International Curators’ Dialogue with Li Chen



On October 19th, 2008, Asia Art Center organised an academic symposium after the opening of Li Chen’s Soul Guardians exhibition in Beijing 798 Art District. Important figures as Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker (JBD), the Director of the Frye Art Museum, Seattle, U.S.A., Gao Ming Lu (GML), the Art Critics and Curator, and Kwok Kian Chow (KKC), the Director of National Art Gallery, Singapore were invited to the open discussion on art. In two hours, participants overcame the language barrier and explored every detailed aspect of Li Chen’s art.


KKC: In your perspective, what is meant by modernism in art; and how is modernism defined in the context of art in Taiwan? Jo-Anne suggests that Chinese modernism was born in the first half of the 20th century. Professor Gao Minglu, on the other hand, mentions in his writings that we should consider the 1950s as its starting point. Can we apply the same time frames for Taiwan?

LC: In Taiwan, the pace of change is quite fast throughout this period. If we trace it back to the early days, and look at the development of history and culture from a broader perspective, the passage of Taiwanese culture began with Minnan culture, colonial culture (Oriental art), mainland culture and then western ideology. Minnan culture (which could be defined as native culture) can be considered as activities of the common folk that have been naturally evolving all this while. And then we have the Japanese Occupation period, which was a time of Japanese rule. Many Japanese traveled to Europe to learn from the West. They brought European culture back with them. Eventually, the so-called Oriental art was born. When we were growing up in Taiwan, we’d go out to sketch and paint landscapes just as the Impressionists would do. This is the kind of education that was passed down from the Japanese era. Even after the arrival of the Nationalist government, the teaching methodology in Japanese art education was maintained. I recall sketching and painting landscapes in elementary school. I also remember that in high school, my art teachers were Chen Hsing-wan and Zheng Ching-ming, both of whom were students of Li Chun-shan...


KKC: These were sketching sessions for elementary school pupils. Wasn’t that after the Japanese Occupation period?

LC: But some of the educational methods from the Japanese era were retained. On the other hand, the promotion of the so-called guohua system by the Nationalist government led to the rise of Chinese ink painting. Looking back at early years and my educational background, there were calligraphy lessons before I entered high school, and Chinese ink painting was introduced only after that. So it was around the time when I was in high school that two mainstreams appeared: one being Chinese painting and the other being Oriental art. To me, these two mainstreams were quite well balanced in the cultural system at that time.

Apart from these two mainstreams, there was a cultural movement called Native Culture that was gaining momentum in Taiwan. Some intellectuals felt that the native culture of Taiwan is closely linked to authentic Chinese culture. Given the political forces at work in those days, Native Culture could command greater authority. At that time, many cultural activities and exhibitions of a good standard were held. These included literature, dance, art and so forth. For example, Lin Hwai-min from Cloud Gate Dance Theatre infused his new form of dance art with the spiritual essence of life, as seen in his work, Pass the Flame. The wood sculptor Ju Ming and the native artist Hung Tung never entered the academy or went through the kind of education system that originated during the Japanese occupation period.

A few years later, it became increasingly common for Taiwanese students to study abroad. They acquired new trends of thinking in Western art. My high school teacher was such an example. He had gone to France for further studies after I graduated from high school. By the time I was about 30 years old, some of these overseas scholars began to return to Taiwan to teach in the universities. They brought with them Western modes of thinking and ideas which were eventually integrated with local culture. Post-modernism, pop culture, minimalism and so forth became catalysts that quickened the pace of growth of local culture. That was really quite exciting. However, in the face of such a phenomenon, one couldn’t help but worry, Are we able to absorb this avalanche of Western ideas that has swept through Taiwan?” To me, the process of fully assimilating one’s own culture and then employing the ideas and inspiration that come about from a deep understanding of the culture in art making may take a lifetime. It is not an easy undertaking indeed.


KKC: You loved art, and therefore decided to become an artist?

LC: I started drawing at eight years of age, but I don’t belong to an academic tradition. Art is my only interest and my passion for art started very early in life.


KKC: You pursued art on your own then?

