Li Yuduan's Ceramic Sculpture
Source:Artintern Author:Jonathan Goodman Date: 2016-07-19 Size:
Li Yuduan is a midcareer ceramic sculptor who creates exquisite works that……


Li Yuduan is a midcareer ceramic sculptor who creates exquisite works that range from the erotic to the philosophical. His remarkable skill shows him to be an artist in keeping with traditional ceramic techniques; however, he invests his forms with a conceptual bias that ultimately transforms their existence as art. Certainly, ceramic sculpture is far from being unknown in contemporary Chinese art. But Li’s achievement is to have informed his sculptures with an unsettling presence that deems them contemporary, that is, new works of art. His ceramic pillows with nubile female nudes resting upon them serve as an erotic introduction to the tradition, focusing on beauty and desire to the point where they may seem decorative. The problem with ceramic art is that, at least in the West, its decorative qualities make it vulnerable to the criticism that it is not quite serious. Yet the decorative arts in Asia have been taken to so high a level, it makes perfect sense that Li would be able to maintain his ambition within the tradition of his choice. Craft, which is a troubling issue in the often badly made art of an over-intellectualized West, is one of Lee’s strengths. His love of the medium enables him to escape the impasse of seeing ceramic work as somehow lesser than work made of more acceptable materials, such as wood, steel, and stone.

As time goes on in the global art world, it proves difficult to reject almost anything as art. The critical view has become democratic, accepting new forms. The problem lies in artists’ abilities to make objects that are interesting enough to serve as a touchstone for the way viewers might classify art. With access to Western art magazines and to the Internet, Chinese artists now know very well what is happening outside their country. But they have not necessarily decided to make art from a Western point of view. In regard to Li, we find his art attempting to bridge the gap between the traditional and the new, in a medium many have seen as secondary in importance. We know, however, that this is not the case. Art has become much broader in its expressions; decoration and pattern making even had their own movement as fine art in America in the 1970s. Li makes work that begins with the decorative and then transcends it, so that one hardly recalls previous boundaries limiting the importance of ceramics as an art form. In the West, the ceramicists Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos come to mind as artists who transformed their medium; Voulkos especially created sculptures far-reaching in their consequences for an expanded three-dimensional language.

In light of these artists’ achievements, Western ceramic sculpture can no longer be seen as merely kitsch or overly decorative. But Li’s situation is somewhat different. One of his esthetic decisions is to deliberately make work that, while within the tradition, moves beyond his culture’s past, which is then updated in art whose concepts contemporize both intention and form. The frank eroticism in his art of course represents a departure from the past, while his more recent works—a red brain whose surface is covered with the numbered faces of dice and a lifesize transparent sculpture, of the artist lying down—signal an inquiring sensibility, one in which tradition quietly influences objects that bear little resemblance to the historical works they may be in dialogue with. But this is not so important as it seems. Any good work that is radical in regard to origins will be aware of those origins even as they are translated anew, in forms that do not recall the past. The tension between the two positions may not be as problematic as people think.

The brain, very large, made of red glass, and lit from within by electric light, shows us that Li is a highly original sculptor. The different numbers of dots on a single die make a comment about chance and happenstance—events beyond our control. The dots are not limitless, but represent an order we can only fleetingly make sense of—with our brain, the object made by Li. Even the synapses of the brain are limited, no matter how large a number they may be. As a result, the surface of the red brain is symbolic of chance and fate, while the brain represents our attempt to make sense of chance and fate. One hesitates to interpret too heavily, but Li’s choice to cover the folds of the cerebellum with die faces represents a clear symbolism. The glass glows with its inner light, while the surface captures the light as it exists in the room in which it sits. Its exterior, buffed with cloth for hours by Li’s assistants, glows marvelously. While this is work of high originality, we must remember that its concepts are new, but not its materials. The material contributes to our sense that this is a beautiful object.

In the future, more boundaries will break down in art, especially in a geographical sense. It will be harder to come across images specifically resonant of a particular culture. It isn’t certain that this is a good thing—much of the beauty in culture derives from the fact that styles indicate different places and traditions. But now we have circumstances in which the work becomes hard to place, belonging to what is best described as a general worldview. Sculpture transcends boundaries between the West and Asia more easily than painting because the oil and ink painting traditions are so very different from each other. As a result, it is easier to make an argument for globalism in sculpture. There is nothing per se about Li’s art—the brain and the life-size figurative sculpture—that connects him to his Chinese past. Instead, the brain is universally recognizable, as are the die faces that cover it; additionally, Li’s nude self-portrait, a figurative work, may be seen as transcending the limits of Chinese culture.



