Not Just Art for Art's Sake - A Conversation with Li Xiangqun Author: “Gallery”

Editor: As an artist, Li Xiangqun has learned from traditional culture and tried to explore the contemporary expression of art, and thus, never limited to the definition of time. He also has immersed himself in Eastern and Western culture, striving to break through geographical limitations. As an educator, with the experience of teaching at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts and Luxun Academy of Fine Arts (LAFA), he understands the importance of practicing good art creation and its complement in art education.  As a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, he proposed to open a competitive channel for cultural industry based on the construction of the new campus of (LAFA), and to build a cultural CBD in the northeast.  Li Xiangqun is not just an artist, nor is he an aesthete who is “doing art for art's sake". He emphasizes art's involvement in reality, in both the present and in society, and promotes the integration of art and industry. For him, art creation, art education and art construction are the artistic missions that he has to take up.

Gallery: Starting from "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" to "Tao", "The Walker" series, "The Four Great Masters of Yuan Dynasty" series, "The Great Forbidden City" and to "The Walker", there is a clear change from your earlier works. Is this a turning point for you? What caused the change?

Li Xiangqun: Yes, they are different from my previous works. Some scholars call my works "New Humanism". They inherit the concept of Chinese civilization. I started to study Oriental art during my graduate studies and I was specialized in Chinese folk art. Then I studied Western culture, and eventually came to a crossroads between "East and West". The influence of Eastern culture on me was subtle.  The more I went on, the closer my creation moved towards Chinese and national culture, until finally I really found myself. In fact, this is also the growth path of every artist. From one regional culture to another, and finally beyond. Eastern art or Western art are just definitions we make, with the ultimate purpose is to serve mankind. In this way, so does art

Gallery: All these works tend to be based on ideas of Chinese history and culture with contemporary art, combining into sculptural realism. How can these three parts work perfectly with each other?

Li Xiangqun: Nowadays, when we talk about "contemporary art", it seems more like"realism". In fact, what "realism" focuses on is precisely our real life, that is, the present moment, which is actually contemporary. From what perspective should we look at the present? This is not the same as the traditional perspective. Through so many years of artistic thinking and practice, I gradually found that whether a work is contemporary or not has nothing to do with the artistic language used by the artist. The key lies in the content expressed by the work itself. Therefore, I have gradually explored the artistic path of using realistic techniques to interpret and express Chinese history and culture, which is also a long path of exploration.

Gallery: "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" is considered your landmark work from academic art to contemporary art. What kind of artistic thinking went into this leap?

Li Xiangqun: I conceived this work for about one year, from 2006 to completion, it took almost three years. The name "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" comes from the small garden at the back of the North Sea. There is a rockery called "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" in the courtyard of a building called "Die Cui Lou". "Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" as a rock can also exist and disappear. It is dispensable. In other words, everything’s existence has its own reason and condition. Therefore, we have to take environment and the specific historical period into consideration when we are making obsecation.

“Piling Clouds, Piling Snow" is a bold attempt and innovation in my creation. I have combined the three elements of time, space and thought in one work, transcending the limits of time and space.

Gallery: Your works seem to be inseparable from the terms "political bodyology" and "new humanism". Do you also agree with these two "labels"?
Li Xiangqun: These are critics' categorizations. I never label myself with any labels, so that my creations could have more possibilities, breakthroughs and transcendence.

Gallery:The relationship between sculpture and space is complementary, how do you control the spatial relationship of your sculptures?

Li Xiangqun: In years of practice, I have summarized two key points of plastic arts, which are also the two basic points of teaching. These two points should be applicable to the teaching of the academy, and they are also the methods that should be followed in teaching the foundation of sculpture. The first point is the scientific method of observation. What is the correct method of observation? It is to observe the basic form and characteristics of the object to be shaped, "first longitudinal, then horizontal". In this way, the object will be more macroscopic to grasp the characteristics of the posture and present a sense of architecture. The second point is to recognize the objective laws of artistic expression. The law presented in science teaching is the formula. You can change the value, but the formula remains the same. Same with art. The structure of the object form has laws to follow and so does the manufacturing process. Recognizing my own structure of different objects facilitates the interpretation of generalizations in modeling, grasps the laws of modeling, and can help avoid common mistakes.

Gallery: In 2016, the National Palace Museum launched the first large-scale outdoor sculpture art exhibition called "City, Portrait.Li Xiangqun Art Exhibition” in Jianfu Palace Garden.  What opportunity made you cooperate with the National Palace Museum to hold this exhibition? Will it be a different experience?  Was it rewarding to hold the exhibition in the Palace?

