The Humanistic Sculpture of LEE Kuang-Yu
Text/ HSIAO Chong-Ray Art Historian, Professor, Department of History, National Cheng Kung University
In the development process of modern Taiwanese sculpture, the emergence of LEE Kuang-Yu marks the growth and maturation of Western style sculpture in Taiwan. As well as realistic shapes and accurate imitation of facial expressions, he creates abstract meaning from pure form, with an understanding of spiritual space and mastery of rhythm and texture.
Modern Taiwanese sculpture first developed with the classical realism of Huang Tu-Shui in the 1920s, yielding to the advance of the vivid deconstruction of modernism after the war. LEE Kuang-Yu grew up at exactly the time when Taiwan’s modernism reached its peak, and was about to enter into what was called the “homeland” or “nativist” culture movement. He cleverly combined and nourished these two phases, becoming a symbol of second generation post-war Taiwanese sculpture
LEE Kuang-Yu was born in 1954 in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung city. His father once studied industrial design in Tokyo, an advanced course at the time, but on his return to Taiwan, there were not the right surroundings to utilize his studies, so he ended up teaching primary school art. Under his father’s influence, young Kuang-Yu excelled at painting, and art became his favorite subject. At that time, the LEEs’ neighbor was a portrait painting master, whose portrait skills caught Kuang-Yu’s interest, and when he decided to study portrait painting, he had his parents’ support.
In school, however, LEE Kuang-Yu was clearly different from the other children his age. He liked to hide on his own in the school’s air-raid shelter, happy to be shielded from the interference of the outside world, and upon leaving elementary school his teacher commented that he was a “lonely boy and an outsider”. Under the academic pressure of junior high school he was still dedicated to the study of painting, including both western and Chinese styles of art, as well as emotionally expressive calligraphy. The study of sculpture was recommended to him by his high school art teacher, so when the university entrance exam came he applied to the sculpture department at the National Academy of Arts (now the National Taiwan University of Arts). Sure enough, he passed the entrance exam, it was 1972.
In his first year at the sculpture department, it happened that his older schoolmate Ren Zhao-Min returned from studying in Spain to teach. Mr Ren was entirely dressed in western clothes, and had the strong temperament of an artist, which deeply moved this young boy from Kaohsiung. It was as if a distant voice had called him, and he began to study Spanish in preparation to study abroad after graduation. At that time, he began to show an extraordinary enthusiasm for the study of art, and he took advantage of evening classes, even crawling through the skylight into sketching classroom so he could practice sketching all night. In the daytime he took his painting bag everywhere to sketch still life, imagining he was the reincarnation of Vincent Van Gogh.
But his plan to study abroad didn’t go as smoothly as he’d imagined, and he was forced to complete his military service. After he was discharged, he opened an artists studio in Taipei, but business was scarce, and he made use of his free time going to dance classes to learn classical ballet. These apparent misfortunes, however, all fed his creativity in the future, including: southern homeland soil, wind in the pool and moving lotus leaf, calligraphy lines and the rhythmical movements of ballet.
In 1978 he was at last allowed to study in Spain, and entered Europe’s well-known Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, and studied under the celebrated Spanish sculptor Toledo. There he developed his knowledge of art, a kind of life instruction/initiation acquired from practice. After graduating, he returned to the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, where he obtained his masters degree.
His return to Taiwan in 1984 happened to coincide with the establishment of the National Institute of the Arts (now Taipei National University of the Arts), and he entered professorship there until his retirement in 2006. From an outside perspective, the path that LEE Kuang-Yu’s art career has taken may seem to be enviably smooth, but looking at it as a living process, he grasps at the creative potential of art, clearly unable to cope with real life. In dealing with emotional life, economic life and even spiritual life, LEE Kuang-Yu in fact experienced setbacks, frustrations and pressures unimaginable to most people. However, because of this, artistic creation became the only outlet for his life energy. In addition, his studies and eastern classical knowledge, including antiques, Buddhism and tai chi all became flowing sources of creativity for him.
Looking back at LEE Kuang-Yu’s work, 1986 was a key year in the maturation of his artistic life. For the first two years teaching at the art institute, he was uneasy in his role as student and teacher, as he felt like a comprador, a purveyor of western goods. Everything he offered his students was western, and lacked the dimension of independent thought. In a book store on Chongqing South Road he came across a copy of the Buddhist text Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and he discovered that if one replaces the word “Buddha” with the word “art”, the book becomes a writing on art.
This kind of discovery is as simple as the apple falling on Newton’s head which led him to discover gravity, and in fact it is merely an external stimulus prompting spiritual understanding. LEE, who had always had a considerable understanding of Buddhism, found an artistic system in the scriptures, that is a set of understandings about man, the world and the universe, that allowed him to unify the techniques and concepts of sculpture he had learned in the west with his own eastern ways of understanding. His 1986 works Meditation I, Feet is the Fountain, and A Hand It Seems are really the first set of works to arise from this shift.
