LI HONGBO Stretching perceptions beyond boundaries

Chinese artist Li Hongbo defies interpretation with sculptures that resemble paper gourds, a Chinese folk art. These sculptures bend and flex as a Slinky toy does, distorting the original sculpture like the clocks in Salvador Dali’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory.”

At first glance, Li Hongbo’s paper sculptures look like fairly ordinary copies of classical works. Once stretched open, however, they reveal stunning, fluid forms, then calmly return to their original shapes. It’s a mind-bending feat that delights the viewer with multiplexed sensual experiences similar to the layered dreamscapes from the 2010 film Inception.

When a sculpture is stretched and deformed, most audiences transform from quiet appreciation to surprise and astonishment, Li said. This is why he often selects themes that are common in life.

“The more common the subject is, the greater the sensual astonishment it will bring to the audience after being changed, because the most familiar things suddenly become the most strange ones,” he said.

After a piece is restored back into a sculpture again, the experience lingers in the minds of the spectators, leaving a memory for them to savor. But each person is left with a completely different feeling and understanding, in keeping with the Chinese proverb: “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes.”


Li was not raised in an artistic family. From an early age, however, his talents expressed themselves through many artistic traits. As a schoolboy he drew pictures on the margins of his notebooks and homework sheets. Such “doodling” often falls away as children age, but Li’s fondness for art endured. Li majored in art education at Jilin Normal University in China, a college that trains art teachers rather than artists. Even to this day, he said, he is grateful for this decision. In addition to specialized courses, he also studied sociology, psychology, education and other comprehensive courses. “These classes released me from art’s restriction and helped me to fuel my subsequent breakthrough in artistic thinking,” Li said.

“Modern art has numerous ways of expression,” Li said. “Paintings are two-dimensional, while sculptures are three-dimensional. Is there a spatial language that transcends three dimensions as a new form of artistic expression?” This question, which Li first contemplated in 2002, drove him to search for a new art form. Paper gourd, the traditional Chinese art of papercrafting toys and lanterns, accidentally gave him the inspiration. Beginning in 2007, he began to create paper sculpture works.

Li spent the next three years traveling all over China, visiting private paper mills and garland factories in search of suitable paper and experienced craftsmen. Following countless experiments, Li’s paper sculptures made their international debut in 2010.


“I think the spectators’ subsequent understanding is more valuable than their initial astonishment,” Li said. “I hope they could consider more possibilities which are possessed by a piece of art work or even life itself.”

The process for creating paper sculptures is both complicated and refined. For different themes, Li selects different types of paper. After pretreatment, he pastes several thousand sheets of paper, layer by layer, into a paper gourd, a honeycomb-like structure. He then uses special tools to sculpt and grind the prepared paper, much as classical sculptors chip away at marble. A stretchable sculpture usually requires thousands, or even tens of thousands, sheets of paper and several months to complete.


In exhibitions around the world, Li’s paper sculptures often give the audience a desire to personally handle them, so he has created several small works that spectators can touch and manipulate. He encourages such interactions. “It will be great if the spectators could perceive the changes generated by the paper and my work in a more intuitive manner,” he said. “This will make the expression of my works more complete, maybe to four dimensions.”

Li believes that no art can exist on its own, but gains meaning from mutual references and integration among the arts. For this reason, even as the popularity of his paper-sculpture art has grown, Li has not given up his explorations in other fields. For example, he compiled A Complete Collection of Buddhist Wood Engraving Works in China, a grand undertaking with 80 volumes that collect works dating back 1,000 years and that took eight years to edit and publish.

Unlike Buddhist engravings, paper sculpture has only begun to evolve as an art form. Li sees lots of room for development in both technique and materials. For example, Li has recently begun exploring the use of metal, carving silhouettes from butcher knives. As for the future of the arts, everything is possible.

by Grace Mu Back to top
by Grace Mu

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