Li Chen's New Works and the Spiritual in Art

                                                                                                                                 Kwok Kian Chow    

First of all, the title of this roundtable, "On the Spiritual in Art: Is There a Place for the Transcendental in Contemporary Sculpture?" recalls Wassily Kandinsky's "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" (1910), and indeed Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker has done a critical contemporary take on the subject and further extended it to include the influence of theosophy and Eastern philosophy on Kandinsky's ideas, and Kandinsky's misreading of the latter. I have learnt a great deal from Danzker's presentation and will relate to her points in my presentation.

As a point of entry into the theme of "transcendental," I wish to quote the Platform Sutra (Tanjing 坛经) by Huineng 慧能 (638-713 CE), the sixth and most influential patriarch, or the fountainhead of Chan Buddhism:
The Kingdom of Buddha is in this world, within which enlightenment is to be sought; To seek enlightenment by separating from this world is as absurd as to search for a rabbit's horn; Right views are called ‘transcendental;' Erroneous views are called ‘worldly.'

Huineng goes on:

All Buddha ksetras (lands) are as void as space. Intrinsically our transcendental nature is void and not a single dharma can be attained. It is the same with the Essence of Mind, which is a state of ‘Absolute Void.

The void, on the other hand, does not equate vacuity:

When you hear me talk about the Void, do not at once fall into the idea of vacuity (because this involves the heresy of the doctrine of annihilation). It is of the utmost importance that we should not fall into this idea, because when a man sits quietly and keeps his mind blank he will abide in a state of ‘Voidness of Indifference.'

Let us bear the above in mind and now look at Li Chen's works. The challenge of Li Chen's earlier works (appropriately entitled "beauty and energy of emptiness" and "spiritual journey through the great ether") was to look for what may seemingly be the contradiction between physical volume and, using the very mass to capture the opposite, the lightness or volume-less of the sumptuous figures of buddhas and bodhisattvas; Hence, a tension between materiality and immateriality. It is the iconography, pose, scale to pedestals, smoothness of finish ("the blessed robes are at one with the Buddha's unobstructed self"), roundedness and even youthfulness of the figures that helped suggest the experience of the volume-less, notwithstanding the heavy sculptural form.

Seeing these tensions in the Chan philosophical context, they are about the void that is not the vacuity, and the right balance of what is intrinsic and what is transcendental, which must come into a synthesis in the viewer's mind. In fact, "tension" is not quite the right description of the kind of push and-pull tussles in Li Chen sculptures, as they look completely serene and resolved, only because they stimulate the mental processes in the viewer of an animated movement between mass and void.

"Spirituality," on the other hand, I think, can describe the site in which such a reading is taking place, that is, in the mind of the viewer. Let me quote Huineng again:

The Wisdom of Enlightenment (Bodhiprajna) is inherent in every one of us. It is because of the delusion under which our mind works that we fail to realize it ourselves, and that we have to seek the advice and the guidance of enlightened ones before we can know our own Essence of Mind.

To know our mind is to obtain liberation. Bodhi is immanent in our Essence of Mind, An attempt to look for it elsewhere is erroneous... Within our impure mind the pure one is to be found.

Let me now return to Kandinsky, who also noted that "all works of art created by truthful minds without regard for the work's conventional exterior remain genuine for all times." Kandinsky, on the other hand, had great faith in materiality, provided that the artistic articulation of which comes directly from the mind, or the "inner truth," which, as pointed out by Danzker, pointed the artist's reference to a new era of theosophical universalism, one that signaled a new moment of what Kandinsky called the "spiritual turning-point." The use of elements of painting, such as in "the harmony of colours," was for the purpose of "touching the human soul," as Kandinsky put it. Kandinsky further explained that such expressions were based on the "principle of internal necessity."[2]

I believe there is quite a parallel, in the ‘spiritual' and the ‘transcendental,' in the sense of the inner vision and the intuitive basis of knowledge, in both Kandinsky and Li Chen. However, in terms of the artworks, we are looking at what is often regarded as the polarity of abstraction and figuration. Let me first deal with this point by referencing Gao Minglu, before returning to Danzker's point about Kandinsky's misinterpretation of Eastern aesthetics and philosophy. We have also been reminded by T. K. Sabapathy, chair of this forum, that mis-reading can be positive and productive, as in the ample examples of Asian artists, mis-reading of  Western aesthetic concepts.

