Continuation and Breakthrough: The Work of Li Hongwei
Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism
University of California, San Diego
Li Hongwei is an emerging artist in the international art world whose work embodies important characteristic of contemporary art and spans various media and cultures. I was introduced to Li Hongwei's unique art by a friend and was immediately amazed by his skillful handling of and shifting between different materials, and his ability to balance Chinese and Western, and ancient and modern concepts in his work. It was a privilege to meet this young artist in San Diego a few years ago, when he had already mounted exhibitions in numerous renowned art museums around the world. Hongwei enthusiastically spoke of his creative experiences and ideas and displayed a total commitment to his art, a rich imagination, and a rational philosophical outlook which fit well with his works.
Li Hongwei, who loved calligraphy and painting as a child before encountering sculpture, received very formal and rigorous professional training. In the early 2000s, he was admitted to the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and completed their systematic academic program. After graduating in 2005, he went to Alfred University in New York to continue his studies at the internationally renowned New York State College of Ceramics. These experiences not only gave him a deep understanding of traditional Chinese ceramic art but allowed him to master the use of various sculpture materials. What is remarkable is how Hongwei layers profound philosophical thinking into his work, the concepts of balance and harmony in ancient Chinese philosophy inspiring his subsequent artistic creations.
After countless experiments, Hongwei mastered the challenging crystal glaze firing technique, achieving unpredictable and wonderful patterns on his porcelains. After finding a mature artistic language in crystal glazes, Hongwei pushed his art further. A method for repairing old porcelain inspired him to combine different media in the same work, opening new spaces for exploration. After years of investigation and trial, he successfully combined traditional ceramics with stainless steel (a symbol of modern industrial civilization) to create unique artworks and installations. In them, traditional ceramics forego their original practical function and become abstract forms combined with stainless steel, expanding the creative scope of ceramic art, embodying Chinese philosophies of harmony and symbiosis, and probing Western postmodern concepts of deconstruction and reconstruction. Li Hongwei, who is well-read in philosophical thought, draws inspiration from the Tao Te Ching, especially the text explaining the origin of the universe, âOut of Tao, One is born; Out of One, Two; Out of Two, Three; Out of Three, the created universe.â The combination of ceramics and stainless steel connotes a newborn force of harmony coming out of the intensive interactions of Yin and Yang. His series Upwelling of Gravity and Xuan demonstrate Hongwei's comprehension of this ideology and his ability to embody it in his work. Hongwei's exceptional interpretation of crystalline glaze, the exquisite craftsmanship of his hand-wrought stainless steel, and the seamless combination of the two demonstrate his pursuit of perfection. The material contrast between the colorful crystalline glaze and the bright and pristine stainless steel is perfectly unified in his waterdrop shapes and other abstract forms. Reflections off the stainless steel draw the viewer into the work again and again so that the interaction between artwork and viewer infinitely expands the interpretation of the work and the viewerâs imagination. In Allegory of Balance, the stacking of differently shaped objects aesthetically expresses and allows for a broader interpretation of the traditional Chinese Taoist concept of Yin and Yang.
In recent years, Li Hongwei has shifted his creative focus to large-scale public installations exhibited in museums, and the size of these new works brings new challenges. All facets of creation are completed by Hongwei and his assistants in his studio, and though he regularly receives invitations to museum exhibitions around the world, the perfectionist Hongwei participates in every step of making the work, from hand-forging, to cutting, welding, polishing, assembly, and completion. Fragments is a new series recently developed by Hongwei in which the seamless porcelain portions of the work are replaced by broken porcelain shards riveted with stainless steel screws to create a form that is then combined with a stainless-steel portion, resulting in an abstract installation object. Seeing this new work, I recall how I felt when I heard Mr. Wang Qingzheng, ceramics expert and former deputy director of the Shanghai Museum, talk about the large number of porcelain fragments discovered among the ruins of the Ru kiln, an official kiln in the Song Dynasty. Most of the shards scattered throughout the ruins appeared to have been deliberately smashed by porcelain workers who were not satisfied with the firing effect. Only a few dozen complete Ru kiln masterpieces remain in the world, clearly achieved after countless failed attempts. Smashing is not a passive breaking, but an aggressive act of destruction before reconstruction and regeneration. The world today is full of turmoil, unease, epidemics, and wars. Traditional ideas and values are constantly collapsing and out of order. However, new orders and ideas are bound to emerge in a broken world. Hongwei has found an appropriate language in ceramic fragments to express his concerns and hopes for current realities. Broken shards of porcelain gain new life in Hongweiâs hand.
