Li Xiangqun’s Sculpture Creation Theory Author: Dao Zi

Li Xiangqun’s Sculpture Creation Theory
Dao Zi

Li Xiangqun is deserved to be called the most famous or most powerful contemporary Chinese sculptor. He can never be defined and limited by the title of "realism". Since 1990s, none of Li Xiangqun's sculptures totally belong to realism. Let’s analyze his representative works to have an overall and objective understanding of his artistic status.

For a long time, Li Xiangqun's name has been linked to "famous realistic sculptor" and "the most powerful realistic sculptor". It is easy for the professional and unprofessional to recogniz him easily with this title. Meanwhile, his title is also a limitation for his art. In the history of contemporary art, if there is still a so-called realistic art, is nothing but self-refuting. Since the Renaissance, in order to criticize the realist art, thus there is Dada surrealism. The painting directly copied from picture just like an advertisement is called “ART”. 

The Belgian painter Rene Magritte (1989-1967), whose paintings seem to belong to the same system as Dali's at first glance, painted images full of the philosophy of life. In fact they are not. He liked to use paintings to criticize paintings. For example, his "Euclid's Pavement" criticizes the fictional nature of perspective. The isosceles triangle of the sidewalk and the spire would have been identical if the background had been removed. But with the backing, they become two completely different objects. This undoubtedly shows that in the past, the visual art is deceiving vision. Another example is his "Perspective Painting, David's Lady Recamier", which undoubtfully is a simulation of David's famous painting "Lady Recamier". Some people might think that changing a person to a coffin in painting might be a great life philosophy. But in fact, Magritte is a bit mean here. He sneers at the woman painted by David in the past as dead. Because he thought the woman in the painting was very insubstantial. Thinking about this layer, it is easy to understand why he painted a big pipe and then wrote underneath "This is not a pipe.” Then what could be if it is not a pipe? And that is painting. This kind of critical, conceptual and daily nature of Magritte's work has become one of the resources of contemporary art.

With this angle, let's enter Li Xiangqun's sculpture world, and take a glimpse into his ideological mystery and artistic characteristics. Li Xiangqun is a famous and best contemporary Chinese sculptor. However, he can never be defined and limited by the title of "realism". Since 1990s, none of Li Xiangqun's sculptures totally belong to realism. Let’s analyze his representative works to have an overall and objective understanding of his artistic status.

Let’s start with his “Eternal Spinning” of 1993. It is a sports themed work. If we follow the traditional principle, the body proportions and physical features of the female discus thrower are far from realistic. The girl's body has a natural beauty with the lightness of flying. The raised neck, and gazing eyes, are all very enjoyable. The tilted arms keep balance. The strong, solid but sexy thighs along with the hips and even the firm breasts are all injecting a thunderous explosion of force for the discus to be thrown by the right hand. This moderate deformation brings force and beauty to the rhythm of the sculpture, cuts into the subject and transcends its limited nature. The partial use of figurative language is precisely used to realize the symbolic and subjective imagination. Thus, it completely breaks the traditional realism. The spiritual power of man and the eternal operation of the universe are in synchronic relationship. The spinning of the body expresses the longing for the eternal life which echoes the sportsmanship. It only took 11 days to create this “Eternal Spining". It was then sent to the "Third National Sports Art Exhibition". International Olympic Games President Samaranch highly evaluated it and was moved by the subtle and timeless symbolic meaning of the work. Ultimately, it won the highest prize of the exhibition, the Grand Prize, and was collected by the Olympic Museum. In 1994, Li Xiangqun won the second National Urban Sculpture Award and the 8th National Art Exhibition Award. In 1997, at the Fourth National Sports Exhibition, his sculpture "Relayer" won the first prize, which attracted Samaranch again and was collected by him. In expression, "Relayers" and "Eternal Spinning" have a figurative and expressive exploration. The former highlights the athletic charm of the female beauty in motion, while the latter assigns the female body to an eternal cosmic order.

