Li Xiangqun: 10 Key Words About My Sculpture Author: (Interviews & Arrangements by Jiang Yuehong)

Li Xiangqun: 10 Key Words About My Sculpture

1.Like 2. Beijing 3.798 4. “Piling Clouds, Piling Snow” 5. “Confucius” 6. “The Red Flowers Bloosom” 7. “A Little Old Man called Ba Jin” 8.Mo Wei; Girl;Little Girl 9. “The Forbidden City” 10.How to be Traditional and How to be Contemporary.


When I think about it, my love for painting comes from my heart. I just like drawing and could not tell the reason. There is no one who ever encouraged me, nor tought me. But it doesn’t matter. I have the innate and spontaneous desire to draw. It is more like a game that I love, which can make me indulge in it and forget about the people and things around me.

I am a quiet person since I was a kid. I don’t talk too much to others. When my families were chatting while drinking tea or playing cards, I would get under the table and play something that I thought was particularly fun. For example, I would take checkers to pretend as people or make a stories with some other articles that I could get. I made a world with my own imagination.

I still remember when I was in kindergarten, I liked to draw the portrait of Mao Zedong on the ground. Once, I almost got into trouble. So family told me stop doing that. My father, who was a civil servant. He liked to draw a pine branch, or a small plane, and even a meeting scene in his notebook. Whenever I saw his drawings, I felt inspired. During the Cultural Revolution, my uncle glued wood chips, and dyed with color to make a picture of Mao Zedong statue. This too also gave me a deep impression. 

During the Cultural Revolution, I lost my home and needed to live with my grandma. In the beginning, I played with cardboards with beautiful illustrations from the story Water Margin. Soon, the story was deemed as feudalistic, so I lost them. I then started to make stories and draw them down on long strips of paper by myself. I still remember I was addicted in drawing motorbikes with sidecars for quite a while. Once I drew an old Red Army soldier with a beard, and a gun stuck in his belt. When people saw my picture, they thought it is awkward. Every time when I think about it, I feel ridiculous and funny. It is pure imagination. How can it be logical?

I was fond of drawing at an early age. I drew on papers, on the edge of my book, and even on my desk. I drew on my notebook, which made my teacher angry often. I officially started to learn drawing in a cultural center when I was around ten. I still remember having to wear ice skate like shoes to Sun Island clutching my portfolio. At first, I was assigned to Class B because I barely knew anything. When the first time I drew Beethoven’s portrait, I even could not draw a straight line. I needed a ruler ruler to draw him. My teacher told me that I should always use my hand to draw instead of a tool. But to me, a tool is just a helper. After two years and three painting classes, I finally entered the creative class.

Since I was a child, whatever I wanted to do I could do it well. I think drawing made me of this confidence . As for sculpturing, I think it is started from making dolls with snow or mud when I was a kid. Or maybe it started because of an Albanian movie "The Eighth is a Bronze Statue". The sculptures in the movie shocked me with its great power. 

2. Bei Jing

When I graduated from college, I wanted to go to the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) to finish my graduation study. But the teachers at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts(LXAFA) wanted me to continue my studies at their school. I thought it didn’t really matter because I was sure I want to go to Beijing someday. When I got my graduate degree, I brought my portfolio to the CAFA. They asked me if I was willing to go to their school. I said yes. They told me that they would try their best to communicate with LXAFA to let me go. I heard they wrote a letter to LXAFA in hopes they would understand my artistic attainments in the grand scheme and importance to the art community. 

Before I came to Beijing, my teacher once told me, "Beijing is like a vast ocean. It is hard to survive in it. I am afraid that your talent will be submerged." I was young, and I was willing to try anything. To my point of view, If I could not succeed, I would face my destiny. But what if I survive?. That would make me more powerful than ever before. This is also one of the most important reasons why I chose to come to Beijing and join CAFA.

