In Search of
Taiwanese sculptor Li Chen seeks to make art that has a spiritual space fixed
within its powerful physical presence. By bringing the spiritual and the
sculptural together in his figurative and narrative work Li hopes that the
philosophical nature of his work will enrich people’s lives. While his art is
of a deeply serious nature, his fusion of traditional Buddhist styles and
contemporary ideas has resulted in work that is both humorous and full of
irreverent wisdom, as well as brimming with the vitality of life and its
The history of modern
Taiwan sculpture is a turbulent one. Throughout the 20th century, Taiwan
underwent some of the most complex political, social, economic, and cultural changes
experienced by any part of Asia. The most significant to impact the life of the
Taiwanese were the colonization of Taiwan by Japan (1895-1943) and the arrival
of the Nationalist government and its forces in 1947, and the subsequent leadership
of the Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975). Both of these experiences shaped modern Taiwan's
artistic development profoundly, drawing as it did from influences that spanned
both Japanese and Chinese traditions, many of which remain important the minds
of many Taiwanese artists and cultural traditionalists. Yet, while traditional
Chinese ink painting styles and modern Western-influenced oil painting flourished,
sculpture struggled to obtain the same recognition and to be viewed as an
integral part of Taiwan's modern and contemporary fine art canon. Over the past
20 years, however, the international success of such sculptors as the late Yu
Yu Yang (Yang Ying-Feng, (1926-1997), Ju Ming (b.l938), and Li Chen (b.1963),
each representing very different generations and fresh personal visions, has
cast a new light on Taiwan sculpture. While Yu Yu Yang's sculpture blended
Western ideas with Chinese myths and aesthetics, Ju Ming has used the intricate
movements of Taichi to address cultural difference and power. Li Chen, however,
has breathed a new dynamic into traditional Buddhist sculpture. He has taken it
beyond the merely religiously significant and onto a human, personal level in
which ordinary people can recognize important parts of themselves.
The traditional view of
sculpture in China was that it was mere craft or a folk art form whose
practitioners made functional items of a decorative nature, as well as
producing animal carvings, gods and Buddha figures, for temples, and relief
work for architectural projects. But with the arrival of the Japanese,
sculptural practices changed dramatically and those interested in sculpture as
an art form could receive such education in Japan. The first generation of
Taiwanese sculptors among them Chen Hsia Yu, Huang Tu-Shiu, and Pu Teng-Sheng
-- learned not only about Japanese sculpture, but also about modern European
sculpture through their Japanese teachers. With the tyranny and chaos of World
War II ended, Taiwan sculpture was dominated by political concerns resulting in
numerous statues of Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-Sen. and Confucius. It was only through
religious sculpture that local culture could be expressed. But from the
mid-1970s onwards, the Taiwanese sculptural world changed utterly: partly
through a significant shift in art education and the opportunities for
international art education and the opening up of Taiwan to the world; and
partly due to the growth of a gallery and museum system hungry to develop and
to promote contemporary Taiwan art in its broadest sense. Besides these, sculptors
were no longer confined to traditional materials such as stone, marble, wood,
and bronze but were also using a broad range of both natural and synthetic materials
to express themselves.
Li Chen began his career,
basically self-taught but filled with the determination to make his mark as a
sculptor. "I wanted to be a painter initially." he says. "But
for me it was just two dimensional. If I was making sculpture, there were more
possibilities for me to express my vision of my experience and the world around
me. I wanted to sculpt because I could touch it and hold it. Sculpture has the
power of reality that painting doesn't have."
Li Chen, who was born in
1963 in Yunlin, Taiwan, majored in arts and crafts at high school and began to
learn about modern sculpture under the guidance Hsieh Tong-liang at the
beginning of the 1980s. For Li, however, it was not the multiplicity of
contemporary sculptural forms that attracted him. Instead it was traditional Buddhist
figurative sculpture that held his interest. His experiences in making
traditional Buddhist icons was, in essence, his real apprenticeship as a
sculptor, giving him a thorough grounding in the making of religious figures
and the discipline of working with materials.
As Li says of this time
of change, "I made some traditional Buddhist icons because it was my work
for about half a year in a factory. When I worked as an assistant later with a
sculptor, after my national service in the army, I began to make sculpture,
Buddhist pieces, successfully. But as I considered my work as craft, not art, I
wouldn't sign it.
