The Element of Surprise: An Interview with Artist Li Hongbo

Written & Curated by Lilly Ball


We live in a time of constant war, financial fallout, flippant extinction, an entire society governed by SEO and engined by terror, cosmetic manipulation in utero, celebrity worship, athlete worship, religious mayhem and the death of God, fear of police, fear of everything; our children can DM terrorists on Twitter, fly to Istanbul and cross into Syria like they’re heading to summer camp—and, somehow, the strange and unpredictable work of Chinese artist Li Hongbo still manages to surprise.

Hongbo takes classical ideals—Greco-Roman busts ostensibly constructed of chalk marble—and twists them into something altogether different and startling, an accordion’d distortion of form. Utilizing “playful mobility and a traditional aesthetic,” the paper sculptures catch viewers off-guard, evoking “a conceptual question that deals with the relationship between surface and substance.”  

When did the idea of creating a paper bust first come to you?

2006, when I was still in school.

Li Hongbo_Bust of David_paper
Bust of David,” (2012). Paper.  27 1/2 x 19 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Li Hongbo

How has your education in folk art influenced your current work?

The folk way of life is the original state of human life. Over thousands of years it has accumulated wisdom. Even though most of this knowledge is now no longer used, it actually is an abundant resource waiting to be discovered. I just found a little bit of “folk” wisdom, and used it to service the purpose of so-called “fine art.”

Li Hongbo_Bust of Marseilles_paper
Bust of Marseilles,” (2012). Paper. 23 5/8 x 14 1/8 x 13 3/4 inchesCourtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Li Hongbo

What is the role of the artist in today’s society?

I am part of the diversified social civilization, merely a participant in the construction of culture and civilization.

What contemporary artist(s) inspire you?

My predecessors all striving to help the development of art, those influential artists and art explorers, they are all my “teachers,” their success and failures are all inspiring me.

Li Hongbo_Torso of a Young Woman_paper
Torso of a Young Woman,” (2012). Paper. 22 13/16 x 12 9/16 x 9 13/16 inches. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Li Hongbo

In “Tools of Study” you revitalize classical works such as Michelangelo’s David by inserting physical interaction. What do you hope to impart onto your audience with your tactical sculptures?

The possibility of spatially altering the language of sculptures.

What are you working on now?

Completing and perfecting the “Tool of study” series. Preparing a solo show in SCAD on 7/30/2015.

What are you going to do after this interview?

Concentrate on works, perfect whatever flaws are still in my works, and try out new things!

Featured Image:Bust of Marie Antoinette,” (2014). Paper. 27 1/2 x 17 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches. Courtesy Klein Sun Gallery © Li Hongbo

Li Hongbo was born in Jilin, China in 1974. He earned an MFA from the Folk Art Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2002, as well as an MFA from the Experimental Art Department of Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2010. Trained in a variety of artistic fields, from Fine Art to Folk Art, Li Hongbo is best known for his paper sculptures. With a technique influenced by his fascination with traditional Chinese decorations known as paper gourds—made from glued layers of paper—Li Hongbo applies a honeycomb-like structure to form remarkably flexible sculptures. 

Li’s recent solo exhibition Tools of Study at Klein Sun Gallery was covered by news channels worldwide, such as the Guardian, Reuters, CNN, BBC, and WSJ. The Creator Project rates it as one of the Top 10 art shows of 2014. Li Hongbo currently lives and works in Beijing. 

You can view more of his work at Klein Sun Gallery.


Lilly Ball joined FORTH Magazine as Art Director/Brand Manager in the Fall of 2014. She is interested in writing, people, and the forest.

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