LC: I took the initiative, as I was interested to learn and pursue art. In fact when I was in the first grade, I would always score full marks for art. In the second grade, I started playing with the brush and practicing calligraphy. Later on I abandoned the brush and picked up sketching. My schoolbag and books were full of drawings. When I was a kid, I loved to venture outdoors and watch how the clouds transform themselves in the countryside. I was also fascinated by the mottled patterns formed on the old and tattered walls in villages. They were simply amazing and really pretty. I can still remember them vividly till this day. Alas, I was doomed; I didn’t do well in my studies. I was always among the last few in class. But that did not dampen my passion for art. However my poor results became an issue again when I had to sit for the university entrance examination after graduating from high school. To get into the art academy in Taiwan, you needed to score 60 marks for academic subjects and 40 for specialized subjects. Apart from art, I was only good at Chinese and Geography. I couldn’t make the mark. I had absolutely no chance of getting into the art academy. When I realized this, I knew I had to work extra hard on my own to gain knowledge and improve myself.

Later on, I had the opportunity to learn figure sculpture from Hsieh Tong-liang, who was a graduate from the National Taiwan University of Arts. I began making a living by carving Buddhist sculptures for local temples. But as time went by, I felt that I knew very little about the subject, and what I did was not good enough. So I bought many books and began reading about Buddhism, religion and philosophy, and even ventured briefly into Taoism. At the same time, I visited museums to look at original Buddhist sculptures. The more I was exposed to them, the more deeply moved I became. I realized that my techniques were inferior to those of past masters. In this process of constantly improving myself and gaining new knowledge, I discovered great joy and fulfillment. And with the death of my father, I began to see the value of life in a new light. Over time, I changed the way I carve Buddhist sculptures. They didn’t resemble their original images anymore; they had acquired a new look. Spiritually speaking, they were getting closer to the ideal state I imagined, taking on a distinct identity that marked them as my very own creations. My works are obviously influenced by new ideas and thinking; the notion of freedom of artistic expressionhas the greatest impact on me. I feel that contemporary art can be respectable as long as new concepts, ideas and techniques of expression are offered. This is different from traditional art, which requires the practitioner to have a good foundation. For instance, it takes a long time to master ink painting and calligraphy and there is no guarantee that you’d become competent even after a lifetime of practice.


GML: When you were in senior high school, what was the artistic ambience like in Taiwan? What was the popular or dominant artistic trend at that time?

LC: I was about 15 to 18 years old at that time. Being a student, I didn’t really have a deep understanding of the situation then.


GML: Was there an influx of artists returning from abroad?

LC: Actually, many planned to go abroad for further studies. Among them were my junior and senior high school teachers, Chen Hsing-wan, Hwang Buh-ching and Li Jin-shiow, three of them were students of Li Chun-shan.


GML: Which decade was that?

KKC: Was that in the seventies or eighties?

LC: Let me recall. It should be in the eighties.


GML: When you were still a student, what influenced or impressed you the most in the art scene?

LC: Traditional painting and sculpture left the deepest impression on me. For instance, the oil paintings of Liao Chi-chun, Li Mei-shu, Li Shih-chiao and Yang San-lang, as well as sculptures by senior artist Chen Hsia-yu and Huang Tu-Shui.


GML: Those from the Japanese Occupation period.

LC: These works were often displayed in exhibitions.


GML: Is this native style something of the past?

LC: Yes, it’s something of the past now. In those days, I visited many exhibitions featuring the works of Li Chun-san and Chen Ting-shih. In particular, I would spend a lot of time looking at antiques. I am very fond of old objects, including Ming style furniture, folk art and temple carvings. In those days, Taiwan would also borrow artworks from overseas museums for exhibition. Among these were a show on Rodin’s works and a special exhibition at the Palace Museum entitled Lost Treasures Found Abroad. They were fascinating. And I always believe that you need to go after the source in order to discover true knowledge. So I went all the way to the Rodin Museum in France. Viewing the original works of art was indeed an amazing experience for me. I was extremely moved when actually saw the vivid power of life emanating from the sculptures, and could admire their texture and feel. While visiting the Louvre, I was once so engrossed with looking at the objects that I forgot about everything else. Eventually I had to be ushered out of the museum. My point is that it is a habit of mine to find the source of the subject that piques my curiosity. That was the reason why I went to admire the original works in museums and galleries, after my initial exposal to Buddhist sculptures. The real objects were right there before me, almost in an animated state.

