A Conversation with Li Hongwei
Rehema C. Barber
Chief Curator, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
Li Hongweiās works feature whirling and brilliant colors, the artistās unique visual language, and reflect the images of their viewers. I spoke with Hongwei about his work and process, and how he hopes people will respond to the blending of ceramics and stainless steel in his unique sculptures.
Rehema Barber (RB): Your early sculptures were more figurative; can you talk about the shift in your practice from fired clay and porcelain to fired porcelain and stainless steel?
Li Hongwei (LH): I received my BFA in sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, which borrows its educational approach from the Ćcole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Repin Institute of Arts in St. Petersburg. We were trained to create realistic renderings of the human body, inspired by the works of Michelangelo, Carpeaux, and Rodin. I was also enamored of the Qin Dynasty terra-cotta army, the terra-cotta dancers from the Han Dynasty, and Buddhist sculpture from the Yungang grottoes. I experimented with different materials and techniques, including casting and wood and stone carving. I made clay sculptures that were then cast in bronze or iron, and sculptures out of a softer clay that I then fired. For me, clay has a special power in how it takes on shape and changes. It seized my emotions, movements, and memories like no other material, and I spent my last two years at CAFA experimenting with fired clay. I then got my MFA in ceramic art at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University at Alfred, NY. I studied Song Dynasty (960-1279) ceramics to learn crystalline glaze (which had been discovered by chance). This glaze is strong and artistic and works best on simple forms. My experience directed me to the idea that combining crystalline glaze and stainless steel would fit my abstract forms.
RB: Do you start with a sketch or work intuitively? Can you discuss the process of building your forms? What does a day in your studio typically look like?
LH: Many of my ideas come from my travels and some come from the making process. In general, when I have an idea I start with clay, but also make sketches. I use small 3-dimensional studies, select the ideal ones, use foam to figure out the scale of the work, then work on the life-size model. Scale is very important for sculptures. After working on space and scale, I work on the actual materials. Usually, the finished sculpture is quite different from the original idea because my ideas keep changing. I work in the studio around ten hours a day. I spend some time reading, then work on my art the rest of the time.
RB: Do you think about how the viewer will experience the work in relation to their body?
LH: The viewer plays an important role in my work. With a smaller piece there is a sense of intimacy. With larger works I think about how the viewer will interact with the piece. Stainless steel has a reflective quality and the surface is curved; the form and the material reflect the viewer. I think about how the viewer will react, seeing themselves on the surface of the stainless steel. When people look at the ceramics, their reflection is blurry. But when their eyes move to the steel surface, their reflection becomes clear. In general, the larger pieces are for public spaces, so viewers can walk around the work. I make life-size studies to experience the piece before finishing it. I communicate with the piece by pretending I am the viewerāI look at the piece and see how I feel. The viewer is a bridge to connect the past and present.
RB: Your works express individual creativity, but they also have the ability to interact with viewers. Can you talk about physical space and your work in relation to these ideas?
LH: I think that art is a kind of languageāa visual language. When people communicate, their own specific languages can be a barrier to being able to speak with one another. With art, I feel I find a way to clearly convey my ideas, and the artwork is very open to speak with viewers. I hope my art communicates my ideas to the viewer, but also that the viewer really sees themselves through my work. I communicate my ideas through this visual language, thatās why the scale and other aspects of the artwork are important, but when viewers experience my work, they see their own reflection, their lives.
RB: Iām curious about the Allegory of Balance series. Those sculptures merge and flow together but have distinct shapes throughout them. There is a play between materials and form. Can you talk about this a bit more?
