Cul­tural reflections sculpted from metal

Artist works with scrap ma­te­ri­als to cre­ate unique pieces he thinks of as price­less

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - By SUN RUISHENG in Taiyuan and HOU LIQIANG in Bei­jing

At first glance, Huang Qi­cai’s stu­dio in a south­ern sub­urb of Taiyuan, Shanxi prov­ince, might look to the unini­ti­ated like a re­cy­cling work­shop, as it is filled with dis­carded wheel hubs and other types of metal­lic waste. Yet a closer look re­veals a hid­den world of art.

The first sculp­ture to con­front vis­i­tors is a horse-like crea­ture with its horned head held high. Soon, the heads of other an­i­mals swim into view — a chicken, snake and cow, each formed out of scrap metal and mea­sur­ing more than 1 me­ter in height.

Huang, an art teacher at Taiyuan Univer­sity, spends al­most all his free time in the work­shop cre­at­ing metal sculp­tures, sel­dom leav­ing to be with his wife and child.

The 40-year-old’s pas­sion for his art is rooted in his child­hood, when his fa­ther worked in a non­fer­rous metal fac­tory.

“Life was hard then, but with skill­ful hands, my fa­ther made al­most all the fur­ni­ture we needed from the metal waste he col­lected. He even made me some toys, which re­ally im­pressed me,” he said.

Huang only be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with metal art in 2002, af­ter he con­tracted se­vere acute res­pi­ra­tory syn­drome while study­ing at the Cen­tral Academy of Fine Arts and was quar­an­tined in Songzhuang, an art com­mu­nity in Bei­jing’s east­ern sub­urbs.

Idling around the vil­lage one day, he met a car me­chanic named Li Ying who wanted to re­place his bro­ken tea table. Huang de­cided to kill some time by de­sign­ing a metal tea table for Li.

“Li had the weld­ing skills, I had the cre­ative ideas, so we de­cided to co­op­er­ate and make fur­ni­ture and other ar­ti­cles with metal waste,” he re­called.

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Their co­op­er­a­tion proved suc­cess­ful, with a num­ber of buy­ers search­ing out the pair’s work­shop. Not long af­ter, Huang had learned how to weld on his own and be­gan work on an in­de­pen­dent cre­ation — an iron wa­ter melon made from metal nuts.

With an “out-of-con­trol en­thu­si­asm and in­spi­ra­tion for cre­ation with metal waste”, Huang said he made al­most 100 sculp­tures while based in Bei­jing be­tween 2002 and 2013, though he didn’t stay in the cap­i­tal the en­tire time. Each piece was given its own name, from Prince on Ice to Pea­cock Princess Charge Knight.

Un­for­tu­nately, Huang was forced to sell al­most all of his works for com­par­a­tively low prices as he found him­self in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties.

Home­less Dog, a sculp­ture he made in 2012 us­ing Swiss sculp­tor Al­berto Gi­a­cometti’s work as a pro­to­type, is one of the works he re­grets sell­ing the most.

“I sold it for 400 yuan ($60). I tried to make a new one but failed. I could hardly get the feel for it,” he said.

When Huang was away, his busi­ness part­ner Li sold an­other of his fa­vorites, the horse-like sculp­ture Charge Knight.

“On hear­ing the news, I headed back to Bei­jing im­me­di­ately and asked to buy it back for a much higher price. The buyer, how­ever, asked for at least 50,000 yuan and I didn’t have that much money,” he said.

“I should have bought it back then, as I don’t know where it is any­more. You can only come by some ma­te­ri­als with luck and the things that I made that sculp­ture with can­not com­pare with what I find to­day.”

De­spite his seem­ingly bound­less en­thu­si­asm for cre­at­ing metal sculp­tures, Huang strug­gles to make ends meet.

“I make about 4,000 yuan a month from my job as a teacher, but I usu­ally use that money to buy scrap metal for my art,” he said.

“I spend more than 60,000 yuan a year on buy­ing waste steel and 15,000 yuan on rent­ing the work­shop, let alone ex­penses.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, how­ever. A gen­er­ous pa­tron gave him 30,000 yuan to sup­port his artis­tic en­deav­ors.

“I will not sell any of them, though I am of­ten vis­ited by buy­ers in­ter­ested in my works,” Huang said, while gen­tly stroking his sculp­tures.

Metal sculpt­ing was, for a time, some­what of a fad in China — first spring­ing up around the turn of the mil­len­nium.

But ac­cord­ing to Huang, many artists have now quit and those that re­main sim­ply repli­cate well-known works like char­ac­ters from the Trans­form­ers film fran­chise, as they try to make a fast buck.

For him, metal sculp­tures should not merely be art­works, they should also con­vey as­pects of the cul­ture they rep­re­sent and the pass­ing of time. “Phased-out ma­chin­ery and farm tools such as planters, reapers and thresh­ers are mem­o­ries of a by­gone era. But their life can be ex­tended if we change them into works of art. The ben­e­fits of such artis­tic cre­ation is be­yond mea­sure,” he said.

I will not sell any of them, though I am of­ten vis­ited by buy­ers in­ter­ested in my works.” Huang Qi­cai, sculp­tor

Liang Shuang con­trib­uted to this story.

Con­tact the writ­ers at houliqiang@chi­nadaily. DragonHead,


Huang Qi­cai with one of his fa­vorite works, at his stu­dio in a south­ern sub­urb of Taiyuan, Shanxi prov­ince.

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