In those days, there were many restrictions regarding how the physical features of traditional Buddhist sculptures should be depicted. Generally, no major changes were allowed. A few years later, I began to think of how to transform traditional Buddhist sculptures into free expressions of art that are at the same time infused with the Buddhist concept of “inner emptiness” as well as the Taoist notion of Qi energy. This explains why there is a sense of inflated energy in the works that I produced later on - heavy yet light.


KKC: You mentioned that the cultural framework of Modernism in Taiwan encompassed oriental art, national education, native literature, native art and so forth. Did you find a greater sense of personal identity in creating figurative sculpture instead? What is important to you is your pursuit of figurative art and Buddhist sculpture. Did your personal aesthetic exploration begin with a search for the origin or source of Buddhist spirituality?

LC: Actually, I had wanted to create works with human beings, the gods and the forces of nature as their subjects some ten years ago. Soul Guardians was something I wanted to do at that time.


KKC: Did Soul Guardians represent the beginning of a new stage?

LC: Although I wanted to do such work ten years ago, I didn’t spend much time or effort addressing human disasters and natural calamities. Apart from a few works that reflected social issues such as the Butterfly Kingdom, Puzzle, Travel Through Time and Space as well as Collective Consciousness, most of my works produced during that period were an expression of a state of isolation. My goal was to pursue my own spiritual happiness through art, as seen in works in the series of Energy of Emptiness and Spiritual Journey Through the Great Ether.


KKC: Are you then talking about religious art in a reclusive world?

LC: I feel that religious consciousness has its own existential value in this world.


KKC: A personal world?

LC: To me, a personal world pertains to the personal understanding of things. If something is deemed unworthy, then there is no reason for its existence. The reverse is also true. The many human and natural disasters that occurred in recent years forced humanity to confront the various aspects of human nature, such as human resilience, weaknesses and fear. You could see how frail human nature is, and how much people hunger for spiritual comfort, so much so that they begin to turn to religion as a source of strength. Why? Because for those who never had a close encounter with death or experienced true fear, or never had the most vulnerable part of their inner souls stabbed at, then they cannot truly experience the spiritual strength that can be harnessed from religion. Although one’s life is full of uncertainties, this spirituality is eternal. The human experience of spirituality can also be likened to the appreciation of art and music. You may not see the spirit of music, but it is there all the time. Whenever I listen to the Chinese composition, The Butterfly Lovers Concerto, or for that matter, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it is as if Beethoven is still alive and conducting the piece before me. Emotionally powerful music will always move me to tears. I really feel that we do need spiritual food in our lives, be it good music, classical plays or even objet d’art. We also need a good set of life values, and a sound religious and philosophical ethos to satiate our spiritual appetite. And you can’t deny its meaning just because you don’t need it yourself. Religious issues to me are personal issues and they pertain to the mind and soul.


JBD: In China of the 20th century, religion was not regarded as something associated with modernism.

GML: In fact, they do feel that there may be a certain link between religion and modernity.


JBD: What kinds of feelings and reactions does your work elicit in audiences in China, Li Chen? Does your work speak to something that is common to all people regardless of belief? It certainly speaks to the concerns of people in the West, but does it speak to audiences in a secular China?

LC: This is an interesting point. Recently those who have seen my exhibitions, including fellow colleagues, senior artists and scholars, have expressed a similar view about my works – that they “transcend boundaries.” If you ask me how this is so, honestly, I don’t know. I can only say that I am a “spiritualist”, and art making is my way of pursuing spiritual happiness. This is particularly so for me today, given the furious pace at which things happen in this information age and the transient nature of life in this fast-changing world. Humanity is certainly heading towards a time of spiritual poverty. Therefore I seek self-healing through creating art, and employ humorous and symbolic devices so as to reveal the inner mind and explore an inner consciousness that belongs to another dimension. This is a common thread that runs through my works, from Collective Consciousness to the most recent series, Soul Guardians.


KKC: Jo-Anne, it seems to me that modernism being antithetical to religion was very much the case in the West in the 20th century. Take Kandinsky and artists who were influenced by him, for instance. They tended to look upon religion and spirituality as being quite separate. Religion was deemed as something more formulaic while art could express spirituality, as well as the conceptual interest in theosophy. In the case of China, when Cai Yuan-pei spoke about aesthetics replacing religion during the early part of the 20th century, he was referring to religion in a manner similar to Kant who argued that spirituality could be attained through aesthetics. At around the same time, there was also interest in the West to look at Asian philosophy in a movement towards theosophy.

