Li Yongzheng (artist)
Li Yongzheng: Border, Wilderness, Death and Vitality
Interview completed on July 1, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by interviewee
This year, I was invited by a friend from a psychotherapy institution in Guizhou to curate an exhibition titled "Rehearsing Death", and I was pondering a thought – only after seeing the wilderness do I know what "live", "life", and "power" are. This is something that was planted several years ago in me when I read "Monster" by Japanese manga artist Naoki Urasawa ("Monster" is my favorite manga; the theme is psychological manipulation and experimentation, a grand topic): I have seen the wilderness and came from the wilderness; I have seen the most powerless moments and been to the shady corners of man, so I am fearless; death is the only "equality" that all human beings can achieve. Then, I saw Li Yongzheng's interview with IVA Art, "I Can Scare myself with my own Wilderness, which is Close to Home" – we both think about "wilderness", we think alike. I especially appreciate his saying, "if the importance of individual life is not put into consideration, then actions and words are despicable." Individual, life, respect and neglect of it – we think of the same things again. Above is the background for this interview.
Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, or Christianity? What books have you been reading lately? What music do you listen to?
A: I do read. I don't have a clear religious belief, but I'm not an atheist. I just finished reading several novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, and "The Buried Giant" is wonderful. I also reread "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I don't have specific preferences for music – it's more of a background sound when I'm in the studio. My taste leans towards blues and country music.
Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
A: Since I stopped going out, I have more time to paint, and painting is a good way to pass time.
Q3: Your work is mostly land art. Have you ever learned about the Maoist quotes in the Northwest desert and "404 Nuclear City"? If you were asked to create on these sites (e.g. commissioned by institutions), would you be willing to do so? How would you start the creation (work process)?
A: I know about 404 Nuclear City. I remember that someone even made a documentary about it. I don’t normally accept commissions. If there were a commission from an institution, we would have to talk about what the institution wanted, and I am not sure I can definitely produce a piece of work. This could only be determined after I have been to the place.
Q4: All disasters originate from the brutality to individuals, and all civilizations originate from the respect for individuals. In your works, how do you reflect the civilization/brutality of society to individuals?
A: I don't quite understand where your conclusion about disaster and civilization comes from. I don't like to summarize with a unifying statement: such words are rather far away from the individual. Only in a concrete event, in the relationship between individuals, does disaster or civilization have content.
Q5: Your art creation is a way to relieve the negative emotions generated by your empathy towards individuals. (I refuse to use the label "underclass" because under totalitarian rule, everyone except the ruling class belongs to the "underclass”.)
A: I don't know what negative emotions are, and I certainly don't know what positive emotions are either.
Q6: In the current context, the so-called “aspirants” have given up the illusion of being able to change the world, and only seek to continue to honor the truth, to be true to themselves, and to salvage themselves. Is this your logic for self-consistency?
A: I don't know about others. Doesn't Elon Musk want to change the future and go to Mars? In fact, no matter what you do, the future will eventually change, so any action you take right now may become part of the future. What kind of future you dream of will often determine the direction you take at the present moment.
Q7: The wilderness is the scene of your creation. Can you say that creating in the wilderness is "homecoming" for you (Yu Hong, "Art and Homecoming")? How do you show the "live", "life", and "power" inspired by the wilderness?
A: I don't have a concept of "home". The end is on the road, and all stories happen there. I am not interested in discussing the “ultimate home”. Only if you have done enough, may some kind of warmth come at some moment.
Q8: An artist like you would refuse to talk about "common sense" or ‘toxic chicken soup’ (false positive inspirational words), but the reality is that even in the contemporary art world there are a lot of such invalid discourses. You talked about "consensus". How do you guide the public who lack "common sense" to understand your "consensus"?
A: The consensus I talked about is some universal principles summarized by human historical experience in the social system, which is in the legal or ethical sphere and needs to be guided at the institutional level. Different people have different interpretations when they look at my works, and there is no need for consensus here.
Q9: Regarding your work "Death, My Dream for Many Years", death is the only "equality" that human beings can achieve, do you agree?
A: I don't know. Death is a state that cannot be responded to, and I cannot make speculative assertions about a state that is completely unknown. I don't know if it is the beginning or the end.
Q10: Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the visible future? ("There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in"; that is the starting point for The Beacon's interview with you and the platform as a whole, because it believes in finding a way out of a dead end.)
A: I don't know. The future hasn't happened yet.
Works by Li Yongzheng: “Border” Series
Defend the Motherland (October 2015)
Genre: Ready-made object, installation
Medium: Brick, video
Description: The artist traveled more than 7,000 kilometers from Chengdu to replace the sign "Defend the Motherland" with new bricks in front of the ruins of a military airport in the center of Lop Nor, which was made by soldiers at the time.
* Lop Nor, located in the southeast of China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, was once the second largest saltwater lake in China. On October 16, 1964, China successfully tested the first atomic bomb in the Lop Nor region.
