Li Chen - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • "While his art is of a deeply serious nature, his fusion of traditional Buddhist styles and contemporary ideas has resulted in work that is both humorous and full of irreverent wisdom, as well as brimming with the vitality of life and its unpredictable nature." —Ian Findlay 

    Regarded as one of the most talented sculptors of his generation, Li Chen is famed internationally for his divine figurative sculptures that magnificently blend the spiritual with the sculptural. Li was the first Taiwanese artist invited to exhibit his works in a solo show at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, an outstanding achievement for the artist, and since then he has been honoured with numerous solo exhibitions, such as his large-scale outdoor display at the historic Place Vendôme in Paris in 2013 and Being: In/Voluntary Drift at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei in 2017, in which a large-scale Peony was exhibited. Li produces his sculptures in a variety of sizes, ranging from the miniature to the monumental. Peony is the second largest edition of this subject, with a height of 72.5cm, and will be the first of its size to appear at auction. Coated in a smooth black lacquer, Li’s bronze sculpture evokes a weightlessness, stressing the notions of emptiness and void that are of upmost importance to Buddhism, and the Taoist concept of ‘chi’, or energy, which gives his figures such as this their vitality.


    Installation view, Being: In/Voluntary Drift – Li Chen Solo Exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2017 (another example exhibited)

    Heavy yet Light
    "In the Tang dynasty, the Buddhist sculptures were round and complete. Instead of being empty, they were full. To me, the fatness of my sculptures means tolerance and diversity. They are big and include all human beings…They are filled with the abundance of the world." —Li Chen

    Born in 1963 in Yunlin, Taiwan, Li studied arts and crafts in high school before beginning his career as a craftsman and sculptor at the beginning of the 1980s, producing traditional Tang and Song dynasty sculptures for Buddhist temples. Although predominantly self-taught, this experience in making traditional Buddhist icons informed the direction of his career, in which he maintained a steadfast dedication to Eastern philosophy, while infusing his work with his own personal style and Western sculptural techniques. His sculptures, as seen in Peony, adopt the Chinese Buddhist concept of emptiness and the Taoist notion of energy, by creating a tangible spirituality that people can feel and understand in the context of today’s world. He does this through covering his rotund forms in a dark lacquer, achieving a physical spirituality with a material lightness. Therefore, although made from bronze, such sculptures as Peony appear almost weightless. While some may be quick to compare the physicality of Li’s sculptures to those of Fernando Botero, whose bulbous figures do indeed evoke Li’s rotund forms, Botero’s work is decidedly more corporeal, rooted to the earth. However, one distinct quality particular to Peony is its shape, and unlike the more rectangular form of his other Buddha-like figures, the artist uses a cube shape for this work. As a result of this, the volume of this work is more solid than his other sculptures, perhaps indicative of the figure’s connection to the peony, before it takes its first step out into the world. Despite the illusory tension between being rooted in the peony and emerging from its petals into the open air, aspects such as the figure’s proportionally reduced legs and torso in comparison to its wide, protruding forehead, add to the feeling of its overall corporeal lightness.


    Fernando Botero, Mother and Child, 1988. Besthoff Sculpture Garden, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans

    In conceiving a contemporary artwork while channeling traditional Chinese philosophy, Li breaks free from the burden of tradition and simplifies the shape, lines and faces of his figures, mirroring the spiritual purity of his work. The sublime smoothness and minimalist aesthetic of Peony adds to its transcendent nature, and while the figure’s head has been proportionately augmented there is no fear of it losing its balance due to its apparent airiness. As with the rest of his oeuvre, Li adds his playful touch to the cute figure of Peony, depicting the hint of a smile which in turn elicits a smile from the viewer.

    "I am not making sculpture. I am creating happiness, something to be enjoyed and it is not about money." —Li Chen

    A Creation of Mother Nature

    Nature’s organic forms often serve as inspiration for Li’s works, and in Peony, a small Buddhist figure emerges from the unfurling petals of a blazing red peony flower. This is the first time the sculptor introduces the colour red to his Spiritual Journey Through the Great Ether series, the most successful and popular series of the artist, establishing a warm vibrant life force that engulfs his celestial being. Here, Li celebrates the beauty and purity of maternal love, using the peony as a metaphor for the experience of birth. Li captures the exact moment an innocent child leaves the womb and is born into the world. Indeed, the figure has yet to open its eyes, and thus exists as a pure, untainted entity. There is an extravagance in the undulating vermillion form, almost a throne cradling the newly born child, signifying the grand importance of this natural phenomenon. 


    Installation view, Being: In/Voluntary Drift – Li Chen Solo Exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2017 (another example exhibited)

    Both the peony, and the peony as a metaphor for woman, are creations of Mother Nature, ‘the purity of beginning of all things’ i. Dimitri Bruyas has also suggested that the peony implies the relationship between Gautama Buddha and the Lotus flower, ‘in which the Buddha was born in the world yet lived unsoiled by the world’ i. In this way, the sculpture ‘hints at the highest level of “Spirituality” in Li Chen’s dichotomy’ i.


    Collector’s Digest

    Heralded by Claire Turrell for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore in 2015 as the sixth-best selling artist in the world ii, based on total global auction house sales figures, Li Chen’s status as one of the world’s most sought-after sculptors was consolidated. Li has received international and critical acclaim, exhibiting at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (2017), the Aurora Museum, Shanghai (2018), and most recently at the Asia Art Center, Beijing (2019), amongst many other notable exhibitions.  


    i Dimitri Bruyas and Thomas Lee, eds., Monumental Levity of Li Chen: Premiere Sculpture Exhibition Place Vendome Paris), Taipei, 2014, p. 157

    ii Claire Turrell, ‘The Sixth Best-Selling Artist In The World: Li Chen’, Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, 18 Feb 2015, online

    • Provenance

      Taipei, Asia Art Center
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Taipei, Asia Art Center, Chineseness – A Documentary Exhibition on Li Chen, 28 December 2013 - 28 February 2014 (another example exhibited)
      Taipei, Museum of Contemporary Art, Being: In/Voluntary Drift – Li Chen Solo Exhibition, 1 July - 27 August 2017, pp. 124-129 (another example exhibited and illustrated)

    • Literature

      Dimitri Bruyas, Monumental Levity of Li Chen: Premiere Sculpture Exhibition Place Vendôme, exh. cat., Place Vendôme, Paris, 2014, p. 156 (another example illustrated)

Property from an Important Private Collection



incised with the artist's name, seal and number ‘Li Chen [in Pinyin] 3/8’ on the reverse; further incised with the date '2013' lower right side
72.5 x 67 x 63 cm. (28 1/2 x 26 3/8 x 24 3/4 in.)
Executed in 2013, this work is number 3 from an edition of 8 and is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Asia Art Center.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,000,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for HK$2,394,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020