Portrait creations marked the second turning point for Li Xiangqun. In May 2006, he completed the creation of the sculpture head "Shanxiu", which expressed another kind of classical and contemporary female beauty. Classical is describes spiritually elegance, beauty and softness, while the contemporary is sketches simple and vivid images of a girl in real life. The girl has a rounded face, slanted eyes, and a quiet and thoughtful look.  This makes her look like a "familiar stranger", as well as an “ordinary Chinese woman” at the same time. it won an award in the British International Portrait Sculpture Exhibition. This is the first time an Asian artist has won this award. “Shanxiu" moved the jury. They thought, "In both shaping and temperament, the sculpture accurately expressed the unique characteristic of Oriental women. It is very touching."  From the stylistic power shown in “Shanxiu”, we can tell Li Xiangqun based the work on realism but transformed it. He used figurative forms but transcended it. All his methods can be interpreted into organic creations of individual subjectivity, which is interesting, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects.  This makes him a great sculpture artist.

Today, sculpting statues for historical greats and celebrities tests every first-class sculptor. Not only the aesthetic value theory, but the historical perspective, historical knowledge and historical talent of the creative subject is strictly tested. Contemporary thinker Gu Jun asserted that Chinese history is history made by the "historiographer culture". According to the postmodern view of history, history as knowledge is neither definite nor objective. In the end there is only the relative knowledge created by contemporary thought and politics. Although the production of "meta-narratives" originated from the scientific revolution, further development of science has cast doubt on its validity.  This is especially true on political implications, and even science cannot be immune from the value infection. Li Xiangqun's portrait sculptures of historical figures have post-modern historical cognitive significance because he uses an artistic way to make the historical figures not as “high and mighty” as before. This does not only leave the narrative meaning of phenomenological reduction. Even so, narrative is not the only way of expression.  One can also use description, interpretation, and imagination. The purpose of learning about history and leaders is to understand the truth and to pursue the truth. But what is the truth? Where can we find the truth? Do history and the leaders belong to the real past or are they the "myths" of today? In this regard, Li Xiangqun has his own set of concepts and methods. He believes that "to sculpt a great man or a famous person, we must first enter his mind." In his words, he has to "direct" himself as this person, to put himself in their places. Mao Zedong's sculptures have constituted a unique iconography of modern Chinese art history. From the head of Mao Zedong created by Wang Zhaowen during the Yan'an period to the "Red Sun" formed during the "Cultural Revolution", and even today’s commercialization of Pop Mao's statues, Mao Zedong’s sculptures constitute a super museum. The history of portrait art shows that the more historical figures are defined by official history, the more difficult it is to create them. With his understanding of Mao Zedong, Li Xiangqun chose to try form a brand-new cutting point. Thus, “The Red Star Shines in China” was born.

“The Red Star Shines in China” is the title of a book written by the American journalist Snow. He used a documentary/biographical style and revolutionary idealism to represent the deeds of Mao Zedong after the Red Army's Long March to Yan'an. The image of the man with an octagonal hat that once evoked Westerners about the revolutionary imagination of the intellectual left. Li Xiangqun's image of Mao is based on that image, which is only an index of a historical figure. He borrows the common name and makes it “unfamiliar” during the reinvention. Not from a social or political point of view, but instead emphasized the individual's physicality and temperament. Li Xiangqun emphasized the truth, especially from the psychological point of view, to shows Mao's special psychological state. He chooses Mao's contemplative and melancholic expression, focusing on the moments that could express the characteristics, in order to reflect the real psychological state. Emphasizing the inner truth of the character is the most important thing. You might see a subconscious world, or a medical record, an emperor or a prisoner.  His portrait of Mao and the series of portraits of historical figures are very different from the popularization and symbolization in contemporary art, which is in the depth of the psychological depiction of the characters. During the creation period, he spared no effort in fieldwork. He has gone to Shanxi Province, trying to find Mao's footprints. In addition, the reading and study of Mao's biographies in China and abroad have also strengthened the psychological authenticity of the work. Without the perception and pursuit of historical truth, there will never be a strict historical view and historical knowledge. Only by knowing Mao will one knowing the fate of modern Chinese history.

