Li Chen’s “New” Buddhist Sculpture

Can one become like a newborn child by controlling Qi? - chapter 10 ‘Lao Tzu’



Chia Chi Jason Wang


Buddhism attained new popularity in Taiwan in the 1990s, a development that indicated the huge potential of Buddhist art, with the continued enthusiasm for ancient Buddhist artifacts on the antiques market being one influential factor. At the same time, the rapid increase in the number of Buddhist faithful and financial backers, and the establishment of Buddhist shrines and temples across Taiwan also provided a huge display arena for such art.

One key question is whether contemporary Buddhist art in Taiwan has been able to take advantage of the increased popularity of Buddhism and if an artistic genre, with approximately 2,000 years of history, has been able to present art lovers with a more modern style and aesthetic? For contemporary artists who attach great importance to innovation and showcasing their own ideas, this is an extremely important issue.

Buddhist art faces the issue of orthodox religious heritage and as with all religious art, artistic expression touches on long established image traditions and ritual worship, so the expressive space available is often limited. However, if such traditions are used to curtail debate, new development possibilities are excluded and upholding tradition becomes the sole focus of the genre.

Over time, even religion needs to be sensitive to the changing world in which it exists and adapt accordingly so as to remain relevant to the needs of society and people in a given era. In this context, one of the best ways for religion to keep up with the times is in the area of doctrinal interpretation. As such interpretations seek to be more inclusive they also invariably create new possibilities for the imagery of religious art.

However, the breadth of interpretative space allowed by religious art images and the degree to which artists are allowed to freely manipulate them is also influenced by the extent to which the power of doctrinal interpretation has been democratized. If the power structure of a religion is strongly traditional, concentrated and conservative, an artist can only influence, guide and interpret the representations of religious art if he or she is a member of the upper echelons of the religious establishment. In contrast, if the artist is a member of the pious faithful or an outsider, representations of religious imagery based on personal interpretation are far less likely to be accepted.

In addition to granting more people the right to interpret doctrine, it is also true that the artistic cultivation, taste and attitude of the leaders of a religion art is of crucial importance with regard the development of contemporary religious art. Looked at differently, the development and representations of religious art in a specific era is a testament to the nature of art in other periods because it makes it possible to showcase the contributions made in this era. Moreover, the timeliness of artistic presentations is not only influenced by the will and imagination of the leadership of a religion, but also a product of contemporary social forms, group consciousness, cultural differences, regional artistic traditions, the aesthetic taste of sponsors and even the understanding of individual artists.

Although the newfound popularity of Buddhism in Taiwan in the 1990s came on the back of economy prosperity and wealth, there were no major changes in modern Taiwanese Buddhist art. Although some painters sought to build on the existing traditional of ink painting or focus on Buddhist painting, with the exception of the traditional craftsmen of the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist traditions who continued to sculpt Buddhist idols, very few modern sculptors chose to focus on Buddhist sculptures or Buddhist-themed work. In addition, even when they have made use of traditional Buddhist images and stylistic language, most have done so for their own creative and aesthetic needs rather than to nurture the Buddhist faith or enrich Buddhist art. As such, the Buddhist idols to which most Buddhist places are consecrated or the sculpted works in Buddhist materials primarily adhere to pre-existing styles. In recent years, as cross strait exchanges have increased research into Buddhist art in China has taken off, with the publication of numerous catalogues of Buddhist classics and artistic artifacts, and a large number of ancient Chinese Buddhist statues and sculptures entering the antiques market. However, the influence of such developments on Buddhist sculpture in Taiwan has mostly been limited to imitations of ancient styles and adherence to convention. The style of Buddhist statues from the Six Dynasties (220-589) to the Tang (618-907) and Song dynasties (960-1279) has not only been well received and widely loved by the Buddhist faithful and art lovers for hundreds of years, many Buddhist sculptors have also competed for recognition and glory based on their ability to replicate that style.

It is in this era that young sculptor Li Chen (born in 1963) began to refer to his own work as “New Buddhist” or “Modern Buddhist.” As a Buddhist himself Li decided to create “new” and “modern” Buddhist images, which clearly pointed to a certain level of dissatisfaction with contemporary Buddhist art in Taiwan. Invariably, when “new” is compared to “old” or “modern” to “traditional,” a declaration in favour of something that differs from what came before signifies a certain self awareness of one’s identify and the era in which one lives.

