Dinu Li

“Sometimes the not knowing can be the work itself”

Have you ever looked at an old photo of a family member and wondered at the moment captured in the image? Did you flip through stuffed albums and make up stories in your head about the pictures you saw there? If so, you might have something in common with multimedia artist Dinu Li. Born in Hong Kong, his family emigrated to the UK in the early ‘70s. Li draws inspiration from archival material, incorporating history, memory, and invention in his work whilst emphasising appropriation and reconfiguration. Examples of his work range from a fictional documentary inspired by his cousin’s experiences in a Cultural Revolution labour camp, ‘portraits’ of the bedrooms and possessions of illegal immigrants working in London’s Chinese restaurant trade, and a re-tracing of his mother’s life travels from China to Hong Kong and then England. “In his practice, Li examines the manifestation of culture in the everyday, finding new meaning to the familiar, making visible the seemingly invisible” and his work “is often characterised by problematising the document as part of the modus operandi.”

You have spoken about how you were drawn to the photograph of your cousin holding what looks to be a radio but is instead a painted brick. Is this camouflaged reality something that inspired you to incorporate an element of fiction into your archival works?

I’ve had this old photograph of my cousin since I was a kid, showing him as a young man in a labour camp. It is interesting how easily we are fooled into believing photographs as a representation of truth when in fact, it is so unreliable. For so long I was convinced he was listening to a radio, until decades later, when he told me it was a brick painted to look like a radio. The aerial was simply a bamboo shoot, stuck on the side and the brick was painted with nobs and buttons. Even more surprising was when I asked if he heard anything from the make-believe radio and he said he heard the love theme from the film Doctor Zhivago.

You spoke of uncertainties of memory when working with your mother on The Mother of all Journeys. Do you find it frustrating that certain personal histories are lost due to lack of documentation or the fallacy of memory?

It is not so much about it being frustrating, rather it is perhaps inevitable that we humans will get our own histories mixed up by confusion and inaccuracies or imbue our own past with figments of our own imagination. There are also the complexities of someone telling you their past, and for you to retell it back to them, as they had long-forgotten aspects of their life journeys. So, there are lots of opportunities to slip up and our abilities to recount something precisely may well be unreliable.

Do you think that activism in art can be a way to inform positive social change? And do you feel that in recent years, particularly in western media, that activist art has become a social trend that is more performative than helpful? 

As always, art influences real life and vice-versa. Life is full of dualities constantly rubbing against each other. For example, how the global is connected to the local, and how the private is related to the public. There is also one’s personal life interconnected by politics. Whether we embrace politics or not is not the point. The point is that politics comes to us whether we like it or not. I recently went to see the Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff and all the works shortlisted were fully loaded by political points of view, often quite upfront. One of the exhibiting artists Meiro Koizumi made a video work about the legacy of the Second Sino-Japanese War. I found him very brave in using art to confront a very difficult and often taboo subject for many Japanese people. He had collaborated with a group of young Japanese people and got them to recite passages from a diary written by an ex-army officer about what he had witnessed during the massacre of thousands of Chinese people at the hands of the invading forces.

“There was something extremely compelling about these young people, not only reading out loud something they’d rather not think about but doing so in the high streets of urban Japan, where passers can’t avoid overhearing atrocities from a dark moment in their history.”

The work was confrontational, but it needed to be.

I think the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was a positive thing. There was a lot of media coverage at the time, as the pulling down coincided with several similar dismantling. Obviously, there is always the danger that some people are more pro-active when there is media attention, as they may join in for a bit of fun, or simply interested in standing in front of a camera. But that does not mean the original impetus should be curtailed by people exploiting the situation for self-gain. The whole point of Colston’s statue being dumped into the sea is the absurdity of the statue in the first instance as well as the rude awakening of what he represented. So, the more noise the better.

You have stated you are working on something autobiographical, “delving into your youth when you were immersed in black culture”. Can you tell me more about this project? And what is your opinion on artists and creatives making work about cultures outside of their own. 

In my case, I feel it appropriate to make this work. It feels urgent and necessary, even if it’s just for my own benefit. I went to a school in inner-city Manchester that was quite diverse and was immediately drawn to a group of Jamaican youths. We hung out and went to blues parties together in Hulme and Moss Side, and very quickly I became a massive fan of dub. I loved the echo, the reverb and the repetition of a vibe, emphasised and heightened by the sound systems.

The genesis that led me to develop my new work was a recent rediscovery of a song on YouTube that I had heard as a young child growing up in Hong Kong where I was born. The song is called Always Together sung by Stephen Cheng who flew to Jamaica in the mid 1960s to record the song. The first time I heard it as a six-year-old, I took it for granted it must have been yet another traditional Chinese folk song. On hearing it again all these years later, I now realise it is in fact an early day rocksteady tune, which became a cult classic that helped shape the sound of reggae years later.

