scholarship holder yong xiang li
Born in 1991 in Changsha, China, Yong Xiang Li’s practice is influenced by a reciprocal understanding of culture. Li challenges ideas of sovereignty and existing power structures by engaging in contaminations that aim at media, formal and cultural specificities. Following his stay in Istanbul, supported by a scholarship from the Hessische Kulturstiftung, he sat down with Ben Livne-Weitzman to discuss his work and experiences during his residency.
Ben Livne-Weitzman is a curator and writer based in Frankfurt. He is Editor-in-Chief of PASSE-AVANT and founder of WAVA, an augmented exhibition platform
Ben Livne Weitzman I recall that during a studio visit last year, we paused and talked for a moment about this massive, golden book about byzantine art.¹ We knew by then that you would be spending spring on the shore of the Bosporus Strait, part of the scholarship programme of the Hessische Kulturstiftung. What is it that keeps attracting you to Istanbul?
Yong Xiang Li I believe any coherent story has a somewhat messy start. I went to Istanbul for the first time a couple of years ago with an opportunity for a travel grant. I was motivated by a clear desire to spend a summer away from Frankfurt, where I lived. At the time, I was reading about the history of the Ottoman empire and the making of a modern sexual regime, so naturally, that put Istanbul on my map. The little more than a month I spent there turned out to be so enriching for me, confusing even. In short, the experience of the place was reassuringly larger than any of the “know it all” knowledge I had encountered beforehand. I have kept searching for opportunities to go back ever since.
Livne Weitzman How was it this time around? Could you share a moment or two that reflects on your residency period?
Li This time, I started my stay with a faint sense of familiarity, which quickly got complicated by many misunderstandings and glitches due to my extended stay. In retrospect, all of it turned out positive for me, if one can say such a thing. During this stay, I went a bit beyond being an onlooker there, however superficially. Even the sense of ease supposedly guaranteed by my grant gets complicated when my Turkish colleagues are facing intense difficulties under the current economic crisis. A sense of depression is inevitable. However, practical strategising is never a lack there, for my friends and I are acutely aware that there is no romance in staying in a state of depression.
Visiting Burgaz island near Istanbul one day, I climbed up the hill in the springtime. There is this rather desolated Orthodox cemetery, probably left with minimal care – only one caretaker living in a modest house at the entrance – after the notorious “population exchange” between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. Although everything appears in a kind of ruin, signs of maintenance can be spotted. I took a picture of an ingenious little iron gate, obviously produced on budget, but its elegance shines through its economic restraint regardless. Lilac was blooming at the time. I went close to one of the bushes when two of the most handsome-looking horses I’ve seen in my life passed me by, completely at ease with themselves. I picked a rather majestic lilac branch and brought it back to my studio, where it stayed fresh for two weeks despite being told about its short-lived nature.
I think about that rather uneventful day sometimes when I’m too overwhelmed.
Livne Weitzman Let’s talk about one of your recent works – A Break (By the Bamboo Wave, 2022). (2022). I understand that kept you busy during most of your stay in Istanbul.
Li I finished a sculptural painting, A Break (By the Bamboo Wave), during my residency. I also worked on the conception and preliminary sketches for another work, in which the bamboo idea also plays a significant role.
Livne Weitzman Also in Picnic at the Bamboo Garden (2021/2022), bamboos are a central motive. Can you say a few words about what fascinates you with these evergreen perennial flowering plants?
Li The initial impulse for that work was to paint a landscape that could be turned into something else in the simple act of folding. I’m always interested in the idea of the exotic and its role in the formation of cosmopolitan queer sensitivity. The idea of bamboo embodying both fantasy exotica and a tired cliché caught my thoughts and slowly surfaced to be key concept in this project.
Livne Weitzman There is something relatively static about this work, especially compared to some of your previous pairings, that always seems to capture the drama of a fleeting moment.
Li That’s true. The painted surfaces of these works, especially A Break , have a more static feel to them. This might have something to do with the interplay between subjective painterly intuition and making a decorative surface – a relationship that is at the core of these works. The structure of the work comes first to me. The painting part comes later. So when I do painting, I’m already conscious of the specificity of the surface, hence not starting from a kind of Tabula rasa. And it became obvious to me that the painted surface should be, in a way, tamed.
The painted language should, when the structure breaks apart and folds into chair imitations, come across as serving the (chair) structure it applied on. I think this feeling of “in service” makes the static atmosphere.
Livne Weitzman The relation of these paintings to furniture is an interesting one. There are at least two possible set-ups for each panel: hinged twice at a 90-degree angle to form a chair-like formation, or folded back and hung straight on the wall, forming a single continuous painting with the other panels beside it. As functional as the work makes itself out to be, it is, in fact, unapologetically impractical.