These three works all use parts of the body as subject matter – head, foot and hand – and simply put: the body parts replace the whole. LEE Kuang-Yu was concerned with the theme of people, just like his teacher Toledo was a famous European master of body sculpture, but where the teacher was concerned with structure, space and form, LEE Kuang-Yu actually used these body parts to explore ideas like the eastern landscape and freeing man from himself. From this point on, integrating the human body with landscapes became LEE Kuang-Yu’s core line of thought and his works’ distinctive feature. The peace and concentration of Meditation I gives it an extremely relaxed appearance, a Buddha that is not Buddha, a person’s head completely relaxed, resting on a tilted hand with no neck or arms, creating a kind of ethereal being in the sky. It is a creative concept of landscape and spirit, and is the first step in the martial art of tai chi: with an air of quiet attention and inner contentedness, and of course it is the Buddhist’s state of meditation.
Feet is the Fountain also refers to tai chi, and the Chinese name of the piece is a term in Chinese traditional medicine. Yongquan or “gushing spring” is the meridian line at the base of the foot, and is considered the root of the body, and an opening for the flow of the body’s chi. In Tai Qi boxing, chi moves around the body, entering the yongquan, and it is also considered the flow of life in Chinese traditional medicine, flowing from the fingertips to the “gushing spring” at the base of the foot.
Because “gushing spring” is so full of swollen, cracked imagery, the use of layered clay pottery creating a sense of peeling, the piece gives a sense of both looseness and tightness at the same time. This creates a tension between the internal chi and the external form as they pull at each other, distributing energy.
A Hand it Seems was inspired by the artist experiencing the mysterious flow of “chi” energy through the fingertips after practicing Tai Chi, the practice making the hands feel slightly swollen, as if an electrical current is passing through them. This kind of work, called “inner aesthetics” by the artist, has set LEE Kuang-Yu apart from previous systems of thought, making him a distinguished sculptor who combines western techniques with eastern spiritual aesthetics.
Meditiation I, Feet is the Fountain and A Hand it Seems were all completed in 1986, and all subsequently became the basis for many of LEE Kuang-Yu’s major series of works. From Meditation I came Meditation II (1995), Meditation III (1995), Early Spring (1996), Silent Thought (2008), Meeting Spring (2009). Similarly, A Hand it Seems inspired later works such as A Hand it Seems II (1989), Hidden Orchid (1990), Facing the Wind (1991), Prints (1991), Branch in Spring (1991), The Offer From Spring (1994), The Serene Valley (1995), Hidden Mountain (1996), Treasure Print (1996), Jade (1998), Holding Out a Flower (1999), The Offer From Spring II (2001), Holding Out a Flower II (2003), Holding Out a Flower III (2012). A series of symbolic public works involving two hands began in 1999 with Holding Hands, Heart and Hand, Lotus Grip, Little Park, and Together in 2000. Later, in 2007 the Hand Print series took shape, with The Five Aggregates, The Five Records, The Hill of Treasure, The Gold Pestle, The Little Gold Pestle, Unique, Wisdom Prevents Misfortune, Touch the Ground, The Window, The Grand Sea of Treasure, Enlightenment (2008), Red Pine (2008), Cloud Friendship (2009) and Ten Squares (2010).
Of course, while these seem to be series of similar works, there are in fact some quite subtle and deep variations, especially in those works that focus on the hand. From the original pump hand with small swollen parts, the 1991 work Facing the Wind started to show the hand as more slender and with holes in it. The slenderness of the hand gives the sculpture more varied contours. The original hand as a human organ is filled with linear expression, distinctive curves depicting an unusual appendage, expressing a different mood and inner world. The lengthening of the fingers exaggerates the richness and freedom of the hand’s contours, and the angle and flow of the curves express a sense of severity and urgency, which in fact are a result of LEE Kuang-Yu’s early studies in calligraphy. As for the appearance of the hole in the hand, it challenges the solidity and completeness of the original. A work of art that is too perfect and pleasant will likely restrict the viewer’s imagination, and even irritate or bore people; so a certain amount of destruction can create more space, both material and spiritual. The origin of this “hole” aesthetic could even be the Taihu stone used in the ancient gardens of china, but it is also inspired by the damaged lotus leaves of the artist’s childhood home. Moreover, in real life the artist faces damaged and broken things more often than perfection and completeness.
Nearly thirty years into LEE Kuang-Yu’s creative career, aside from these works on body parts, the human body, especially the female form, became a creative theme. One could even say that while the works on the themes of body parts represented the artist’s religious, idealist and enlightened side, those works on the female form showed a hidden side of him which was depressive, conflicted, vulgar and lustful. The 1987 work Embrace of the Lotus Root is the first example of this style.
