Li Xiangqun: The Social Responsibility of Artists Author: Liu Miao Miao/《Outlook 》News Weekly reporter

"There are a lot of contemporary art works that cater to the West. To get rid of this unnaturalness, our works need the national cultural connotations to reflect the knowledge we perceive."

Stepping into the garden of Jianfu Palace of the National Palace Museum, the statues of Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan, Wu Zhen and Wang Meng, who are the "The Four Great Masters of Yuan Dynasty", are displayed in different positions. Forged from white steel and shining in the sun, the statues contrast and echo with the classical garden. They are legacy pieces of the Qing Palace collection, but are donations from the contemporary sculpture artist Li Xiangqun.

On the day of the donation ceremony, the President of the Palace Museum, Shan Jixiang said, "The contemporary art works accepted by the Palace Museum must be from famous, virtuous and talented artists at home and even internationally." Li Xiangqun's status is further cemented as a renowned sculptor.

As one of the leading figures in Chinese contemporary sculpture, Li Xiangqun has submitted several bills as a deputy to the National People's Congress. His efforts have led to the complete protection of the 798 Art District and the emergence of Chinese contemporary art. As the newly promoted president of the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts, he is attempting to take a new path of "culture first" in running the school.

“Take the Socially Responsibility"
Li Xiangqun's studio is located in Beijing's 798 Art District, a two-story space with a showroom on the first floor and a studio and meeting room on the second. From here Li Xiangqun has completed his metamorphosis from an artist in the system to an artist in society. 
Sixteen years ago, Li Xiangqun was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts of Tsinghua University teaching sculpture. In order to focus on sculpture creation while teaching, he set up a studio in the 798 Art District.

"At that time, Li Xiangqun was like a small grass in the wild, no one paid attention to it, cared for it and sheltered it. It grew into a big tree by its own ability,” Li Xiangqun told the reporter of "Outlook News Weekly”. Compared with the teaching and humanistic environment in “the system”, everything here is unfamiliar. Growing in this environment will encounter many difficulties which forced him to do a lot of thinking. "This creates real and calm thinking at the level of values including; who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I want to go?"

He still remembers clearly some of the questions that lingered in his mind at that time. "I pursue the artistic beauty of sculpture, but what can this beauty used for? It may be appreciated by people when they have had enough to eat and drink, but what can be by appreciated? What can it be if it is not appreciated? This kind of questioning made me discover the dependence of art and the artist's passive existence.  I felt a strong sense of loss.”

After 2000, there are two events that helped Li Xiangqun find a sense of being needed. One was designing helmets for the army, and the other one was the passage of three bills submitted as a deputy of the Beijing Municipal People's Congress to protect the 798 Art District. The latter drew widespread attention and praise from society. "Artists can design things used in society and generate social utility. In this way artists can not only express their 'ego', but also speak for the interests of more people and even the country."

Li Xiangqun said that his experience in the 798 Art District has helped him find purpose for artists: to be responsible for the society.

If you look at Li Xiangqun's works it is hard to find that he not only inherited the historical mantle of realism from the world sculpture tradition, but also being able to reproduce the object precisely. He could also express his concepts through sculptures and reflect the artist's concern and responsibility for society.

Bao Lin, Vice Principle at the Academy of Fine Arts of Tsinghua University said, "His works are something you can touch, something you can play with, and something you can get close to as a substitute for one's spirit."

In Li Xiangqun's studio, the "Outlook News Weekly” reporter saw that on more than ten sculpture table.  Some works were completed, while others were uncompleted and wrapped with plastic paper. It is said that such a package could be there for one or two years and even five to six years. So when you open it up the next time, some of the materials inside could be rotten.

"I didn't want to do it in one go." Li Xiangqun said.  He likes to create a work quietly and slowly. When he puts something aside, he later looks for immature places, then do it over again. “I talk to myself through the language of sculpture.  Why do I want to do it like this? What can it reflect?” 

Highlighting Oriental Cultural Spirit
“Confucius” is a sculpture made of white bronze completed in 2012. His face is indistinct and his beautiful beard is draped in decoration. A pair of slender hands are beautifully folded in front of what he is wearing, which is nothing more than some indistinct clothing. He steps on a three-meter- long paper, which is blank in front and gradually turns into a bamboo slip with Chinese li calligraphy at the back. The two-meter-high statue is big at the top and small at the bottom with a lightness in the eyes.

“This is how my Confucius drifts all the way through the writing of the long river of history. He stands in front of us with an indistinct face.” Li Xiangqun explained. “The statue has a light impenetrable gaze and seems like he could disappear at any time. It emphasizes the untrue feeling of what we have collected and integrated for the symbol of “Confucius”. Perhaps, any specific image of Confucius is destined to be vague and vain. I am trying to be the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes". I am trying to speak out of the truth.

“There is a small pillow in front of Confucius,” Li Xiangqun explains. The pillow makes one feel as if waking up from a deep sleep and finding the Confucius in front of one's eyes possible. There is a feeling of perplexion, indistinguishable, hopeful as well as disappointed. Li Xiangqun hopes to raise the questions, "What do we worship for Confucius? His body or his spirit?"

Su Dongpo, a Chinese historical and cultural figure, also attracted Li Xiangqun's attention. In his opinion, Su Dongpo is elite under the influence of Chinese culture. His spirit of humility, boundless love, optimism, open-mindedness, bravery and persistence, have always influenced the nation and has lasted for ages.

The work "Su Dongpo" presented to the audience is a standing statue with a modest and calm demeanor. In a personal album containing 52 pictures of sculptures, Li Xiangqun deliberately used "Su Dongpo" as the cover. Li Xiangqun wanted to express the meaning of "Dongpo Spirit".

