The multimedia work of contemporary artist Li Jinghu revolves around his hometown, Dongguan, a cluster of farming villages near Hong Kong that in recent years has transformed into a manufacturing hub staffed by migrant workers from all over China.
After launching his career in the nearby — though much more cosmopolitan — megacities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Li moved back to his hometown over a decade ago, and has remained in Dongguan ever since. To describe him as the city’s first contemporary artist might be technically accurate. One generation removed from a time when the vast majority of Dongguan’s residents were farmers, art as a profession is neither understood nor respected by the community.
Nevertheless, Li is determined to stay in Dongguan and help cultivate its nearly non-existent contemporary art scene. In 2014 he founded the site-less “Three No Gallery” (三无画廊), offering non-professional creators a platform outside the established art system. The name references the segment of the Chinese migrant worker population who lack official identification papers, residency permits, and stable income. More recently, he started an artist residency program with support from a partner named Echo.
Beijing and Shanghai still dominate the Chinese contemporary art world, in terms of both artists and collectors. Government support for the arts is largely reserved for more traditional disciplines. What motivated Li to become the de facto champion of contemporary art in Dongguan, a city so far removed, in every sense of the word, from the cultural zeitgeist?
Li is the son of an orphaned father and an illiterate mother, both byproducts of China’s liberation movement, during which the Communist party persecuted landowners such as his family. When he was five, he looked up at the night sky and wondered, “Who am I?” This lifelong existential search for meaning led him to choose contemporary art over more stable professions after graduating university. For Li, art is more than a job — it’s a form of therapy.
Li’s family saw their fortunes nearly lost, regained, lost and regained again in a matter of decades, in parallel with the political upheavals that have plagued much of modern Chinese history. The farms he pilfered fruit from as a schoolboy turned into “the factory of the world” before his eyes. He wants to use art to make sense of this disconnect, and he wants outside artists to join him, which is partly why he initiated a residency program.
He also wants to make art accessible to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who call Dongguan home. One of his unrealized projects is to turn the city into a museum by exhibiting art in public spaces such as bus TV screens, abandoned buildings, and outside factories. Li had informal government support for this idea, until the official he was working with left their post.
On the day I arrive in Dongguan, Li shows me around town before we pay a visit to Ah Yang, his childhood friend and a self-taught artist who first encountered contemporary art through Li’s various outside visitors. Ah Yang’s claim to fame is a criminal past that includes serving eight years in prison for a botched kidnapping. The soft-spoken former gang leader is baby-faced and fashionable, with a perm. Though he is currently earning a living through odd jobs — beer distributor, loan shark — Li encourages him to continue making art, and may have even landed him a show with a New York gallery.
The following day, I attend the public unveiling of new work by Li and Echo’s artists-in-residence. A young artist named Liu Xinyi, working together with his wife and fellow artist Gu Ying, were given a place to stay, access to a car, a budget of around $150, and one month’s time to create an exhibition for a 2,000-square-meter space. The exhibition venue, car, and living space were provided by Echo, an art enthusiast who Li met through mutual acquaintances and convinced to co-organize the residency.
Fewer than 20 people show up — friends, independent media, the director of Dongguan Culture Center, a local primary school art teacher, a recent art school graduate, Echo’s husband, and myself. Despite the small turnout, the artists seem content. There is a sense that something is growing. Li forms a WeChat group with all our contacts and names it the “Dongguan Contemporary Art Association.”
After the event, Li and I sit in a tea room in the lobby of the attached hotel for a long talk about his art, his thoughts on the future of Chinese society, and the nature of creativity.
Philana Woo for Radii: Does creativity stem from internal or external forces?
Li Jinghu: Both, but the most important factor ultimately comes from within. Sensitive people may derive greater inspiration from their surroundings. It’s different for everyone.
Are you a pessimist or an optimist?
I think I am both. Being a pessimist led me to become an optimist. When you are pessimistic, you see life clearly. For instance, after I graduated from college, I could have had a very stable job. I saw my entire life laid out before me on this established path: normal, stable job, not much fun, then you’re old and not sure what to do with yourself. But this is a rather depressing and pessimistic view of life. If you’re optimistic, you believe it is possible to change the course and achieve something different. The willingness to endure negative aspects of an unconventional life path requires faith and optimism. Optimism is the will to create change.
Are you proactive or passive when it comes to creativity?
I would say active, because no one needs my art. There is no external force demanding or requiring me to create art; it’s an internal need. My art isn’t going to result in some external change. There is no one depending on my art, except for myself. I remember when I decided to become an artist — it was so I could answer some questions I had about life and the universe. I wanted to know the reasons for certain personal problems, and become a more balanced person. So this was a proactive need on my part.
What inspires you? Do you have an internal voice or muse?
Yes. As I mentioned before, prior to university, I didn’t know what I wanted in life. Before graduating, I started thinking about what type of person I wanted to be. I was exposed to contemporary art around that time, and felt it was something that could help me solve some of my personal issues. I didn’t want to lead a conventional life.
