Li Binyuan: Social Behaviours

On 21/07/2015 by Marianna Tsionki

By Bob Dickinson

Originally published in Art Monthly, May 2015

Li Binyuan, Deathless Love 2015
Well, this is a first. An exhibition launch selling raffle tickets, the prize being a chance to win a five-minute hug with an artist as part of a forthcoming performance. Or, to be precise, a piece of what the Beijing-based Li Binyuan calls ‘behaviour art’ and, sometimes, sculpture. For his first UK show, a selection of Li’s recent video works is cleverly presented in CFCCA’s blacked-out main gallery, entering which the viewer is first confronted by Long Jump, 2014. Projected on two screens with a gap between, you see a flooded road. Traffic splashes towards and away from the camera. On either side, one per screen, is a tall, concrete pillar. At what must have been some risk to life and limb, the artist is seen jumping from one to the other and back, across the traffic and the gap between the screens. One doubts whether such a feat would be possible on a public road in the UK.

It is an appropriate introduction to what Li does, which he describes as making art from ‘the reality that surrounds me’, a post-industrial, semi-urban reality that abounds in his cheaply shot videos waiting to be altered by the artist’s intervention. This often involves physical exhaustion – and reality butting in. In Link, 2013, another twin-screen installation, we see the same scene from almost the same camera angle: a view across an old stone footbridge, one in summer and the other in winter. In both, the artist is seen cartwheeling across the bridge, towards and away from the camera, gradually getting tired and needing to steady himself after every cartwheel to stop himself tumbling off the bridge, which has very low parapets. And in both, the artist is interrupted. In the winter, voices are heard off-screen, soon followed by the arrival of a mother and two children wanting to cross the bridge – so the artist stops to let them by. But in summer, the artist becomes so disoriented that eventually he stops to vomit into the river.

Resonate, 2012, features another bridge, this one modern and constructed of concrete, over which a seemingly endless goods train crosses, rhythmically clanking away. The artist, in the foreground, facing the camera, arms pressed against his sides, jumps to the rhythm of the carriage wheels, continuing as long as the train runs. This kind of filmic joke is explored in a different way in Exercise, 2014. Here, projected into a corner of the gallery, the artist, in close-up on the right, exhales through pursed lips for 47 minutes, his blowing seeming to cause a clump of bamboo to sway, seen on the left. This section of the installation is projected onto a loose, wrinkled white sheet, whose uneven surface exaggerates the movement of the leaves, making their swaying appear three-dimensional.

The joke Li is making may concern the individual’s relationship with the enormity of the environment in a country in transition. It becomes more impressive in Signal, 2014, another split-screen video, this time featuring a night-time cityscape. On the left, the twinkling lights of tightly packed buildings are dominated by a multi-storey tower, on top of which is a flashing beacon. Meanwhile, the right-hand screen, positioned much closer to the viewer, shows the artist’s hand, in extreme close-up, flicking a cigarette lighter into flame in response to the beacon. After watching for a while, the impression is that the lighter flame might actually precede the beacon’s flash. In which case, the tower is responding to the lighter. Ridiculous as it may appear, the artist has struck up a conversation with a skyscraper.

In China, Li has a reputation for scandal due to a series of videos placed on Chinese social media of the artist streaking through Beijing at night, running or riding a motorbike, and clutching a cross, or an inflatable doll, or both. During a bird flu outbreak in 2013, he walked around Beijing with a chicken on a lead. His work, which has been compared to Tania Bruguera’s Arte de Conducta, or Behaviour Art, does not share the same
overtly political goal, preferring to use humour to change a given space, often through sheer physical effort. Sequences from his most exhausting effort of endurance, Deathless Love, 2014, where he hits 250 hammers until each one breaks, are projected onto the concrete plinth where he will repeat the work on 14 May. The owner of the lucky raffle ticket should expect a bear-hug.

BOB DICKINSON is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.

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