Li Jinghu

Interview with Li Jinghu by Billy Tang

Interview with Li Jinghu by Billy Tang
May 2014 

B: I wanted to know your thoughts about the work ‘Prisoner’ as it will occupy a large focus within the show. With the marks cut directly into the concrete wall, there is an almost passive-aggressive violence running through the space. It is a strong statement for your first solo exhibition in Beijing. Often, a poetic ambiguity is evoked in the work to leave things up to the imagination of the viewer – this work similarly allows us to see again the reality of the white cube alongside this gesture enacted within the space. As a site-specific work it becomes a work that plays between a drawing, a concept, and a physical action.

L: Creating art, I am searching for different ways to think about my own life and to negotiate my own perplexity. But when I made the work ‘Prisoner’ in 2010, it was a period when I had the most difficulties inside and outside of my life: family-wise, economically, emotionally, or with my own projects - all these aspects were a big issue. I didn’t know which road I was going towards. It was a little disheartening not knowing which course to take in life – just like everything was wrong and felt tangled in a wire-fence of my own doing. More and more, I felt I needed to break through it with the cuts on the wall; the more I felt trapped, the net seemed bigger. I thought how I felt at the time, there surely must be other people with these feelings too. So with this piece, it doesn’t have to be cut with my own hands. On the contrary, if other people do the cuts to create the piece - it becomes even more universal. When I first made this piece, I drew the lines on the wall with my own hands, which was then machine-cut by other people – the lines were a little messy, but it approached something much more natural and authentic. The second time at Time Museum, I found two workers to make the cuts onto wooden panels – the result was very precisely done, but not very authentic. I wasn’t displeased at the result so even on this occasion, I would like to use workers. In terms of the site, I really would like to influence the atmosphere of the original space - it really has to give people a strong feeling of being stifled, but not too much pressure so that it completely oppresses them.

B: Another one of the works viewers will first encounter is ‘Rainbow’, which I am particularly excited about. In its first iteration, it was presented in a line running along a flight of stairs, but this time we are presenting the piece horizontally. Similarly to Prisoner, it is a simple concept, but executed on a scale that suddenly becomes quite monumental. I am interested to hear more about how you imagine the way these two works can connect together in the exhibition hall.

L: The two works were created at different times so the mood of these pieces is slightly different. But putting the two pieces together can complement one another and further enhance them – they are both drawn from life experiences taken from the depths of this living environment. They take as their departure point my own individuality, but they also reflect the state of the surrounding community.

B: About the work ‘Rainbow’, I want to ask if these everyday objects have to come from Dongguan or whether they can be collected anywhere?

L: These cheap objects do not have to be from Dongguan, they can be objects belonging to anybody or the discarded items found in collection stations. The important point is that they have to be objects that have been used before as through the use they have a greater universal significance.

B: The image that I see when looking at this piece is that of a factory production line. With Rainbow there is an arbitrary framework that becomes integral to the work. The act of recreating a rainbow becomes the premise for enabling a collection of everyday objects, but presented in a form that is very unexpected and almost humorous. 

L: I see the colors not really as something comical, but more an affirmation of our existence - its something that is both quite brutal, but also warm at the same time. I originally had the idea of finding objects from the different households of nearby families, which I could then arrange in an installation creating a rainbow. What I want to raise is this: what gives most ordinary people the ability to endure the arduous and weariness of life day after day? The Rainbow expresses a certain aspiration and conviction.

B: What you are saying seems very connected to perhaps the approach in another work ‘Fresh Flowers’, where with that particular work it feels like an attempt to imagine a worker-figure who is always absent. These particular works seem most connected to the idea of portraiture somehow.

L: Exactly, these two works have a connection with workers or to be more accurate: connected with the people immediately around me in my life. It just so happens that many of them are workers. Essentially, I actually do not know the people around me personally so my impression of how they appear to me is somewhat vague. However on the contrary, this helps me to attain a sufficient amount of objectivity - it also makes it easier to capture certain impressions of them and in this way the work is able to express something.

