- Caterina Paiva
Li Lihong’s golden McDonalds: Artist profile
Probably no visual art is more intrinsically related to “objects” than ceramics. Of course, that does not mean that installations, photography, or painting do not have “objects” as muses and/or mediums. Still, ceramics possess a special place among these cases, considering ceramics’ ambiguous position in art debates.
In China, the presence of ceramics dates back to, at least, the Early Neolithic (6500-5400 BCE), and they were visibly present as tools, from cooking to the more varied needs of daily life.1 This idea does not discard ceramics’ classifications led by symbolic, aesthetic, and even religious values.
As this “utility function” has been a central component in the analyses, ceramics have, in worldwide debates, been vaguely classified as either “art” or “craft.” Although many different arguments support both positions, I prefer to align with a more critical line of arguments: differentiation between arts and crafts serves an elitist purpose and reduces the possibility of fully understanding the significance of a ceramic piece.
China, in particular, has a long history of lining ceramic with other art creations, namely painting and calligraphy. The ceramic tradition is powerfully present within history museums. Shanghai Museum is an excellent example, with a whole section dedicated to ceramics alongside other traditional art forms such as painting and calligraphy.
When discussing the interest in ceramics to contemporary art in China, Li Lihong 李立宏 is a name to reckon. Born in Jiangxi Province, Li graduated from China Central Academy of Art and Design in Beijing and studied at Ceramics Institute of Jingdezhen, a historically famous Chinese city for ceramics and porcelain production. He is now based in Shanghai, where he teaches at the School of Fine Arts of the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. Li Lihong gained international acclamation, being featured in collective and private exhibitions in the USA, the UK, South Korea, and, naturally, in many cities across China.
The artist’s work is quite recognizable. Li re-invents the everyday contemporary icons, in three-dimensional renderings of some of the most recognizable brands, such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Nike, Absolute Vodka, Michelin, and Apple, but with a new aesthetic, i.e., with a slight Chinese touch.
Some reviews put Li Lihong’s works in a “Clash of Cultures” scenario, specifically that of the “west” against the “east.”2 Others frame these artworks as “confrontations between tradition and modernity,” where Chinese inner consumerism of these brands is assumed as hardly different from the rest of the world.3 Others, in a less confrontational tone, prefer to refer to his works as “marrying traditional Chinese aesthetics and materials with contemporary iconography.”4
Yet, some opinions prefer to just mention that “his style fuses these influences in work characterized by both conceptual rigor and traditional earthenware techniques,” by following the trend of Pop art that continuously brings mass culture and advertising to the abstract stage of fine art.5
Although some of these pieces are built with 3D printers, those who survive, are further refined with golden, silver, or white lacquer, and aestheticized with identifiable Chinese motifs, from dragons to chubby children, clouds, and waves. “The frailty of his artworks and the preciousness of their material add another contrast to the cheapness and ephemerality of mass production and consumption.”6
There are not many statements by the artist himself. Nonetheless, as some of his artworks (namely the “Apple China” series, 2007 - ongoing) were designed at a time when iPhone was launched in China, one can assume that Li Lihong kept track of Western brands entering China, and what they brought to China’s consumerist habits.
In the end, the final interpretation stays at the spectrum’s end of the artistic experience: those who see or buy these artworks, which range in price from 200 to 5000 euros. Regardless of how one interprets its works – a criticism of globalized consumerism and mass production, a recontextualization to Chinese ceramics, a clash or marrying of civilizations – Li Lihong brings provocatively aesthetic objects to whoever tables are able to purchase them.
References/ To Go Further
Suzanne Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983.
Katrina Radic, “Clash of Cultures: Brand Logos as Chinese Ceramics,” BrandinMag, 2013, https://www.brandingmag.com/2013/08/23/li-lihong-brand-logos-as-chinese-ceramics/.
“Li Lihong,” Artsper, 2022, https://www.artsper.com/us/contemporary-artists/china/8/li-lihong.
“Li Lihong,” Hollis Taggart, 2022, https://www.hollistaggart.com/artists/39-li-lihong/
“Li Lihong,” Artsy, 2022, https://www.artsy.net/artist/li-lihong.
“Li Lihong,” Galerie Loft, 2022, https://www.galerieloft.com/en/artists/li-lihong/.