Boundary Stakes and Lasers (January 2019)
Genre: Video installation
Video duration: 17 minutes
Description: The artist took a section of an abandoned border pillar, which was located in Xinjiang back to mainland China, to somewhere more than 1,000 kilometers from the current border at N:93°34'25"-93°46'56", E:40°10'05"-40°22'58", on the ruins of the Han Great Wall built in the 1st century B.C. (this section of the Han Great Wall was the border of the Han Dynasty 1,900 years ago), walking along the starting point of the ruins and re-erecting this section of the boundary pillars in front of a beacon.
* Beacon, a high platform used in ancient times to light smoke and fire to transmit important news, is an important military defense facility in ancient times and was built to prevent invasion by foreign enemies. The beacon is the oldest but effective way to transmit news.
Laser (in collaboration with Ma Zhandong, January 2019)
Genre: Live Installation, video
Video duration: 7 minutes
Description: The laser pointer is placed in the desert of the western border of China and arranged in a straight line of nearly 100 meters long. When a medium appears in the air, the laser forms a web of red that appears and disappears.
Feast (September 2020)
Genre: Video installation (work in progress)
Video: Double screen, 12 minutes 30 seconds
Description: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the artist traveled from southern China to the desert of Xinjiang, to invite the local minority members (Uyghurs) to dine in a canyon in the desert.
Yes, Today (July-October, 2017)
Genre: Installation, video, live performance
Video: Three screens, 9 minutes
Description: Some underage teenagers from the countryside learned fighting in fight clubs in big cities, and after media exposure, the local education department took these teenagers back to their places of origin. The artist took this as a clue to contact some of the teenagers and ask them to perform fighting in the fields, mountains and bazaars of their hometowns. These scenes are shown in video in the exhibition, along with the old songs about the reality of joy, pain and death chanted by the elders from the teenagers' hometowns.
Death, My Dream for Many Years (September, 2015)
Genre: Installation, event, performance
Medium: Salt brick, video
Description: According to media reports, on June 9, 2015, four children from Cizhu Village, Qixingguan District, Bijie City, Guizhou Province, died by suicide in their home. The four children were a brother and three sisters; the oldest brother was 13 years old and the youngest sister was 5. On June 12, a simple suicide note left by the brother Zhang Qigang was disclosed by the media. The suicide note reads: "Thank you for your kindness. I know how good you have been to me, but it's time for me to go. I once swore I would not live past the age of 15, and death was my dream for many years, and today my life clears up!" The artist used natural salt blocks from the Himalayas and placed them on the beach in Tanggu, Tianjin to form the Chinese characters for "death, my dream for many years", which quickly melted away in the tide and returned to the sea.
With Salt (2017)
Medium: Himalayan salt
Description: The artist used Himalayan salt to replicate an internet map of people who have chosen to die free in western China, and the viewer can walk on it and hear the sound of the salt cracking.
Salt of Mount Gangrene (December 2009; redone in March 2012)
Medium: 5 tons of salt, humidifier, water
Size: 240x240x130cm (variable)
Description: The humidifier melts the salt mountain uninterruptedly, and in a period of time the salt mountain disappears completely.
* Mount Gangrene, located in Tibet, is recognized as the center of the world by Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, the native Tibetan religion of Benthism, and ancient Jainism.
Hi (September 2015 - February 2017)
Genre: Interactive installation
Medium: Ready-made object, video
Description: In early 2015, the artist launched a call on social media, inviting people to take pictures of the plastic models of police officers they saw on the street, which the artist then collected. Within a year's time, photos were collected from participants in more than 20 provinces across China.
Interaction: The audience interacts with the models and masks in the exhibition.
In his creations, whether it is performance art, installation, video, painting or long-term interactive artwork, Li Yongzheng strives to start from field experience and maintain a very clear perspective, i.e. concern for human nature, etc. He often makes thoughtful choices about the context and place where his works are produced, creating them in an implicit and poetic way. In terms of the form of his works, he repeatedly ponders over them in an attempt to construct the historical and cultural origin of the "objects".
In 2021, his work "Banquet" won the "ADAA Asian Digital Art Award" (Fukuoka, Japan), the Honorable Mention at the Fargo Film Festival, and was selected for the 72nd Montecatini International Short Film Festival and the 75th Salerno International Film Festival.
“Yes, Today – Li Yongzheng as an Art of Living” (English edition), Rizzoli Libri, Italy
“Li Yongzheng's Works 2011-2017”, Mulan Culture Press, Taiwan
Major Solo Exhibitions
2020 "Border", Lushan Art Museum, Chengdu, China
2018 "Red Ruins, Absurd Realities", Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei National University of the Arts, Taiwan
2017 "Hello", Chengdu Contemporary Art Museum, Chengdu, China
2017 "Death, My Dream for Many Years", INGALLERY, Tianjin, China
Recent Major Group Exhibitions
"ADAA Asian Art Award Winners Exhibition", Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan
"Fission – The Global Wave of Digitization", Guizhou Provincial Museum, Guiyang, China
"Exhibition of GDMoA Annual Artist Nomination", Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China
"Lumen", White Rabbit Art Gallery, Australia
"Stitching", The 4th Today's Documents, Chongqing Contemporary Art Museum, Chongqing, China
"Now: The Second Decade", White Rabbit Art Gallery, Australia