Giants with a light touch

Updated: 2013-11-24 07:44

By Mariella Radaelli (China Daily)

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A Paris exhibition proves Li Chen is emerging on the global scene as a leading sculptor, Mariella Radaelli reports.

The 12 huge bronze sculptures on show at the Place Vendome in central Paris have received enthusiastic public approval.

Viewers, it seems, can sense the "monumental levity" of these impressive works, which the Chinese artist Li Chen produced from 1998 to 2010. They are materially heavy, yet visually light. Levity, quiescence and comfort are words that are automatically associated with Li's works.

The Paris exhibition has raised awareness of Li's art. This outdoor event, his second solo show in Europe after the 2007 Venice Biennale, will tour other European cities next year. Bordeaux's Place de la Bourse will be the next venue, while several German and Italian cities are also planning to stage the show.

Li's art is the singular result of the power of solitude. The sculptor lives in Shanghai, but often retreats to the stillness of the Chinese mountains.

"And I also have my studio in Shanghai, but I rarely go outside," he says. "I enjoy time on my own, taking a walk in the mountains or drinking tea ... I have chosen to spend my life in solitude. My quest is to find a spiritual space through my work, a space of one's own."

His Paris exhibition conveys the impression that Li brings a transcendental perspective to the mundane.

"I have a simple life and not many friends," he says. "Therefore, a certain aspect of my life is alienated from society. But it is impossible to separate myself completely from reality. My art is to do with intimate, personal thoughts and feelings."

Profound meanings creep into his works, as if they have a mind of their own.

"As The Butterfly Lovers in the East and Romeo and Juliet in the West are fictional stories meant to mirror human emotions and desires, not to tell a true story. The purpose of my work is to connect with viewers on a spiritual level through shared emotions," Li says.

When you look at Li's sculptures from a distance, they appear light, almost insubstantial, although the material used to make them couldn't be more solid: bronze, traditionally the king of sculptural materials. But how is Li able to infuse his giant works with this sense of levity?

"Black is a heavy color, but when we close our eyes during meditation, it becomes light and empty," he says. "Therefore, I modify them structurally to create a kind of visual effect of monumental levity by incorporating black material with abstract energy - qi."

He enjoys every second of the creative process, "as if I were flying, yet not in the sense of drifting away, but in terms of pure transcendental enjoyment".

Li is familiar with numerous art forms, and is especially fond of primitive art.

"But most of my techniques were inherited from the Eastern tradition," he says. "And even though I spent seven years struggling between tradition and individual expression, it is Eastern culture that stands beside the cradle of my art."

Li believes art teaches us reverence for life and understanding of its value and meaning.

"I'm not sure whether my work can produce any real meaning or value, but it contains subtle messages. For example, in Floating Heavenly Palace I pose the question: What are you seeking? I don't give an answer. My purpose is solely to pose the question. I hope the viewers can relate a piece of themselves to my sculptures."

Li's art talks to anyone, to ordinary people. "Yes, this is part of my purpose," he says.

Li started drawing at 7 years of age and sculpting when he was 17.

"I explore physical strength through this art form. The possibilities and imagination involved are both unlimited and unrestrained. That is why I chose sculpture as my personal language."

The more than 9-meter-high Floating Heavenly Palace took Li almost a year from bone structure, clay model and casting to final assembly.

Li says that during this process he goes into a sort of trance.

"When I am creating the prototype, I forget about time, and even to eat. Everything around me seems vague, as if I do not exist. Only the movement of my hands and the sculpture in front of me are distinct."

Looking at the bigger picture, Li believes the creative boom in contemporary Chinese art is no flash in the pan.

"Chinese contemporary art has just begun, and new emerging concepts and lifestyles are being incorporated into our cultural tradition. China must be proud of its thousands of years of cultural heritage, which is stimulating the vitality and diversity of the contemporary art scene."

Li is pleased that Parisians have enjoyed his exhibition. "Most Europeans said they saw the monumental levity. That is certainly the greatest encouragement," he says.

Li believes that art can be therapeutic. "Yes, art can heal," he says. "When an artist suffers, he is healed through his creating. On the other hand, when an artist is joyful, viewers can experience that joy, too."

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 Giants with a light touch

Li Chen says he is pleased at the response to his exhibition of 12 huge bronze sculptures at the Place Vendome in central Paris. Photos Provided to China Daily

Giants with a light touch

(China Daily 11/24/2013 page4)