JBD: You are absolutely right in that there is a big difference between the notion of religion and spirituality in the West where there was, and to a large extent still is, a deep suspicion among intellectuals and artists with regarded to institutionalized religion. As of the late 19th century, there was a search for, and a profound longing for, a form of spirituality that could cross cultural boundaries. Theosophy is one such movement that had an impact on Western artists at the turn-of-the-last-century. I am not familiar with the majority of theoretical texts written by Chinese intellectuals at the beginning of the last century as you both are, but in those texts that I have read I have not observed a particular concern with spirituality in China. More recently I have read about a New Confucianism. But my understanding is that Confucianism is essentially based on a set of ethical, moral standards rather than on religious belief. In the West, on the other hand, the impact of Eastern philosophy and religion has been so fundamental, so profound, that it is now an integral part of Western society and thought, even if one does not share these beliefs. So when people from the West look at Li Chen’s work, they may share more common ground, or common concerns, with the artist than audiences in China where moral and ethical convictions presumably have higher value than spiritual belief. How do audiences in China react to the strong religious beliefs, and to the highly emotional spiritual forms in Li Chen’s work after a century of very different moral, ethical and political beliefs? I am very curious to know what you think.

GML: It is a very good question. Firstly, I think there is a difference between religion and spirituality in terms of the transformation of traditional religion into modern intellectual thought. From the time of the Renaissance, and during the French Enlightenment, there has been a transition from classical religion into modern spirituality. But I believe that if you look at Modernism there is definitely a certain kind of spirituality that is related to the individual.


JBD: Even in China?

GML: No, in the West. What Modernism represents to me is Truth, individualism, which you can find in Malevich or Kandinsky’s works. But in China, as you just mentioned, there is a very interesting phenomenon in the early 20th century in that you don’t find this kind of individualized religion. Artists and intellectuals of this period in China talked about an Oriental spirit in art, or a particular aesthetic, that can be traced back to the artists’ spirituality so that collective culture, art and intellectual thought are related to a form of elite art. When we look at art in 20th century China - later I will talk about the situation in Taiwan - elite culture and elite spirituality played a very important role in 20th century art history as well as today in contemporary Chinese art. The question is, very interestingly, how can we define this kind of Western influenced, individualized spirituality that was embedded in art? So this question immediately comes with the idea of Universalism, something that goes beyond, or crosses, the boundaries of nationalism, culture or history as it actually happened in the 1980s in China. In other words, in the 1980s, there is a form of the Modern, or Modernity, or Contemporary (whatever we wish to call it) which is associated with a form of Internationalism.


JBD: Professor Gao, don’t you think this happened sooner? When you just mentioned that this process started in the 1980s, I was reminded of a text by Lin Feng-mian in the 1920s in which he talked about the power and superiority of Chinese literati painting and argued that Chinese landscape painters enjoy more freedom of expression than Western artists who mechanically represented “the surface of nature.” He didn’t use the term spiritual but he did argue that the representation of landscape in Chinese painting was much freer. I interpreted this to mean that artists like Lin Feng-mian did not need the “individualism” of Western Modernism, as they already had this freedom. So, wasn’t what you describe taking place in the 1980s actually already present in the 1920s or 1930s in the discourse amongst Chinese artists? Do you think it really started only in the 80s, this crossing of boundaries?

GML: I think yes, it really started only in the 1980s. In the generation of Lin Feng-mian, there were philosophical discussions regarding the individual but when they talked about spirituality they basically focused on the marriage of western modern form and traditional aesthetics. Therefore, spirituality for Lin’s generation refers to literati aesthetic value. Individual expression is an aesthetic quality, rather than individualism in the social and spiritual sense.

In the 1980s, the notion of Spirit - as a concept, as a philosophy - became more abstract and reached the level of what we call the spiritual. The spiritual, or religion, should transcend material form, and the physical world. In the 1980s the question was raised as to how one could marry or integrate Eastern and Western philosophy. Many Western philosophical texts were translated into Chinese at this time, among others, classics by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Martin Heidegger1889-1976and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In other words, more artists at that time were thinking about philosophical issues. Moreover, spirituality in art for the artist of the 1980s means transcendence over any specific individual experience in daily life. Therefore, spirituality is something universal and transnational.

