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signed in Chinese, signed ‘Li Chen’, dated '2007', and numbered '4/6’ (engraved on the lower back)
bronze sculpture
224 x 107 x 82 cm. (88 1/4 x 42 1/8 x 32 1/4 in.)
Executed in 2007
edition 4/6
Private Collection, Asia
Singapore Art Museum, Li Chen: Mind.Body.Spirit, Li Chen Solo Exhibition at Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2009 (illustrated, cover page, pp. 126-127, 132-138 & 184).
Asia Art Center, Greatness of Spirit: Li Chen Premiere Sculpture Exhibition in Taiwan, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (different sized version illustrated, pp. 94-100).
Asia Art Center, Monumental Levity: Li Chen Place Vendome Premiere Solo Sculpture Exhibition in Paris, Taipei, Taiwan, 2014 (different sized version illustrated pp. 71, 96-97, 103, 110 & 113-114).
Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Li Chen: Mind.Body.Spirit, 17 September-9 December 2009.
Taipei, Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Greatness of Spirit: Li Chen Premiere Sculpture Exhibition, 6 November-12, December 2011 (different sized version exhibited).
France, Paris, Place Vendome, Monumental Levity: Li Chen 2013 Place Vendome Premiere Solo Sculpture Exhibition in Paris, France 2-29 September 2013 (different sized version exhibited).
France, Cannes, Plage Majestic, Festival de Cannes, 13 - 24 May 2015 (different edition version exhibited).
Beijing, China, Asia Art Center, Rest on Water and Gargle with Stone - Chinese Contemporary Literati Art, 20 June-16 August 2015.

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

“A heavenly god in charge of the mountains and rivers, Heaven has bestowed upon me a wild and untamable nature. Able to summon the winds and the rain, I can easily maneuver nature. Full of knowledge and holding my liquor well, I've never fancied the position of power. I don’t even want to live in the Heavenly Palace, I would rather ride on the breeze in a pure and clear state, and being enchanted in Loyang.” - Zhu Dunru, Partridge in the Sky

In Li Chen’s Floating Heavenly Palace (Lot 38), a cherubic figure skillfully props a golden structure, the Heavenly Palace of the Jade Emperor, on one finger. The gold color in which the structure is rendered signifies its importance and power, however, the casual way in which the figure balances this symbol of authority belies the benevolent levity with which he approaches his perilous situation. He is standing playfully on one leg atop a Taihu rock, other hand casually tucked into an invisible ‘pocket’ on his voluminous form as if he is testing his own ability to balance.

Li Chen began his career as an artist by carving Buddhist sculptures for local temples in his native Taiwan. Of this time, he said, “I felt I knew very little about the subject, and what I did was not good enough. So I bought many books and began reading about Buddhism, religion, and philosophy, and even ventured into Taoism. At the same time, I visited museums to look at original Buddhist sculptures. The more I was exposed to them, the more deeply moved I became.” His aesthetic style eventually evolved from more traditional depictions of Buddhist figures into minimalist forms composed of soft, rounded lines.

The contrast between the luminous reflective surfaces of the gold palace and silver cloud on which it rests, against the shining black lacquer-like body and textured surface of the rock express a play on the balance between light and shadow, a quintessential component in Li Chen’s work. The artist achieves this vast diversity of surface effects through use of a single material-bronze. Though he frequently employs two different treatments to bring his sculptures to life, the wide range of textures and effects displayed in Floating Heavenly Palace , from the stone like base all the way through to the glowing golden apex, is a rarity within the artist’s work and demonstrates his mastery over the medium.

In addition to his deep understanding of material, this sculpture is a testament to Li Chen’s virtuosic comprehension of form. Though the figure’s bronze rendered body bulges out, expanding in every direction, as if inflated, the figure appears as light as the silver cloud resting on his finger-as though he might drift away if a gentle wind pushed him from his perch. In contrast, the rock beneath his foot appears solid, anchoring the entire composition to the ground. This heightens the materiality of the medium in a way that is nearly spiritual in and of itself. The effect is a powerful juxtaposition between heaviness and lightness, mass and void, which is fundamentally a statement that invites viewers towards a serene and spiritual meditation on the Buddhist concept of “emptiness”.

While the smooth surface and minimal lines of Li Chen’s figure appear quite contemporary, the figure’s pose recalls the traditional stance of a lokapala (the Sanskrit name for the Four Heavenly Kings in Buddhism). The statue of a lokapala carved in the Northern Wei Dynasty at the Longmen Grotto in Luoyang, China (Fig. 1) provides a particularly apt comparison; in this work, the figure stands off-kilter just as Li Chen’s figure does, however instead of playfully balancing between two rocky peaks, he is depicted stomping atop the back of a demon as he balances a similar structure in his right hand. The placement of the hand supporting the cloud in Li Chen’s sculpture is spiritually significant in other traditions as well-the raised finger serves to direct the viewer’s gaze upward toward the heavens, a poignant gesture that recalls the way in which St. John the Baptist was often depicted in Italian Renaissance art. (Fig. 2 & 3)

Li Chen’s whimsical approach to proportion provides another layer of fascination to this work. He inverts the relationship between architecture and figure, making us wonder about the proportions of both. Has the palace been miniaturized to fit atop its silver cloud platter or is it the figure that is oversize and colossally inflated to deity like proportions? This play on scale also has the effect of making the palace appear higher up, firmly lodged in the heavens. A similar play on proportion was utilized by Michelangelo in his sculpture of David (Fig. 4), which was originally commissioned to sit atop the Florence Cathedral. The Italian sculptor made the hands and head of the figure oversize, presumably so that viewers would be able to make out the details from their vantage point far below. While Michelangelo was attempting to correct proportion for the viewer, Li Chen seeks to manipulate proportion in Floating Heavenly Palace, so that even if we are standing at eye level with the work, we feel the figure is towering over us as the palace floats above— just beyond reach.

This work was included in Li Chen’s important retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum in 2009 (Fig. 5) and featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. This is the first time one of Li Chen's sculptures of more than two meters in height is being offered at auction, providing collectors a rare opportunity to add this precious work to their collection. Inspired by Song Dynasty poet Zhu Dunru’s poem ‘Partridge in the Sky, the work was created as a reaction to the artist’s sadness after reflecting upon Zhu’s unfortunate circumstance of being born at the wrong time. Had the poet been born in a different period he may have lived a happier life, however, ironically, without such sorrow Zhu Dunru may not have been able to compose such beautiful poetry. Thus, Li Chen creates a figure in limbo between the earthly realm below and the Heavenly Palace above. Although the figure is aware of his precarious position, Li Chen renders the figure with a calm expression, reminding us of the importance of remaining mindful in the moment and finding contentment with one’s own place within the universe.

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