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Sculptor Carves out China's Modern History


In the outskirts of Guangzhou lies a special sculpture park.

In it, a red brick three-story building features the succinct layout of a hammer crossed with a chisel. The special building gives a hint about the owner of the park.

The sculpture park, owned by established sculptor Cao Chong'en, is the only self-funded park in the country, and was built last December.

The design of the park and the hammer-chisel shaped exhibition hall were designed by the versatile artist himself. Brooks wind through the park, which covers an area of some 5,000 square meters. Marble has been used for the walkways.

The reclusive park is home to more than 100 sculptures selected from Cao's works. Thick layers of century-old carambola and wampee trees shelter the outdoor sculptures. The indoor section displays smaller pieces of figurative sculptures.

After four years of careful planning and design work, the park is a happy climax to Cao's longtime career.

But happiness usually comes at a price. Cao has put around 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million) into the park, on things from buying the land to construction of the exhibition hall.

And it doesn't make any profit - the park is free to all.

Many people are puzzled at Cao's investment on this sheer "white elephant."

Cao's reply is a simple understatement. "I believe art comes from the public and it is better to show it to the public." In addition, he says, to showcase the sculptures in the open is better than burying them beneath the earth or in a warehouse.

Cao has been a prolific sculptor for more than four decades and is a retired professor of sculpture with the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.

Seen from his plain appearance and simple ways of living, Cao bears anything but the typical image of a millionaire.

Despite the long distance between the park, his home and the city center, "I don't have a car," he said.

And some of his friends said Cao feels that there is nothing wrong with the old furniture in his home too.

Contrastingly, he is extravagant in art, pouring almost every penny he has, all strenuously earned from his creations "hammer by hammer, chisel by chisel" over the decades.

Wandering through the park, you will find that many sculptures are already famous pieces.

For instance, the bronze bust of the musician Xian Xinghai (1905-45), composer of "Yellow River Cantata", was already printed on stamps in 1985.

True, most of his original works are collected in national or regional galleries, museums, universities and public places worldwide.

His works cover contemporary political figures such as Dr Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, well-known writers, artists, critics and entrepreneurs.

The array of vivid sculptural portraits carves out a graphic history of contemporary China.

In the abstract or metaphorical category, his glamour shines in the statue of the "Pearl Returning" -featuring a pearl tenderly held in a palm, symbolizing the handover of Hong Kong to the motherland .

And another representative statue now erected in Macao, incorporates the image of the lotus, the symbolic flower of the special administrative region, and the initial letter of Macao.

Cao is versatile in both bronze and marble; but he has a liking for marble.

"It is an eternal dear material in my sculpting."

Many insiders tend to say that sculptors are lame in a sense - many sculptors do not bother to carve the marble - only making the plaster mold and leaving the carving part to craftsmen.

"Around 95 per cent of sculptors don't carve marble because it is extremely strenuous and exacting work," Cao said.

He simply adores marble.

"I was drawn to the sensual, warm curves released from the imprisonment of the hard, cool stones. It liberates from nature the artist's perception of the form within the rock as opposed to casting, which builds up from modeled clay or plaster."

Simple as marble may appear, there are incredible varieties of marble available, adding up to dozens of categories.

For example, some marble is ivory-colored, some have soften-toned opalescence. Some are smooth with sheen, best used to illustrate the silk skin of young girls; some are a bit mottled and more edged - better depicting the elderly.

His creation has an amazing array of colors and textures from various kinds of marble. These vivid sculptures evoke the simple spirituality of the person being sculpted through planes and lines as expression of movement and formal elegance.

In using hammers and chisels personally, he is able to improvise and develop the work on the basis of the plaster mold.

"Every touch of the hammer and chisel that witnesses the creativity of the artist in carving are sensed," he said. "This is extremely complex, time-consuming and costly to produce."

Understanding tools

His mastery shows in the using of his tools. He said a sculptor must know precisely how to handle them. "You cannot be distracted by the mechanics of the process when you are sculpting," he noted, "You must understand your tools completely and allow them to be an extension of yourself."

However vivid, his work has marked combinations of abstract and figurative touches.

He loves to release from stone or bronze emotions of pleasure and peace for the viewer.

Now that his sculpture garden comes alive, his story is likely to draw to a happy chapter, but it is not the ending.

Cao has more ambitious plans ahead. "I have made sculptures of contemporary history. There are a wealth of illustrious figures in the ancient history of China I am interested in. The project will take some five to eight years to complete."

(China Daily February 1, 2002)

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