Whatever I am doing, I like to burn the bridges behind me. I know my destination, which keeps me going forward without hesitation. I decided to leave CAFA when I felt the environment was no longer good for the development of a teaching system that I was trying to uphold. Indeed, every academy has their own teaching ideology and personal ideologies have to surrender in front of it. I think I am not suitable for any official position. I like teaching, which is parallel to my creative works. Teaching needs to rely on theory, while creating works puts theory into practice. They are in mutually promotion. I am a person who is particularly enthusiastic about teaching. When I cannot pass down my own system of teaching ideas smoothly, I feel it is a waste of time. 

CAFA gave me great personal recognition. After the Cultural Revolution, CAFA had the professional evaluations for senior titles. Four of us from the Class of '77 were evaluated. I was the youngest at only 37 years old. I passed with a unanimous vote, which was unprecedented. I think one of the reasons was I won two gold medals during this period with my sculptures, “Eternal Operation” and “Relay”. 

After I left CAFA, I went to Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts. My purpose was very simple. I just wanted to establish a teaching system that could develop and improve gradually. I wanted to combine the basic knowledge to a bold experiment. It required an abundant technological foundation, and fusion of concepts, thinking, ideas and experiment. This formed a consistent philosophy of teaching in the academy for years.

 In the 1990s, Western contemporary art had a great impact on China’s art and educational system. It was devastating. At that time, I was very confused and had a lot of questions including “Did everything that we learned and taught still have meaning?” I was lost.

At last, I had to drop the old and classic things that I had been studying. It was such a pity, but I started over again. So it was in Beijing that I finished my thinking and practice on the teaching system in sculpture school.

3. 798

People often ask me why I went to 798 when I was working in the school. I think it is because of my personality. If Beijing is a vast ocean, 798 is the sea for the artists. In 798 they don’t care about who you are. The only thing they care about is the art. So in 2000, I started to work in 798 in a studio lent to me by Luo Haijun. When SARS hit in 2003, I rented the Zero Art Center, which was still called Zero Workshop. It was used as my studio and a spot for teaching some my friends' children.  By that time, I was forty years old. Frankly speaking I had a lot of pressure. When I finally arrived at 798, I suddenly realized this could be the start of a new life.  The community did not care about my academic background, nor the titles I already achieved. I had nothing. I could only be recognized and applauded with artistic works.

Going to 798, I felt everything going back to zero. I was so ready to fight with my bare hands. I felt being 798, still teaching, the academy and society merged into one. It took a while for me to realize that was the true value of 798. In 2006 there was an exhibition called "Red Flag Fluttering" that was curated by Wimplin. I just finished my work, “Piling Cloud, Piling Snow” around that time. I took my sculptures there and which turned out to be a great success. Not until that moment did I realized the importance of 798 to my life. This piece of work destroyed some of my artistic habits. It was not a continuation of previous works, but more like a revolution and even a self-subversion. I dare to say that without 798, there would be no “Piling Clouds, Piling Snow”.  In 798, I successively attended “Construction, Fables” curated by Huang Yue; “Critical Boundary” curated by myself; “Red Flag Fluttering” curated by Wimplin; and “Play by Yourself” curated by Gu Zhenqing.  My relationship with 798 would not be limited in creating art and displays.

I was elected a deputy to the National People's Congress(NPC) in 2003. And at the beginning of 2004, 798 was facing the problem of demolition. With the support of the Secretary of the Chaoyang District Committee, who was in the same group of the National People’s Congress, and artists like Huang Rui, Xu Yong, Mao Lizi, Cang Xin, Annie, we went to work to save the district. On Feburary 18, 2004, we submitted a bill called “Protecting an Old Industrial Architectural Heritagem. Protecting a Developing Cultural District". On August 29, 2005, Mayor Liu Qi gave orders about 798 in the document of "take a look at it, discuss it, and manage it".  And in 2008, when the two sessions of the National People's Congress were held, I gave a report about 798 in front of the mayor. It was also at this meeting that 798’s name was officially changed to "Beijing 798 Cultural and Creative Industries District" and officially included in the report of Beijing's next five-year plan. In addition, as a deputy of the NPC, I also submitted a bill “Preserving the 798 Bauhaus Building as China's Modern Architectural Heritage" and a bill "Protecting a Complete Cultural and Creative Industrial Zone", which was in response to the entry of two municipal highways into the park. I have never thought that I would be involved in the historical preservation of 798 as a deputy to the NPC. In these events, I also realized my responsibility to the NPS. I cherish the NPC where I could express my true feelings. And I appreciate that we have such a trustworthy government. 

