interview with 李青/ li qing

Li Qing in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist and his studio.

Li Qing (born 1981) lives and works in Hangzhou and Shanghai. He had solo shows at Fondazione Prada’s Rongzhai, Shanghai; Tomás y Valiente Art Centre, Madrid; Arario Museum, Seoul; The Orient Foundation, Macau; Zhejiang Art Museum; Goethe Institute, Shanghai; among others. In 2017 the artist was shortlisted for the Jean-François Prat Prize.

In recent years, his work tracks the historical fragmentation and ideological conflicts that have occurred widely in the dissemination of information, collective memory, and experience of knowledge. Simultaneously, Qing’s work tests the tension and contradiction between image, language, symbol, and social space, connecting the multi-level elements of experience in a series to construct a conflict structure.

SKYLAR YU: Following the introduction of the infrastructure and knowledge system of Western art into China, the development of contemporary art experienced a struggle – showing constant conflict and dilemma. Your professional career has gained public recognition since your early work Spot the Difference (2005). Back then, you were studying at the China Academy of Art. How did you experience the state of Chinese contemporary art at the start of your career?

LI QING: Between 2004 and 2005, contemporary art in China was flourishing. Many artists from the China Academy of Art self-organized exhibitions in Hangzhou’s alternative spaces such as basements of buildings under-construction or temporary storage facilities, showcasing works such as inter-media, video, and performance art. I also participated in some exhibitions, where I had conversations with more established artists including Qiu Zhijie, Geng Jianyi, Zhang Peili, and Guan Huaibin. As a result, I was able to learn more and I gained a comprehensive look at overall China’s contemporary art history – its development and growth. Simultaneously, I began an in-depth study of certain representative Western artists and I did not experience that period as a particularly difficult time. The academia was active with great vigor and I was in a good shape too.

I was studying in the Oil Painting Department and as we all know oil painting is a relatively traditional medium. As I learned more about contemporary art in a wealth of forms and formats, I started to question what is the meaning and value of painting at a time when the whole art world was in a state of thrill to play around with mediums. Series Spot the Difference was born as my reflection on the nature of painting.

SY: Spot the Difference series turns passive viewing into a proactive engagement. Do you intentionally break the traditional viewing experience?

LQ: Yes! Painting is a very traditional and direct image-making mechanism. Unlike video or film, which have a strong position in conveying an image-based story, painting builds connections with viewers in a specific framework. My question was- How can I break or upgrade such a fixed framework? One day, an idea came to my mind – What if I mimicked the game Find the Difference and painted two similar works?
Traditional viewing is a rather simple one-way gazing relationship. Showcasing two paintings side by side at once alludes to a comparative viewing, to find the differences between the two images. Compared to viewing one painting at a specific time, the communication between the audience and artwork when the public is observing Spot the Difference is refreshed and updated – different from pure gazing.

大家来找茬•楼姐(两图有五处不同)Spot the Difference • Sales Lady, 2019 (There are 5 differences in the two paintings). Oil on canvas: 200x150x2cm. Image courtesy of artist and his studio.

SY: Do you mind viewers’ reactions?

LQ: I’m open to everything. The audience’s social experience and knowledge of art have an impact on their viewing experience. Although I have the ultimate power to interpret as an author, viewers surprisingly often find different answers.

No two paintings are exactly the same. Painting is a handmade work composed of non-duplicable brushstrokes and color(s). With that said, there is a paradox in painting where brushstrokes create figures and represent reality through paints and materials. Artists’ style and language are always permeated into the process of making images. When viewers look out for the differences between two paintings, they often find themselves drawn to the aesthetic style instead. To look at the style or to stay focused on the image – observers fight with their inner selves between these two viewing experiences.

SY: Your work, Images of Mutual Undoing and Unity (2007), feels as a sequel to the Spot the Difference series. In comparison to the previous work, the new series is charged with more destructive energy. Do these two series have any special connection?

LQ: They both revolve around the relationship of two similar images connected via painting techniques, material, and represented subjects. Images of Mutual Undoing and Unity series pay more attention to the liquidity of paint: each painted figure in an individual picture melts and colors permeate when two paintings are conjoined face to face.

Although painting as a noun is identified by its materials, painting also indicates an action. Through my actions, I create images for viewers to observe and identify. What they see is a mix of a certain language, style, touch, and paints. Images of Mutual Undoing and Unity series take a more aggressive approach with a mutual destructing and re-producing process. As the title indicates, a third ambiguous image in the veil appears that shares common visual elements of the previous works.

SY: Would you picture the outcome of the work in advance as a reference to design two separate images?

LQ: The final outcome is quite important and therefore I would start some pre-design work. In the early stage, images are never selected randomly but with a meaning. Once the pictures are combined and mixed, viewers would compare and think about the differences between the two.

For example, by combining Dumchamp’s portrait and his work L.H.O.O.Q. together, I encourage viewers to think over his motive and thoughts naturally. Whether or not it is about the gender, identity, or destruction of classic works, viewers self-decide an approach to appreciate and understand the work. That’s also the reason why I choose images that tend to sparkle reflections on issues such as identity, self-consciousness, and the artists’ approach to deal with the concept and image. 

SY: Window series is another important work in your career, with a loose connection to your previous opus. What was your thinking behind it?