The creation and evaluation of portraits of historical figures is the benchmark of truth, which has been a standard since ancient times. Art is the expression of general things. Or it is the expression of the "truth" of history and life. But what is the "truth"? The "truth" emphasized by the eighteenth-century neoclassicists was the universal, eternal truth. It belongs to philosophy or metaphysics in knowledge type. Take the truth established on this basis as the benchmark. One could uncover universal truth. We can say that the more philosophical it is, the more valuable it will be. Conversely, the less philosophical the less value it will have. After the middle of the nineteenth century, the situation changed. Truth became reality. Socialists, who started from society, believed that works of art should reveal the truth of a particular society. This "truth" became "reality". Thus, the socialist principle of truth tells us that only when the nation has the courage to reevaluate a series of historical figures will we live in the light of truthful socialist reality. Li Xiangqun's series of portrait sculptures of historical figures have escaped the single function of political propaganda and transformed the tradition of national forms since the 1930s. The making of sculpture the art of sculpture, which is the result of artistic talent, is the responsibility of the artist. This can also be evidenced in the monumental statue of Deng Xiaoping. Deng's portrait shows a calm, serene, and simple civilian character. Deng was made as pragmatic and in a realistic statesman style. It was placed in his hometown of Guang'an, Sichuan. It is in the right place and represents the will of God and the will of people. The real image of Deng in many works of the same subject is difficult to express. That is because the realistic mode of so-called socialist realism locked the minds of some artists from seeking truth. 

One can see that Li Xiangqun's sculptures have a wide range of subjects. The Museum of Modern Literature has "Thawing" in its collection, the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts and the International Olympic Museum both have "Eternal Spinning" in their collections. As early as 1989, the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts collected Li’s "Take the Fire of Prometheus". The Guangzhou Art Museum has "Melting" in its collection, and the Changchun Museum of Contemporary Art has "Floating". There are many others. However, the key works which enter his third turning point is undoubtedly the statue “Piling Clouds, Piling Snow”. It is necessary for us to analyze the formal techniques and to explore the factors that generate its artistic style.

Li Xiangqun has always been unusually sensitive to sculptural materials. From the use of cloth, wire, and plaster in the early works, to bronze in his later works.  They form an inherent continuous form. This intention is already shown in the early work "Spring Smile". You can find earthenware-like gray-brown tone and a coarse graininess on the work. A series of works in the late 1990s emphasizes the production and contrast of different textures of the same material. In "Thaw" and "Melt", the strain between the smooth and delicate human body and the rough cloth texture can be clearly found.  It produces an effect that exists not only on the visual level, but also with physical tangibility. The exploration of materials and their visual and tactile effects, as well as giving ideas and connotations, have always occupied a very important place in his works.

Taking the fabric texture for example, the interest in this visual symbol has always been inherited in his work. What is distinctive is that these textures are neither the traditional sculptural patterns and decorations that surround three-dimensional entities and are centered on a complete structure. Nor are they ready-made fabrics that have been appropriated from contemporary sculptural conventions and are of directly conceptual in nature. They are simply a piece of cloth "copied" from other materials. In fact, they derive from the artist's consistent pursuit of heterogeneous forms among the constituent parts of the work, and from the exploration of concepts related to modern sculpture. These works are not satisfied with the visual completeness of traditional sculptural recesses, projections, intervals, fractures, penetrations, completeness and three-dimensionality. The triviality of the fabric crepe inevitably blocks the view and causes the viewing surface to diminish and become flatter. However, such shaping will produce an unexpected feeling. The human body is smooth, complete and solemn, while the cloth is rough, undulating, fragmented and disorganized.  They both set each other off and repel each other in opposition. There is a certain homogeneous tension between concreteness and abstraction. But their presence does not only create a sense of visuality and tactile sensation beyond, but also upholds the notion of "original" and "creation". The recurrence of "cloth" made of oil clay, silicone rubber and other materials, as shown in "Melting", "Floating-2", "Floating-3" and "Parasitic". You can take a cloth from anywhere without coloring. Like the montage of non-spacetime in film, the direct appropriation and combination produces living objects in installation art.  Also, the legal composition of existing materials and templates in computer graphics production, uses "combination" and "assembly" as "creation". As with Jamison’s expression, it is necessary to go to Plato's cave, to focus only on the interior and not to look farther out into the world. But this is an authentic and original piece of "cloth".  By the imitation of a replaceable material object with a heterogeneous material, inquires a logic of the "internal cycle”.