Li It is, in a way, a drag. In this case, it is a painting doing utilitarian drag, or vice versa.
The interesting thing about the language of pretend is its fundamental refusal of a universal baseline through being performative. Not exactly an ambiguous, identity-less type of thing, but more a shapeshifter that manifests concrete shape each time to relate to its surrounding. A Break is, in a way, a work of disloyalty. It neither submits to painting nor design, not precisely the representation of a landscape nor a frozen wave, not quite following Gongbi tradition nor an abstract pattern painting tradition, while retaining the capacity to inhabit all the above.
Livne Weitzman The work refers to Thomas Chippendale’s “bamboo” chair and other Chinoiserie style design pieces, a style developed in 17-18th century Europe as a fantastic mashup of Chinese, Japanese and Indian motifs. Many chairs and other pieces of furniture were adorned with “oriental” lines and patterns, later evolving into what we today refer to as Rococo. In a previous conversation, you referred to this style as “out of time”. What did you mean by that?
Li Inspirations of the “orient” was very influential in many Western art/material cultures of the mid and late 18th century, fueled by trade and colonial enterprise. However, what we call Rococo was more like an omnivore, with styles like Chinoiserie as a part of its “diet” rather than being a “rightful heir” of it. The Gothic was obviously another essential part of that “diet”, for example. I remember referring to a specific Chippendale chair when I thought of this notion of out-of-time-ness. It was a faux bamboo chair, an awkward-looking thing, made in the late 18th century when Chinoiserie had already fallen out of favour with its English patrons. The chair, for me, is a bit of an oddball in Chippendale’s oeuvre, in an already weird and out-of-fashion style that is Chinoiserie. I think the existence of such oddity and its own liberty is somehow nourished by this not inhabiting their time.
Livne Weitzman Another aspect of your praxis is video making. To me, they feel complimenting –– one calling for incredible preciseness and exactitude, and the other allowing for a somewhat breezy attitude.
Li You are correct with the word breezy because that’s how I feel about it. I find it very helpful to exercise another kind of muscle/imagination in video making. They are often more project-based, collaborative, and made with a more amateuristic, DIY spirit. It naturally happened that way, and in retrospect, I realised it was a need. I think a person, their work, or even a sentence is rarely one-dimensional. Consistency archived by diligence is sometimes of necessity but often tired and overrated, while inconsistency here can perhaps give a breath of fresh air.
Livne Weitzman I recall your last show in LC Queisser in Tbilisi. There, the presentation felt like an installation with several parts. There were these small paintings you made especially to fit the wooden reliefs under the street-facing windows, and the video A View From a Suspended Bridge (2019), playing on an iPhone, was peeking from a built-in closet. How do you plan your exhibitions? Do you already create the works with a specific exhibition format in mind?
Li I didn’t have a detailed plan for the show in advance. This is partially because I’ve never seen the space in real life prior to my stay there in early 2022. I already got pictures of the space and floor plan in 2020, and I started the chair idea for it quite early. So, I knew for certain the ‘protagonists’ in this show would be these “landscape chairs”. And I also knew I wanted the first room to have a quiet aura, therefore contracting the second room, which would be a kind of ‘peacocking’, climatic moment with the triptych. Upon seeing the space in real life, I realised I could include some small gestures to connect the two rooms conceptually and atmospherically. These gestures are located at the periphery but also point to the characteristics of the space.
Livne Weitzman Are you working on any new video work now? Or what keeps you busy these days?
Li I’m finishing a new chair painting at the moment. I’m also developing ideas for a solo show which will take place in Munich in September in 2023. It will include a body of painting sculptures in different forms and a new video work. I won’t tell more now, so I don’t jinx it.
Livne Weitzman Looking back at your experience in Istanbul, what do you think you’ll take on with you? Besides the smell of lilac and the passing horses on the island.
LiLike many people, I sometimes try to make sense of my surroundings by making assumptions and theories. This is helpful, like a kind of conceptual ‘frame’. It reduces things sometimes, albeit in productive ways. It generates clarity and reaffirms something in you in need of nurturing. But the problem is, like any form of reduction, it diverts a little from reality. If practised obsessively, one might find oneself imprisoned in the role of the only ‘enlightened one’, conspiring and prophesying in solitude in a dimmed room of one’s own. So, in this regard, I’m grateful for my time in Istanbul to adjust my mental “frame”.
1 Antony Eastmond: The Glory of Byzantium and Early Christendom, 2013
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