Li’s self-portrait is beautifully made—it consists of a life-size version of himself, naked, lying down. The head and body are exquisitely modeled; its proportions and details are striking in their particulars. Cast in a semitransparent material, the sculpture looks like cloudy glass. Li rests his head on a shaped pillow, but psychologically the piece is troubled—his face is distorted into a grimace, and his mouth is open as if he were screaming. The contrast between the work’s finely articulated facture and the emotional content of the figure gives the sculpture a very modern energy. This energy convinces Li’s audience that they are not looking at an academic study; instead, they are viewing a man who is in the midst of screaming—at what, we hardly know. Yet the fact that the figure does so shows us that Li has set out to make a work in keeping with the expressionist esthetic. The shards of transparent material that have been placed under and around Li’s body add to the feeling that something is wrong. As well made as the sculpture is, we cannot see it merely as a technical tour de force. Instead, its strength derives from its emotional intensity.

It is important for Li to establish a distance between himself and the academy—largely because the academy tends to focus only on technical achievement. Because academic figurative training is so entrenched a teaching methodology in Chinese art schools, it proves hard to escape its influence. But Li has done so by stressing the emotional in his portrait of himself; additionally, by including the shards surrounding his body, he undermine the imagistic perfection of the figure. Li’s sculpture reinforces our intuition that the troubles of the last century—in China’s case, the events of the Cultural Revolution and the tragedy of Tiananmen Square—remain a part of the imagination of its artists. Figuration, and not abstraction, can be considered the medium adequate to the demands of social commentary. It is perhaps too large a leap to interpret the sculpture’s grimacing face as a reaction to the historic events and changes in China. Nevertheless, as viewers we want to know why the figure is crying. While it is important not to overinterpret, at the same time one feels the sculpture’s meaning is not only psychological. Li casts himself as a kind of everyman, someone who has survived some of the struggles that have occurred in China during his lifetime.



A final work, a ceramic skull covered with decorative visual motifs deriving from nature, has a grim humor adding to its presence. The skull of course is a reminder of death that anyone from any culture can recognize. Perhaps the decorative elements covering its surface are meant to disguise or hide the inevitable finality of death. Here Li estheticizes the brutal fact of our mortality. The piece becomes that much more expressive because of its transparent reference to the limits of life. Death is a major subject in art; the memento mori has been taken up by Li, who invests it with superficial beauty. The contrast between the fact of the skull and its exquisite surface treatment shows us that Li is presenting a wry perspective on a universal theme. The exterior of the skull is covered with images that refer to water: fish leap among waves. The skill used in making the sculpture is remarkable; Li’s technique adds to the irony of the sculpture’s exterior, which nearly explodes with life but cannot hide the fact that it is a skull that we are seeing. Li’s technical skill invests the object with stunning detail, which deflects our interest from the skull’s more general purpose, which is to remind us of death. Can art triumph over death? It is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered, although the artist might argue that even if death cannot be stopped, it can be transformed by art.

As happens with many good artists, Li brings to light dualities such as life and death, craft and meaning, in ways that fuse them in the object itself. His skill is beyond question; his process clearly ties him to the achievements of Chinese ceramic art of the past. But his sensibility, while not postmodern in the Western sense, remains contemporary. The conceptual spirit in his sculpture demonstrates Li’s willingness to work with ideas, which transform his traditional means of manufacture into something new. This represents a real achievement—how often does one turn a medium as old as ceramics into a vehicle for modern content? Li shows us that such themes as chance, self-representation, and depth can be portrayed as new subjects, despite the fact that these topics are as old as their human perception of them. As a result, the commonplace thesis becomes an exceptional object, one capable of raising important questions. Li makes objects to remind us of ourselves and our obsessions—with fate, with death, which remain interesting as topics despite centuries of discussion. Art is the only place where our troubled concerns mean something beyond their ability to disturb our minds. Li’s ceramic sculptures fulfill our wish to sensuously appreciate ideas, which expand our ability to speculate. His art helps us appreciate concepts that are central to our experience.

[Editor] 张艳