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December 8, 2009

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Sculptor strives for 'life' in figures

ARTISAN Li Chuhui has won many awards and his sculptures easily find buyers but he is constantly looking to achieve perfection and somewhere to exhibit, Wang Jie reports.

It appears to be a bizarre scene: a tiny, naked boy is relieving himself onto a line of fire, as if he could extinguish it.

But according to the promising young sculptor Li Chuhui, the piece titled "The Unpredictable Future" tries to explore a deeper meaning between hope and ideal.

"This is an illusionary scene. On the surface it may look absurd, " Li explains, "but actually it echoes the old Chinese saying - do something even though you know it's impossible to succeed. Sometimes it is a sacrifice and sometimes it is a salvation."

Born in 1978 in Gaomi, Shandong province, Li is a graduate of the sculpture department at the Fine Arts College of Shanghai Normal University.

He was fortunate to have been tutored by Xiang Jing, a conspicuous pioneering figure in sculpture circles and widely known for her vivid depiction of the fragile femininity of the young girls that she creates.

"Thanks to her, I totally changed my approach to sculpture," he recalls.

"I started to understand that technique and skill were not as critical as I had originally thought. A good sculptor needs to control the story of the figures and present their inner feelings to viewers."

In Li's eyes, an illusionary piece can still be convincing and compelling if the artist is capable of fusing his life experience into the work itself.

But it is easier said than done.

Different from other art forms such as film or literature, the sculptor can't use narrative or changing surroundings to tell a story. The moment that inspired or accompanies the figure is frozen in silence.

"To tell you the truth, I read a lot of books and see many films which give me some inspiration," he says.

His friends, colleagues and classmates also become his subjects.

"The more you observe and talk with ordinary people, the more you unveil the 'secret' of life."

Even while he was a university student, Li won several national awards for works he "randomly picked up and submitted."

His sculptures are distinctively different from others and easily stand out. However he decided to stop participating in competitions because it was "no longer a challenge."

One of his winning pieces featured a life-size young man leisurely falling asleep on a chair. He stores it in his office at the university, because "the work is a bit too big to put anywhere else."

Now a teacher at the sculpture department of Shanghai Normal University, Li faces the same plight of many young promising sculptors in the country: they need exposure.

A sculpture exhibition is costly in terms of production, transport and finding a big enough venue.

"I feel that I have hit the glass ceiling. I have many projects, either partially complete or in my mind, but there is no where to exhibit," he says.

But for those who have seen his sculptures, they are quick to be "taken."

"I guess many see a shadow of themselves through these figures," he says. "Some even ask whether I am depicting myself through the figures I make.

"But no, that's not right. I am reflecting certain frozen moments in urban life, the people, their pain, hope and earnings."

However, the ambitious young man is not content to be limited by these subjects and now focuses more on the scenario than the figures.

For example, his sculpture titled "Memory Before the Desire" features a group of people with blurred images standing and gazing alongside a swimming pool.

"Here, the swimming pool refers to something unpredictable. Some want to jump in while some hesitate, as nobody knows what will happen in this swimming pool," he says.

"Don't you think it is a struggle prevailing in modern society?"

Although the craftsman is adept in the skill and technique of making a sculpture, he says that he still needs to improve.

"The difference between a master and a mediocre artist just lies in small detail," he explains.

"I still have a long way to catch up with my teacher Xiang Jing who is perfect in every detail of her work."

Li is now working on his latest piece titled "The Road of Desire" that depicts a hundred men of the same size and style marching toward a road from different directions.

"It will be an awesome scene if the work can be installed alongside a real road," he says. "I hope that this project can be installed one day.

What about the boy relieving himself?

"It is not yet finished. In my plan, the line of fire should be 12 meters long for an exhibition," he adds. "Just imagine its visual impact, isn't it damn cool!"


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