4. “Piling Clouds, Piling Snow”

 “Piling Clouds, Pilling Snow” is like a voice form my deep heart in sculpture creation. It only took me four days to complete the whole work. And it is more like unraveling the childhood knots in my heart. That is how to measure a person’s value. And how to respect an individual life.

I experienced discrimination when I was a kid. During the Cultural Revolution, my father was sent to the cattle shed and my home was occupied because of my family's background. My grandfather was in prison, and all my aunts had gone to the military corps. I lived with my grandma. I knew later that people who lived on the opposite side of the main road were Wei Ershen and Wang Guangyi. We all belong to “landlord, rich famer, counterrevolutionary, or evildoer” faction. Nobody was willing to have anything to do with us and I was reminded by my family to never talk or play with anybody outside. In this way, I was friendless. 

I was close to my uncle who was sick all the time. He played the harmonica and guitar. And when he whistled while I sat next to him and listened. At night, we slept together on a bed joint by two boxes. It was uncomfortable. Which made me a habit that every time I turn, I will weak up. Even now if you give me a narrow a bench, I could sleep on without falling. 

I was also very sensitive to the way people look at me, because since childhood I always have to read other people's faces. Although I was small at the time, I was already aware of discrimination and being judged by others. I know what it was like to be discriminated against by others. If you take a person as an element and add the symbol which is your background. This is your value. I experienced this kind of pressure too early, which made me understand things at a young age. 

The theme of "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" is what I want to express based on my experiences. Take the hat and clothes off. Move the chairs and the screens. Take away all the symbols, and the only thing left is a woman’s body. Even if she had the face of Cixi, who could tell it is “Cixi”. All the external things, including your name, are no more than a symbol. This was a knot that I felt for years. Maybe it is something that you all have been experienced too. As a symbol, Cixi is a carrier for my expression because she played an important role in the era she lived in. She is a representative and yet a contradictory character. The interpretation of her in history is full of contradictions. That is what I want to express though out my work. I want my work full of contradictions and questions.  How do we measure a person’s value? And how do we respect an individual life?

5. “Confucius”

 If Cixi is still a symbol that can have a concrete image, what about Confucius? In my opinion, there is no standard for a Confucius statue.  Confucius is a kind of thought and doctrine written by history and transmitted by words. This why my Confucius is like drifting all the way through the history, standing in front of us with an indistinct face. His beautiful beard is draped in decoration. A pair of slender hands are beautifully folded. The two-meter-high statue is big in the top and small in the bottom. It is wearing nothing more than some indistinct clothing. The statue has a light impenetrable gaze and seems like he could be disappeared at any time. The unrealistic feeling of the image that I want to express is just what we have been given to Confucius for years. 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.

 6. “The Red Flowers Blossom”

 Many people would define me as a "red sculptor". In fact, my choice of historical figures is concerning my own artistic expression of normal and natural. What I want to solve is entirely a matter of art and I do not want to get involved in political issues.

Mao Zedong is an important iconic figure for our time. I tried to understand him intuitively. I have several works related to him, including "The Red Star Shines in China", "We Walk on the Road", "Mao Zedong in the Sun", "Sunrise" and "Poet Mao Zedong". All these images are based on real events. All these works portray the confidence of Mao Zedong. That is what kind of person he is. 