"When I started to
make my own work, I still worked with traditional Buddhist sculpture. But the
style that began to evolve was not one made to intentionally attract people. It
was one that represented my own spirit. By 1992, I began to feel the need to
create something that was different from the traditional. And I made only one
piece a year until 1997. My early works weren't really developed because, after
all, the traditional is a burden. It is not easy to break away from tradition.
Tradition is safe.
difficulty for me 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."
beginnings, determined to break from the embrace of craft and traditional
religious Buddhist art and the formality of its structures and visual impact,
resulted in his first truly independent work entitled Water Moon Avalokitesvara(1992). This was quickly followed by other
bronze Avalokitesvara, each showing
subtle figurative developments, but still within the traditional canon of Buddhist
figurative sculpture and highly detailed. Water
Moon Avalokitesvara initiated a breakthrough in Li's art would result over
time in such outstanding series as The
Beauty of Emptiness (1992-1996), Energy of Emptiness (l998-1999), The Transformation of Emptiness - Boundary Within Boundary(2000), Delights of Ordinary People (2001), and Spiritual Journey through The Great Ether(2001-2003).
Such series not only show Li's development as a confident figurative sculptor
with a concern for a singular human dimension in its monumentality, but also
his willingness to challenge people's perceptions of religious art and its role
in their lives. His beautifully still Amitaba
Buddha (1998) and his daringly plump, monumental bronze Avalokitesvara(1999) are examples of
Li's humanizing religious sculpture. Throughout the 1990s, one sees greater
simplification in Li's figures, almost minimalist in their structural details,
and a new attention to surface textures.
While Li is aware that he,
as a devout Buddhist, remains intellectually attracted to the aesthetics and
traditions of Chinese Buddhist art "especially that of the Tang and Song
dynasties," his direction, since achieving his artistic independence in
the late 1980s, has been to make a modern version of Buddhist iconography that
speaks directly and simply to the world today without sacrificing the
spirituality of it.
The formal connections
that elegantly bind tradition and modernity are quite clear in Li's work of the
1990s. This is clearly evident in such pieces as Three Bodies of Buddha (1998) and Buddha of Healing (1998) where the meditative reality of the figure
is clearly that of traditional iconography, but the volume, form, and texture
suggest a more modern dynamic. And there is a sense of a spiritual freedom in
such works. As Li Chen says, "When I make my own work, I try to bring to
it a free spirit".
By the turn of the new
millennium, however, we see the most significant changes and the real freeing up
in Li's art, vision, and sculptural techniques. He has retained tradition at
the core of his art but there is a new minimalist dynamic at work. Here he has
added new sense of vigor, a more humorous element, and sense of playfulness that
humanizes his art on a different level than before. His sculpture from the late-1990s
is ever more approachable than just that of a decade before as he comes to grips
with a greater expressive freedom. As Li told the arts writer Priya Malhotra in
New York in 2003, he likes "to be playful and fun. People might see my
work with a smile on their faces. Viewers interpret my work in different ways
and see different things in it."
Seeing things differently
does not, of course, come easily in any society. For Li, in conservative Taiwan
society, his studies of Buddhism and Taoism have been important influences on
how he views the world, his philosophy, and how he leads his life. But other,
deeply important influences are the primitive and the ancient. As Li Chen says,
"The primitive energizes and excites me. It is about the 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."
One of many people's
immediate first impressions of Li Chen's sculpture, however, is not of either
the ancient or primitive, but that it is somehow related physically and spiritually
to the arts of Henry Moore and Fernando Botero. Li does admire the work of
these artists but his vision is very much his own. His inspiration comes
entirely from his own daily cultural roots. Botero's art is rooted to the
ground powerfully physical, and of earthly reality. Li's sculptures, however,
monumental and robust, possess a unique nature that is inclusive of the human
and the spiritual. As Li told
Malhotra in 2003,
"In the Tang dynasty, the Buddhist sculptures were round and complete.
Instead of being empty, they were full. To me, the fatness of my sculptures
means tolerance and diversity. They are big and include all human beings. They
are filled with the abundance of the world."