And with regard to Li Chen’s works: when I look at them, the question they immediately raise for me is the distinction between craft (the applied arts) and fine art, between low and high art. In the Chinese context, this means distinguishing between the craftsman and the literati painter. In China, there is a much stronger sense of opposition between the applied and fine arts. For example, because the graphic arts are considered the works of craftsmen, they were traditionally regarded as low art. This means that in contemporary Chinese art, the graphic arts are still regarded as low art. But in Taiwan, especially in the period after the 1970s, the situation is very different. Before the 1970s, art in Taiwan was dominated by the nationalist government. For this reason traditional Chinese ink painting was very strong in Taiwan. On the other hand, the visual arts in Taiwan were also strongly influenced by Western theory during the late 1950s and 1960s, as can be seen in the work of artists belonging to the Fifth Moon or May Art Society and the Ton-Fan Art Group. At this time conceptual art, which had been influenced by Dadaism, also emerged in Taiwan. This was followed in the 1970s by a movement in which artists sought their indigenous roots. Since the 1970s we find in Taiwanese art what can be called Nativist art. The work of Hung Tung (1920-1987) is very interesting in this regard.

When one looks at China, and especially at artists from Fujian province, there is a somewhat similar situation that is very difficult to define - forms of traditional craft or applied art that have similar characteristics.


JBD: In other words, there is a transition, a sliding back and forth between craft (the applied arts) and fine art, an easy discourse and passage between the two which is easier in Taiwan and Fujian than it is in Beijing?

GML: Exactly, easier than in Beijing which is an elite center that still dominates the Chinese contemporary art scene. But in Taiwan it is a different situation. While I was looking at Li Chen’s installation I thought of a number of other artists from Taiwan like Wu Mali (1957- ) for example. Even if she does installations there is still a certain local something in her works, something picked up from the world of craft, some sources as well from local religion, and from folk art, from folk culture. Being inspired by the low arts is not a problem for Taiwanese artists. But it is a problem for mainland artists.


JBD: In other words, if I follow your argument, in China (and especially Beijing) it is less problematic that Li Chen’s work has identifiable roots in formal religion, such as Buddhism, than the fact that his work passes easily between craft and fine art.

GML: There is something which goes even further, I think, than this question, an issue we mentioned earlier. What about the audience? How can Li Chen bring his art to the public in China? For example, ever since the 1980s, when art was addressing issues of spirituality, we find that traditional elite thought such as Chan Buddhism became a resource for Chinese Dadaism and Zen.


JBD: Zen, but doesn’t that refer specifically to Buddhism in Japan?

GML: Yes, Zen is the Japanese name but in this case I am referring to the incorporation of ancient Chinese Chan philosophy (the influence of ancient Chinese Chan thought) in the practices of specific artists’ groups in China in the 1980s, such as the Xiamen Dada. These artists wanted to bring spiritual resources to art rather than a specific style or form or path. Consequently it would become part of the mainstream of contemporary Chinese art.

But if you look at art from Taiwan, it is very rare that one finds this kind of intellectual approach to the spiritual and to philosophy. Taiwanese artists would first search for their roots, and then produce social-political installations that show distinct influences from Western art. The aesthetics of Taiwanese art emphasize a mixing of elements; low and high art are not divided as sharply, or as widely, as they are here in China.


JBD: Returning to the question of the audience: what do they feel, what do they experience, when they see Li Chen’s art?

GML: I was standing and watching the audience here at 798. A lot of people wanted to walk in the spaces; they liked the works very much indeed, because they are cute. This “cute” is very important for art, or for folk art, or for any applied art or craft. But that is in China. I don’t know how people would react in the West; I guess it would be similar. With this kind of feeling, people would want to touch the works, and take pictures of themselves with the figures. Many in the audience had wanted to do that. But what about the elite in the art world? How would critics, philosophers, or important contemporary artists react? How would they respond? There seems to be a boundary, a gap between elite art and the applied crafts in China throughout the entire 20th century.