Even thought I have already created a lot of works based on Mao Zedong, I am hardly satisfied. That is the reason for the creation of “The Red Flowers Blossom”.  It is an early morning piece with a family, standing staggered in front and behind.  A hen is pecking rice. The husband is a poet, a writer and a politician. He is tired. So, he drops his burden and feels at ease. Some would say the handling of his sliding shoulders makes him look not so grand. But I did it on purpose. The greatness is his mind, not his body. His arms are born to be long, and I even consciously stretched them a bit longer to let it drop down. He is wearing a long shirt and long pants, with a cigarette clutching in his fingers. Next to him is his wife. Unlike him, she was born in the city. She is a volunteer from Shanghai, who aspires to subvert her own existence. With her waist tied, and pants rolled to the knees, she stands vividly with enthusiasm, optimistic and smiling. The images are my artistic vision, but they also from the image materials. I don't want to deliberately avoid as an ordinary person what he will be like when he is with his family. I try to respect the right of every living individual. Different people will always have different interpretations and viewpoints but I hope that we can interpretat the history from an angle of art, and from a viewpoint of human being.

Mao Zedong is the topic of many artists. It is not easy to make him because there are too many people who have seen him through all kinds of channels. His expressions and his state are of great challenges to everybody. Some people want to show Mao's relaxation, and some people have a mindset of the Cultural Revolution. That is why the vast majority of works have ended up in failure. In fact, if you treat Mao as an ordinary person, you are halfway to the success. Works also require spending time on study and research. The Mao Zedong works I have made have moved some people to tears because they felt that the Mao Zedong I created have pulled him back to the time when Mao was not yet a great man. What I want to convey through my sculptures is a real feeling; a penetrating power of human nature from the inside out. I believe a good work can connect with people's hearts and communicate with them.

7. ”A Little Old Man Named Ba Jin”

In 1998 at the invitation of Mr. Shu Yi, I made a statue for Mr. Ba Jin. Now it seems that the emotions and the respect for the humanity that I want to convey through my works have always been very conscious and strong. As the name of this work implies, it is first a little old man, and Ba Jin is only a symbol. To sculpt this statue, I stayed in Mr. Bakhtin's apartment for two days after getting his permission. I made a mold for his hands. And pushed him in his wheelchair to walk around Xizi Lake. Mr. Wu Guanzhong once said, “When I saw this statue of Ba Jin made by Li Xiangqun; although it was just a very simple and ordinary little old man, I could feel the great power behind it.” Indeed, I had the same feeling of Mr. Ba Jin. With hands behind his back and head down, he walks forward with feet a slight buckled inward. He is an ordinary little old man, but you can feel his great power throughout his little body.

 8. Mo Wei, Girl, Little Girl

“Mo Wei's Portrait" is a from a demonstration I made for the students while my wife was modeling. It was finished with unprecedented ease. Almost twenty years ago, when I was trying to make my first "Mo Wei", my wife suddenly cut her hair short. So I had to put it down as an unfinished work. This “Mo Wei” had fulfilled a long-cherished wish of my wife. As a portrait, the work hailed for three reasons. First is on the technique, which is the international first-class level. Second one is on expression, which shows basic characteristics and state of an Easterner Finally, the third is on the use of white bronze. This annual exhibition has been existing for decades, and it was the first time that white bronze was used in a portrait. I chose white bronze because in sculptures it is like silver. It is simple and ordinary but there is a hidden sense of nobility and elegance. It is as introverted as silver, but it is more solid and with more gloss.

“Burberry Girl" is also a demonstration for the students during my class. The model was very beautiful.  I made the body first, and added the cloth pattern afterwards. The Burberry coat is light-colored while the model’s skin is dark. The person and the clothes complement each other in a beautiful way.

The kid in “The Little Girl Taking a Nap" is my friend’s daughter.  He wished for me to make a statue of his daughter as a gift to childhood. Or we can say as a memory or evidence of memory. Maybe it is both. It happened one day that the adults were talking and the child was tired and fell asleep on the sofa, quiet and steady. I was moved by that scene. She must have been having a sweet dream.  She was so beautiful and carefree. I finished this gift when she was sleeping. At that time, I had the feeling that I could not ever wake her up.

These kinds of works are done randomly and improvised. But it turns out to be surprisingly good. People think it is very dynamic and meaningful. For others it might take a lot of efforts to get there. As for me it is quite easy. Thanks to my great technique, I can handle my work willingly.  Also thanks to my understanding of the object, materials and expression form I can express precisely the true emotions of every piece.

