Five artists who redefine the aesthetics of design talk to us about their individual journeys into the world of art, and why art designed a certain way, in a certain language, can instantly become exciting, accessible and deeply invested in the everyday
Li Hongbo, Wooden Pier, Paper, 21.5 cm x 21.5 cm x 65.5 cm, 2012. Image Courtesy of the artist and Klein Sun Gallery, New York.
The fundamental truth about design is that it is always more than what we think it is. Much like how it is hard to define what constitutes ‘good art’, it is equally hard to define ‘good design’. Probably much harder as it permeates every aspect of our lives, figuratively and literally. When we think art, the first thing that would invariably come to mind is a painting. When we think design, that first thing could be anything – textile, fashion, automobiles, technology, social media, the virtual world, furniture, layouts, patterns, illustrations, installation, accessories, jewellery – it’s an ocean of possibility, and if you believed there was a way to steer your ship of thought, then, well, there isn’t. It is such an intrinsic part of our daily lives that most times we aren’t even aware of it. Only when it is removed from our everyday space and put within the walls of a gallery or a show or an exhibition do we see it, and not when we, say, hold it as a device in our hands. Wasn’t it Steve Jobs, that master designer of technology, who once said, ‘Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.’ And how it works includes how I experience that and therefore what I build into the meaning of design. The subjective experience leads us to an objective understanding, which in turn feeds the experience the next time round – it’s a vicious circle of enlightenment that leaves us where we began – that design is always more than what we think it is.
If contemporary art is breaking out of its traditional constructs and embracing myriad forms of expression within its tenets, and design is climbing its way out of a forced lacuna of preconceived notions, then in my head, it is like ink on blotting paper. One drop of art and one drop of design and the circles that grow out in haphazard patterns merge into an unexpected, undefined form. In the realm of aesthetics then, design thrives, and in the realm of functionality art becomes more accessible. And most times, the fun isn’t in seeing the two apart but in discovering something new.
Li Hongbo, Roman Youth, Paper, 52 cm x 36 cm x 26 cm, 2013, Unstretched/Stretched. Image Courtesy of the artist and Klein Sun Gallery, New York.
The Right Moves Chinese artist Li Hongbo, former book publisher, did just that. His natural inclination towards paper – its quality, durability, malleability, characteristic and style – might have come from the hours he spent designing books. But it was also connected to an ancient Chinese art form of paper gourd making, used to make festive decorations. Li Hongbo’s paper sculptures, which follows that same, ancient honeycomb technique – from full body figures, to tree trunks, to coaster shaped and gun shaped sculptures – move. They expand, stretch, contract, bend and retract, challenging us the viewer go beyond what the eye can see. ‘At first, you don’t think they can possibly move, but when you open it or provoke it, you discover a change. This transformation might have a greater impact,’ he said in an interview to Crane TV. The process also has a great impact. In the multiple fascinating videos available online, you watch Li Hongbo, dressed like someone in a high-risk, confidential molecular biology lab, stacking and gluing sheets and sheets of paper, with a precision that is tedious to even comprehend. It is hard to imagine how one keeps the sanctity of the original form and the to-be-sculpted form intact, without resisting the temptation to lose oneself in the details, but Hongbo, tells us, ‘With my paper sculpture artwork, I hope to break through the inherent external form of all objects and things. To expand or even change the cultural connotation and symbolic meaning of its attachment, then give it a new interpretation, and turn it into a game of possibilities. In that way, my concern is always the possibility of change. To be detailed and precise is only an external form of its expression, it is not a temptation to me at all. As a result, I have a definite intention to present the details and then break and expand it.’
Hongbo’s various interpretations of paper and the reinvention of the material’s form are to be seen to believe and then seen again to dispel the disbelief of what we were actually seeing.