Materiality and Thing: A Comment on Li Hongwei‚Äôs Ceramic Sculptures
By Tao Wang
Pritzker Chair of Asian Art & Curator of Chinese Art
The Art Institute of Chicago
Modern art is perceived to a large degree as conceptual art. For many contemporary artists, idea is more important than artworks and making art is more or less a game of installation, word-play, or performance. On the other side, going against the trend of de-materialization, the discussion and experimentation of materiality in art has increasingly become the focus of a number of artists and critics.
The contemporary art scene in China is hugely diversified and multifaceted, but one of the pressing questions is always: ‚Äúwhat is the difference between Chinese contemporary art and contemporary art in the West?‚ÄĚ If we compare these arts from a historical perspective, we see that the materials used for creating art in fact laid out different paths from the very beginning. Chinese art has a unique range of materials with which artists have developed special techniques and ideas, for example shuimoor water-ink paintings. Porcelain was invented in China, playing a significant role in the history of Chinese art. An artist, whether in the past or today, inevitably faces the question of the material he employs. The material is an agent that brings new challenges and changes; an exploration of materiality opens up new possibilities. In William C. Williams‚Äô words: ‚ÄúNo idea but in things.‚ÄĚ Here, the ‚Äúthing‚ÄĚ is no longer merely a physical object. It implies shape, color, distinction (as it was first used in Chinese language), as well as the metaphor for the basic categorization. It has a mysterious power over people, combining the past and present. Ceramic is a perfect example of such a ‚Äúthing,‚ÄĚ and artists in China are gifted with this heavenly material.
As one of China‚Äôs most accomplished and innovative young artists, Li Hongwei is intelligent, hard-working, and resourceful. His outlook on the world is shaped by his study of both Chinese and western art. And he is a master of the material he uses. In contrast to his early sculptures, his recent works are made of porcelain and stainless steel. Inspired by crystal-glazed ceramics of China‚Äôs old dynasties, the artist has experimented with glazed ceramics for years. The two crystal-glaze recipes he created, and with which he has made this porcelain work, bear unreproducible colors and patterns. Because of this uniqueness, he obtainedChina National Invention Patents in 2015. By comparing and connecting the crystal-glazed porcelain to the stainless steel, the artist explores the aesthetic of porcelain within the contemporary art context. The abstract form of the sculptures frees porcelain from being merely a functional object and allows it to exist as a non-functional work of art. The ovoid bodies of the sculptures echo the Chinese ideas of beauty, harmony, subtlety, and simplicity. The artistexpresses modern concepts and seeks a connection between historical, hand-madeporcelain and contemporary, industrial stainless steel. The smooth shaped porcelain bodies are reminiscent of Chinese classic porcelain vessels. Their reflection on the surface of stainless steel creates a dynamic dialogue between traditional and contemporary abstract art. Through the combination of Chinese traditional aesthetic and contemporary art form, Li Hongwei‚Äôs work revives and empowers porcelain within the cultural context of our age.
Dr.Tao Wang is the Executive Director of Initiatives in Asia,Pritzker Chair of Asian Art andCurator of Chinese Artof the Art Institute of Chicago. Dr. Tao Wang was the former Senior Vice President and Head of Chinese Works at Sotheby‚Äôs New York.