Li Hongwei: Re: Vision
Andrew L. Maske
Professor of Art History
Director of the Gordon L. Grosscup Museum
Wayne State University
On July 28, 1976, Li Hongweiās birth city, Tangshan, China, experienced one of the worst earthquakes of the twentieth century. In it, more than 240,000 inhabitants died, and more than 160,000 were injured. Although he was born in 1980 and thus spared direct trauma from the earthquake, its effects were evident among the people he knew during his formative years, including his parents. Virtually everyone in the city lost someone in the earthquake; some were their familyās sole surviving member. Watching his city and his family rebuild from fragments, both physically and psychologically, must have had a profound impact on Liās outlook on life.
The area of Tangshan has produced utilitarian ceramics since the fifteenth century. Today, it is known for its industrial ceramics such as sinks and toilets, and for large-scale tableware production, much of it for export. The Tangshan ceramics tradition did not have a notable impact on Li Hongwei during his youth, and his childhood artistic background consisted of training in calligraphy by a local artist from age six. Nevertheless, the prominence of local ceramics production did impress on him the important role of Chinese ceramics in world culture.
There is little debate that China owns the worldās greatest ceramics tradition. Nearly all of the great historical triumphs of ceramics technology either originated or were perfected by Chinese craftsmen, from the awe-inspiring life-size figures of the Terracotta Army to the three-color glazed tomb sculpture of the Tang dynasty and from the glories of Song dynasty celadons to the decorated white porcelain of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Chinese ceramics made for export have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica. The weight of this tradition presents a daunting challenge for the contemporary ceramic artist in China. Many have struggled for decades to create pieces that express aspects of their heritage in innovative ways yet communicate something aesthetically and intellectually meaningful to people of diverse backgrounds.
Li Hongwei came to ceramics through his first medium of sculpture. After exposure to the discipline in high school, he began his training at Chinaās premier art university, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. There, he received a thorough grounding in the sculptural discipline, which led him to pursue further study in the United States. His choice of the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University was consequential, since it placed him on the only degree-granting institution in the U.S. with a primary focus on the ceramic arts. Much of his early work there was sculptural in nature, executed in bronze or ceramic. At first, he produced pieces based on the human body, most notably a series of abstracted self-portraits. These were created out of the sense of isolation and otherness that he felt in a small, rather isolated community in upstate New York that had almost no other residents of Asian heritage.
While at Alfred, Li Hongwei was introduced to a variety of ceramic approaches that were rarely explored in China. One of these was the American raku technique, a method derived from that used for a certain type of Japanese glazed earthenware called Raku from the sixteenth century and later. American raku relies on relatively quick firing, and Li used it to produce some of his self-portrait pieces. One of the idiosyncrasies of American raku is that it allows for the creation of innovative and loosely controlled surface effects in what is called āpost-firing reduction.ā This method is counterintuitive to the traditional Chinese approach to ceramics in which makers typically seek consistency and predictability in their products.
Another volatile ceramic method that Li encountered in his exploration of ceramic processes was the use of crystalline glazes. Crystalline glazes first played a significant role in Chinese ceramics during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), appearing primarily in muted colors on black-glazed wares such as tea bowls. Li carried out numerous experiments to find ways to facilitate the emergence of crystals that were larger and bolder. Crystalline glazes typically contain zinc oxide, which can form beautiful crystals in the cooling stages of a firing. Such crystals are cultivated by glaze composition and firing temperature manipulation but can never be completely controlled. Li hit upon the idea of using such glazes on classic Chinese vessel shapes to create striking, colorful works unlike any before seen. These pieces are beautiful both in profile and surface and serve to vividly connect Liās work to his Chinese heritage.