 9. “The Forbidden City”

Actually, I am still working on these set of statues. So the title of the work has not been finally decided. It looks like I am making statues for a set of architectural pieces.  However, I am doing something beyond the physical level. It is more like as a series of statues at the cultural level. 

The layout of the whole set of works is very large. It is more than 200 square meters. The work makes up of 25 pieces. Except for the Hall of Supreme Harmon, there is a person running in front of it, without direction.  All the other halls are deconstructed in different ways. Some are cut in the middle, and some roofs are taken off. 

I am using sculptural techniques to complete the scene of the Forbidden City realistically. The ground is cast in white bronze. I am trying to make it as flat as a mirror. On the ground are graduated coordinates, which are delicate in construction. In comparison, the scene itself is decadent. It has a scaffolding base made of stainless-steel tubes that cover the exhibition hall. It is hard to tell if it is being constructed or demolished.  There is gray steel to white copper, and delicate foundation to the curves and bends. The comparison is meant to have a great impact.

The first time I went to the Forbidden City was during my junior year of college, and when my mother was studying in a Beijing hospital. It was December. I finally standing in the Forbidden City where was such a mysterious place to me for years. I felt small and insignificant.  The feeling is so different from the grand churches in Europe. Churches make me feel like they were raised up, while the Forbidden City gave me the impression it was pressing me down. It is a feeling which I could never learn from pictures and books. 

The Forbidden City is not just an architecture, but it is tangible cultural heritage. It carries a lot of information and I wish I could express some of my understanding throughout my work. 

10、How to be Traditional and How to be Contemporary

In my opinion, tradition and contemporary art are not something that can be separated diametrically. I feel that I am a person who belongs to both sides. For tradition, I understand it as the inheritance of technology. And for contemporary, it is a responsibility to society in which I have to express myself specifically.

We don’t pay much attention to past traditions. Take myself as an example. My style shifts from revolutionary realism to realism and then from realism to the technical. Technology is the recognition and exploration of body language. In China, we lack these kinds of advanced techniques, and are still at the primary stage, with few ways of expression. From Greek sculpture to Egyptian sculpture to ancient Chinese ancient sculpture, I have been studying this body language techniques for 30 years. In my opinion, the academy itself is a kind of inheritance. The academy must have a technical heritage. The sculpture body language must be passed down.

I still pay special attention to the present. If I am not responsible to society, I cannot be considered an artist. My existence will be meaningless. The pleasures of eating and drinking are not important to me. One’s existence should be valuable. To think and to express are very important. Artiåsts should always make questions, then convey their wonder to the audience. Just like human beings eat and get illness, society too can eat and be sick. Our art should also be able to give some artistic diagnosis and artistic treatment to the diseases of society. It is an artist’s responsibility. All in all, the inheritance of technology is served for a better expression and point of view for society.

 In graduate school, I studied Chinese classical sculpture and ancient Chinese traditional sculpture. The sculptures I made are from the Western traditional sculpture system. Some people may find the mixture of the different styles in my works as strange and incompatible.  Personally, I feel that there is no conflict at all. They all have something in common and they have the same roots. By copying Eastern sculptures, I have explained Western sculpture body language. Likewise, through the Western sculpture, I have been able to understand the shaping of Eastern Buddha statues. When I copy Han Dynasty sculptures, I often have a sense of wonder because they have a profound understanding of form, which is even more incisive than that of Greek sculptures.

Greek sculptures make full use of the concept of geometry. It is a way that you see the object as irregular geometry. By the time you master this technic, you can simplify anything that is complicated. Then you must also enrich this geometry with elements. Once selected and refined, it will let you see more than the chaos itself. It can be said that sculpturing here is more like a strategy than a battle. Those small battles are nothing but some mass, while the strategy is the moving parts.

Han Dynasty sculptures also have good use of geometry.  The points, lines and surfaces, compare well to Greek sculpture, but Han Dynasty sculptures have a more profound level of understanding. No one has ever mentioned it because they think old Eastern artists didn’t know about anatomy. That’s not true. They knew about it, and their understanding was surprisingly profound. 