In his work "Parasitic" of 2005, Li Xiangqun began to experiment with the practice of directly turning the human body with silicone rubber and then assembling it for display. The creation of direct turning of the human body with materials such as silicone, polyethylene, plaster, and resin began with the Pop Art trend prevalent in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. This kind of experiment is aiming to eliminate the exploration of pure form and abstract ideas in art. In this process, we see sculptors such as Siegel's aversion to the use of raw materials for sculpting and his praise for the visual fidelity created by the "technique free" direct turning. In this respect, artistic creation using this material reproduction has a highly similar logic to that of photography. It uses reproduction to obtain an almost identical message directly from the object. From an ephemeral perspective, the use of soft materials also bears a strong resemblance to photography. In early photography containing "spiritual light" was inappropriately transformed into a record of historical information in family portraits, and soft sculpture was soon relegated to living room and bedroom decoration. Perhaps this is what the original soft materials that Pop artists were hoping for and cheering from at the beginning. But soon they buried it because for visual realism and simplicity of reproduction. The hyper-realistic sculptures reproduced with silicone have thus become the isolated objects watched by the audience.

However, it is not sufficient to understand Li Xiangqun's work in this way. This is because in works such as “Parasitic”, the artist focuses more on the nature of the material itself and the conceptual connotations conveyed by uniqueness. In this sense, Li Xiangqun is more of a "classical" sculptor with allegory nature. His use of soft materials and his interpretation of meanings are distinct from Pop's work, which makes extensive use of these materials. For example, Oldenburg, an early user of soft materials, tends to position these materials in terms of their ready availability, comprehensibility for the masses, and the heterogeneity of soft leather in contrast to the shiny, hard archetypes of the "toilet". The female artists have often focused more on the conceptualized cultural implication of "softness", which is the visual flexibility of the material and the identity of these properties with feminine products. Li Xiangqun's mastery of materials in "Parasite" continues his sensitivity to the material, and through the formal experiment on soft materials, he has tried his best to reveal the meaning of silicone rubber both inside and outside

Moreover, the conceptual nature of the medium itself is not presented individualy but is clarified in the structural connection of "material characteristics - visual symbols - display forms". In the process of displaying a work, if the plexiglas above and the steel plate below do not work together to fix the human body in the middle, it produces a squeezing effect.  the human body would definitely slide down from the inclined slope. Here, the three are interdependent on each other to maintain their relative stability and existence. Objects are "parasitic" within the whole through the metaphor of interrelationship. The flexibility of the material, the critique of imitation and the reproduction of specific scenes are also placed in this dependent relationship. The soft body is in between the hard materials, full of unpredictability. Any move or touch and even changes in temperature and time may change it temporarily from its relatively stable state of existence. In the turning process, the rubber silicone preserves the reality of certain "historical moments" of the model. And in the exhibition, the retention of this "historical moment" (turning process), the temporary balance full of unknown, and the inevitable future variation (display process) are in strong conflict. The fluidity of time and space and the unpredictable force of the outside rescue this human body from the rigid record of historical visual information of pop art and hyper-realism and give it an open and unknown prospect. In this way, the "human being" established in the environment, becomes a temporary, controlled being that can be shaped into other forms at any time in this microworld.