JBD: I find it very interesting that you repeatedly come back to the issue of the distance between low and high art in China. I would have thought that the key issue with the work of Li Chen would have been the lack of familiarity of the general public in China with formal religion, and the fact that, for most people in the audience, there is no recognizable content in the figures of Li Chen. The majority of visitors probably wouldn’t know the function of a Bodhisattva, for example. Ironically, in both high and low culture in the West one is fairly well acquainted with Eastern philosophy and religion. This is as true for Western intellectuals as it is for Hippies and New Agers on their search for Enlightenment and self-discovery. I would say that many people in the West would be able to intuit the religious significance of Li Chen’s figures even if they are unaware of their specific iconography. Is that true for the general public in China? Or is access to the meaning and iconography of these figures extremely limited in a way that is not true, for example, in Taiwan and Singapore. But maybe I am wrong?

GML: No, this is not wrong. I thought about this tricky issue. Religion (or religious sculpture) has two different functions: firstly, as an aid to meditation for the priest or for a small circle of devotees who treat religion as a means to transform themselves and to enter a different world through meditation. But this is not the concern of the average person. For them religion is theater and a means to bring them to a happier world. This attitude is especially common in South Asia, in places like Singapore, Taiwan, Fujian and in other areas of Southern China. Li Chen just mentioned that a friend of his asked him to pray. It is a function of religion to save people. But for the intellectual elite it is most important that one is able to transform oneself spiritually rather than to be able to function in the reality of daily life. These are two different, and quite distinct, functions of religion. These distinctions are important in the case of Li Chen’s work. How do his figures function for his audience? Why does the public like his figures, and in what way?


JBD: That is why you mentioned the “cute”.

GML: Yes, the cute and the popular.

LC: It’s self-introspection… a world without sound.


GML: Basically the situation is this. When western audiences look at your works, they experience a religious impact on the spiritual level. What Jo-Anne wants to know is how do the audiences in China look at these works? Will they also experience the same religious feelings? The reason why I bring up this bit of difference just now is that I often visit Taiwan and know many Taiwanese artists well. During the fifties and sixties and not long after the arrival of the Kuomintang in Taiwan, traditional culture became a formal symbol of the country. At that time, the Fifth Moon Group and the Ton-Fan Art Group also came under Western influences. In the sixties, Taiwanese artists became influenced by Dadaism and some people called this kind of art syncretism.

LC: That’s right!


GML: In the fifties, the propensity toward westernization was extremely obvious among these artists. But very quickly, by the seventies, you see the rise of nativism, led by artists such as Cho Yeou-jui. In fact the works of Wu Mali and many other artists who returned from abroad display many native and folk cultural elements of Taiwan. As such, contemporary art in Taiwan is highly eclectic. But this is not the case for mainland China, where literati sentiments prevail. To the artist, Zen is an extremely meditative/esoteric and abstract concept. In fact, folk and popular cultural elements do not enjoy a lot of attention in the development of contemporary art in China. Your works will elicit different reactions from the audience here in Beijing. In this environment, obviously the visitors would take a great liking to your works and may even take photos of them and touch them. Why? Because your works are very cute. This cuteness is manifested not only in the folk cultural charm exuded by these works, but is apparent in their religious appeal too. But if we were to bring a group of avant-garde artists, art critics and scholars of elite cultures here, what sort of reactions would they have?

LC: They are bound to be different. Someone told me that these works reminded him of magical mirrors that can detect demons. You get different reactions from different viewers.


GML: Some of those with an elitist mindset may frown upon art making that comes from folk traditions.

LC: We may not know yet at this point in time, but we did get a lot of comments after the opening of the show. What sort of reaction would be seen when viewers are exposed to these works that combine tradition with the contemporary? I really don’t know. But let’s observe for ourselves how people will react during this period of time. It should be quite interesting.


KKC: What is the reception of these works? It comes from… more a clash of traditions. The question of reception is not easy. How are those representing elitist culture going to respond to this important issue?

GML: Yes, it’s not an easy question.


JBD: Another important issue is the notion of “sculpture” in China. You spoke about craft and the specific cultural situation in Taiwan and Fujian. However, in elite artistic circles in China traditional notions of sculpture have been radically transformed since the 1980s by artists. Isn’t that also one of the other key issues in terms of the reception of Li Chen’s work? Hasn’t the notion of what is sculpture been transformed in China?

