right.


JBD: Your work is often interpreted in the West as being traditional, as being strongly situated within traditional culture, and within Chinese Buddhism. But what you are saying now suggests that, in fact, your artistic attitudes are much closer to those of Western artists who also “hijack” iconographies for personal expression, and for personal communication, with his or her audience.

LC: I am not familiar with the West because I am not from the West. Therefore, I don’t know if I should consider the attitudes of my works Western or not. However, what has affected me is the freedom to create my art works. And I am willing 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. Someone commented once that I am an artist and a Buddhist at the same time. And that my character is such that I would never be satisfied with the same language or iconography, so I will always be creating new forms, and new languages.


JBD: In the West, they use the term “sampling”. That comes from Hip Hop. That is what a Hip Hop DJ does; he samples from different kinds of music and creates something new by putting them together in a new way. In the West, particularly since the beginning of modernism, artists have “sampled” the forms and ideas of other cultures such as Japan, or Africa. In the West, artists move between cultures and ideas, believing that they have right to sample, to take, and to transform at will. In fact much of so-called Western innovation has resulted from what we may call “creative misunderstanding” because what the artists have sampled has not necessarily been understood!

LC: Creative misunderstanding! It is interesting, and your question is…?


JBD: What are you creatively misunderstanding?

LC: In fact, your main point is not about “sampling” but whether or not we are able to digest and absorb these ideas. In Chinese we have a term we call “contact reaction” or “thought after thought, knowledge everywhere” or “being curious and peculiar will lead to fictitious realm that induces celestial demons to the dreams.I have taken the Daoist concept of Qi (life force, spiritus or elán vital) into my works, and I have used the colour black as a foundation because it gives the works a larger presence. We like to assume that a piece of cloth in black is heavy but when I close my eyes to meditate, I feel that black cloth is light. I decided to incorporate this experience into my sculptures. When I prepare ink, the water in the middle shimmers. Its outer edge, on the other hand, is foggy. And, this aesthetic is what I have always tried to achieve with my works. It is “heavy yet light’ at the same time. It is a heaviness of black and the lightness of Qi that create such a dramatic visual impact.


JBD: One of the key strategies of Western modernism is transgression – something you violate, rules you don’t obey. It seems to me that the materials you use, and the procedures in which you engage, espouse transgression. So, I would like to ask you: What transgressions do you commit? What rules do you violate?

LC: I often examine the works that I have made up till now, and by doing so, I try to understand how my personality and characteristics are shaped. I have had rebellious tendencies since I was a child. Generally speaking, sixty percent of what I do comes from using certain techniques, and from a desire to learn. Twenty percent comes from adventurism and rebellion. Even as I child I liked to plunge from a very high rock into the water, to see how the water flows. I liked to challenge my teachers. I still like to experiment and find out what aspects of my materials might suit my purpose. When it comes to forms, I have gone beyond Buddhist iconography and norms. Many devotees consider this a betrayal to the traditional spirit, but what I need to seek and create is a spiritual world of my own. 


JBD: What function does art have for you?

LC: For me, art is perfect, I can forget about time, I can forget about my worries and just immerse myself in art. It is a kind of self-hypnotism. When I create something, energy pours into me. Once when I was making sculptures, my whole body became dirty, sweaty, tired and I didn’t want to bathe any more. So, I lay down to sleep and turned off the light. But I couldn’t leave my work so I turned the light on and off. When I work, the spiritual content surpasses the desire for food, sex, or any other physical need.


JBD: If this is the function of making art for you, of being an artist, then what is the function of art for your viewer, for the public?

LC: I wouldn’t call it “function” because it has a life of its own; at least that is how I see it. Through art making, I communicate with the audiences and express the desire to encourage change, and to conceal. The Five Elements in the Soul Guardian series not only reflect astronomy, geography, climate, medicine, mathematics, but also have political implications. For instance, I purposely placed the head of the sacred monster at the lower half of the sculpture. Stepping on the Eight Trigram, it implies the invasion, occupation, and slaughter of different civilizations.