Gao Minglu's Yi Pai theory, as presented earlier, is most helpful in explaining the non-contradictory relation between abstraction and figuration, in the general embracement of synthesis rather than fragmentation, through the explication of li 理"principle," shi识 "concept," and xing 形 "likeness," as cited from the 9th century art critical text by Zhang Yanyuan.[3] Other sets of triadic relations invoked by Gao included abstraction, conception and representation, and Martin Heidegger's da-sein (existence), zu-sein (to be) and zeug (equipment). [4]Heidegger further developed Edmund Husserl's phenomenology which centred on consciousness as a first person experience to one that considered the structural features of both the subject and object of experience, or a relational experience between an individual and the world. Yi to Gao suggested the kind of relations that may be drawn in these triadic sets, with each element dependent on the other elements in the set, and not to be fragmented.

Yi Pai, or the Yi approach, in my understanding of Gao, then, is a method of art creation and appreciation. It is in the in-between or relational spaces, that art as an expression may invoke an experience of the world. This art should not represent anything that may be pinned down in terms of concepts, narratives, emotions or any form of representation, even the Greenburgian notion of ‘autonomy,' which was also a representation of an ideal. The Western art categories of abstraction, conception and representation, on the other hand, look at these as separate categories and set them in an evolutionary scheme of figurative, abstract and conceptual art. These categories further ‘represent' human reality, concept, logic, social commentary, etc. Now, in consideration of Yi Pai, we can say that Li Chen's works are neither figurative, nor abstract, nor conceptual, but a synthesis of all these elements, which must further form a triadic relation.

In a discussion the presenters had with T. K. Sabapathy yesterday, Sabapathy mentioned Ananda Coomaraswamy, whose eminent book "The Transformation of Nature in Art" of 1934, was an early attempt to relate theories of art in India, China and, interestingly, medieval Europe, triggered my memory that the concept of "yi," in fact, had a Buddhist source. Coomaraswamy wrote of sadrsya, which he translated as "similitude," and further explained that:

It is in fact obvious that the likeness between anything and any representation of it cannot be a likeness of nature, but must be analogical or exemplary, or both of these. What the representation imitates is the idea or species of the thing, by which it is known intellectually, rather than the substance of the thing as it is perceived by the senses.[5] 

Coomaraswamy further explained:

Sadrsya, "visual correspondence," (note: Coomaraswamy used a different translation here), has nevertheless been commonly misinterpreted as having to do with two appearances, that of the work of art and that of the model. It refers, actually, to a quality wholly self-contained within the work of art itself, a correspondence of mental and sensational factors in the work.[6]

This comes very close to Yi.

Gao explained that li 理"principle," shi识 "concept," and xing 形 "likeness" also referred to hexagrams, statements or text, and image as set out in The Book of Change, which was compiled in the first century BCE. Gao quoted The Book of Change that the purpose of the hexagrams was for the provision of the "fullness of what is true and false in a situation" 设卦以尽情伪.[7] 

Let me just park this phrase aside and come back to Li Chen for now. Li Chen's sculptures, we discussed, work on the tension between form and formlessness, mass and volumelessness, and the attainment of the ‘mind' through the dynamics that force one to apprehend the work as the erasure of polarities like void and mass so as to be ‘non-characteristic,' and evincing ‘non-thought,' or a desire to veer away from representation by the very figurative means. As Li Chen has said himself, in his speech during the opening ceremony at this museum on Thursday evening, that the purpose of his art , was to "turn presence into absence" 化有为无.