"I care more about to the revival of oriental culture, especially Chinese culture in contemporary times." Li Xiangqun told the journalist. "In contemporary times, some people think what foreigners say is right and good, and what they recognize as authoritative. It is a kind of cultural inconfidence, and we need to reflect on it."

In 2013, Li Xiangqun's work "Tao" was first released in the exhibition "Silent Realm: Contemporary Revival of Oriental Aesthetics" at ZERO Art Center in 798 Art District.  The sculpture was in the form of a knight dominating a walking beast. During the exhibition, Li Xiangqun deliberately set up a circular moon gate behind the main sculpture. The light was projected from the background painting behind, passing through the moon gate and shining on the sculpture. It takes the effect of backlight photography by making the form and lines of the main sculpture take on a proper expression.

Li Xiangqun wants to use this vehicle to express his perception of "domination". He believes that domination is ubiquitous in small individuals, large countries and human societies. Only when the dominatie subject has constraints will it lead people to precisely achieve their goals. This is represented by the reins in the hands of the knight. But such constraints are flexible, changeable and humane, just as the reins are soft.

"I also want to highlight the shadow of the Orient," Li Xiangqun said. "A lot of contemporary art works cater to the West. To get rid of this self-inconfidence, we need our works to have the cultural and personal connotations."

Li Xiangqun has made conscious efforts in this direction. Not only focusing on Mao Zedong, Guo Moruo, Ba Jin and other figures of the revolutionary era, but also exploring the use of Chinese historical symbols to express his perception of contemporary issues in recent years. Learning from traditional philosophy and aesthetics, Li Xiangqun combines traditional Chinese culture with its historical background. In attempt to build our won Chinese art system. Such as "The Great Forbidden City", "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow".

Creating a "Chinese Style Art School"
On November 23, 2016, Li Xiangqun was promoted to President of the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. It is a role that represents yet another challenge for Li Xiangqun beyond sculpting.

The Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts (LAFA), formerly known as the Lu Xun Art Institute (LAI), was founded in 1938 in Yan'an and initiatied by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other leaders of the old generation.In 1945, the LAI was relocated to the northeast. In 1958 the school became "LAFA", and is the only art school in the Northeast. In recent years, due to the talent outflow and culture deprivation in the Northeast, "LAFA" has faced difficulties in its development. “Opportunities often hidie in the most difficult times.” Li Xiangqun, who once came out of LAFA, agreed to take the position of President.  He firmly believes that the rise of LAFA and the Northeast of China need to count on cultural development. Thus, the inheritance of the spirit of LAI is of great importance.

"The spirit of LAI is the soul of LAFA. It doesn’t mean the ability to endure hardships, but always stands at the leading edge of thoughts and absorbing talents." Li Xiangqun said, "I do not want to take LAFA out of the Northeast, but to root here and draw talents to come here.” His strategy is to create a "Chinese art school" that is different from those art schools with a more traditional development model.

According to Li Xiangqun, he first wanted to build a sculpture park based on Muzishan International Sculpture Park around the new campus of LAFA in Shenyang.   He then wanted to establish a conference center and a high-end small art district around it to increase its cultural attractiveness. He did this by relying on artists and their works. In addition, a large cultural industry zone will be built around the area with commercial activities involving galleries, an artist village, experimental films, animation, design, theater, opera and etc. The attempt is to make it as an experimental and incubation base for LAFA students. At the same time, it will help business startups and innovation (the Chinese concept of "Shuang Chuang”) and reduce employment problems.  Finally, a museum complex will be built around LAFA Dalian International Campus, echoing the model of the new campus in Shenyang.  This will form a distinctive regional cultural industry zone. "When the cultural market entities develop here, LAFA will be able to take the opportunity to develop rapidly too," Li Xiangqun said.

"What if there is no business after the  cultural industry zone is built?"  To the reporter's question, Li Xiangqun said, "The key is to build a good human environment and strive for the of relevant policy support. For example, controlling the reasonable housing price, or providing low-cost housing for lease and sale to cultural and creative workers as studios. Let them feel at ease to do what they like, and slowly polish their works.”

"This is the hope for the future of LAFA, and it is the only way out." It's as if he sees the great value of art to a school, a city or even a region. He seems to have found another excitement in his life beyond sculpture creation.

Li Xiangqun said, "Don't underestimate an art school. It can polish a city brighter and more beautiful with the connotation of 'beauty'. LAFA has this potential and I have the ambition."
He told the reporter his thinking is not a whim, but years of special experience accumulated from self-observation, comprehension and choice. Firstly, among the nine art academies in China, he has been taught and studied in three of them - LAFA, Central Academy of Fine Arts and Tsinghua University Academy of Fine Arts, so he understands the development status of domestic art academies. Secondly, he has established a successful studio in 798 Art District, so he knows more about the art market and its energy.

Especially in 798 Art District, he has witnessed it grow from small to large, the surrounding environment from remote to lively, and the great change of Chinese contemporary art from underground to above ground. As he observes and ponders the dynamics and laws behind these changes, he also sees some new problems that have emerged as a result of deviations from the laws of the cultural market development. Such as the outflow of artists, the fade out of professional galleries, and the decreasing number of collectors coming in on their own initiative.

These unique thoughts from that of an art educator, have provided him with important ideas for positioning the development strategy of LAFA.  Li Xiangqun said, "based on the cultural industry park established by LAFA, if we can control the rise of prices in a reasonable space and give art workers a stable environment, they will definitely have more possibilities.  Their works will become more and more pure and excellent."