I believe art has a greater capacity to help me solve some of life’s problems compared with a normal job — existential questions like, Who am I? What’s my life’s purpose? Why are people the way they are? Why do people I know suffer from the problems they do? Questions regarding relationships, life and death, history, family, etc. Art is a platform for exploring these questions. I valued this more than a very stable life. This is why I chose to become an artist.
Speaking of a stable life, you are married with three children, in a marriage arranged by your parents. Is this contradictory to your identity as a contemporary artist?
I don’t think there’s a contradiction. It’s part of my life plan. I wanted to lead the life of an ordinary local without doing an ordinary job. I wanted to do it as an artist, to see things through an artist’s perspective. It’s quite amusing. I don’t want to be completely removed from the outside world. I still want to be of this place.
Was this the reason you chose to move back to Dongguan? You could have stayed in Shenzhen or moved to Beijing or Guangzhou to be closer to the art world.
That’s right, but I would be removed from my upbringing, and that is not what I wanted for my art. I wanted to approach it from my personal background. The point of my art is to create interactions with the people and events around me, to help generate answers to some questions I have about life. This includes understanding the life of the people around me. In order to do this, I must be immersed in their environment and live similarly.
How do you find inspiration?
I usually approach it with a normal life attitude. It’s only at 2 or 3 in the morning, or when my wife and kids are away, when I’m awake alone, that I adopt an artist’s mentality to think about things. It’s during these times that thoughts slowly accumulate and form a lingering sound in your mind; that is when I am in my creative zone. Eventually something presents itself clearly in my mind’s eye, and one day becomes a work of art. That is the best creative state for me.
Do you have any heroes or icons?
Yes, mostly the elderly in my family. I once wrote a family genealogy by documenting oral histories from some of the older relatives, including the great aunt who raised me. I recorded events that took place before I was born. I learned why certain relatives have certain personalities and anxieties. To me, it was a very interesting way of figuring out why people are the way they are. Ever since we were little, we interacted with these older relatives, who taught us a lot. I really looked up to the elderly in the family. They have lived through so many different experiences in their lifetimes, yet maintain an optimistic life philosophy.
Were they farmers as well?
Actually, my great-grandfather was a landowner, but he became addicted to opium so my great aunt, his daughter, started managing the household from the age of nine. She was a savvy businessperson who saved the family from financial ruin. At 18, she started believing in Christ. Sorry, this is a really long story…
My great aunt’s paternal grandmother was Buddhist, and always counted her beads. At the time, the village hospital was not very good. Some of her siblings died at a young age, so her mother started praying to Buddha from when she was young. When she was 18, she went to her first church service in Humen Town. The preacher said that God does not require gifts, because that was too worldly. This resonated with her, so she destroyed all the Buddhas in her home. But she had had three years of schooling and could write, so she was well known. Later on, she arranged for my grandfather and their cousins, who were 10 and 20 years younger, respectively, to attend church. When she was in her 30s, China was liberated by the Communists, and they lost everything. But her younger siblings had attended school, including her brother, my grandfather, who the village head would treat to lunch whenever she came home, bringing a gun and all that. Her brother and sister also became doctors, so they had status.
These were the siblings of your paternal grandfather?
Yes, and later he became a principal as well. But because we were landowners, he was executed. His siblings did quite well in school, and his younger brother eventually went to Hong Kong and became a successful factory owner. Because of him, our life was quite comfortable.
Are you religious?
No, but as a child, I attended church regularly with my great aunt. Religion did set an ethical standard for us, so even though we didn’t necessarily believe, we tried to behave in a moral way.
How does religion influence your art?
Most of my aunts weren’t religious until they reached old age. Even my illiterate mother recently delayed her return from Hong Kong because she wanted to attend church. It has become a family tradition.
What would you do if you weren’t an artist?
I guess I would be quite boring, someone who gambles and eats the days away. This is not what I want.
Do you think you’re different from other people in Dongguan?
Yes, actually, in the decade plus since I’ve been back, there’s not a single person I can have a conversation with, because we care about different things and have nothing in common. It’s quite lonely. At the same time, I can do what I want because no one is paying attention. It’s a refuge.
Do you have any unrealized projects?
Yes, I have many, especially in Dongguan, where everything changes too quickly. When I was young, my friends and I would steal fruit from farms where factories and roads are now. I have a very intimate relationship with this place, yet feel a growing disconnect. So I must use art to explore why it has been this way in order to reconnect.
I also want outside artists to document and consider the same questions, but from their unique perspective. This is why I created “Three No Gallery” (三无画廊), a non-professional gallery with neither site nor staff. Everything you know changes, and nothing you’ve known changes. I wanted to give friends a platform to make and exhibit art, see how they view art and how I see art through them. Art has served as an important conduit between my friends and me. Friends who don’t know art, but get it.
One of my ideas was to turn our entire village into a museum, including public spaces like buses, bus stops, the cargo containers in front of factories that migrant workers walk past daily, and busy intersections. I want to disrupt the museum model. A lot of people around me are low-income and busy migrant workers, so I want to bring art to their daily lives. The government was supportive [at first], but that’s changed due to staff turnover.