Works such as Landscape in Heaven (2001), Wisdom Bodhisattva (2001), Fulfillment Bodhisattva (2001), suggest
contentment with both the temporal and the spiritual worlds. And while their sense
of enormous physical presence, like that found in such works as Pure Land (1998), Avalokitesvara (1999), and Dragon
Riding Bodhisattva (2001) may be overwhelming to the eye, their reality
suggests abundance. But in the making of such pieces Li Chen he is more
motivated by the spiritual element that he wishes to see in his arts. "When
I do my work, I am trying not to think about the physical reality of it or the
structure and the material. If I focus on this, then I won't achieve the
spiritual or the spirit of the work," he says. “When I am working on a sculpture,
I really want to enjoy it. When I am enjoying my work, I want the people who
are looking at it to enjoy that experience, too. I am just like a musician who
is inspired. Then, others will also be inspired. I feel that the making of my
own work can bring people to a spiritual state where they are aware of joy or
happiness, which is what I felt when I made them. I think that there is a kind
of love and warmth in my work."
In Li's smaller works,
but with no less a sense of the monumental experience, this "love and
warmth" is enhanced by a dream-like, almost surreal, nature. But there is
also a sense of emptiness, even of aloneness. With his characteristic flowing, fluid
lines that embrace the fullness of his figures there is an engaging humor and an
earthiness present that does not detract from the seriousness with which the approaches
Buddhism. Yet, while works such as Puzzle (2000), Cloud Glider (2000), Landscape in Heaven (2001), Meditation (2002), Clear Soul (2002), The Cloud
in the Buddha (2002), Float to Sukhavati (2002) and Cloud Mountains (2003) are
clearly influenced by Buddhist sculpture, they can be viewed as purely secular
figures also. But these works not only exemplify these characteristics but also
Li's sculptural techniques, his attention to detail and materials, as well as
his skilful combination of surface textures.
In Cloud Glider, Landscape in
Heaven, Meditation, Clear Soul (see Cover), and Cloud Mountains Li combines smooth and
rough surfaces, as well as adding gold and silver color for emphasis. The
juxtaposition of his dark bronze and gold lends a feeling of solidity to his
work, anchoring it to the ground. The silver foil, however, applied very
carefully by hand, suggests the idea of floating, the ethereal, spiritual world
where clouds transport one freely to heaven or nirvana. Here in these works there
is also a greater sense of spiritual and emotional liberation, as if one's life
is but a dream. The use of silver was a very conscious decision by Li. "I
decided to use silver to give another sense of space and a contrast between fullness
and emptiness, the silver represents the emptiness. I think this is clear in
works like Clear Soul and Float to Sukhavati," says Li.
"I had thought of using stainless steel or white bronze but these give a
cold feeling. Silver is applied after the work is finished and polished and it is
applied by hand so there is a natural texture. Sometimes, though, the
juxtaposition of the silver and the black is not always successful."
For all the seeming spontaneity
in Li Chen's art he prepares thoroughly for each work, both mentally and
physically through drawing and sketching. It is at this time, too, that he is
also thinking of the material process that the sculpture will go through to its
completion. "I sketch but the spiritual journey changes things. The
changes will be made in the sketches and not directly on the work," he says.
"I almost always
sketch because when I have an idea I need the sketch as a guide, a connection
between the idea, and the final physical work and the spiritual element within
it. You see, I am making the sculpture first two dimensionally. I'm also very
sure about the work in my mind. For me, when the sketch is finished, the
sculpture is kind of half done. After sketching I make a model in wood, then I
put clay around it, then fashion the image.
There is a clear sense of
a childlike innocence and a curious timeless wisdom to be found in Li Chen's
art. If sculpture reinforces our own humanity, then Li's work certainly does
this in full, with a sense of humor, a limitless energy, and a generosity of
spirit that Western-influenced, hard-edged metal sculpture work does not
possess. Li's vigorous embrace of the best qualities of Buddhism allows us to
smile at ourselves and to see the wisdom of seeking peace in a turbulent and
"I am not making
sculpture. I am creating happiness, something to be enjoyed and it is not about
money," says Li. "I'm trying to be in a spiritual space in my work.
And I hope that the spiritual and art come together. I hope often that in seeing
my work people will see the spiritual element in it and receive it for
themselves. One implication of my work is philosophical and I hope that each piece
enriches people's lives."
1.All quotes from Li Chen are from conversations with the author.
2.See Li Chen's "New" Buddhist Sculpture by Chia Chi Jason Wang, Li Chen 1992-2002 Sculpture. Asia Art Center. Taipei. 2004: p.27.
3.See Sculpture At Peace by Priya Malhotra, World Sculpture News, Vol.8 No.4 Autumn 2003, Hong Kong, p. 43.
4.ibid., p 42.