GML: It is a good question. Tracing back throughout the 20th century the idea and concept of what sculpture is has been westernized. Traditional Chinese sculpture definitely has its own philosophy, tradition and values. Even its techniques are unique. There is a long tradition of Chinese sculpture. But again, this kind of sculpture usually stands in temples. Elite sculpture in China, I would say, is not religious; rather it is spiritual. I used to write about this topic. I like to say that traditional sculpture is a form of folk art. Once, however, it has been transferred to a contemporary context, there is always a boundary or a wall blocking it. In a Western sense, Li Chen has attempted to mediate between traditional sculpture and contemporary art. So how to merge these two? So far we haven’t found a way.


JBD: You don’t think so?

GML: No, Li Chen tried and was very successful but I think we still have to go further to discover a way to combine the traditional and the contemporary. Westerners look at these sculptures, perhaps, slightly differently from Chinese viewers who look at sculpture in terms of the differences to traditional sculpture because we are so familiar with traditional forms.


JBD: With Western audiences I think there is an element of exoticism, both New Age as well as intellectual exoticism. But I am also thinking of artists like Huang Yong-ping when you talk about the boundary between craft and sculpture. It seems to me that there are artists in China who have tested those boundaries. But perhaps if they have been living abroad this may also have affected them. Nevertheless, I would have thought that especially in the area of sculpture, even among those artists in China we would call elite, there would be a much greater openness to the fluidity between craft and high sculpture than perhaps in painting.


GML: You think they are already very successful?

JBD: No, I am not saying that they have necessarily, and always, been successful in navigating this passage between craft and high sculpture, but I am saying that it seems to me that is quite common that artists, even elite artists in China, have been working in this manner. For example, in the work of those artists who produce what we call installation art, these boundaries have all but disappeared. Perhaps I am interpreting this in a very simplistic, Western manner but I consider the three-dimensional objects in such installations to be sculptural; I consider the installation itself to be sculptural. I see artists crossing over into the popular culture, and – in an extremely risk-taking manner – transgressing the boundaries between craft and westernized notions of sculpture. And audiences have responded to that.


GML: Yes, I agree that some artists have been trying to merge folk art and so-called high art sculpture. On the other hand, I think we have to recognize that there is a difference between making sculptures and just bringing a certain “Chinese” image to the work.

JBD: You are setting a new, high standard here!


GML: Nowadays, sculptural installations often just use Chinese imagery, or Chinese elements, rather than merging aesthetics and philosophy in a deep and profound manner.

KKC: We may also be confronted by the so-called “Chinese elements” in the case of Li Chen’s sculptures as viewers may even read the images of Buddha and Bodhisattvas and even Wu Xing or the Five Elements as just oriental symbols.

JBD: I think you have raised an absolutely central point.

GML: This is also directly related to the question as to how one defines not just sculpture but also contemporary art. Of course, such art works develop and grow out of their Chinese background. But can you only use this background to define the art itself? This is a key question. 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, and indeed many different aspects. So it is necessary to do the same thing with art from China. One needs to find a way to define the art of China.

JBD: One of the thoughts that went through my mind as you were speaking came out of a discussion I had recently regarding Japanese mass culture and fine art. While I was at the Guangzhou Triennial with a friend from Japan we began talking about manga. For me, manga is not particularly interesting; I find it too close to “craft” in the sense you mentioned earlier. My friend explained to me that even for Japanese intellectuals, manga has a deep-seated meaning that enables it to be part of both mass and high culture. In the West, on the other hand, audiences, especially young audiences, just love it and see it as very “cute”. My friend explained that in Japan manga moves easily between high and low culture in the way you were describing art making in Taiwan and Fujian. She suggested that it is almost impossible for someone outside of Japanese society to understand this double identity of Manga.

In the West, one of the key figures who opposed the distinction between high and low art was William Hogarth (1697-1764). The founding of European Academies institutionalized such distinctions until a number of art movements in the 19th century opened up the discussion again, especially in Britain (the Arts and Crafts Movement), France (art nouveau) and above all in Germany when the notion of a Gesamtkunstwerk or Total Work of Art was introduced. These artists sought to integrate the visual arts, architecture, design, applied arts and even music in everyday life. So this is an ongoing discourse. The question is whether in China there will one day be a similar discourse, not just in Fujian but also in Beijing? Or will this separation between craft and everyday life, between the fine and applied arts, remain permanent.


