Interview with Li Gang
With a restless intellect and a rapidly developing oeuvre distinguished by surprising gestures that somehow manage to come across as both extremely logical and elusive at once, Li Gang ranks among the more intriguing members of the youngest generation of Chinese artists. Often working in series – as though testing his ideas out through their manifestation and the various warpings they take on in the process – Li is perhaps best known for It, in which small pieces of transparent packing tape were applied thickly to acrylic boards until white or yellowish rock-like forms appeared from the blackness of the image. Fleeting Time, a series that was partly inspired by the death of the artist’s grandfather, was a series of nineteen canvases that originally contained paintings on the theme of time; dissatisfied with the results, Li cleansed each canvas, depositing the chips of the oil paint into a plastic bag which was sealed and displayed next to the re-stretched clean canvas, a photograph on the bag being the only remaining documentation of the original painting.
I recently met with Li Gang in his studio in the Beijing art district of Caochangdi, just down the street from Ai Weiwei’s headquarters, to discuss plans for the first major solo exhibition of his work in China, opening on September 3, 2011 at Galerie Urs Meile.
Travis Jeppesen: Could you talk a bit about the upcoming exhibition, the three works that are going to be included, and the overall concept?
Li Gang: For the works in the exhibition, there is a subtle line that unites all the works together. The idea is that they’re all related to each other.
Jeppesen: Is that connection thematic or more formal?
Li: It has nothing to do with form. The forms and media are all completely different from piece to piece. Regarding the theme, the exhibition title is “Between.” It’s actually quite vague, the connections of the works to one another. You can’t say it’s a political theme, or what the real, exact meaning is. Probably, if you really want me to describe this connection, it is about the relationship between human beings, nature, and society. There are so many elements, actually, included in this relationship. I chose three works. These three works are examples representing this relationship. For the Error series, part of which you see here in the studio, it’s about challenging the audience’s way of looking at things. For Pedestal, it’s more about the relationship between money and art. And the last one, Dasuan, the coal rocks with the screws in it, that’s more about the relationship between modern technology and nature.
Jeppesen: I know that a lot of your impulses as an artist are rooted in personal experiences, which brings an autobiographical element to your work. Are you continuing to work in that vein, or are these new works more detached, objective, critical?
Li: There must be some small continuations from the previous works. But the thinking pattern has changed a lot and the techniques of making the work are always different. The continuation of style is quite natural. You go from step A to step B. In terms of criticality, it’s not so direct. It’s not like I have a strong impulse to criticize something. It’s more like I’m raising a question and sharing it with the audience. We can question or doubt the issue together. It’s more about sharing and communicating with the audience. There is no strong personal opinion in the works.
Jeppesen: One of the things that distinguishes your work is that it has both a strong conceptual component as well as a strong aesthetic element. In a way, you’re neither a “pure” conceptual artist nor a “pure” visual artist. This raises questions about your working process. How do you get your ideas? Is it more intellectual or does it come from the materials themselves?
Li: A lot of times, I’m regarded as “the guy who made the pictures with the tape.” I can’t stand that, defining an artist by the materials he’s used. The concept or theme of the work is more rooted in the feelings I have when a question emerges. It can be rooted in a really trivial thing, but this thing grows or will connect to a similar question. When the question grows big enough, then it becomes necessary for me to say something about it using a visual language. Then I have to find the materials for dealing with this question. So the conceptual aspect and the visual one kind of balance how the work comes out. It’s not coming from the materials, it’s the idea I have in my mind. Then I have to find the proper way to match it with the materials in order to express it. This is the process.
Jeppesen: So it’s not like, you saw the packing tape one day and said to yourself, what would happen if I covered a board in tape?
Li: No, absolutely not. If I worked that way, then practically every single thing I saw every day would have to be integrated into my work, and I’d just be producing useless objects. When a theme attracts me, I have to first examine whether it’s something that’s necessary to share with others. I’ve got to make these choices before I start working.
Jeppesen: It seems you’re very much working in the realm of the metaphysical, and the object is the physical manifestation of that process of intensive interrogation. Speaking of materials, this Error series is the first time I’ve seen you work in a traditional medium – painting.
Li: I really encountered difficulties in naming this work. I thought that if I gave it a very precise title or a specific image, then that would influence the distance between the audience and the work, putting something between it. In doing that, you prevent communication. If you paint a beautiful girl in a mosaic pattern, the audience will think, “Why? What’s the specific meaning of this beautiful girl in this mosaic?”
