Sculpting a Taiwanese Soul

Lee Kuang-yu

2018 / April

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Chini Gallery /tr. by Phil Newell

Vitality in art lies in the tension of contradictions. The job of an artist is to clearly and soberly penetrate oppositions and resolve them harmoniously. The internationally known sculptor Lee Kuang-yu applies his consummate skill to explore the interplay between solidity and space, creating with fluent confidence.

Lee, born in Kao­hsiung, has drawn sustenance from the rich local culture, and brandishes a unique Asian humanism. Using a dynamic artistic vocabulary, he has achieved a Taiwanese style. His solo exhibition “To Have and Have Not” at the 2017 Venice Biennale stunned the international community, showcasing the power of Taiwanese art to the world.


The winding and precipitous mountain road rapidly casts the chaos of the urban streetscape to the back of the mind. After a brief ten minutes or so, we see only limitless greenery and drifting mountain mists. Lee ­Kuang-yu, clad in denim work clothes, stands outside his six-meter-tall workshop and greets us with a smile.

In the enormous garden, occupying more than a hectare of land, each blade of grass, each tree, each step, each pond, is the fruit of labor put in by Lee over ten-plus years. “I hope to create an artist’s garden for Taiwan, to last for eternity.” Behind the straightforward smile there is an unshakable determination. Even if it means investing a lifetime of savings and effort, he will not hesitate to do so.

Dawn and dusk, the details of daily life, are inexhaustible grist to Lee ­Kuang-yu’s creative mill. “All of these works are based on my imagination.” With nature as his canvas, countless numbers of Lee’s sculptures are scattered around the garden, quietly expressing the love that is in all living things.

A father’s secret

“The only reason I have what I have today is because of a secret that my father kept for his entire life,” recalls Lee.

“During the Japanese colonial era, my father graduated at the top of his class, and was soon after taken to Japan by a benefactor to continue his studies. Later, he graduated first in his class from Tokyo Higher Technical School.” But despite having bright prospects, he was called back to Taiwan by Lee ­Kuang-yu’s grandfather to get married. “My father could have become a top-class engineer, but he ended up working as a fine arts teacher in a primary school. This depressed him and left him with unsatisfied ambitions.”

Raising seven children on a primary-school teacher’s salary, money was naturally tight. “Yet from the time I was in school, my father took me all over to find teachers to study art with. And my mother even borrowed money from neighbors to buy me xuan art paper.” Still at an innocent age, he did not understand why his parents did this. It was only when he was in middle school that he discovered his father’s secret. “A student returning from Japan came to see my father, a piece of paper in his hands, and repeatedly apologized, saying he could not find the girl at the given address.” The hopeless, empty look in his father’s eyes is still engraved in Lee’s mind even after nearly half a century.

“Before she died, my mother called me to her side and in a faint voice told me that my father had never loved her.” This was an admission that stunned and pained Lee, but also suddenly answered many questions that had built up in his mind.

For decades, under the restraints of the code of social ethics, they had lived together as husband and wife, suffering in silence. “It was because this was so hard that they did not want me to follow the same sorry path.”

Help along the way

“As a little kid, I was inspired by a teacher who drew portraits.” “When I was in middle school, Xu ­Shangwu taught me to paint birds and flowers, and in high school I began to focus on calligraphy.” Facing the future, Lee laid his foundations step by step. “To pass the exam to enter the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, I studied drawing, watercolors, and traditional Chinese painting with ­Huang Guang­nan.” At that time ­Huang suggested that Lee pursue sculpture. The orthodox education offered at the National Taiwan Academy of Arts made the school Lee’s sole preference, and sculpture became his lifetime vocation.

“A lot of people have helped me in my life.” His teacher Ren Zhao­ming, who had studied in Spain, encouraged him to continue his education, and began teaching him Spanish from his freshman year. An older schoolmate, Ye Zhu­cheng, who was studying in Spain at the time, spared no effort to help Lee handle the application process and arrange his life there. “Without their kind help, I would never have been able to go abroad without a hitch.” It was in 1978 that Lee first started studying art overseas.

Coursework at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando was packed, but even after a whole day of classes Lee would still go to an off-campus drawing class to put in three or four more hours of work. “I was like a sponge, continually absorbing new things.” It was this type of diligent study that laid such a solid foundation for Lee’s future.

“At that time I most feared the holidays, because while my classmates would all go off to enjoy themselves, I would be working part time anywhere I could.” His parents had exhausted their resources to buy him a one-way ticket, and the rest was left entirely up to Lee’s own hard work.

The College of Arts at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid at that time had the best facilities and resources in Europe, and Lee earned his master’s degree from there. “Professor Francisco Toledo Sanchez laid a foundation in Western art for me. He was a teacher who not only imparted know­ledge, but cultivated character too.”

Misery breeds creativity

“I have unlimited misery in my heart, but I transform it into fuel for creativity.” Abundant feelings are no match for harsh reality, and both of Lee’s marriages ended in divorce.

“Amica Rinpoche has enlightened me.” Not only has Lee’s soul felt the impact of Tibetan Buddhism, all his creative work has been energized. “Practicing Buddhism has enabled me to become aware. Only by eliminating the self and egotism can one transcend self and become anatta [non-self].” As if opening up the conception and governor vessel meridians (concepts of traditional Chinese medicine), he experienced a sudden clarity of vision. Since then, Lee feels completely unrestrained. The style of his work has been transformed from one of realism, solidity and fullness into one of flattened openwork with exposed interiors. Amid the interplay of space and substance, he flies free in a boundless universe.

“From t’ai chi I have felt the continuous smooth flowing of spirit, giving me a completely new comprehension of the body.” In his “Hands” series, Lee expresses fearless action, dauntlessly facing up to challenges, resolving them and moving on. “I gazed at the palms of my hands, and they appeared to me like a musical staff, with countless notes leaping about, making it possible to perform endless symphonic movements.”

“From the Dharma I have come to understand the concept of being ‘untainted.’” Lee, who seeks complete spiritual liberation, creates with extra­ord­in­ary serenity and fluency. He has realized that between Heaven and Earth, nowhere is without beauty. “Often people ask me, where does your inspiration come from?” When art and a person’s character become one, and the spirit is replete, how can creativity be exhausted?

International renown

Lee Kuang-yu’s “Bullfighting” series and his outstanding works rich in Oriental Zen ideas and folk cultural elements shone at the 2017 Venice Biennale, winning affirmation at a global level. This was a major milestone in Lee’s artistic career, and enabled the world to see Taiwan’s outstanding soft power.

On learning that the exhibition venue was the former residence of Ernest Hemingway, Lee was struck with inspiration and set himself to creating the “Bullfighting” series. “The brute force of the charging bull and the elegant movements of the bullfighter form a beautiful tension amidst contradiction.” Lee is expressing the idea that art is a balance of dualistic culture, where conflict and opposition always exist.

Lee, who has never cared much about reputation, looks indifferently on this un­an­ti­cip­ated success. “I am grateful to all those who support me, but I won’t get a swollen ego because of it.”

Currently, Lee’s daily routine is to use a disciplined cycle of work and rest to settle his inner self. By producing art that embodies the spirit of being “open-minded and depending on nothing, all-aware and transcendental,” he hopes to enable people in the turbulent, chaotic world to see the compassion and tranquility that he wants to convey.

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