Li Hongwei
“Xuan,” 2018. Fired porcelain and stainless steel, installation view. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago

Cultivating Dualities: A Conversation with Li Hongwei

Working at the intersection of tradition and innovation, and of Eastern and Western aesthetics, Li Hongwei brings ceramic vessels into the realm of abstraction. By combining ceramic with stainless steel, he joins fragility to solidity. Before the beginning of history, the former medium transformed civilizations around the world, while the latter has ties to industry, construction, and Modernism. Li also makes entirely self-sufficient vessels, which inscribe themselves comfortably within the venerable tradition of Chinese pottery. His works can be found in the collections of the British Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, and the Israel Museum—no small feat for an artist not yet 40 years of age.

Michaël Amy: Could you talk about your training? What styles and ideas were championed at your school?
Li Hongwei: The Department of Sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing has a five-year program that borrows its educational approach from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Repin Institute of Arts in St. Petersburg. Students in the sculpture department were trained to create realistic renderings of the human body. Our styles back then were 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. The emotional tenor of those figures is splendidly conveyed by bold forms and significant details, like grimaces or the depth of the eyes. During my five years at CAFA, I worked hard to improve my technical skills and my understanding of space. I have come to appreciate the rigorous training that I received there. I also looked at other approaches and produced some abstract sculpture during those years, working with steel, bronze, and different types of clay. Today, I am fully involved with abstract form.

MA: Were you exposed to art as a child?
When I was six years old, my father introduced me to an artist who lived in my town, who had considerable expertise as a classically trained Chinese calligrapher and landscape painter. That artist taught me basic composition and calligraphic brushstrokes, which have had a lasting impact on my practice.

Xuan, Li Hongwei
Xuan #20, 2018. Fired porcelain and stainless steel, 10.6 x 10.6 x 31 in. Photo: Li Hongwei Studio

MA: What inspired you to pursue ceramics at Alfred University, after completing your work in sculpture at CAFA?
LH: At the academy, I experimented with different materials and techniques, including casting and wood and stone carving. I used clay to make sculptures that were then cast in bronze or iron, and I tried to make sculptures out of a softer clay, which I then fired. For me, clay has a special power in the way that it takes on shape and changes. It is capable of seizing my emotions, movements, and memories. Back then, I could not feel anything close to a comparable connection with other materials, and I spent my last two years at CAFA experimenting with fired clay. I love the feeling of clay—this is why I went on to study at Alfred.

MA: You have homes in Beijing and in Alfred, New York, and maintain a large studio in Beijing, where you make all of your work, almost entirely single-handedly. How does moving between these very different worlds inspire your vision as an artist?
LH: Beijing has a civilization of considerable antiquity, whereas New York symbolizes modernity. Although we live in the age of globalism, both cities maintain distinct identities. I notice these differences in daily life and in the character of the architecture. I do not want to lock myself down in a familiar and comforting place. The in-between space where I find myself is better than one single place, because it keeps my mind active. Moving from one environment to another revitalizes me.

MA: What is your work about?
My work is about a way of thinking about and understanding life, culture, and our changing world. We all view the world differently because what we perceive are images reflected in our consciousness. The charm of the physical world is not what is most important—the key is how we intuit. I hope that my works encapsulate my personal experiences.

Li Hongwei
Illusion #7, 2018. Fired porcelain and stainless steel, 25.6 x 17.7 x 9.8 in. Photo: Li Hongwei Studio

MA: Can you illustrate these points with a couple of works?
In Illusion #7 (2018), we see a complete vase, though only half of a vase is affixed to the polished stainless steel plate—the vertically bisected object is completed by its reflection. There are parallels for this in life—we feel or see certain things that turn out not to be true. There is a metaphorical saying in Chinese Buddhist philosophy stating that we see the moon in the water, we truly see it there, though it is not in the water, merely reflected onto its surface, for the moon remains in the sky. The stainless steel parts of Allegory of Balance #30 (2018) reflect the world around it, thereby placing the here and now front and center. Our lives mirror the changes in the world.

MA: When you are away from your Beijing studio, you make notes and preparatory drawings for sculptures. Could you tell us more about these?
These notes and drawings are not meant to be developed into sculptures, though they inspire me. I simply draw what is in my mind at the moment, without thinking. A more rational and complicated process is involved in developing my ideas into sculpture, which requires repeated adjustments and improvements in terms of both concept and technique. Most of the time, the completed works do not correspond to my original notes or drawings, though they emerge from those ideas.

I find common aesthetic pursuits in Western and Eastern cultures. Years ago, at an exhibition of Renaissance drawings at the Met, I was fascinated by the intellectual explorations conducted by these artists through the process of drawing. The private investigations of Renaissance artists are similar to those of the Chinese literati. I am thinking of Wang Wei and Zhao Mengfu, who painted in order to learn—steeping themselves in the world of ideas—and to express themselves, not to serve the high and mighty. Their landscape paintings reflected their understanding of the cosmos. Their concept of the universe had a profound impact on how they represented mountains and other natural things. The Chinese literati painters created landscape paintings not with the intention of matching the appearances of landscape, but in order to seek the truth of nature. Their aim was to present the rhythms and laws of the universe through specific objects. In terms of aspiring to self-expression, my work is like that of the Chinese literati, but I aim to communicate with different audiences. The literati did not exhibit their works. In fact, they considered painting to be a means of self-cultivation. Sometimes they circulated their works among their close friends. Although different systems of pictorial expression were developed in the East and the West, the fusion between the creation of the artwork and the exploration of the universe is shared by both.