I really want to express ordinary things. Like a bowl or spoon we use every day. There are endless possibilities inside an image of a bowl or a spoon. At first, I really thought about it in terms of sculpture, three-dimensional things. But it’s really hard to get this in three-dimensional work. So finally I returned to a two-dimensional medium, painting. Why? The idea behind the painting is, there’s a little rock. And if you just amplify it, when you come back to the original thing, you have to ask yourself whether it’s the same rock. So I just amplify it, make it bigger and bigger. When you come back to the original, you’ll see that it’s the same actually.
Jeppesen: When I first saw it from far away, it looks like the Planet Neptune. But then when you get up close, you see the horizontal-vertical grid.
Li: Those are the pixels of the enlarged image. It is actually a ping-pong ball. All the things I work with are taken from ordinary life. I don’t want anything outside of ordinary life, outside of the real, in my work.
Jeppesen: I think it’s fascinating that you’re using these everyday objects, but only as the subject of your work. A pure conceptual artist would just show the ping-pong ball in the gallery or something similarly boring. But the way you present your works, it’s not immediately clear what the subject is. A good example is me not knowing that it was a ping-pong ball, thinking it was a planet. But aren’t you erecting a barrier between the artwork and the viewer through these distortions and ambiguities?
Li: I’m actually attempting to bring the viewer and the work closer, eradicating the distance between the two. Before, when I was thinking in terms of traditional canvas painting, where you have the square framing the image, I decided that’s not right; the viewer will think it’s just a painting, because it’s a square. So I took the circular route finally. I don’t want the viewer to have the fixed idea that this is a painting. You have to have an image. But the image can’t be so complicated and colorful; otherwise you create a distance between the viewer and the image again. So you see, the choice of the ping-pong ball is a very careful one.
Another work that’s going to be shown, Pedestal, is just a readymade plinth. I used 100 RNB bank notes and rubbed it, leaving the pink pigment behind on the plinth. I just wanted to use a simple plinth that is used to display sculptures. I didn’t want to use a weird shape or something. It’s quite simple and displayed on the floor: a very simple thing we see every day. I don’t want something pretentious or weird with complicated shapes. Then, in Dasuan, I will have lots of rocks of black charcoal with screws on them scattered across the floor, displayed without the plinth. So in that case, I’m taking the sculpture – the rocks – off the plinth and putting them on the floor. So when the audience comes into the gallery, you feel like you’re part of the sculpture. There, there’s absolutely no distance between the viewer and the work.
Jeppesen: For Pedestal, the obvious question is whether that piece is supposed to be a commentary on the new materialism in China? Or is it a comment on the relationship between art and commerce in general?
Li: I’ve read a lot of interviews with artists where the topic of money comes up, and I am very interested in this. Artists have different opinions about it. For me, this is strange. For some artists, they use money for production fees to realize their art dreams. For others, the work is created just because it’s easy to sell and earn money. There are so many discussions about money and art. For me, this is very interesting.
For Pedestal, I used a readymade. It provides a platform for the artist to communicate with the outside world. The plinth is a metaphor for production. As long as you get on the stage and communicate with others, you can’t avoid money. And the money should be in the work.
Jeppesen: So it’s more a platform for you to raise these questions rather than putting forward your own personal argument about it.
Li: It’s not money itself that’s at issue here. It’s more about exploring the nature of your relationship with money. As with the other work, it’s quite vague and ambiguous. But some artists never face this issue. Most artists just avoid the question of money in their artistic practice. I’d rather raise an obscure relationship than deal with money itself.
There are so many subjects that have already been discussed by artists – time, life, death. I never avoid these things. I’m not that kind of artist. I can still touch these subject matters using my own style. That is fine, as long as you find the right way. So many Chinese artists have already done this, using money in their sculpture. But for me, it’s still okay. As long as the result is different from the others, it’s fine. But some artists think that you can’t touch banknotes in Chinese art because other Chinese artists have already done it.
Jeppesen: I also think it’s okay, because these questions have no immediate answer.
Li: My intention of displaying work in a gallery is not to throw a question at the audience. The audience must get its own feeling from the work. I don’t want to have any interference or to influence its reception. Although my ideal expectation for the artwork is that the viewer would think something similar to what I think.
Special thanks to Zhao Mengzhuo for interpreting assistance during the interview.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author