JBD: What interests me in this work is the fusion of body and spirit – and your transformation of the “carrier mount” of the god. In Hinduism the Vahana is an animal mount that the gods ride. But in your work, it is no longer possible to separate the god from the carrier mount. The bodies of the god and the carrier mount have melded together; the carrier entwines itself around the body of the god.

LC: That’s right. You may also notice that I have made subtle changes in their faces to make all of the Five Elements quite different. I sought to incorporate humanity, objectivity, and spirituality. For example, the dragon is associated with wood so the dragon’s tail looks like tree branches. These figures are gentle and powerful; at the same time they are very detailed and yet rough.


JBD: In other words, abstraction and representation also coexist simultaneously.

LC: I would say that it is true at any time whether we consider contemporary or traditional artworks. It may appear to be a combination of representation, abstraction, and realism, a work that cannot be described with a single word.


JBD: One of the aspects of the Soul Guardians series which I particularly like is that the body has become the mountain, and the mountain has become the body. 

LC: The base is actually a mountain. I needed something imaginary which had the strength and the energy of a mountain. I wanted the mountain underneath the body to also be viewed as the mountain of the body. 


JBD: Does that mean that the Guardians started from the mountain base and grew from there? Or did you create a Body-Mountain and then placed it on a base that happens to be a mountain?

LC: I conceived them at the same time.


JBD: I think that the mountain base underneath is really important. Because without it, I, for one, could admire the form of the Guardians, and I would probably recognize the discourse between abstraction and figuration, because the body itself keeps becoming more and more abstract. But by having the mountain base below, I was able to conceive of the figure as coming out of nature. I could recognize that nature – the mountain - and man / God / the Soul Guardian were being transformed into a new kind of being.

LC: Of course the mountain base is important. It is required to generate strength to the Soul Guardians so that their energy can overtake the mountain. It is the cyclical relationship that gives them another meaning.


JBD: The combination of the small mountain and the larger Guardians above it also enabled me to see these sculptures as landscape. The Guardians function not only as figures, but also as forms of landscapes.

LC: You are right. We can discuss “seeing” through juxtaposition: the Lord of Wind is hung in a black space because the wind is invisible, colorless, and shapeless. Then, where does the wind come from? The movement of the clouds suggests the movement of the wind. Therefore, the silver cloud which the Lord of Wind stands creates an effect that is similar to the effect of the mountain base. The sand on the bottom is used as enrichment; it makes a virtual cloud appear in movement.


JBD: I would like to return to my own tradition of spiritual art and talk about Wassily Kandinsky. In 1910, he wrote a book, a very influential book, called On the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky attempted to describe what the spiritual art could be in a modern society. He argued that it was impossible to separate the arts in the twentieth century, to separate, for example, art and music. He believed that you have to integrate the arts. He gave two examples of artists who were creating a new form of spirituality in the early twentieth century: the composer Arnold Schonberg and the artist Pablo Picasso. He said that what linked them both was that they had renounced the beautiful.

LC: Whether or not a piece of art is beautiful should be decided by each viewer.


JBD: In your vision of the spiritual in the twenty-first century do you want to pursue, or do you want to renounce the beautiful?

LC: I have never wanted to pursue the beautiful or to abandon the ugly with my work. When I was in my twenties, I read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and was influenced by it. However, there was one point on which I could not agree with Kandinksy. He argued that music is a superior art form due to its ability to transcend the material through a purely abstract language. I disagree with him on this idea. To me, all types of art are different. They affect different senses and space, and therefore, should not be judged as slow or fast in progression. To me, all forms of art are developing simultaneously.


JBD: If you were to granted one wish today, what would you wish for these art works here? What would you wish that each viewer would understand?

LC: I have come to realize that there are not many people who totally understand my work but for the appreciation of a work of art, not everybody has to totally understand what it is. There are different perspectives, different viewers, different understandings. This is fine. I do not want my work to be immediately comprehensible in one glance. Art is subtle, I want people to make discoveries. In this state somewhere between clear and unclear there is a form of beauty.


JBD and LC: There is Yi.




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