A new work of the Fragments series, the large-scale installation The Origin conveys the artistâs understanding of Lao Tzuâs philosophical text, âThere was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth.â The title of the three-meter high, egg-shaped work plays on the homophonic puns of Dan: è (egg), è¯ (birth), and æ¦ (dawn). âèâ is the carrier of life, and âæ¦â means the start of a day. The major section of the work contains thousands of ceramic fragments in yellow and green tones reminiscent of the tricolored glazed ceramics of the Tang Dynasty, joined together with stainless-steel screws and connected seamlessly with over forty highly polished, gleaming sheets of stainless-steel, resulting in a perfect egg-shaped body poised on the exhibition pedestal. Here, Hongwei transcends the counterpoise of Yin and Yang and expresses the dualism of traditional East and modern West. The material and ideas embedded in the work ultimately come into harmony and give birth to new life.
In the Fragments series, Li Hongwei deepens and extends the explorations he began in his earlier series Upwelling of Gravity and Xuan. The Upwelling of Gravity in this exhibition is in the cone shape of earlier works, but ceramic fragments replace crystal-glazed patterns, reinforcing the contrast of the textures between the different materials. The weight of the three-meter body of the work intensifies its visual impact. The title of the work masterfully uses another set of homophonic plays on words, combining: å±´ (high mountains), å (power), and ç« (erecting). âå±´â is traditionally used to describe high mountains, and the inverted cone-shaped form of this work, its sharp point at the bottom supporting the entire weight of the piece, feels comparable to the great power of high mountains.
A similar play with language and thoughtful philosophical approach is expressed in the Xuan series. Xuan (ç), originally excerpted from the Tao Te Ching, means âReaching from the Mystery into the Deeper Mystery is the Gate to the Secret of All Lifeâ but another meaning of Xuan (æ¬) connotes hanging and suspension. The upper and lower stainless-steel portions of the Xuan work in this exhibition are two cones, one pushing up and one bearing down, opposite forces exerted respectively by the thin wire hanging down from the ceiling and by gravity. Meanwhile, the fragile and fragmented pieces of ceramics in the middle are the central force keeping the whole work in complete balance.
Another feature in Li Hongweiâs work is the pursuit of form and volume. Since he shed the shackles of the inherent shape and practical function of his early ceramic works, and as result of his comprehension of the Taoist concept that âThe greatest truths are the simplest,â he has emphasized the abstraction and simplicity of shape, taken from an objectâs most basic form. The original inspiration of the work Beyond the Height came from a huge cactus he saw in the western desert as he drove from California to New York a few years ago. Using a minimalist approach, he introduced, stylized, and enlarged the form of the cactus into the superimposed shape of the Allegory of Balance. In this nearly four-meter-high installation, different forms and materials are stacked and staggered, seeming to compete against each other but finding a self-balancing position, harmoniously co-existing as one.
In this exhibition, a work entitled Futurism introduces a new shape for Li Hongwei that demonstrates even further expansion in his use of material and concepts. Metal mesh panels and rusty iron plates with geometric cuts join the ceramic fragments and stainless steel to form a monumental and dynamic horn shape without straight lines, hanging from the side wall to the ground. Visual and tactile contrastsâbetween the hand-riveted ceramic fragments and the mechanically pressed metal mesh panels, between the rusty iron surface and the smoothly polished stainless-steelâadd even more dimension. Viewers see from afar distorted upside-down images of themselves and their surroundings reflecting on the surface of the inner part of the huge curved stainless-steel sculpture which become right sized as they move closer to the sculpture. Blurring the lines between reality and reflection shows how Hongwei questions a relatively dualistic mode of thinking, pondering more deeply the complicated, ever-changing world today.
Li Hongwei's art is distinctly contemporary, focusing on and intervening in the present. Highlighted in work created during the epidemic, his exquisite artistic language expresses a contemporary artistâs keen sense of the world around him and his feeling of responsibility for active participation. At a time when concepts of globalization, tolerance, and cooperation are constantly being challenged, the impetus to pursue harmony and symbiosis expressed in Li Hongweiâs art is particularly valuable. As a contemporary artist starting from the philosophy of Chinese Taoism, he uses materials with distinct cultural characteristics and breaks the shackles of inherent artistic boundaries to open new territories in art. With his exquisite artistic talent, Li Hongwei creates compelling artwork with a strong sense of time and space and a distinctive personal aesthetic, undoubtedly positioning him in the echelons of contemporary international art.
Kuiyi Shen is Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the University of California, San Diego. His main research fields are modern and contemporary Chinese art and modern Sino-Japanese cultural and artistic exchanges. His main publications include: A Century in Crisis: Tradition and Modernity in the Art of Twentieth Century China (New York, 1998); and Arts of Modern China (Berkeley, 2012, winner of the 2013 ICAS Book Prize in Humanities), among others. He has curated important exhibitions such as Five Thousand Years of China (1998) sponsored by the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. He has received research awards and funds from: the National Endowment for the Arts; the American Social Science Council; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Stanford University; the University of California; Leiden University in the Netherlands; and Heidelberg University in Germany. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the series Modern Asian Art and Visual Culture, published by Brill Press in the Netherlands.