Beijing, May, 2013: Li Ran is a Chinese artist working with performance and video to create “mockumentaries” around fictional (or part-fictional) characters. Over the last year Li has had solo shows at Beijing’s Magician Space and Shanghai’s Aike Dellarco Gallery, and was included in the Shenzhen and Gwangju Biennales. Li took part in curator Biljana Ciric’s “Alternatives to Ritual” exhibition at the Goethe Institute Open Space in Shanghai, and ON/OFF, a major survey of young Chinese artists in Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA). Currently he has new work on show at Shenzhen’s OCT and has just appeared in a group show focusing on reassessing performance art in China (curated by Su Wei at Beijing’s Star Gallery). For Art Basel Hong Kong, Li has been commissioned by Aike Dellarco to create a new piece for the gallery’s space in the “Discoveries” section of the fair.
Li Ran, Stop Imagining, 2013, live performance, installation, slide projector & slide, C-print image, ladders, dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist.
Edward Sanderson: Since I reviewed your solo show at Magician Space early last year, you seem to have been very busy!
Generally your works draw upon your acting skills to present your archetypal characters and their stories. Through those humorous or ironic representations you seem to be continually questioning our understanding of these characters’ roles in history. In Shenzhen you played an enthusiastic and somewhat patronising explorer/anthropologist figure, interacting with an indigenous people, this encounter clearly taking place in a studio with a group of “blacked-up” actors. Your video at UCCA featured a TV host narrating the story of the rediscovery of a fictional American blues musician (both characters played by yourself).
However in the performance Stop Imagining for the show at Star Gallery, you presented yourself in front of the audience and delivered a monologue about your personal thoughts on how we can communicate through art. What was interesting about this piece was that you apparently divested yourself of your usual characters and were addressing the audience as simply yourself. Why this change from your other pieces?
Li Ran: All my artworks are built around what we think is our reality, or how we make that reality real. This reality is formed from our knowledge, information, experience, history, etc. – my inspiration comes from all of these things. Prior to Stop Imagining I had worked and talked with the curator, Su Wei, for over two years. So when this show came up, he just gave me the context for it – that of “Performance” – and trusted me to get on it.
As you say, I “divested myself of my usual characters” in this piece, but I think at the moment I am standing on the stage, the situation is not entirely real. It just looks like I am not imitating or performing. In fact, “I” still appear in my work. In the piece I produced for the “Alternatives to Ritual” show (called I Want To Talk To You, But Not All of You) I also presented a real discussion between the curator and myself, and that was also a performance.
ES: In Stop Imagining, you seemed to be making an appeal to the audience to do just that (to stop imagining), in the sense that they should stop applying their own misconceptions onto other people. But during the performance you also suggest we should not only share “understandings,” but also “misunderstandings” as well. Are the fictions and fictional characters in your works part of this sharing of misunderstandings?
LR: There is no “yes” or “no” for this. I think “misunderstandings” are just other ways to explain the “understandings” of our realizations and our subjectivities. The “Imagining” of the title refers to illusions, fantasies, hallucinations, which also include misunderstandings. Sometimes this “imagining” can be something we share, but sometimes it is like a shadowy figure, that informs everything we understand or do but is difficult to grasp. We “Stop Imagining” to face our reality.
Li Ran, Another Modern Artist, 2013, back and white & sound, single channel video, 7’02”; Courtesy of the artist.
ES: The artist and art historian Rasheed Araeen has appeared in both Stop Imagining and the new piece for Art Basel HK, Another "The Other Story" (an installation including the video titled Another Modern Artist). In the former, he serves in anecdotal fashion to introduce your idea of a performance you wish to make in the future where you act as an ageing art historian, discussing various aspect of art in a confused and rambling way. In the latter work, you seem to be trying to get to grips with Araeen’s work by addressing your own father’s place in the Chinese art world.
However, Araeen’s legacy has been questioned due to a conflict between the desire to be included in the predominantly Western system of art history, and the recognition that this system is ultimately unjust because of its exclusions. It feels like your own artworks maintain ambivalence to these issues through their use of humour. What do you feel your work is trying to do in relation to these issues?
LR: Yes! “Ambivalence” is correct! For my pieces I find many interesting images from films, paintings, as well as subjects such as economic models, all of these from the 19th and 20th centuries. The common knowledge of these represents the universal globalisation of cultural production that can connect us to each other (for example, through well-known TV shows, the myths around UFOs, the films of Charlie Chaplin, etc. etc.). Our understanding of these things can be very similar, but sometimes it can be very different (and also some of that is just our “imagining” of similarity or difference). As you said, there is “humour” and “ambivalence” in my works, but the realization and relation between these is still an issue to be investigated in my future work. I still believe there can be a common experience to open the gates of the artwork. The humour helps the viewer appreciate my concept. But sometimes they can just enjoy it as humour – as a joke to accompany the real issues.
Li Ran, Beyond Geography, 2012, color & sound HD video installation, 23’09”, dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist.
ES: Your father was also an artist and for Art Basel Hong Kong you are proposing to use material from his archive to construct a fictional narrative appropriating from his history. The title Another "The Other Story" refers back to “The Other Story,” the 1989 exhibition in London that Araeen curated in which he attempted to resituate non-Western artists into art history. How close are Araeen’s concerns to your father’s experience? Was he excluded from (Western or otherwise) art historical discourses in a similar way?
LR: Although I can’t completely relate to Araeen’s experiences and contentions, he always seems to promote a feeling of victimhood, and I certainly don't think of my father as a victim of exclusion. My father was not part of the Western art historical discourse in any way, but neither was he was one of Araeen's non-Western subjects. It is the addition of the word “Another” that I am interested in. My father is a product of the specific fine art education in China; he can paint in many different styles because of this. When I look at his works, it is as if they represent many different stories. I think he is a good example to connect the development of the local modernism in China with its Western counterpart.
My father’s archive consists of over one hundred paintings (although I will only show around forty reproductions in Hong Kong). When I look at them I find his story, which is linked to my own memory, and to our shared experience. It is a story, but it is not Araeen’s “The Other Story.” It represents “we” (my father, me – everyone, in fact) and not an ”other,” so I think I have enough confidence to present this story as having some wider relevance. For this piece I am also making a video that presents some aspects of my own understanding of my father’s work, and I aim to mix this with more general acts of “imagining,” as well as the various realisations of our stories about modern art.
ArtSlant would like to thank Li Ran for his assistance in making this interview possible.