Thinking back to the triggers that allowed those Jamaican youths and me to instantly form a connection, I would say had a lot to do with cultural phenomenon’s that we valued. For example, what Bruce Lee stood for both in his movies and perhaps more significantly in his off-screen life. Besides him kicking ass, there was something about his dress sense, the way he walked, his mannerism that somehow brought people together. And of course, many artists find inspiration from other cultures. When we think about break dancing and body-popping, we see a mish-mash of inspiration from moves the dancers would have witnessed in a kung fu movie by a cartoon character. The 1990’s hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan is another example of artists finding inspiration from cultures outside their own.

In addition to being involved in Afro-Caribbean culture in your youth, you were also involved in your school’s Anti-Nazi League. You said that ” I think mainstream society at the time was not ready to see a Chinese punk rocker walking around in the suburbs of Yorkshire.” How do you think alternative scene culture has influenced your artwork? 

It goes hand-in-hand. My life is my work and my work reflect my life. I am as interested in pop culture as I am in embracing sub-cultures. In my artwork, I avoid easy classification. I resist clear demarcations and I would not box myself in. I don’t want to make work that is easy to interpret. I like to subvert, to delineate, to contest the status quo. I am not interested in things easily understood.

“I prefer complexities, making works that are multi-layered and generous to being interpreted in many ways. I am looking for possibilities.”

What is the most interesting history/story you have come across during your work? 

I was dropped off once inside a dense bamboo forest in southern China, roughly the size of England, and stayed there making a film for a month. It felt as if I was the only human being there for about ten days before an old guy walked by. He stood there momentarily watching me filming the forest and then said bamboo made China before he disappeared. He is not wrong when you consider what one can make out of bamboo. For example, hats, chairs, ladders, chopsticks, tables, raincoats, shoes, window blinds, houses, baskets, toothbrushes and so on.

You have spoken about experiencing racism as a young boy when you first moved to the UK. Is this something that you have explored, or would consider exploring in the future, in your work, especially considering the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian people? 

I’m thinking a lot about the soil beneath our feet as we walk the earth. I have a vivid memory of being seven years old, having moved from Hong Kong to Sheffield and being pinned against a brick wall outside my house by two boys who lived a few doors away.

“After they had dished out their beatings, they finished off by scooping handfuls of soil before stuffing it in my pants and shouting get back to where I came from.”

From a conceptual point of view, there is something really interesting about some sort of walking performance, retracing one’s journey backwards, to one’s former home. It is no longer there to be found, yet quite ubiquitous is a trail of soil connecting the start of the backward walk to somewhere without an endpoint.

A lot of your work revolves around your family and their personal experiences. What are their reactions when they see your final artworks and how do they feel about being involved in your work?

I think the reaction varies depending on the project and who it’s about, or who it’s not about. It can be a very intense experience for whoever I am focusing on. We all have pasts we rather leave behind. And so, it can sometimes feel uncomfortable when I ask too many questions about a particular moment in time that someone does not want to revisit.

I have collaborated with my mum more than once. The first time on a monograph that involved many trips down her memory lane. I think my dad was a bit jealous the project was not about him, even though he features fleetingly in the project. In the end, the work was about my mum.

“I wanted to give her a voice so that the work acted as some sort of redress for herself and countless women of my mother’s generation, who mostly spent their lives serving the interest of their husbands.”

That project premiered at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a slide projection installation inside the Raphael cartoon court. It is a massive room, so the projection had to be huge to avoid being lost in the space. Naturally, the museum draws massive visitor numbers, which my mother and I was not prepared for. So on the opening, it was quite daunting having so many people filling the room, staring at the slide show, then staring at my mum. I don’t think she felt comfortable being famous for five minutes.

What advice would you give to young creatives who are interested in archival works and exploring their own culture? 

Be open-minded about what is on the surface and what one might discover beneath by digging deeper. Be equally open-minded that whatever is revealed, whether from a photograph or one’s own culture could well be staged, manufactured or mediated. Also, be mindful one may never find all the facts or all the truths behind something. And bear in mind having all the facts and truths does not mean one will make interesting work.

“It can be useful learning when to stop one’s investigation or research. Sometimes the not knowing can be the work itself.”

What projects are you working on at the moment and what plans do you have for the future? 

I have just completed a new video piece, again in collaboration with my mum, called The Ghost Orchid Gesture. The film unfolds in several typical English landscaped gardens during spring at the cusp of blossoming exuberance. My mum plays the sole protagonist, a masked old woman whose movements embody different creatures and plants. I was interested in using ancient wisdom, folklore and shamanist dancing rituals to explore the epoch of the Anthropocene we are currently living through, where our actions are causing the near extinction of a rare plant species called the ghost orchid. The orchid is not seen in the film, except for the movement of its life cycle as represented by the old woman’s hand gestures, as she mimics the manner in which it may twist and turn against the breeze.



Images · Dinu Li

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