Is your family supportive of your decision to be an artist?
Actually, no. They think I’m wasting my time. Considering the context, people are still very practical. Until money is no longer a concern, intellectual issues will remain a non-issue, including art.
What about your great aunt?
She didn’t understand either, but was fine as long as I wasn’t doing anything illegal.
Same — as long as I don’t gamble or patronize prostitutes, and am able to support the family, she doesn’t mind.
They don’t really understand. They just know I draw. But I think it’s very important to their upbringing, because they are able to see how I deal with issues differently through art, and eventually they may be able to understand. It’s about the legacy.
You mentioned your grandparents’ generation already. What about your parents?
They are very different, because they came of age after liberation. They were the most repressed and depressed. When I was little, I always wondered why my father was so depressed. In an act of self-preservation, he avoided interacting with people, and this had an impact on me and my siblings, particularly my older brother.
What about your mother? You mentioned that she’s illiterate. Was your parents’ marriage arranged?
Yes. My mother had nine siblings. She was the eldest and had to work, so never attended school. She was very industrious, but because she was uneducated, she didn’t have the capacity to approach things intellectually. I also want to change this with art, change our family.
What were mealtimes in the household like?
We weren’t allowed to talk. That’s what I mean when I say things get passed down. Even with my own family, I don’t really talk with my wife. It’s very influential.
Your parents wanted you to be a businessman.
But of course I didn’t want to be that.
What about your brother?
He was a very good student, but he had personality problems and suffered from depression.
Was there any one event that has had a particularly strong influence on you?
When I was five or six, one day, when I was home, moonlight was shining down through the skylight. I suddenly thought, Who am I? I think it had to do with my great aunt praying — I had this idea that God resided in the sky and could see me, yet I could not see myself, so maybe God sent me to experience life. I forgot about this until later in university, when I was exposed to contemporary art, and thought it could help solve this problem. Nothing else appealed to me.
What was your life like growing up?
I was happy, mostly because of my great aunt. Prior to liberation, she was a successful businessperson. But after, when they had lost everything, she switched gears and adopted a positive attitude. She was nice to everyone. She was the best clothing maker and a good chef. During the holidays, everyone came to her for new clothes. She was also knowledgeable about Traditional Chinese Medicine, which also made her very popular. Even though she had a lot of pressure to support the family, she prayed daily. God and prayer were her only release. I think I learned a lot from her.
How do you increase your creativity and imagination?
Rituals or practice. It depends on my environment. I need to spend time away from home every quarter or half year to get clarity. That is a very important stage in my creative process.
What are some key differences between creativity in China vs the West?
The difference is very obvious. In China, it’s Confucian and conservative, with an emphasis on the student-teacher relationship and tradition. Rebellion is frowned upon. But in the West, rebellion is encouraged, because innovation is achieved through questioning the status quo. But in China innovation isn’t necessarily desirable.
So much of contemporary art is about transcendence and disruption. How do you reconcile this with Chinese culture?
The contradiction is quite big. But unlike older generations, we received a lot of Western influences in our education. So we have a better foundation for change compared with older generations.
It seems that a lot of young Chinese are becoming interested in traditional culture and crafts. Perhaps it is the organic evolution, after absorbing from the West, they return to their own tradition.
Yes, but I think it’s still from a utilitarian angle. I am still thinking about what solves my own problem.
How would you describe your biggest life problem?
WHY AM I LIKE THIS, WHY AM I LIKE THIS.
What do you mean by that?
It includes my attitude, how I engage with the outside world, and how the outside world engages with me.
How would you encourage children to be more creative?
I don’t agree with that approach. Kids naturally have different interests. Everyone is different. You can’t ask someone to be one way. If they like something, you should give it to them.
What is your greatest fear?
That I die suddenly. I won’t be able to support my family. There’s nothing besides that.
Are you optimistic about the future of China?
No, because it started from zero or nothing, so of course everyone is happy with the progress. But when you get to a certain point of progress, spirituality will become more important, and the economy can’t help that.
A lot of people view this as the Chinese century. What do you China will look like 200 years from now?
I think China has a lot of problems that have not been reported. The economic development has affected a lot of peoples’ value systems. It will become a huge social problem. As long as the CCP is around, the country’s value system will be bad. As long as the upper management is around, it will become a huge problem, including the unfair treatment and education of migrant workers. The generation before them had it worse, but their kids see how other people receive better treatment, and begin harboring resentment. This younger generation has a different experience from their parents’ generation and the generation before. And no one is doing anything. It is problematic that this segment of society, these migrant workers’ children, do not feel they have a legitimate place in society.
How do individuals become more creative?
I don’t think everyone needs to be creative. Creativity is a very niche thing. As long as everyone has access to a comfortable life, it’s enough. Not everyone needs to create something. The best society is one in which people have the choice to be creative, but not everyone needs to.
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