New issues arise as we look at Li Chen's new works - the Soul Guardians series -, first launched in Beijing in 2008 which is represented here by Lord of Fire and Lord of Wind on Bras Basah Road across from the Singapore Art Museum and the Five Elements at the front lawn of the National Museum, suggests a new turn in the artist's work. In Soul Guardian, the artist takes on a greater reference to societal presence, beyond the ‘spirituality' of the earlier works. This is a new direction with a sense of calamities, troubles and disasters, whether natural or as a result of cultural and political clashes looming large at this point in time;, the one immediately preceding the Singapore exhibition is the disaster of the Typhoon Morakot that hit Taiwan in early August.

The Five Elements in the series, is a hexagramic presentation that comprises abstraction, conception and representation, and referencing the Book of Change. The introduction of fantastic if not furious creatures into the Five Elements installation adds to the societal reference of the work and also  draws a link with the figurative Soul Guardians. We see the different permutations of li "principle" (especially in the case of Five Elements), shi "concept," and xing "likeness" (on Li Chen's figurative elements) in Li Chen's sculptures and may look at the implications of the permutations over a period of time. It is, then, appropriate to look at Li Chen's works with our appreciation of them guided by Yi Pai. The artist spoke of the Five Elements as a "synthesis" 整合 of his artistic journey in the last two decades. At this point, let me bring back Gao's quote that the hexagrams were for the purpose of the provision of the "fullness of what is true and false in a situation," which enhances also the conceptual basis of Li Chen's work.

Now, Kandinsky. Please allow me to do the convenient thing of stating my agreement with Danzker in Kandinsky's misreading of Eastern aesthetics and philosophy by invoking Gao's critique of the dependency of Western art on representation. As Danzker said, the convictions espoused by Kandinsky and those artists who had been swayed by theosophical beliefs that "the spirit of the future could only be realized in the feeling and intuition of the individual, and the only road to this feeling was ‘the talent of the artist.;'" What was the misreading part here was the belief that abstraction, not withstanding the heroic discovery which marked a complete new turn in Western art history, was indeed the representation of the future.

Before I end, just a quick note on the word ‘contemporary' in the title of this forum; The fact that Li Chen's formative years in art did not occur in art schools but  through the apprenticeship of in traditional and religious art and craft, brings forth new challenges in the current interest in diachronic analysis of art historical development, in tangent with the propagation of a postmodern pluralism generally devoid of historical continuity. In reading the iconography and sculptural manifestation in the Soul Guardians series, how do the works engage in a contemporary aesthetic forum without being read merely as representations of cultural symbols and icons? There is something deeply powerful about Li Chen's work that should not be read as being culturally specific, yet its inspiration has to be located in historical continuity.


[1] A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam, trans., "On the High Seat of ‘the Treasure of the Law: The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng',"  All subsequent citations are based on Price and Wong, trans.  For an alternative translation, see The Buddhist Text Translation Society, The Sixth Patriarch's Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, The Sino-American Buddhist Association, San Francisco, 1977 (primary translation: Bhikshuni Heng Yin, editor: Upasaka Kuo Chou Rounds).  There exist six historical versions of the Platform Sutra.  For recent scholarship on the sutra, see Yang Yuanxing 杨源兴ed., Chan-he zhisheng 禅和之声, the conference publication of the 2008 Guangdong Chan Sixth Patriarch Cultural Festival, Beijing: Zongjiao wenhua chubanshe 宗教文化出版社, 2009. 

[2] Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds, Art in Theory 1900 - 1990, p 94. 

[3] Gao Minglu 高名潞, Yi Pai: A Synthetic Theory Against Representation 意派论:一个颠覆再现的理论, Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009, pp 39-47. 

[4] Gao Minglu, Ibid., pp 154-162. 

[5] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art, New York: Dover Publications, 1956 (original publication by Harvard University Press, 1934), p 13. 

[6] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Ibid., p 13. 

[7] Gao Minglu, Ibid., p 51.     

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