The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Monday, August 21, 2017

Magician of Paper: Li Hongbo

Li Hongbo makes extraordinary, moveable, stretchable, slinky-like sculptural installations from paper: here is the start of my profile for The Art Life based on a long conversation with the artist held in his Beijing studio in 2015. I have to say, I've been in an awful lot of freezing cold artists' studios in China in the last few years, but Li Hongbo's rural barn was definitely the most frigid - I dropped my notebook and voice recorder on the floor several times because without my gloves, my fingers were so numb.

As a little boy in rural Jilin Province, in China’s far north-east –– closer to North Korea and Russia than to Beijing –– Li Hongbo made his own simple playthings from paper, taking pages out of school exercise books to construct toy planes, trucks and trains. Now, as an artist working in Beijing, exhibiting across the globe, he is known for extraordinary large-scale installations such as the two life-sized expanding figures held in the White Rabbit Collection, or ‘Ocean of Flowers’, an installation of brightly-coloured paper guns and weaponry seen on Cockatoo Island at the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012. The intimacy of handling paper resonates with childhood memories of folk art traditions and his own hand-made toys. Today, having mastered the art of cutting, gluing and carving thousands of sheets of cheap brown paper to transform this humble material into intricately designed kinetic forms, Li Hongbo says that what he enjoys most, apart from the endless possibilities of the medium, is its accessibility. He believes that Chinese people have a special bond with paper that comes from a deep cultural memory.
Li Hongbo, Paper, 2010, dimensions variable, image courtesy White Rabbit Collection
Li’s concertina-like expandable sculptures begin as stacks of paper; until they are stretched and pulled into new shapes they appear as if carved from stone or wood. As a student Li Hongbo researched how paper was used in Chinese folk art, influenced by the significant artist and teacher, Lü Shengzhong, who revived a Chinese craft tradition with his own contemporary papercut installations. Lü’s emphasis on the importance of folk art inspired his students to undertake field research in remote areas of rural China, recording obscure and endangered arts and crafts and learning their techniques. Returning to Beijing, Li Hongbo and his contemporaries sought new ways to embed these traditions into their own art practice: Li experimented with the Chinese ‘honeycomb’ paper folding technique.
In late 2015, I spoke with Li Hongbo in his Beijing studio and asked him what it is about paper that he finds so endlessly fascinating. What follows is an edited extract of that conversation:
Li Hongbo: Firstly, it is because it is very cheap and very common, and accessible to everyone. And it is everywhere, it has a special bond with people. Secondly, Chinese traditional culture has a lot to do with paper. It’s about cultural memory and tradition. People have never stopped their investigation into the endless possibilities of paper. I love paper.
Luise Guest: When, and how, did your interest in the magical possibilities and properties of paper originate?
LH: When we were little a lot of toys were made of paper; toys at that time were very expensive so children would use paper to make things like aeroplanes. They would even tear their textbooks to use that paper to make toys. My handmade toys were very popular with my classmates so I had very good relationships with them! Then later I was a book designer, and I also studied ancient Chinese Buddhist books and wood block printing. So, paper was created long before the Tang Dynasty – more than 4000 years ago – and when I studied the ancient traditions and religious paintings I discovered that paper was a medium that carried history and carried stories. All of this led to my fascination with the endless possibilities of paper.
LG: How did you develop the skills needed to make these extraordinary sculptures?
LH: Originally, I studied Chinese folk art and I am also an expert on Chinese paper culture. The ancient Chinese were very clever; they could make various toys with one sheet of paper that can take various forms. So, I learned how to make my own works in this traditional way.
LG: Is this ‘honeycomb’ gourd technique that you use similar to the method used to make traditional lanterns?
LH: Yes, very much so.
LG: Can you tell me a little about your background – your childhood and student years in Jilin Province before you came to Beijing? I am curious to know about your earliest experiences of art.
LH: When I was young I was very naughty and I liked making toys with my own hands – toys were very expensive so my parents would not buy me toys, and I became very good at it. I liked painting, so I grew very confident in these things. I never stopped painting. At Spring Festival in 2013 I discovered that my mother had collected every artwork I had made since I was a small child, from primary school to college. All of those exercise books were filled with sketches and drawings – but very few notes! In senior high school, I began to learn things and in college I majored in art education. I did not work as a teacher, though, because I wanted a career as an artist, so after graduation I came to Beijing. [In Beijing, Li completed two Masters Degrees at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, in Folk Art and in Experimental Art, over a period of ten years.]
Li Hongbo, Paper, detail.
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