BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Features | 21 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Time after Time

Since 1995, Li Yongbin has been creating videos of faces in the Beijing apartment he has lived in for over 30 years

BY Carol Yinghua Lu in Features | 21 MAR 12

I have visited Li Yongbin’s studio twice in the past five years. It’s a one-bedroom apart­ment on the top floor of a six-storey Beijing residential block; Li has lived there since 1981 and it’s where he has made most of his work. Everything is covered in dust. A clothing linehangs in a corner; myriad objects are scattered across the floor and over every inch of his desk, closets and chairs. When I entered the flat it was almost impossible not to step on something. Trying to find an empty chair to sit on and a clean cup to drink from took quite a while and helped us overcome the initial awkwardness of our meeting. Lispeaks slowly, carefully selecting his words.He clearly knows his way around the clutter;he picked up a big bottle of still water from the floor without looking and poured me a glass.

In contrast to the preceding decade, a sense of wariness was prevalent in the Chinese art scene from the late 1980s. By the 1990s, some artists were proposing a more introspective way of working by introducing conceptual approaches into their practice. Unlike most artists in China, Li didn’t graduate from an art academy or receive any formal training in art, but spent his formative years hanging out with artists such as Gu Dexin, Zhu Haidong and Tang Pinggang. Initially, Li taught himself to paint; but in the early 1990s, he became interested in more conceptually driven work that was less explicitly about politics or social narratives. 

Face (No. 6), 1999, video still. All images courtesy the artist

In 1994, a group of artists including Wang Youshen, Lin Yilin, Gu Dexin, Chen Shaoping and Qian Weikang published a book of their proposals, sketches and projects, titled Chinese Contemporary Artists’ Agenda. Li’s contribution was a proposal to add another ground floor to high-rise buildings, but which actually involved putting inflated columns made of transparent plastic film between the ground floor and its ceiling. The book also includes photographic documentation of an untitled durational work that Li performed at home, which began on 31 August 1993 and concluded two weeks later. The artist arranged some soil on the floor in the shape of a body, its upper part wrapped in a short-sleeved white shirt, then sprinkled wheat seeds across the soil which he watered until they sprouted.

Less than a year later, Li shaved his face and head, piled a wooden bed with earth in the form of a human, scattered it with grass seeds and covered it with a piece of black cloth. For the next 14 days, he watered the soil and took a photograph of himself every day; these images show the growth of Li’s hair and beard, the gradual emergence of the grass through the cloth, and its subsequent withering. Titled The Evidence of Life, 14 Days of Documentation, the work is a succinct portrait of time passing. A further untitled work, made around the same time, involved a jacket that sprouted grass. 

Face (No. 8), 2000, video still 

In the 17 videos Li shot between 1995 and 2009 – all of which were filmed in or around his apartment – time is the only fixed element; Li managed to explore his subject via the least complicated of devices and actions. For his first video work, Come Round (1995), the artist projected a portrait of his late mother onto the thick leaves of the tree outside of his window late at night. As the dark slowly fades and the sun rises, the leaves of the trees, which tremble slightly, become increasingly apparent while his mother’s face grows fainter until it disappears completely. The soundtrack captures the gradual transition from the silence of the night through the dawn chorus to the escalation of traffic noise as the day begins. Although the subject is intensely personal, the work evokes the sensation that the viewer has waited outside all night with the artist. While the mood of the video is quiet, the artist’s sorrow is deeply felt, almost tangible, making time seem to last longer at night than during the day.

Li’s videos could be regarded as time-based sculptures. While he was beginning to explore the medium’s potential, a number of other Chinese artists were also considering the technical possibilities of video to make manifest presences, feelings and experiences that were otherwise imperceptible. What set Li’s practice apart was his commitment to returning to the same motif – time – again and again.

Face (No. 4), 1998, video still

Face (No. 1) was filmed between 1995–96. Li borrowed a photograph from an old woman who was his neighbour, and projected her image onto his own face as he sat on a stool in front of a video camera that was set up to film him. The piece was shot at night in the darkness of his room, with the slide projector providing the only source of light. The old woman’s face overlaps with Li’s. This is more apparent at some moments than others – when he blinks, for instance. Since then, Li has appeared in all of his ‘Face’ videos, almost all of which he shot himself, with little assistance, in his own home at night. The films undergo minimal post-production or editing, and nearly all of them run for the entire duration of the video stock. 

In Face (No. 2) (1996), Li projected his face onto a pool of ink. For Face (No. 4) (1998), he placed a mirror outside the window of his home to reflect the traffic at dusk and scratched at the back of the mirror until it was worn through and reflected his face, which was illuminated by the lights of the passing cars. In Face (No. 6) (1999) – one of the few times Li shot a video outside of his home – his face repeatedly appeared emerging from the water as he climbed out of a swimming pool. In Face (No. 8) (2000), he pieced together fragments of glass until they reflected his face. In Face (No. 9) (2001), he projected a picture of a skull onto his face from dusk until dawn, at which point the skull was replaced by his own image. In Face (No. 10) (2001), Li projected a photograph of his younger self onto his face during daylight hours; after the sun went down, his older self gradually re-appeared. In Face (No. 12) (2003), he filmed his reflection in the blade of a steel dagger at night, which he kept flipping open and shut until his fingers were too numb to move it.

Face (No. 10), 2001, video still

Face (No. 13) (2007) was made on a stormy summer evening in Beijing: Li sat motionless in his own room with the video camera running, waiting for his face to be illuminated by lightning. This work marked an important shift in Li’s practice. Whereas he had previously generated the conditions for his films – boiling water to create a steamy backdrop, say – he decided at that point to be more passive and simply wait for the right circumstances to emerge. In Face (No. 15) (2007), he filmed his face in complete darkness; only his breathing is audible. For more recent works, such as Face (No. 16) (2008) and Face (No. 17) (2009), the artist is shown filtered through smoke emanating from an incense burner or a cigarette. As most of his films are shot at night, and are often lit only by the glow from the slide projector, the overall aesthetic of his work is dark, reserved and minimal. At our recent meeting, Li demonstrated little anxiety at not having created any new ‘Face’ works since 2009. As with the five-year haitus between The Sun (No. 1) (2000) and The Sun (No. 2) (2005) – in which the artist traced the path of the setting sun through his own movements around the city – Li is just patiently waiting for the right moment to make his next work.

Carol Yinghua Lu is a contributing editor of frieze, a PhD candidate in art history at Melbourne University, Australia, and director of Inside-out Art Museum, Beijing, China.