Li Chen: Eternity and Commoner
February 18 – April 15, 2012
The Frye Art Museum presents the first U.S. museum exhibition of Li Chen, a leading sculptor working in Shanghai and Taiwan, who is known internationally for his monumental figurative sculptures informed by a mixture of Buddhist philosophy and contemporary art practice. The exhibition takes place in conjunction with NCECA 2012, the annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, being held March 28-31, 2012 in Seattle.
Li Chen: Eternity and Commoner premieres a new series of works by the artist titled The Constitution of Immortality that explores our shared desire for eternity and perfection. In contrast to the spectacular bronze and stainless steel sculptures that brought Li Chen renown, the present works are spare and restrained, their construction from simple wood, rope, and clay conveying an elemental physicality.
“It’s a bodily evolution,” Li Chen said. “I have chosen to pursue vicissitude while retaining the mark of the spirit. We are attached to illusion and completeness in appearance and have neglected the beauty of imperfection.” In his large-scale installation Eternity and in the sculptural “body” of Commoner, both specially conceived for the spaces of the Frye Art Museum, Li poses the question: is life determined by the material, and the bodily, or by spiritual vitality? Can life continue as a legend, a belief, in a form outside of the physical body?
The installation Eternity consists of a towering, twelve-foot-tall wooden figure in a room-sized bed of clay dust. This figure is surrounded by small “gods,” or escorts, in a parade formation typical at traditional temple fairs in Taiwan. Known for their resplendent costumes, music, and dance, today many fairs have become tourist spectacles with robots, lion dance competitions, sports events, and martial arts. For Li Chen, the parade is reminiscent of public displays by the “modern gods” of the twenty-first century who brandish their wealth and privilege in the company of subordinate “small gods.” Stripped of their glory, reduced to skeletons of wood in Eternity, lying in a glass case like Commoner, our modern gods are reminded by Li Chen of the transience of human life and earthly power.
Also included in the Frye Art Museum exhibition curated by Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker are powerful figures from the series Soul Guardians (2008-9) in which Li Chen reflected on natural and man-made disasters, the relentless consumption of the earth’s resources, and the retaliation of nature. Created as studies in wood, rope, clay, and wax that were later transformed into large-scale sculptures, Sky Breaking Gale, Earth Piercing Fire, Visual Perception, and Audio Perception are expressive, natural bodies. Some clay figures are kept “alive” for a time by Li (he applies water to their surfaces); others are allowed to “die,” their bodies tearing apart to reveal wooden skeletons underneath as the clay dries and separates.
This transformation of natural materials over time is an important aspect of Li’s recent work, and a reminder that earthly power will crumble and the affairs of the human heart will fade. It is also an admonition from Li that we, fated to wax and wane, are the guardians of treasures that are imperishable: the human spirit and wisdom passed from generation to generation. For Li, the Commoner, holding a husk of wheat, is as tenacious as grass, and as creative and vital as the common necessities of life.
In all his work but especially in The Constitution of Immortality, Li displays a fascination with the threshold between the vitality of life and the quiescence of death, and with the extreme dynamism of spiritual activity in the midst of mortal struggle.
"Our present world is unsafe and full of mishap, the pace of uncertainty ever greater, the gods are no longer benign."