B: I am very interested in the techniques you use to displace an object - materials are collected in bulk, other times they are directly altered. There are different methods of abstracting these materials, which is often combined with influences informed by where you live, Dongguan. I remember in previous conversations, you have often spoken about ‘weidao’ – a flavor of a particular place, which is an abstract term that somehow evokes the atmosphere of a particular place. I wanted to hear more about this idea in relationship to your approach to making art.

L: I don’t think I have actually consciously used ‘weidao’ (flavor) as a concept. It seems like a phrase I use a lot unconsciously. But I am very happy for us to expand on this subject as my work has never raised an issue or challenged in anyway a discourse with art history or conceptual art.  The departure for my work is to think about how to express a reflection of my own life and because of this, the things surrounding me frequently become the ‘material’ for my work. As long as there is authenticity, anything can be used. It might be that if I end up living in Beijing, then Beijing could then become my material or that of another place. Returning to this idea of ‘weidao’, the taste of mutton kebab in Beijing far surpasses those found in Dongguan. In the same way, you cannot compare the taste of river fish in Beijing to Dongguan’s. It is vital for a ‘material’ to be interconnected with its environment, alongside a connection with the artist’s identity, only then can it be realistic and genuine.

B: Dongguan was a boomtown that is transforming into a major manufacturing and technology production hub. There is an interesting dynamic between having close proximity to an area with a lot of production activity but not so much in terms of the number of artists there. For you, it seems paradoxically a position of seclusion, but also a position very much on the front-line in terms of some very pertinent issues emerging in China.

L: Dongguan is a place with a relatively simple social structure. Within thirty years of focusing on labor-intensive factories, it has become the factory of the world. Only a few tiers provide the framework from which workers can be categorized by: the industrialists, laborers, and then the natives. Each group has developed its own system, which are interconnected with one another. They are peaceful but also with conflicts too, providing a clear and representative perspective for the observation of reality in China.

B: Speaking about tempo, I am interested in the routine when you are in the studio making work. The functionality of art for you seems almost like an exercise to offer forms of distraction – a kind of daydreaming. It's a method you use to connect social realities tied to the modernization happening in Dongguan, which is then imbued with poetic feeling that is optimistic and just as transient. Related to this idea of distraction, often works are created through displacements encouraging viewers to see materials in ways suggesting alternative ways to connect to reality.

L: I prefer observing the reality of Dongguan from within. Therefore I want to live here and attempt to become a member of its daily life, this in turn becomes my reality.

B: Can you discuss more about what guides your choices to use certain materials and the parameters you give to yourself. You mentioned the need for ‘zhenshi’ (authenticity), I would like to know how you arrive at the final work and what are the processes involved.

L: Basically I am quite passive about the usage of materials. It naturally penetrates into your thinking when you are in touch with the objects every day and get to know the messages they convey. When these messages and thoughts might become complete on a certain day, the work then gets developed.

B: I was wondering if you can describe the differences or commonalities between your approach making early work compared to your more recent work?

L: The starting point of my early works was more orientated around the basis of personal emotional experiences. Later I found that my experiences could not be separated from the surrounding environment and people. Everything around me is nothing more than part of a collective being. What emerged in later works is an emotional experience derived from this idea of a collective being. I find in fact, there is not really a fundamental difference separating my early and recent works.

B: In many of your works, there are references to the factory. They sometimes address its visible forms, but also in other works, they are hinted at much more discreetly. As an institution of labor, the factory in its general sense is intimately connected to how we organize our relationship to time, work, collectivity, and materials. In your work, there is obviously works like ‘Factory’ or maybe ‘The Broom’, but I am also thinking of ‘White Clouds’ and ‘Fresh Flowers’, and to some extent perhaps also ‘Wind Bell’, where there is this image of a suspension of time.

L: There was a very profound influence of a 80s slogan ‘time is money, efficiency is life’. But this maxim of the time quickly turned into the living belief of the whole of society. The whole nation transformed into something highly abnormal. This probably is connected to me being raised in the countryside, I am not very well adapted towards this rhythm and I really believe probably the majority of workers from the countryside are not used to this either. But in order to possess a finer life or to attain a brighter future for their children, there is little choice but to simply endure it so it becomes something we are all accustomed to.