PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE ASIAN COLLECTION
"Looking up to the sky, I am called to receive the auspicious rain, as water turns into gold under the radiant sun" -Li Chen
Taken from the Spiritual Journey through the Great Ether series, Golden Rain (Lot 46) was completed in 2005. The creative impetus of the work stemmed from this moment when Li Chen was inspired by the beautiful scenery at Gaomei Wetlands in Qingshui District, Taichung, Taiwan. As the rain fell, Li Chen watched the sunset over the horizon, and the raindrops glistening golden in twilight. Some children were playing jovially in the rain. It was a perfect unison of the self and nature for the artist, who transformed this scene in his memory into the sculpture Golden Rain. The sculpture portrays a child who has byakugo eyebrows and elongated ears touching his shoulders. With his head tilted back towards the sky, he has his eyes closed and a content look on his face, as he receives the golden raindrops. A closer look reveals four raindrops on his neck that resemble another face. Here, Li Chen seeks to amplify the intuitive perception to convey a unique sense of humour and optical illusion, presenting a different experience to the viewer. The work also alludes to the generative cycle where “gold gives birth to water” in the system of Wu Xing (five elements) to elucidate the genesis of life. The imagery of “the world engulfed in a golden dusk” opens up a boundless realm of imagination.
The distinctive style of Li Chen’s art has been shaped by his creation of Buddha sculptures over the years, and his internalized understanding of ‘Buddha’ and ‘Dao’ (the path). He expresses through sculpture a purely oriental spiritual essence—a smiley and endearing figure with a smooth and sumptuous surface, it possesses a crystalline purity in its texture, the gentleness of gold and the energy of black. This illumination of “the lightness of weight”, “the realness of the illusory”, and “ethereal beauty” reveals a carefree and transcendent attitude. Li Chen’s connection with Buddha sculptures began with a chance suggestion made to him by a friend who engages in spiritual practice. Through his own exploration, Li Chen gradually developed different views of the universe. In 1998, Li Chen’s father passed away, and his sorrow propelled him to contemplate the mystery of the existence. Drawing insights from his practice of zazen, Li Chen said, “When we see a material that is black, it always feels heavy. When you are practising zazen or when you have your eyes closed, black is the lightest colour.” Between its deceptive heaviness and its transcendental stillness, the unique charm of ‘black’ gives concrete form to the illusory. It also guides Li Chen to discover the right language for his artistic creation. In the world of Li Chen’s art, there is a childlike innocence and an eternal wisdom that lies beyond words, conveying an unrestrained spiritual energy to the viewer. This is in complete contrast to the coldness and the emphasis on sensory excitement in Western sculpture. For instance, while the famous sculpture by Nazar Bilyk (Fig. 1) hints at a similar realm as the one depicted in Golden Rain, the work revolves around traditional motifs in Western art such as the aesthetics of the body, and the relationship between human and nature. If Western sculpture captures a certain moment of the body “in motion”, Li Chen’s sculpture encapsulates the rhythm of one’s interior world.
The image of one looking up to the sky and receiving the rain in Golden Rain is a symbol of the inseparable relationship between the sky, the earth, and human. The harmonious contrast between black and gold seems to ignite an intense vitality in emptiness, which echoes the spiritual concept of “emptiness does not contain nothingness”. Upon closer look at the slight creases on the clothing, one sees that Li Chen has simplified the design of the outfits of traditional Buddha statues; his sculpture harkens back to the minimalist style of Buddha statues from the Northern dynasties, where Buddha is clad in clothing that fits snugly to the body. The image of Buddha bathing (Fig. 2) reminds one that Buddha was bathed in auspicious rain the moment he was born. As stated in Verse of Bathing Buddha: “We now bathe the various tathagatas, who are adorned with pure wisdom and virtue; may living beings of the five turbid realms be led from samsara, and together realize the pure Dharma-body of Tathagata.” The child lifts up his kasaya and holds a bowl of golden raindrops. The raindrop splashes symbolize the perpetuation of the truth of Tathagata’s teachings, which enlightens the Buddha-nature in all living beings and cleanses them of afflictions and impurities. This echoes the ancient wisdom described in The Lotus Sutra: “He rains sweet dew and Dharma rain, which extinguish the flames of affliction.” An innocent heart is as radiant as pure gold, and crystalline as the truth of Tathagata’s teachings. The image of holding a bowl of water in the kasaya carries similar connotations as Buddha holding the alms bowl (Fig. 3). Carrying the alms bowl symbolizes carrying abundant wisdom and good karma, while the emptiness of the alms bowl symbolizes that one can only attain true spiritual fulfillment by grasping the essence ‘emptiness’. From the blissful expression on the child’s face, it is not hard to imagine the fulfillment of the soul which, having been cleansed, grasps the essence of ‘emptiness’ and becomes filled with wisdom.
