Cutting The Edge: Li Hongbo
From outside the Klein Sun gallery, Li Hongbo’s sculptures are ostensibly porcelain replicas of Greco-Roman busts. They possess the sort of aesthetic banality that inspires an eye-roll. A vacant stab at irony, you might think to yourself. The initial impression, however, is pretense—lift one of the heads and it opens up into an inconceivable accordion of thousands of layers of paper. A Roman youth is pulled and turned like some amorphous caterpillar; an English maid fans into contortion; the head of David, outspread and unrecognizable, restores effortlessly to the lionized face.
“I discovered the flexible nature of paper through Chinese paper toys and lanterns,” Hongbo says of his initial fascination with the material. His technique, simple in its own right, doesn’t stray too far from that of the national iconography either. He layers sheets of paper one by one, gluing each down in alternating arrangements to create a honeycomb pattern, then sculpts three-inch blocks of the fastened leaflets with wood working tools and joins the blocks to complete the piece.
The concertinaed results speak to the malleability of human perception, eroding the distinction between discernible and actual truth. “It’s about the possibility of control over a certain space,” the artist says. “When people look at a box, they think, It’s a box. But, actually, it can change into another thing. I want to change the image, change how people see things so that they think in another way, and more deeply.”
Hongbo’s intentions come through with authority. The transformations—of flat paper into seemingly solid sculpture, and of motionless bust into tensile carving—are as jarring as they are playful. You’re simultaneously hit with the musings of effective art and the wonder of a magic trick, caught between a mature transcendence and a childhood incredulity.
A renewed sense of the banal was Hongbo’s inspiration behind carving busts, as well. “I feel passionate about these classic statues,” he says. “When I first started practicing art, instead of drawing a living person, forcing them to pose still for hours on end, our professors would make us draw the busts of widely renowned sculptors. The busts became patient friends and mentors of mine. To breathe new life and revitalize old memories, I have recreated [them] using my own mode of expression through paper.” Hence the exhibition title, Tools of Study.
Perhaps the most striking component of the work’s transformative property, though, is in the very countenances of the sculptures. Their facial expressions move from stringent austerity when immobile, to animated drollery when stretched, to entirely unfamiliar when fully extended (some could stretch the length of the gallery). The range captures the capriciousness of a day; it encapsulates the fragile, unpredictable nature of human temperament. Like us, the sculptures emote.
The many objectives of Hongbo’s work begin with the choice of material itself: the use of commonplace paper for such complex design. “When I see a new type of paper or a new creative way to use it, an impulse drives me to explore, yet again, an unknown aspect of the language of paper,” the bibliophile and former book editor says. It’s the sort of thinking that evokes the illusion of limits. There is always more to be seen.
Li’s WILD Wish: I hope my work can be exhibited in every country around the world.