Untitled, 2018. Porcelain and stainless steel, dimensions variable. Photo: Li Hongwei Studio

MA: Why does abstract art matter?
Abstraction gives artists more possibilities for free expression because it is not tied to concrete objects or figures. With the rise of abstraction, art shifted from objective imitation to subjective expression—Kandinsky used purely abstract forms to express his emotions, and Mondrian used simplified grids to express his worldview. Abstract art also broadens understanding, because it does not tell viewers what it is about, but lets them imagine. Experiencing abstract art amounts to a creative process.

MA: Can abstraction convey big ideas in the way that figurative art once could? Is it more successful at expressing certain ideas and sensations than figuration?
LH: I do not believe that abstract art is superior to figurative art—or vice versa. They are just different. My choice to work in an abstract or figurative idiom comes from a kind of impulse. Some of my works are abstract, like the “Allegory of Balance” and “Xuan” series. I find ways of expressing my ideas about harmony and balance by experimenting with the forms in these series. Abstraction is best suited to my worldview. However, I also make figurative sculpture at the same time. Weight of Meditation is inspired by the power and grandeur of the Grand Canyon. The accumulation of stacked heads with their elongated proportions conveys my understanding of the sublime. The communication of concepts and sensations should not be limited to certain forms. Abstract forms can express specific feelings, and figurative forms can express abstract concepts. When we get rid of our prejudices with regard to certain forms and are honest about our true feelings, we will choose the right vehicle of expression.

Weight of Meditation #7, 2012. Bronze, 180 x 85 x 118 in. Photo: Li Hongwei Studio

MA: What is Allegory of Balance #10 (2015) about?
The juxtaposition of porcelain and stainless steel forms endows this work with a dual historical identity. Porcelain encapsulates China’s glorious heritage within the field of ceramics, while stainless steel brings in modernity. Porcelain, which played a significant role in China’s interaction with other countries, has become a symbol of traditional Chinese culture. Stainless steel, a modern material, is much used in the construction of the contemporary Chinese urban environment. When these two materials are brought together, a balanced and smooth structure is obtained that expresses the Chinese aesthetic of harmony and simplicity, while serving as a metaphor for the co-existence of past and present—in other words, history and contemporaneity. Allegory of Balance #10 is characterized by ovoid and tapering shapes that reference the Chinese concept of a square within a circle. The holistic structure encapsulates the essential Chinese idea of modesty. The splashes in the glazes combined with the oval forms represent the ideals of harmony, subtlety, and simplicity.

MA: How you first achieve the seemingly three-dimensional crystalline growths in your glazing? Was it by chance?
No, I learned this process by studying Song Dynasty porcelain. The crystalline glaze was obtained by chance early during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). The key component is the firing process. 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 a little to allow it to rise and fall. It all depends on the desired result. Many factors can affect the outcome, including how fast one raises and lowers the temperature, how long one holds a given temperature, and 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 final result, and often in a bad way.

Allegory of Balance #10, 2015. Fired porcelain and stainless steel, 26 x 18 x 62 in. Photo: Li Hongwei Studio

MA: How did Rebirth in Breakage come about?
Although I completed Rebirth in Breakage in 2015, I have returned to it over the past couple of years, adding panels with ceramic shards and changing the suspending armature. The shards come from pots that I could not use in other projects because of defects, so I smashed them, then recycled and rearranged the fragments in this sculpture.

Earth mixed with water becomes clay. Clay can be sculpted into three-dimensional shapes that turn into ceramic after firing. In time, the ceramic forms will break down and return to earth. This is the life cycle of ceramics. In Rebirth in Breakage, the ceramic shards do not go back to the earth to round off their circle. Instead, they have a chance to extend their lives and become an integral part of a new art form. They are broken, but live on. These shards also relate to the history of Chinese export porcelain, later retrieved from shipwrecks, and allude to the current status of Chinese ceramics in the world. It is no longer as glorious as it was in the past; its history is broken now. My piece is a metaphor for the rebirth of Chinese ceramics.

MA: What is Upwelling of Gravity #21 (2018) about?
It is tied to early Chinese cosmology. I created the rounded porcelain body on a wheel and finished the tapering stainless steel part—which is joined to the porcelain—by hand, thereby creating a typical Chinese form: the round in the square, and the square in the round. In ancient China, people thought that the heavens were domed and the earth was square; thus, the square within the circle is often seen as a powerful symbol linking heaven and earth.

Rebirth in Breakage
Rebirth in Breakage, 2015. Fired porcelain, stainless steel, and iron, 108 x 34 x 79 in. Photo: Li Hongwei Studio

MA: Is Surrealism of interest to you? I ask because your compositions of stacked vases and ovoid stainless steel forms resemble certain Surrealist biomorphic abstractions.
LH: My works are conceptually different from Surrealism. The Surrealists were influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis and attached importance to the unconscious and the subconscious. Dreams and the imagination are crucial resources for the Surrealist artist. My works, on the contrary, are the outcome of conscious deliberations. Everything I do is carefully planned from beginning to end, including making preparatory sketches, selecting materials, and addressing technical issues. I make my sculptures entirely by hand, by myself. I appreciate a slow, entirely manual process.

My aims and methods have roots in Chinese philosophy: everything has two sides, yin and yang. If two parts work really well together, one obtains very good results. I draw from the I Ching, which explains how to explore the cosmos. The combination of porcelain and stainless steel is a metaphor for that. The Buddhist philosophy of life means a lot to me. It teaches me how to look inward and how to cultivate an inner world. I have been reading Buddhist writings for decades and have learned a lot from them. As we live in the world, we need opportunities, and we need doors to be opened for us. But for many things, the most important door can only be opened from the inside, not from the outside. For me, making art is one such thing. I learned from experience that I have to create work according to my heart’s desire—without catering to the market—fully develop my ideas, and work very hard and honestly in the studio. When all of this is achieved, opportunities come along, and the outside door is opened.