A viewer who sees Golden Rain for the first time is astounded by the ingenious combination of ‘black’ and ‘gold’. Since antiquities, gold has been a symbol of divinity and eternity in human civilization because of its sun-like radiance and its durability. Apart from the patterning of green bronzes with gold and silver inlays in ancient China, statues of gods in ancient Egypt (Fig. 4) were often embellished with gold inlays to endow them with magical power. In Golden Rain, Li Chen uses ‘gold’ to symbolize eternal concepts such as the truth of Tathagata’s teachings and the wisdom of Buddha-nature, illustrating the perpetuation and reinterpretation of culture. Li Chen’s pursuit of refinement is also evident in the techniques employed in the making of this sculpture, where emphasis is placed on the change of texture in fine details. For instance, while the body of the child is entirely in black, the artist renders the fine details like the face and the forehead by highlighting the gradation of texture and subtle differences between the matt surface and the glossy surface. It endows the sculpture with a lifelike naturalness, and a faint yet delicate glow. Taking a closer look at the four raindrops on the neck, one sees that they display a totally different texture than the golden raindrops in the bowl. The gradation of gold colour appears where the raindrops come into contact with the body, as it imitates drops of water falling. The perfection of these fine details is what makes Li Chen’s work come to life for the viewer. Golden Rain was selected for Li Chen’s solo exhibition, “Energy of Emptiness”, in the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, which made Li Chen the first Taiwanese artist to be invited as an individual to present a solo exhibition in the event. In 2008, the work was showcased in the solo exhibition “Li Chen: In Search of Spiritual Space” in the National Art Museum of China. It was also featured as the cover art of the exhibition catalogue. In 2009, the work was showcased in “Li Chen: Mind·Body·Spirit”, a solo exhibition by Li Chen held by the Singapore Art Museum. The Spiritual Journey through the Great Ether series thus became one of the most popular series by Li Chen.
Li Chen said, “I don’t live in tradition; I live in the present. That’s why I want to explore in my art the expression of our time.” In the contemporary era when a good many souls are drowned in material desire and anxiety, Li Chen reinterprets ‘emptiness’ in Buddhism and ‘Qi’ (energy) in Daoism with his purest innocence; he then instills the energy into the heart of the viewer through his art. There is no wonder that those who have seen Li Chen’s work say it both soothes and shakes them. Embodying a childlike delight and profound philosophical reflections at the same time, these works are inspired by traditional thought and religion. They encapsulate Li Chen’s unique insights into the external universe and one’s interior world, while resonating with a touch of humour. They are works
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE ASIAN COLLECTION
signed in Chinese and ‘Li Chen’, numbered ‘8/8’, dated ‘2005’ (engraved on the lower back)
LI CHEN (TAIWAN, B. 1963)
Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Li Chen : Mind, Body, Spirit, 17 September – 9 December 2009 (different size and edition exhibited).
Asia Art Center, Li Chen: Energy of Emptiness - 52nd International Art Exhibition, Taipei, Taiwan, 2007 (different size and edition illustrated, p. 186-189).
Asia Art Center, Li Chen in Beijing: In Search of Spiritual Space – Solo Exhibition at National Art Museum of China, Taipei, Taiwan, 2008 (different size and edition illustrated, cover and p. 130-139).
Singapore Art Museum, Li Chen : Mind, Body, Spirit, Singapore, 2010 (different size and edition illustrated, p. 90-91).
Asia Art Center, Greatness of Spirit: Li Chen Premiere Sculpture Exhibition in Taiwan, Taipei, Taiwan, 2012 (different size and edition, illustrated, p.162).
Private Collection, Asia