Entering Chelsea's Klein Sun Gallery on the opening night of Chinese artist Li Hongbo's surreal new exhibition, Textbooks, I was confronted with two statues. On the left was Hongbo's lauded morphing bust of Volaire, and on the right, an all-new sculpture of a Chinese schoolgirl hand-carved into a stack of textbooks.
The textbooks are unattached, as a gallery employee demonstrates, allowing them to be taken apart and reassembled like Legos. They're both composed of thousands of pieces of stacked paper, but a glance at these carvings look like they could be marble or wood due to Hongbo's attention to detail. The two works act as a transition from his old body of work into the new territory he explores in Textbooks.
Hongbo is fond of paper as a medium, which he takes in a whole new direction in the next portion of the exhibition. The main attraction is a spiraling chain of impressively large binder clips reminiscent of vertebrae or a Chinese dancing dragon. "I had them custom made in China," Hongbo reveals to The Creators Project. "You can have almost anything made in China; it's really convenient." Suspended from strings around it, textbooks splayed out like rudimentary v-shaped birds swarm around the dragon. They sway with the air currents wafting through the gallery and the remnants of a few overzealous guests' compulsive pawings. Combined, this section of the exhibit is poetically titled, Soaring Through Clouds, Stumbling Through Fog.
On the left, more school children carved from textbooks—a series called Absorption—stand on battered school desks, some perfectly aligned and others displaying their seams with warped and twisted arrangements. Perhaps because of their faces, this series is one of the most thought-provoking in the gallery. "I hope the works give people a sense of nostalgia," Hongbo says. "Pretty much everyone has received an education these days, so my hope is that the materials I've used encourage individuals to reflect on their past."
Perhaps the piece most relatable to those with less fond memories of their school years is called A Selfless Act, consisting of four sharpened pikes upon which Hongbo impales stacks of softcover textbooks. From this, you might assume that Hongbo himself was troubled in school, but he says his experience was quite the opposite: "I was a good student. Actually, I was a great student!" he recalls. "I often think about my education and that time of my life as a student. I know that if I hadn't received the education that I did, I would not think this way or have created this body of work."
Tucked away into a corner beside A Selfless Act, stacks of American and Chinese textbooks drive home the theme of the exhibition. The open side of the American textbooks has been pierced with holes and bound shut with thread in the traditional Chinese style. The Chinese textbooks are double bound in the American style, with glue. "This represents the gap in communication and understand between Chinese and American education styles," explains Willem Molesworth, a manager at Klein Sun Gallery.
Hongbo's previous work has applied his experimental brand of traditional Chinese paper craft to other issues important to American politics, such as gun control, as well as the larger history of Western culture, like the aforementioned bust of Voltaire. Diverse in his interests, the biggest thread tying Hongbo's work together is paper and paper manipulating techniques, but Textbooks seems to deviate from his usual fair in its recycled, text-covered aesthetic. The artist, however, doesn't see it that way. "It's all paper," he says. "There isn't that big of a difference actually. To me, it's just a material to create art at the end of the day."
And at the end of the day, his work is a means to an end not unlike the bizzare classroom the exhibit emulates. When you exit Hongbo's school, he says, "I hope people develop a new way of thinking."