Yet, it was a by-product of Liās experimentation with crystalline glazes that sparked his greater innovations. As he fired more and more vessels with the unpredictable glazes, he generated an increasing number of āfailuresāāpieces with flaws that Li felt made them less than suitable for inclusion in his corpus. Typically, ceramic makers simply break such pieces and discard them in the most convenient way possible. The sherds of many pre-industrial ceramic failures were usually tossed away in the areas next to the kilns that fired themāonly to be discovered centuries later by collectors and researchers eager to verify the characteristics of those early wares.
Li Hongwei was struck by what a waste it was to simply throw away any piece that had the smallest flaw and began think about how such pieces might be salvaged. From his experience growing up, he knew that thingsāobjects, buildings, even peopleācould be restored and made useful again, and that their beauty should be preserved even if they were imperfect.
Beginning in 2013, Li began exploring ways to salvage and reuse examples of his work that had turned out differently than he intended. He hit upon the use of polished steel to supplement or replace areas that he felt needed to be removed because of glaze flaws or other problems. This led to an increasing focus on multimedia abstract sculpture rather than classic Chinese ceramic vessels with crystalline glazes. Through use of the sculptural medium, he could explore philosophical and aesthetic ideas that were restricted by adherence to the vessel format. He began to create porcelain shapes with crystalline glazes that had little or no relation to traditional Chinese ceramicsāshapes that expressed concepts found in Chinese philosophy, such as Daoism (aka Taoism)āand use steel to complete the forms in ways that matched his aesthetic vision. While the colorful glazes highlighted contrasts between pieces, the polished steel components reflected not only other elements of the constructed work, but even those who viewed them, making the audience a participant in the overall visual effect. Among the series Li produced in this mode are Allegory of Balance, Illusion, Xuan and Upwelling of Gravity.
Liās series Allegory of Balance expresses the Daoist concept of Yin and Yang, the positive and negative forces that complement and counteract each other. Whereas Western ideas of balance tend to be arbitrary and exact, deriving from measured factors such as weight and mass, balance in Daoist terms is much more holistic and organic. This is explored in Liās sculpture, which does not incorporate a strict 50-50 relationship between metal and porcelain, or balance based on two even or equal sides. Instead, this series explores balance as an aesthetic and theoretical concept, similar to the feng shui approach to the arrangement of space.
The Xuan and Upwelling of Gravity series explore forms derived from the behavior of liquids in motion, echoing the belief that the Dao is always in flux. Xuan is a Chinese word that vaguely means āmysteriousā or āprofound.ā Some pieces in this series are reminiscent of water droplets, but others give the sense of a much more viscous liquid, sometimes suspended between two points. That, no doubt, is part of the mystery. Upwelling of Gravity takes the movement of Xuan and literally turns it upside down, demonstrating that the energy of the Dao is not confined by the restrictions the physical world as we perceive it. Recently, these two series have been joined by Dan (Egg), which utilizes the same technical approach but considers instead aspects of birth and life.
Liās most recent work circles back to his earlier ideas of reuse and revitalization. He revisits the various series mentioned above, but incorporates sherds from earlier discarded pieces, using them to create a patchwork of color in place of the custom-formed porcelain of previous examples. He calls this new approach Fragments. Like his other sculptural work, the works in this series are created through a painstaking and lengthy process. Whereas works in the earlier series required that porcelain and metal be matched exactly to create a seamless fit, works of this series necessitate careful selection of hundreds of porcelain fragments that are attached individually to a mesh foundation that makes up a section of the overall shape. The effect that is created is one of a mosaic that represents the collective reinvigoration of works that were previously relegated to unusable status.
Like his natal city after the earthquake, Li Hongwei has developed methods to restore, revitalize, and reuse his fragmented surroundings to create work that is strikingly innovative and beautiful. What some might see as simple resourcefulness, to him is something much more significant. It represents restorationāand revision. As our world grows more crowded and our natural resources decrease, it is incumbent upon us to seriously consider our daily choices and look for beauty and utility in places that we have previously ignored. The Daoist ideals that Li seeks to express through his work require a commitment to preservation of not just human life, but to the ecosphere and, indeed, the Universe that sustains it.