Embrace of the Lotus Root is a rare example of LEE Kuang-Yu’s wood carving work, and the name recalls the lotus fields of his home in southern Taiwan, which still has an important place in his creative life. While this piece resembles a person, it also looks like the form of two people embracing, their bodies and limbs taking on rounded shapes like the form of a lotus root. This makes the one seem like two, and two seem like one, and as well as the romantic external message of “I am part of you and you are part of me”, it also challenges the viewer visually to recognize the forms. The lovers’ limbs, especially the deliberately distorted feet, add an element of tension to the piece, and surely the feelings of attraction between these members of the opposite sex represent the artist’s inability to free himself from life’s problems. The woman’s softness and meekness are the object of the artist’s affection, but he seems unable to cope with her jealousy and volatility. The artist loves women and he loves cats, he sculpts women as he sculpts cats, because apparently women are like cats. Before his 1988 piece Transformation, which features the form of a woman curled up like a cat, he made a series of works featuring cats, such as Cuddle, Listening Spirit, Curve and Feeling, all in 1988. In Transformation, the twist of woman’s body is actually impossible for a real person to replicate. This kind of distortion of the external figure presents the struggle of the inner consciousness, and gives the piece its dark tension. Are the head and torso in Transformation male or female? There is also a connotation of exploring the boundaries between man and woman.
The 1990 work Steep was evidently a complete female figure at first, but now the item has no head, hands or feet, and looks to be made of a student’s discarded piece of plaster. Through this piece, LEE Kuang-Yu instructs the student how to find the possibilities within a work of art. Just like when he sculpted a shepherd boy while was studying in Spain: professor Toledo walked in and simply twisted the piece a little, breaking a bit off, instantly turning it into an exciting sculpture. Finding new possibilities from destruction in this way is another of LEE Kuang-Yu’s frequently used techniques, especially when the subject matter is the human body.
The 1995 works Mountain Hike and Hiding the Treasure both compress the body, again with parts removed, damaged and even rearranged. After Hiding the Treasure, he developed parts A and B of Hidden, which revealed different angles and different visual imagery, and that sense of movement created by the figure standing on tiptoes, showing his early knowledge of ballet. LEE Kuang-Yu’s depictions of the female form always seem tense and restless, and there is no exception in the relatively realistic Relief and Tension (1996-1999). This restlessness sometimes manifests itself in the mood of the piece, like in the 1996 piece Slide, a dismembered and rearranged female body lying on a high, padded bed, curled up just like a cat on a sofa, close to the edge, nearly falling off.
The artist clearly both loves and fears women, and is unable to escape this contradiction. He seems to sing their praises in Running Water (1997), Spring Point (1997), The Pupa in the Winter (2001), The Pupa in the Fall (2008), The Pupa in the Spring (2009). He also spies on them in Soft Jade (1998), Leaning on the Wall (1999), and guards against them in A Dangerous Woman (1999), and enjoys them in Rain (2006) and Buddha Box (2007). Of LEE Kuang-Yu’s work, this series on the female form is clearly the most personal and emotional.
2007’s By the Lotus Pond combines the female form with a lotus, uniting the human body and plant. Both are part of the landscape, but the lotus, broken into pieces, represents the woman’s unavoidable fate. The woman is also a self projection of the artist, like the woman in Timeless, carefree and wrapped up in a lotus leaf. Under the pressure of a ruthless reality, the artist longs for a mountain forest world, self sufficient and not disturbed by the outside world, just like when he used to hide in the air-raid shelter.
Woman finally became the savior of life and a kind spirit in religious female forms of Goddess of the Earthly Creations and Goddess of Music in 2008. Goddess of the Earthly Creations features a mystical Buddhist deity, and a happy Buddha mother who appears as a pig. The Goddess of Music, on the other hand, is soaring freely through the air in kindhearted brilliance, singing praises to Buddha.
Among these enlightened female forms, the artist is not merely expressing a religious message, rather he is expressing a breakthrough in high level techniques. It’s as if the female body in Goddess of the Earthly Creations turned into a new source of material after 2013. The dismembered and rearranged body in Goddess of Music gives the work a sense of toughness and tension, and it is clearly the peak of his body work.
After 2013 the artist’s frame of mind entered a new phase, looking indifferently at the profane, he became more interested in replacing abundant truth with lightheartedness, and supplanting realistic forms with flat shapes. Drum Dancer, Woman, Dance and Skein of Heaven are all new attempts and successes, while Fly Over and The Absolute Supreme Ultimate still represent his worship and longing for love.
LEE Kuang-Yu is an extremely industrious artist, and apart from 1997 when he held the post of secretary-general of the National Sculpture Institute, he refuses almost all external invitations so that he can create. At the peak of his creativity he made 20 items in a year, like in 1999, 2007, 2008 and 2013. Aside from several main creative veins, there are still many solemn and serious works like Empty Mountain, which imitates the sitting Buddha, Prosperous (1997), The Smoking (1999) and Keeping Close By (2008).
In short, LEE Kuang-Yu’s sculptures, based on the western traditional statues, emphasize space, structure and flexibility, and give an eastern perspective. His work is like a diary brimming with his life’s secrets, but also presents predicaments and dreams commonly held by many people. It is an extremely contradictory and conflicting harmony and unity, both tranquil and restless, exciting and ordinary, instant and eternity…
LEE Kuang-Yu started out with Western techniques as a foundation, and created large quantities of work with a deep understanding of eastern spiritual thought, while not missing out on the liveliness of the modern form. In fact, modern Taiwanese sculpture started from loess clay, and then experienced the impact of the post-modernist abstract style. Now through handmade expression it brings western sculpture into a spiritual space with mastery of rhythm and texture: the sculpture with symbolic significance, as beautiful as a lotus leaf swaying in the wind.