Take any sculpture, and I can point out the geometry structures to you and how they are handling it in a particularly incisive way. I have no theoretical support. What I have learnt are all from my study and copying practice. I have copied works from Shaanxi, Shanxi, Yinchuan and Sichuan provinces and copied works from Han, Tang and Song dynasties. I also studied the sculptures from Mayan culture and the Greek antique period. By the time when I found the connection of them, I know how I could do with works.

I draw two conclusions from the statues I have copied. Both are suitable for the academy and should be passed down. First is the scientific method of observation.  Go vertical then go horizontal. It is an accurate way to not lose any parts. Culture and history too has its vertical and horizontal level. The second is to find the law of objects. It is more like a formula in mathematics. You can change the value, but the law remains the same. Likewise in sculpture creation, forms are changing but the law remains the same. 

Taking structures as an example. My teachers taught me structure through anatomy. But to me structure is more than that. There is structure in space and formation and anatomy. There is structure in society too. This is how I interpret structure, and I wish I could expand my students’ understanding in this way.

In consideration of realistic expression and figuration, these should be separate. They are two different things because they are two different concepts. Realistic expression is to sketch. When you create a work, you want to put your ideas and concepts into it. The method used to create the work rather than realistic expression but figuration. You need realistic expression in your work but that is only one of the many methods. You need ideas, and you also need methods. 

A true artist needs to sweat a lot. Both in mind and body. You need to keep your hands busy. Technique is always the foundation. I dare to say that I know every technical detail during creation because I have practiced by myself. I know all the possibilities and potentials in every process because I have experienced it myself. In dealing with fusion of tradition and contemporary, my aim is to express a true human being in society in all its forms. Many sculptors have inspired and supported me in terms of technique and sculpture language. For example, I have been inspired by Michelangelo's muscularity, Rodin's literary, and Giacometti's symbolism. But I always felt that none of them have ever really expressed the humanity. They just gave these people a role to fulfill their imagination. So, in the expression of humanity, I think none of them are good enough. Seagal to me is nothing but an object without emotion.

I believe as long as I have a strong technic good methodology to express, and a contemporary mind, I could always be better. Perhaps, I cannot be excellent all at once, but this will never stop me from trying. I am always thinking when people come to see my works, that they might find a point of view, that I may have not noticed. Their experience could be rather big and profound. I hope people can find the pulse of the reality throughout my works, and cherish the value in them as well.

 Post-interview notes.

“In the middle” was an expression that I had of Li Xiangqun’s sculptures before my interview. I intended to make it the title of my interview. However, when I read through the text of the interview once more, a clear impression Li Xiangqun jumped out between the words. Any more words seemed redundant, pretentious and out of place. However, there are some feelings that I still want to say out.

In front of art, I am always a student. Through learning and watching, it is inevitable that there will be some self-righteous speculation. Five years ago, I had the opportunity to get involved in the edition of "New Suyuan Stone Genealogy". As a result, I think the most valuable aspects of contemporary sculpture would be in new materials, new ways of working, and new concepts of defining sculpture. Understanding these aspects are critical. Could this be one of the reasons that Li Xiangqun's absence from the critical vision of contemporary art?

I know Li Xiangqun because of his unexpected and reasonable statues of the leaders. I was surprised to see the pure sculptural language, the dynamic details, the subtle touches and the expressive use of clay in those works defined as "red sculpture". When people marvel at the sculptor's talent and praise the purity and mastery of the sculptural language, they must notice the humanistic concern and artistic height. Does so-called political correctness necessarily mean a lack of artistry?

 When we review art’s historical writing, we will realize how those intermediate states that have been sacrificed under the dualistic value judgment can enter and enrich our intellectual structure again.  It is an excavation and discovery to be celebrated and expected. Reflecting on the absence of modernity in contemporary Chinese art writing, may help us to see that although with the investigation of the body language of art is belonging to the modern art in the Western art system. It is helpful in understanding contemporary art. Li Xiangqun's sculptural ideas and practices have their own historical logic and realistic consideration. So what will his techniques be in the future art history? Let’s wait and see.