 The human body is clamped in between the hard and cold "earth" and the transparent but real "firmament". As a temporary being, it loses the eulogium as sublime and eternal. Yet as a marble body on a pedestal, and depending on the support, it is squeezed by other things to obtain the true and temporary existence of itself in a specific time and space. And the recording of ambiguous historical information changes into a memorialization of the past. The sculptor retains the moment of shaping the human body and throws him into the changing of time. In dealing with the relationship between the human body and the fabric pattern, and the relationship between the human body and the hard plywood reveal the tension of contradiction and conflict of the artist. If anything is inevitable, it must be that there is no necessary law among all things. If it must be an explanation of what is the essence of things, it might be the eternal truth of temporary and uncertainty.

The above close reading analysis of media materials was mainly done with the assistace of young critic Sheng Wei. Through Li Xiangqun's well-trained discovery and representation of media materials, we can see that he boldly deforms and decorates specific objects, or modestly combines local features of different objects. He also incorporates objects into abstraction programs to make them deviate from their original appearance. The abstract and figurative elements contained in the artistic image are in relative harmony, making it difficult to divide them simply.

Let us continue our discussion with Li Xiangqun's third turning point. "Piling Clouds, Piling of Snow," We deemed it as a masterpiece, basing on its special aesthetic value. In the previous image of Cixi, people used to think that she was an iron-fisted empress with a bloody history. The autocracy, decadence, dumbness and disability of the late Qing Dynasty were all tied up in this woman. However, the image of Cixi sitting in front of us now is a shocking nude woman. She has a delicate and clean torso, with high breasts and tight abdomen, which is aggressive yet fascinating. Together with her half-hanging half-folded legs, she constitutes a full erotic tease. But when the viewers have eye contact with her, they suddenly stop their desire under her solemn and strict expression. The statue's clothing pattern is completely abstracted, but not as a meaningless symbol. It is an intuitive expression that reinforces and highlights Cixi's sensuality and arrogance. “Piling Clouds, Piling Snow” are metaphorical puns. The author has the explanation of, "clouds can cover the sky and snow can cover the ground. When Cixi was in power, she was like clouds and snow. But when the clouds lifted and the snow melted, her essence is revealed as the same body as an ordinary woman." Perhaps everything is empty, leaving only history. Through this statue is of a "Youthful Empress", Li Xiangqun reveals his historical view and historical talent. The historical view is the author's opinion. Different authors have different perspectives and interpretations in the face of the same historical material, thus drawing different conclusions. Historical talent refers to the author's skills. Different authors have different talents and skills, and will get different results based on the same subject. As a woman, Cixi's personal life was tragic. God gave her a beautiful face and body, but made her and her loved ones forever in the distance under imperial power. Given her supreme authority, she still lost her husband in youth and her son in middle age. Even the ordinary happiness of family life became an illusion. Her later years were spent like a fugitive both in physical and mental aspects, until the end of her almost fifty years of absolute rule over China. The understanding of Cixi's fate requires such proper historical knowledge and discovering her essence requires an exceptional historical talent. 

There are few credible biographies of Cixi's private life to read. However, Princess Qing Deling, who saw Cixi's naked body with her own eyes, once wrote " A Story of Cixi" (translated by Qin Shouhe, March 2007 edition of Culture and Arts Publishing House). It is indeed a documentary work reflecting Cixi's private life in great detail. It is narrating the journey of this mysterious woman's love life and paints a colorful picture of court life. Chapter 38, "The Jade Body" is a very realistic record of Cixi's bathing process. When Deling first saw "her jade body", she was very surprised.  The female writer thought that an old woman's body "must not have any flesh, and all that can be seen must be a heavy dried-up withered skin. “I didn't know that the Empress 's body was definitely not like that! Her body turned out to be very beautiful, neither too fat nor too skinny with a surprisingly tender flesh color, flawless and perfect.” This kind of body could only be reflected on by a twenty-year-old girl, seeing an old lady's body in the moment, and still being able to describe her as a miracle! I couldn't help to think that if the Empress's face was more youthful, with such a white and delicate body, she could be the most beautiful woman in the palace.” 

The unique perspective and personal experience of a woman writer converge on Li Xiangqun’s historical intuition. The wondrousness of this confluence is equally striking, since Li Xiangqun had never read “A Story of Cixi".