An examination of Li Chen’s relatively short creative history shows that from 1992 to 1996 his inspiration and formal style came mainly from Buddhist sculptures in the Chinese tradition, especially the Tang and Song dynasties. In other words, this can be characterized as a period of study as Li slowly developed his own inimical style. Traditional Chinese Buddhist sculptures had followed the same rules passed on for generations with a particular focus on painting the Buddha’s face, with the body shape and posture of the statue or sculpture limited to existing canonical images, with fixed standing and sitting positions, hand gestures, clothing accessories, hair styles, with a particular emphasis on a frontal view. The Buddhist sculpture produced by Li Chen in this period seem to have mainly referenced the Tang and Song dynasties and blended those two styles together. In addition to focusing on a frontal view of the work, Li’s works were also imbued with a distinctive round and fulsome feel. Moreover, by about 1996 Li had already introduced clear changes in terms of the posture and even clothing accessories depicted in his Buddhist sculptures. For example, whereas traditional Buddhist sculpture emphasizes tassled garments and the creases of clothes, Li Chen simplified such expressions and in some cases even eliminated clothing altogether, creating an extremely simple and unadorned style. In this sense, the simplification of posture in Li’s Buddhist sculptures ensured that viewers focused on the body of the sculpture.

Since 1998, Li Chen has further developed his “new” Buddhist sculpture. When painting the Buddha’s face he has also moved away from the aesthetics of the Tang and Song dynasties, returning to a creative norm that emphasizes “to get source inward from heart”. In other words, Li has focused more on his own understanding of Buddhist spirit and doctrine which has become an integral part of his own aesthetic and self confidence, gradually creating a Buddhist sculpture aesthetic that is uniquely his own. As to the representation of the posture of Buddha statues, Li has expanded his simplistic and unadorned style, infusing it with a concrete and powerful energy. In terms of the expansion and fullness of the energy in his works, the bodies of Li’s sculptures in this period have been fuller and rounder, and even appeared a little distorted. These fuller, distorted statues showcase the artist’s own distinctive stylistic language.

The Buddhist sculptures of Li Chen highlight a minimalist aesthetic that approximates to worldly detachment. However, despite such detachment and minimalism they are still replete with unstoppable qi or energy, and as a result although the work is emotionally introverted, it also demonstrates the effects of qi and energy expanded to bursting point. Moreover, in more recent works such as Shambala and Avalokitesvara Li clearly seeks to take Buddha and Shakyamoni back to something resembling the image of an infant or a child. In this sense, such work is infused with the “newborn child” philosophical ideals and aesthetics of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu as seen in chapter 55 of Lao Tzu.

The otherworldly facial features of the Buddha images combined with a physical posture brimming with qi ensures that Li Chen’s Buddha or Shakyamoni sculptures appear both heavy and light. In terms of a stylistic analogy, this aesthetic character goes beyond the style of the Tang and Song dynasties and is actually closer to the mystery and charm of Buddha sculptures from the Six Dynasties period.

Li Chen’s more recent works tend to emphasize the lack of a fixed form in Buddha sculptures, a viewpoint that appears to reflect the way in which the democratization of wider society has forced Buddhism to address the issue of democratizing doctrinal interpretation. In fact, the spread of contemporary Buddhism in Taiwan has itself been highly diverse and democratic in nature. For example, many wise and charismatic Buddhist masters have proved adept at attracting followers and established their own schools and temples. Even more Masters have utilized everyday language to present Buddhist teachings, which have been delivered in countless volumes of top selling “Quotations.” Lay preachers and members of the literati have even established their own ideas or schools on the basis of their own philosophies, practice and responses to the teachings of Buddhism or Zen Buddhism, adopting more eclectic viewpoints in the pursuit of transcendence. At the end of the 20th Century, not only did Buddhism find new popularity in Taiwan, but competing schools of Buddhist teaching flourished side by side. The diversity in modern Buddhist doctrine and declarations and even its division into different groups has certainly promoted an atmosphere that has facilitated the democratization of Buddhist sculpture.

