Who’s afraid of green light?
Li Hui ( de )

Young Chinese Artists, The Next Generation, Prestel Verlag, 2008-9

There are works of art that captivate before they are understood – that bring something to light that’s already intuitively intimate. The Beijing artist Li Hui avoids every categorization. Nothing about his works lets on that he comes from China.

His sculptures and installations often take over the room – working with materials from stainless steel and wood to lasers and LED lights that stage dreamlike or dramatically charged environments. Ships, bursting open, are floating over our heads. Lustrous red light pours out over a bed. Under a Plexiglas cover rests a prehistoric skeleton. What is it that makes us recoil in fear before a cage made of green laser beams?

Renewing Jeep (2003), a vehicle made by welding together the front ends of two Jeeps, is based on his thesis work at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts. “Looking back over my studies, I determined that we were instructed in Western artistic techniques, but in terms of content and even spirit, we learned from the Eastern tradition. I want to make this phenomenon, which is typical in today’s China, visible in my work.” Renewing Jeep objectifies the question of the “right way” – and at the same time nullifies the contradiction between “forward” and “backward.” Li Hui is updating a traditional Eastern concept central to both Buddhism and Taoism: the movement itself becomes the goal.

In Change (2006), Li Hui shows just how much explosive power lies coiled in the tension between tradition and modernity – or to put it another way: in the encounter of Eastern and Western values. With merciless vehemence, a steel sheet rams into the hull of a simple wooden boat. Splinters fly through the air; the rudder no longer functions. In Gu Zheng (2006), the object destroyed is a traditional Chinese stringed instrument.

The processes of detaching and fusing may be violently portrayed, but these works, like so much of Li Hui’s output, also have the power to attract. Surely the most impressive example of fear and agony shining out of a dreamlike production is the piece Untitled (2007), in which a crashed car is bathed in red laser light and fog. “The car was actually wrecked in a real accident. In this installation, I want to make visible the experience of the people involved. Fog leaks out of the destroyed automobile and dissolves in the air – as do the souls of the victims.”

In Reincarnation (2007), too, Li Hui reveals what is invisible and even verbally inexpressible. Red laser light streams over a bed: Dreams / Nightmares? Joy of love / Fear of death? Convalescence / Exhaustion? What speech posits in pairs of opposites, art makes visible in a single image. But the gleaming, bewitching optics of both works may not have been thought up initially. “The idea of transforming something negative into something positive is deeply rooted in Chinese philosophy. Maybe I brought it over into these works unconsciously. I can’t say for sure myself.”

In the Amber Series (2006), Li Hui has piled up numerous layers of acrylic sheets on top of one another. White shapes resembling animal bones emerge from hollow spaces in the surfaces. The outside of the sculpture looks like a race car, glowingly illuminated with blue LED lights. Just as the real-life amber alluded to in the title preserves otherwise ephemeral relicts of plants or animals, so in Amber a symbol of speed and acceleration becomes the protective cover for an animal whose age and species is not readily discernable.

With the Amber sculptures, Li Hui is fashioning a condensed expression of the Chinese understanding of history as continuum. The past – like a chamber holding more than 3,000 years – is preserved in every life form and even in things. And now in China’s bustling metropolises another nuance of meaning pushes itself forward: is the human being himself – whether he is a willing participant in the accelerating processes of modernization or not – becoming a kind of fossil?

Li Hui articulates philosophical considerations with the help of the most modern techniques. An almost poetic aura surrounds the result. The light installations Cage (2006) and The Door (2007) deal with the existential experience of freedom and bondage. The artist uses green lasers to evoke a cage and red lasers for a gateway, leaving both accessible to the visitor. The immaterial question, as it were, then hangs in the air: which constraints and restrictions does the individual impose on himself voluntarily, which are accepted in the rush to obey, and which exist for real in themselves? The visitors’ reactions show how potent this question can be: more often than not they shrink back in fear from these virtual boundaries to their freedom of movement.

The interview with the artist took place in April 2008 in Beijing. I want to thank Zhao Chong for his efforts as a translator and adviser.

In: Young Chinese Artists. The Next Generation, Editors: Christoph Noe, Xenia Piëch und Cordelia Steiner.
Prestel Publishing September 2008
Hardcover, 296 pages
310 images

The Ministry of Art