Li Xiangqun: In regards to the solo exhibition in the National Palace Museum in 2016, I would like to thank the organizer, the National Palace Museum and President Shan Jixiang for their great support. There is a courtyard in Jianfu Palace which is particularly beautiful and never opened to the public, nor restored. It shocked me with its sense of vicissitudes. The first time I saw that courtyard I fell in love with it. At that time, President Shan Jixiang said that the ground should be repaired as a venue for my solo exhibition. I stopped him right away. I told him the mossy ground feels good. Holding an exhibition at the National Palace Museum is something I have been looking forward to for a long time. For a long time I have a strong interest in traditional Chinese culture and have created a series of sculptures about historical cultural figures as well as constructions based on confucius, Su Dongpo, the four great masters of yuan dynasty, and the Forbidden City. 
"The Great Forbidden City" is an act of statue-making for an architectural space. It has a larger space than the physical space of the building, and is actually creating an image for a cultural space. The Forbidden City is not just a building, but a tangible and material culture, and a heritage. I hope that people who can see it, will be moved by it. It is exhibited in the outdoor architectural space of Jianfu Palace in the National Palace Museum. When the contemporary art and classical garden collide and create dialogue, it will bring a different experience to everyone. In fact,  when "The Great Four Masters of Yuan Dynasty" were moved to the National Palace, I think the they represent artists themselves. It is more important for artists to have a dialogue with nature through interactions. So what we see there is a dialogue between "The Great Four Masters of Yuan Dynasty" and the garden, and a dialogue with the environment of the larger Forbidden City system.  This is the reason why I chose to exhibit there. Having the opportunity to exhibit “The Great Forbidden City" in the Forbidden City means a lot to me.

Gallery: After "City, Figures, Li Xiangqun Art Exhibition" was exhibited in the Forbidden City, it toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bonn, Germany as a solo exhibition called "Selfless State". This is more difficult in terms of an exhibition space because it moved the exhibit from outdoors to indoors, right?

Li Xiangqun: The exhibition in the Forbidden City is more difficult because the material of the work is high chromium stainless steel, which is very close to the surrounding environment, and the color of the environment will be reflected on the work. The courtyard of "Yanchun Pavilion" where the Great Four of Yuan Dynasty  at Jianfu Palace is particularly beautiful. But placement and presentation of the piece requires some thought and reflection. The final positions were adjusted greatly from the from the original because the environment of the Forbidden City is so special. When the works are placed in the actual environment of the Forbidden City, new ideas will come to your mind. In addition, the exhibition area of Jing Yi Pavilion, Cun Xing Gate, Huifeng Pavilion and Guangde Gate is a central courtyard, and I need to consider how to link the works on display.

Gallery: In your figure sculptures, the characteristics of the figures and the materials used fit very well.  How do you think about material selection?

Li Xiangqun: When you mentioned the Forbidden City, it is a world-famous historical site.  The public has psychological positioning of the Forbidden City. The aura of the Forbidden City is so magnificent. How do you not be engulfed in this magnificent aura is a problem that I have been thinking about. I finally decided to use the material of high chromium stainless steel. On one hand, I want to create a tension between contemporary and historical through the material; on the other hand, the special environment of the Forbidden City could be used in my work.

Gallery:You became vice president of Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in 2014 and was promoted to president in 2016. Did your work as the president in these years give you a new perspective on the educational career of the Academy?

Li Xiangqun: I have always been an educator in art academies. Throughout my eight years at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Art (LAFA), 10 years at Central Academy of Fine Arts, and since 2000 at Tsinghua Academy of Fine Arts, I deeply understood the educational situation of China’s art academies. As an academy teacher and artist, I was able to devote my energy to my creative work and the insights I gained in my creative work, influenced my thinking about education. Now as an administrator, I am able to access more professional fields that I had not been exposed to in the past.  This also provides more experimental platforms for my creative work. 

As an administrator I had the ability and responsibility to design better education in the School of Fine Arts. For example, in teaching, how to open up the "originality" of students? I would like to bring the curriculum of cultural creation into the teaching, and add the thinking of "present", "market" and "industry", to allow experiences what we have not experienced in the past. We break the traditional pattern by connecting reality and art with culture and creativity, and explore the potential through "originality". At LAFA, the basic courses of the undergraduate program are mainly on "inheritance", which amounts to 70%.  The other 30% is on "experimentation". Through curricula, the previous deadlock is broken. For graduate students, 70% of the curriculum is "experimental" and 30% is on "fundamental". The doctoral program is more like a process from practice to theory.