LQ: Window series takes an experimental approach to ontological studies of painting. In Western history where paintings are characterized as re-depicting real life, a window is already a mature symbol in the use of metaphor, to summon depiction. Especially at their origins, windows were and are in the services of architecture. In my Window series, by grouping real window frames and paintings, the wooden objects become part of the painting material and the visual. Sometimes I would paint on the window frame to intentionally change its visual structure.

As per the previous two series, this body of works expresses a dual nature by depicting images outside the window versus the window frame as on object. The window frames I used were collected from abandoned buildings, and are remains of urbanization. This dialogue between windows seen on the outside of iconic buildings and the street view presented in a futuristic style refers to an intentional misposition of time and space in the culture.

The image depicted inside the window is real life, while the outside view utters what city dwellers are longing for in the heart. One is the community’s collective desire and the other is a personal wish. Individual hope points to the claim for more space in the city, while the community hopes to have a brighter and shinier urban life, which is controversial.

迷窗•荣宅 Tetris Window• Rongs' Residence, 2018-2019. Oil paint on aluminium panel with details made of wood, metal and plexiglass and interventions through markers, printed matter and textiles. Size: 212.5x106.5x10cm. Image courtesy of Li Qing and his studio.

SY: Where does the depicted view from Window series come from?

LQ: An important part of my research is to collect pictures. Mainly through image-based second-hand documents from the internet to various printed matter. The collected raw materials along with the photos I took, form a large photo database. Whenever I create new works, they are all available for me to browse and reference.

I prefer images that have already gained public recognition. To me, the communication between the piece of work and viewers is around a certain social issue. Contemporary art is a creative work with a specific focus on issues, which looks beyond a simple aesthetic showcasing. With that said, the selected image is required to raise conversation and to power a discussion. 

The architecture from my Window series is representative of physical buildings from different periods. The images are mostly collected from social media, revealing the characteristics and preferences of today’s social media-influenced aesthetics. I group pictures taken by different people to resemble a building. Some of the portraits I painted are collected from either social or traditional media. They are portraits of public figures such as actors or actresses. They are closely connected with the current cultural communication and information-sharing flow. I won’t say my practice is realistic, but they are from real life – shots of the present-day urbanization process in China.

环形结构 Annular Structure, 2020. Oil paint on brass with Qing dynasty wooden windows and plexiglass. Size: 122x174x6cm. Image courtesy of artist and his studio.

SY: Did you take all the photos for the series Hangzhou House?

LQ: In the past, I occasionally used the photos I took from a wanderer’s perspective. The result were photos reviewing the mundane world instead of addressing specific aesthetic or expressive values. I am still obsessed with daily life in China. Consumerism is everywhere around us. As my generation grew up, we experienced the sharp switch from poor to rich material life.

Hangzhou House series can be seen as another outcome from my city observation. I used to live in self-build houses in the fringe area. Due to gentrification and urban expansion, such houses were gradually cleared out. What attracts me to the buildings are their aesthetic characteristics as they combine different visual traces. They are knockoffs compared with the originals. I documented these self-built houses and they are active records of the aesthetic taste of specific groups of Chinese people. They are valuable for whoever has an interest in the following issues:
How have people’s perceptions and recognitions of beauty shaped?
How did the drastic transformation occur, especially under the modern revolutionary change in China?
In what way has modern aesthetic taste been embedded in public life?

杭州房子 Hangzhou House, 2017-2020. Photographs by Li Qing with image courtesy of the artist and his studio.

SY: Some of your works mark a quite dark ambiance in which people can experience a sense of anxiety.

LQ: I would try to avoid emotional expression and incline to be more logical and neutral. I hope my work can discuss certain social issues and inspire reflections. City dwellers are more or less under anxiety with a feeling of being over-consumed as their real life is overwhelmed by the media. When I paint the street view outside windows, I am also expressing people’s desires in the present moment. People post photos on social media to temporarily claim the space, locate their fellows, and confirm their identities through a simple act of liking a photo. For the public, beauty and the value of an object are increasingly homogenized – they are about convenience and pleasure, which in fact are very univocal criteria.

SY: Have you noticed a shift at a collective level in terms of what is aesthetically appreciated in housing?

LQ: These housings I photographed are people’s outward aesthetic presentation of the past 10 to 20 years, embodying their imagination of modern luxurious homes. Today, people’s perception of what is beautiful may show more variations but not necessarily present a dramatic change, compared to 10 or 20 years ago. The younger generation’s perception of beauty is more diverse due to their edgy aesthetic education.

Home-stays nowadays is a good subject for observing and studying people’s tastes. The interior design and decoration convey the current aesthetic taste on a collective level, representing their imagination of casual rural and village life.

SY: Which artists are you particularly inspired by?

LQ: I admire medium-conscious artists such as Gerhard Richter, John Milton Cage, and Nam June Paik. They have very in-depth and critical reflections which result in an expanded understanding of the definition of the medium.

I am also inspired by many writers such as the novelist Jorge Luis Borges and Alain Robbe-Grillet, who both developed unique formats of storytelling compared to the ‘traditional’ Honoré de Balzac- style of writing. After destructing and rebuilding, they transform plain text into an intertwined and resembled structure, omitting sequences.

SY: To this date have you encountered any difficulties in your professional practice?

LQ: I don’t recall any specific examples. It is always very interesting to me to continue working on new works. I enjoy the whole process whether is collecting raw materials or researching specific social issues I am interested. Sometimes, it takes me longer to crystallize certain thoughts and ideas which I still consider a pleasure for an artist.

This interview was conducted by Skylar Yu.