GML: I think these categories are going to mix, and the situation is going to change. So it is a hope that the work of artists like Li Chen won’t just be cute in the future.

KKC: I agree with the difficulty and would like to add that it may be possible to look at Fujian, Taiwan, Singapore and other related art developments in Southeast Asia as having an art historical trajectory that may point to new perspectives in the way we pose the questions of aesthetic relationships and the demarcation of art and craft. I am thinking in particular the multicultural nexus of Xiamen and Singapore, represented by, for instance, the Straits Chinese and western educated Dr Lim Boon Keng (Lin Wen-qing) who was appointed president of Xiamen University, from 1921-1937 [Lim established a National Studies Institute that brought together famous scholars such as Lu Xun, Lin Yutang and the French sinologist Paul Demieville.] The cultural audience in this multicultural context was more layered than a monolithic cultural context. Similarly, when Xu Bei-hong came to Singapore and held a large exhibition in the late 1930s, his realism actually provided the convergence of social groups comprising Chinese, Indians, Europeans and others which represented a sphere of shared imagery and related intellectual discourse. The multicultural context for Asian art began early in the century and our discussion of cross-cultural readings and how art was defined relative to craft and traditions may have to begin with delineating a context and reception for Southeast Chinese art. Likewise, our reading of Li Chen’s sculptures and their reception may not be easily explained in the context of a relatively stable cultural background.


JBD: I would like to follow up on your point about realism. If Li Chen were to make his figures more abstract would they suddenly become more “respectable”? In the West at least, there is a suspicion that realism and naturalism cannot be intellectual, or only in the context of Critical Modernism. A question which keeps reoccurring in the West is whether realism and naturalism belong in an elite discourse? Does documentary-style realism fulfill a moral purpose and provide accessibility in its simplicity and truthfulness?

GML: But I think it is not necessary to avoid realism and to further only abstract art. At the moment I am working on an exhibition on this topic, and have just completed some writings on it as well. In fact, I have just curated an exhibition in Spain on the Yi School that focused on Chinese abstract art in the last thirty years [La Escuela Yi: treinta años de arte abstracto chino, CaixaForum Madrid, November 14, 2008 to February 16, 2009]. But Yi is something that comes from your mind, something beyond language, beyond concept and beyond likeness, which comes from traditional Chinese aesthetics. But as in the West, you have abstract art in China which is basically a representation of philosophy or a particular principle. And there is conceptual art which always question what art is. There is also traditional, conventional and representational art in China. These three must go extremely different, and extremely separate ways and must never come together. If they do come close they will die. They kiss, and just die. But this separation does not make any sense; there is no abstract, no concept and no likeness. They are always divided into three different categories. But in the 9th century AD there were art historians in China who wrote about these three different kinds of art. In these classical writings they already mentioned abstract art, conceptual art and representational art. Abstract art is a kind of religious icon according to tradition; conceptual art is calligraphy; and likeness is, of course, a certain kind of representational painting. These three never go separately, they always go close to one another, and overlap. The most important part is the area where they overlap. This is Yixing(意形), Yixiang(意象)and Yishi(意識). So, regarding Li Chen’s works, likeness is not a problem, but the most important thing is imagination and Yi that goes beyond likeness and concept, that goes beyond the abstract.

In the Record of Famous Painters of All the Dynasties, Zhang Yan-yuan said that there are three components in a pictorial composition: the divinatory symbol (as in imagery), calligraphy and painting. This shows that these three categories of art have already been discussed in Chinese art theory at that time. In other words, the three notions of abstraction, conception and realism in contemporary Western art were ideas already consolidated by Zhang Yan-yuan as far back as the Tang dynasty. Imagery, calligraphy and painting should be integrated as a whole, with Yi as the pivotal element. By Yi or idea/concept we mean something beyond description or semblance of form. So whether or not your art is realistically rendered is not an issue at all.

LC: Professor Gao, what you said moved me deeply. This is the kind of strength and vigour that I wanted to capture: “Out of emptiness the wind blows wildly, creating a sand storm (Wind God); out of nine pieces of charcoal come life and vigour (Fire God); the thunder reverberates in the air, its roar as deep as thousands of waves (Thunder God); the vanishing clouds purify heaven and earth (Rain God).” This is a state of things that can only be understood on a personal level.

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