LH: The ovoid and tapering shapes of Allegory of Balance reference the Chinese concept of a square within a circle. In early Chinese cosmology, the earth was square and the heavens were domed, thus the square within the circle is a powerful symbol linking heaven and earth. In terms of sculpture, a square within a circle conveys a sense of rigidity inside and softness outside. When fired porcelain and stainless-steel combine, the resulting balanced and smooth structure conveys the Chinese aesthetic of harmony and simplicity and serves as a metaphor for the co-existence of the past and presentāin other words, history and contemporaneity. Can tradition and contemporary coexist harmoniously without compromising the charm of each? I try to answer this question by experimenting with different materials, colors, and forms. The combination of traditional, colorful porcelain and contemporary, stainless steel, with the various shapes stacking together, creates musical rhythm. Different historical periods compose an allegory of balance and harmony.
RB: The works in Balancing the Cosmos: Works by Li Hongwei are from several different series. What are some thoughts or themes behind the Xuan, Upwelling of Gravity, and Fragments series?
LH: With the Xuan, I read a lot of Daoism, Chinese philosophy. I use the unique characteristics of and pronunciations in the Chinese language as a metaphor for or pun to express the philosophy of āXuanā ( ē, meaning mysterious), by way of something āXuanā ( ę¬, meaning hanging). In Chinese philosophy, it is very deep, very thoughtful, so I hang the work in the air to open the door to the mysterious. This idea also inspires the Upwelling of Gravity series. The Chinese title called āLiā ( å±“, meaning high mountain), shares the same Chinese pronunciation with āLiā ( ē«, meaning stand), and āLiā ( äø½, meaning beauty). For the Fragments series, fragment means separation, disintegration of the whole, loss of order; fragment can refer to confusion, damage, and even destruction. However, these ceramic shards from different porcelain vessels have become my self-sufficient visual language; after reorganization and splicing, the fragments construct a new whole. The shards become the key to eliminating boundaries and crossing the gap. Chaos and order, separation and unity, fragmentation and wholeness.
RB: The glazing process can be unpredictable. Are there times when unexpected effects are achieved? What do you do with those works?
LH: The firing process is key. I fire the porcelain at a very high temperature and then suddenly reduce the heat to let the temperature drop to a certain level, which I maintain for a few hours. If necessary, I adjust the temperature. It all depends on the desired result. Many factors can affect the outcomeāhow fast I change the temperature, how long I hold a given temperature, how thickly the glaze is applied. These variables enable me to control the size, shape, number, and color of the crystals, though I can only control up to 80 percent of the outcome; the rest is in the hands of God. I am always surprised by the result, and often in a bad way. If it ends up a perfect piece, I am very excited. If it is an unwanted result, I consider it an opportunity to break the rules to create something new. Thatās why I started to cut ceramic forms into irregular shapes.
RB: Ceramicists historically break vessels for quality issues. What made you start breaking vessels? How long does it take to make these monumental works?
LH: It takes a few months to makes these pieces, to work on the stainless steel, the structure, the ceramics, and the glaze. I save only the perfect pieces, keeping the very best quality vessels. Otherwise, I break them to create the shards. I canāt just use any broken vessel, though; it must have a specific shape depending on the form I need. I gently break vessels to get the ideal shards, trying to save as much as I can. When I work on the shards, there is an idea behind it. I touch every element of the artwork, every shard, and even though I have assistants I am the only person working on the glaze and the firing. I use my heart in every pieceāthereās no hate involved. When the ceramics are broken, Iām just changing the ceramicās lifeāa sort of back to nature. By using shards, I extend its life, I create something new. I think about how things come together. I think about human life. Thereās a plan, but then thereās no plan. I started working with the shards in 2019, right before the pandemic. I traveled across the U.S. and noticed a lot of conflict. For me, the ceramic shards mean brokenness, damage, destruction, but I try to find a good way to make them come together, a constructive way to connect the parts. Iām trying to bring broken things together in a new way.
RB: I think what youāre saying is that although weāre different, our differences donāt have to divide us. We can reconcile our differencesārecognize our brokenness as peopleābecause everyone has pain. By recognizing this, we get to see one anotherās humanity.
LH: Thatās it. Weāre not as different as we think; there is beauty even in the damaged parts.