Layering Up; The Re-Envisioned Chinese Paper Gourd

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From his chilly studio in Beijing, Li Hongbo stretches the possibilities of China’s most celebrated invention and art’s most humble material; paper.

His sculptures, which at first appear like European marble busts, are composed of several thousand layers of paper, meticulously glued layer upon layer in an alternate striped pattern. When stretched the mound of glued sheets unfolds to create a honeycomb concertina, which can be expanded and distorted into infinite forms. The effect combines the sophistication and pomp of classical sculpture with the playfulness and appeal of a slinky.</>

Li Hongbo has long been fascinated by paper. For lack of toys as a child growing up in Jilin province, he used his knack for creativity to refashion school textbooks into paper playthings. He later developed a sensitivity towards paper, its quality and various applications, working as an adult in book design and publishing. </>

The inspiration for Li’s sculptures is founded in decorative paper gourds, which can be stored flat and unfolded into a three-dimensional gourd shaped like an “8”. This traditional folk art technique is still prevalent today and Chinese continue to hang paper gourds in their homes during festivals to enliven the auspicious qualities of this magical fruit. Li Hongbo’s adaptation of this simple yet ingenious method is a nostalgic reference to tradition while allowing him to explore the possibilities of paper and challenge conventional applications of this ubiquitous material.</>

The artist first used the paper gourd method to make a gun shaped object which, upon stretching and opening, takes on an entirely different form resembling neither its original shape nor retaining the violent connotations associated with guns. Through interaction, the object is prescribed with kinetic agency. Our perception as viewer is instantly transformed and as partaker we become a creative element in the artwork itself.</>

Each sculpture can take months to finish and uses on average between 6,000 and 25,000 sheets of paper. First the artist uses a metal stencil to paste glue in a striped pattern onto a sheet of paper before placing another piece on top and repeating this process several times. Once a stack of paper reaches about five centimetres in height it is roughly cut out into the shape needed for one layer of the sculpture. The stacks are then glued together and eventually carved and sanded into their final form.</>

To some, the idea of stretching the head of Michaelangeo’s David or distorting the face of Greek goddess Athena is strange and disturbing. To others, it opens up a new dimension to objects and images which we thought were familiar. </>

When placed within a gallery the sculptures rely heavily on human handling and manipulation which unfortunately is limited to white-gloved assistants. Whether one considers it a strength or weakness, this evokes in the viewer a powerful desire to participate and play with the object, exemplifying the idea of “look, but don’t touch”. To overcome this restriction, Li Hongbo created smaller models for visitors to play with when exhibiting in Australia, allowing them to appreciate the intimacy which make his tactile sculptures such a success.

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