Moreover, in terms of the art world traditional Buddhist sculpture is a professional vocation, to which end craftsmen produce practical handicraft pieces. On the one hand this involves satisfying the demands of sponsors on the other the fact that so many artisans are the product of an apprenticeship system means they have a tendency to adhere to tradition. Although there is a strict set or rules when it comes to Buddha images and a model that does not allow for any departure from set customs, such works must still be accepted by believers, financial supporters or sponsors. In other words, traditional craftsmen have not been able to produce works based on their own desires and preferences. However, after “modern art” became popular greater emphasis was placed on pure creativity and artists with little or no interest in practicality gradually became the mainstream. This created new opportunities and possibilities in the practice of Buddhist sculpture. With innovation as their main focus modern sculptors and sculptor-craftsmen with traditional training, formed two diametrically opposed camps and effectively followed completely different approaches.

The infusion of modern art ideas resulted in a new expressive approach to contemporary Buddhist art in Taiwan. However, for Li Chen who uses such words as “new” and “modern” to describe his art, sculpting Buddha images clearly involves walking a fine line between tradition and innovation, because these traditions have existed for centuries, come with deep roots and are embraced by most Buddhist altars, temples and believers. As soon as an artist decides to take a more freely creative approach or moves in the direction of pure art, the question asked is whether “new” or “modern” Buddhist sculpture can meet the needs of the ceremonial forms of worship at Buddhist altars and temples, while retaining the support and acceptance of those in the higher echelons of the religion and the broader ranks of the faithful.

Ultimately, although the Buddhist sculpture artists identify with personally might represents a rare creative path and one that is richly artistic, without the universal acceptance and support of Buddhist circles, such work is destined to be consigned to the periphery of the religion or worse. As to whether Li Chen’s new Buddhist sculpture is able to find a middle way between these two paths that satisfies the aesthetic demands of contemporary art circles and is accepted by the religious world remains to be seen, though this is a direction worth pursuing. Despite this, the key issue is perhaps whether those within Buddhist circles are willing to embrace growth, dialogue and communication over aesthetic taste, artistic understanding and value, as well accepting greater flexibility in doctrinal and image interpretation, and thereby map out a new consensus.

Other than being a member of the faithful and continuing to produce sculptures, Li Chen has also learned a great deal from traditional Buddhist art images and language, much of which inspires his non Buddhist sculptures. In 1999, Li completed Butterfly Kingdom, which was an extremely powerful and full work. This piece made use of a “Mahakala” type image which is most often seen in Tibetan Buddhism, but which the artist changed to fit his own needs. Although the Mahakala originally has three faces and six arms, Li Chen transformed it into a figure with a single face and 12 arms. At the same time, the originally fierce face of the Mahakala disappeared and the outline of the face was deliberately obfuscated, which reduced the proportions and made them less distinct. In this context, Li took the Mahakala, which was originally infused with male qualities, and deliberately depicted its body using the softness and curves of the female form. After this change in shape, the 12 arms no longer displayed Buddhist hand gestures or held religious utensils, but instead expressed a series of common hand signals used in every day life, designed to indicate amusement, anger, curses and the expression of good wishes. This transformed the sacred hand gestures of Buddhism into comical and satirical images that are even a little obscene. In addition, as the artist named this image Butterfly Kingdom it is clearly a direct allusion to Taiwan. The sight of 12 arms outstretched creates a shape that is reminiscent of a butterfly with its wings spread, an image that is bursting with the imaginative power of Li Chen. Given that Taiwan often refers to itself as the “Butterfly Kingdom” the artist’s deliberate effort to connect the images showcases a new focus that is rich in amusement and appeal. These new images are towering, round, full of qi and the energy of self confidence. The image with 12 hands each making a different gesture also represents the diversity of voices and ideas. Viewers can see that the most refined and crudest gestures exist side by side, a reflection of the complexity diversity, confusion, disputation and vitality of contemporary Taiwanese society. Li Chen’s Butterfly Kingdom is simple, rich, filled with towering human emotion, showcasing both childlike innocence and ironic mockery, making it one of his most moving and outstanding pieces.

Within the self assumed terms of “new” and “modern” Buddhist sculpture, Li Chen has mapped out a distinctive and successful path for his majestic Buddhist sculptures.





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