Gallery: In developing LAFA in the future, do you have any plans?

Li Xiangqun: The future development strategy of LAFA must go beyond the geographical jurisdiction of Liaoning and stand on the height of revitalizing Northeast China. I propose to open a competitive channel for the cultural industry and build a cultural CBD in Northeast China relying on the construction of the new campus of LAFA. If we want to change the environment of the Northeast Reigon, we have to build up the cultural environment first. Using the water melted by culture irrigates the land of Northeast China. Using LAFA as the womb continuously reproduces and updates the industry. Muzishan Cultural Industry Zone will be made into a multi-cultural and artistic development space, involving contemporary art, play, opera, film, artist studios, galleries, museum complexes, and corresponding service industries, such as hotels, coffee bars, and accommodations. This not only solves the employment problem of regional and university graduates, but also may attract talents to return. What we are doing is to "build a nest to attract a phoenix", and as long as we make a good environment, the phoenixes will come naturally. If there is no such layout, just shouting slogans every day is meaningless.

What we want to inherit is "the spirit of LAFA", which can be summarized as three points. Firstly, "mind". We have to stand at the forefront of the thinking of the times. Secondly, "action". Try to be the pioneer of culture, to create opportunities for everyone through culture, and to give everyone the possibility of action. Finally, "purpose". What we do is to serve the public. We must mobilize the enthusiasm of society and provide more platforms for the public to participate together.

Gallery: As a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), you proposed that "in the context of the new round of comprehensive revitalization of the old industrial base in the Northeast region, professional art colleges and universities must rely on their own advantages in art disciplines, talent gathering and academic leadership. This should play an important role in the overall promotion of the 'five-in-one' overall layout and the coordination of the 'four comprehensive' strategic layout.  It reflects their application-oriented characteristics, which is serve the people and the society." What is the basic consideration of this proposal?

Li Xiangqun:This is an interpretation of "the spirit of LAFA", which is to be a  pioneer of contemporary culture. There is still a huge space for the development of cultural and creative industries in Liaoshen area. To activate the potential of urban innovation development, art colleges and universities should be the pioneers of the culture of the times. To expand the application-oriented efficiency and social service function of art colleges and universities, to meet the needs of urban cultural development, and to implant "art leads urban innovation" into the urban development pattern, will improve the taste and soul of the city. Today, when creativity and experiences become the new driving force of cultural industry developments, art colleges and universities, this emphasizes creativity and application services.  they are destined to become the gathering areas of cultural and creative energy and the engine of new urban economy.

Gallery: How do you think China's art colleges can enter the contemporary era and become a modern pioneer for gathering and creating cultural?

Li Xiangqun: Looking back on the development of Chinese contemporary art for last 30 years, the relationship between the college education and Chinese contemporary art is an intriguing topic. Although the relationship between academic education and contemporary art cannot be interpreted simplistically as antagonistic, there are indeed counterbalances and contradictions between the two. However, it is an indisputable fact in the Chinese contemporary famous artists often have a good background in college education, and many of them teach in art academies. This is another way to illustrate and prove that the development of Chinese contemporary art is inseparable from the contribution of academy education. This all plays a pivotal role in cultivating artistic talents with contemporary mental thinking and contemporary creative ability.

When "conceptual art" was mentioned a few years ago, people thought that was Western art. Aren’t there concepts also in China or in the East? Or do we not have to think, or be globally aware? In fact, we all have conceptual art. Our art is influenced by the times and regions. Due to the difference in values, we have produced some relatively closed works, especially realism. Now we are moving into a contemporary interpretation of reality, thinking in terms of Eastern culture and philosophy, which involves a larger cosmology, and includes political and regional tendencies. Both Eastern and Western art reflects its own value system all the time. It is either defending or invading.  Sometimes, it seems to be defending, but in fact it is also invading.

Academy education should focus on cultivating students' awareness of thinking about the relationship between art and society. Excellent contemporary art must have a close connection with current society. Focusing on the present means intervening in society. In contemporary art, we try our best to make a new interpretation and deconstruction of the "art-culture-society & history" in real life in order to show our attitude. The mission of art needs to intervene in the culture, politics, history and real life of society to realize its value of existence.
Planner: Li Qiongbo, Che Jianqua
Editor: Deng Dongyan, Wen Kelin
Collator: Wei Tingting
“Gallery” March 2018