The traditional Chinese male-centered culture has set standards for women's inner being. Restrained and reserved in speech and manner and yet subtle and gentle in thought and emotion. Elegant and deep in character but still chaste and virtuous in conduct. This reflects the soft, virtuous, tolerant and submissive side of women. In domination and dependence between the two sexes, women are defined as weak, dependent and an object of desire. While men are defined as strong, governed and subjects of desire. Traditional Chinese paintings of women, for example, present a very different style from traditional European nudes, but are also the product of a dualization gender distinction model and power structure. The difference is that the traditional Chinese paintings of women mask the objectification of the female body as a projection of desire by traditional rituals. The mind-body dualism of the Confucian discourse was intended to serve the purpose of its feudal political "mastery structure". 

In relationships between male and female; human beings and nature; headworker and the laborer; and human beings and animals, are all relations between mind and body. The former is rational, conscious and therefore valuable and purposeful. While the latter is inferior and therefore valueless and unvaluable. So that the former must dominate and subjugate the latter. Modern rationalism, on the other hand, pits materialism against spiritualism, and ultimately leads to the transitional phenomenon between soul and body, i.e., love, sex, and sexual desire. Its paradoxical logic is predictable. The more the body loses its significance as a transitional and expressive sphere of the soul, the more the spiritual quest becomes abstract and fleshless spiritualism. The more love becomes sexual, the more it becomes materialistic and carnal. 

Therefore, the ultimate development of contemporary female nude expression to the nude representation of the "youthful empress" is the inevitable result of the development of art history. From Cixi's "political body" back to the "natural body" was a great breakthrough in body art, implying a break with gender identity patterns and male-centered cultural domination in the field of art. First, in the presentation of women's real bodies in the artistic way of viewing breaks the false veil of traditional Confucian rituals and achieves the expulsion of secrecy. Second, the reverie of the idealized body (feminine, soft, etc.) as a projection of desire is shattered. Third, the homogenization of the female body and its stereotyped image (voluptuous, delicate and elegant etc.) is broken, and the individualized body of difference is presented. Fourth, the identification of the female body will also inspire the identity of female subjectivity. 

From more than ten years sculptural experience of Li Xiangqun, he has received a systematic and strict education in classical sculptural art, precise anatomy, rigorous teaching training, and a solid foundation in sketching, which has laid a solid foundation for his creation and teaching. He organically integrates sensibility, rationality and spirituality into his figurative-expressive sculptures. His artistic practice dissolves the crux of the artist's personality which is neglected and lacking in the teaching of figurative sculpture. One of the outstanding features of his sculptures is that on the premise of inheriting the tradition, he keeps a firm grasp on the pulse of the times and does not enter into the streams of various genres.  Nor does he go against them. He is always trying to reveal a distinctive artistic style with outstanding individuality on a deeper level. The figurative form under the effect of visualization can be transformed into abstract form under the effect of human thinking. Also, the abstract form or style of art can often be traced back to its figurative vein or its inner structure. Therefore, in Li Xiangqun's sculpture teaching system, there is never an absolute dichotomy between them because there are at least semi-figurative or semi-abstract forms and even expressive forms between them. 

Artistic images in figurative works of art are recognizable. Greek sculpture, modern realism, and modern hyper-realism are seen as typical of this type of art because their images closely resemble natural objects. Modern Abstract, and Modern Representational art as a whole is a rebellion against the European tradition of simulating and reproducing nature, and it has had a wide impact on the development of modern and contemporary art. In the 20th century it converged with the Chinese realistic-expressive tradition and constituted an important methodology of contemporary art. Whether teaching or creating sculpture, Li Xiangqun emphasizes a holistic openness to the possibilities of social life and art, overcoming the metaphysical logic of any dichotomy. This is because figurative art also contains abstract elements. Likewise, many abstract artworks contain images that have varying degrees of connection to natural objects and contain figurative elements.

We look forward to Li Xiangqun's new turning point in the future, for the history of contemporary art and people who love sculpture.

Between spring and summer of 2008, at Tsinghua.