In Search of Spiritual Space



The 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 unpredictable nature.


Ian Findlay


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.

"The first 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."

Li's tentative 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 malevolent world.

"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.



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