Zoom In: Li Ming’s Impromptu Responses to the Policing of Life

The winner of the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award 2017 epitomizes an experimental, almost carefree attitude to filmmaking

In 1975 Muhammad Ali was delivering a lecture to a group of Harvard students when he was asked to recite a poem. His response 'Me, We' is an intense, concise message about the inherently social nature of human beings. 

Double Fly Art Centre, ‘The Bro Generation’, De Sarthe gallery, Beijing, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and De Sarthe, Beijing

Double Fly Art Centre, ‘The Bro Generation’, De Sarthe gallery, Beijing, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and De Sarthe, Beijing

Double Fly Art Centre, ‘The Bro Generation’, De Sarthe gallery, Beijing, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and De Sarthe, Beijing

The artist Li Ming took Ali's poem as the title of his 2015 solo presentation at Beijing's UCCA, which similarly probed the limitations of individual agency. The installation-cum-exhibition featured a number of playfully disorientating elements, including an asphalt road guiding the audience through the work, a video essay that flicked quickly through groups of runners, a bright neon reading 'ME/WE', voice recordings and an essay by critic Guo Juan titled 'The Appearance and Disappearance of a Group of People' (2015). Li's suggestion is that 'there is no I; it is merely an illusion of existence.' Not only was this demonstrated in the images of gaggles of joggers and the audience's flock movement along the asphalt track, but also via the installation's focus on somewhat ominous digital tracking technologies.

Double Fly Art Centre, Klein Blue, Space Station, Beijing 2015, performance view. Courtesy: the artists and Space Station, Beijing

Double Fly Art Centre, Klein Blue, Space Station, Beijing, 2015, performance view. Courtesy: the artists and Space Station, Beijing

Double Fly Art Centre, Klein Blue, Space Station, Beijing, 2015, performance view. Courtesy: the artists and Space Station, Beijing

Li was born in 1986 in Hunan, southern China. In 2004, he moved to the historic east coast city of Hangzhou to study at the recently opened new media department of the China Academy of Fine Arts. It was here, in 2008, that Li and eight fellow new-media graduates formed the boisterous all-male collective, Double Fly Art Centre – an ongoing influence on Li's ways of working. The group have mock robbed a bank while it was still being built, staged a pantomime massacre at K11 Art Museum in Shanghai and donned masks to join a group performing a public dance to celebrate the opening of a new shop. Beyond anything else, these performances are driven by an idea of spontaneity and improvization: the quality of the filming equipment is not an issue, nor is the apparent absurdity of the action. Double Fly offer a refreshingly nonsensical response to the policing of life experienced by many young Chinese, where a well-trodden path from gaokao (national higher education entrance exam) to graduation to job to marriage to childrearing often feels restrictively predetermined.   

Li Ming, Zoom, 2014, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Li Ming, Zoom, 2014, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Li Ming, Zoom, 2014, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

In November 2017, Li was awarded the third annual Hugo Boss Asia Art Award for emerging artists. For the prize exhibition, shared with fellow finalists Tao Hui, Yu Ji and Robert Zhao Renhui at Shanghai's Rockbund Museum, the artist constructed an immersive route to guide visitors through a group of his video-installation works. For the earliest of these, Zoom (2014), Li began by steadying a camera from inside his flat in Hangzhou. He used the zoom function on the camera lens to focus on the furthest possible point, whether a well-known landmark, generic building or a field. He then travelled to this location and repeated the process. In all, Li made a 36-stop, 460km journey from Hangzhou to Shanghai; from his apartment to the famous Oriental Pearl Tower on the Bund. There is a satisfyingly amateur sense to the grainy quality of the shaky video, the sense of a kind of impromptu experiment. In accompanying text, Li described the subsequent difficulty of physically locating many of the sites captured by his camera's zoom, explaining that: 'only by various illegal means [could he] reach the top of administrative buildings for shooting.' 

Li Ming, MEIWE, UCCA, Beijing, 2015, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Li Ming, MEIWE, UCCA, Beijing, 2015, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Li Ming, MEIWE, UCCA, Beijing, 2015, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

Zoom epitomizes the experimental, almost carefree attitude of much of Li's work. As he explained to me over WeChat: 'I don't believe that art should have to use a certain theory or theme as its banner and then move closer to this. If art aims at temporarily solving physiological needs, when it fails it will mean dismissing this art – cruelly, even the artist will be left behind.' The impulse simply to do is the work's driving factor. Yet, despite this professed lack of theoretical concerns, Li's art frequently demonstrates a fresh treatment of time and space, as well as an idiosyncratic reframing of the technologies that we use in daily life, as with his camera's zoom. One result is that the work often has a slant of social investigation and commentary. In Zoom, for instance, the number of official buildings that Li inadvertently focused on – and subsequently had difficulty accessing – speaks of the pervasive and restrictive nature of politics in Chinese daily life. 

Li Ming, Rendering the Mind, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Li Ming, Rendering the Mind, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Li Ming, Rendering the Mind, 2017, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Rendering the Mind (2017), presented across a series of screens, is one of two new works commissioned for the Rockbund exhibition (along with Inspired by Transliteration - Chapter Two: Emergency Exit, 2017). The star of the video is the historic hotel Broadway Mansions - a 1930s former residence in Shanghai's French Concession, an area well known for its surviving examples of colonial-period architecture. Depictions of the hotel are accompanied by animated blue portraits of architect Bernard Tschumi, whose theories on the properties of space frequently appear at the bottom of the screen. The video jumps to animated renderings of abstract compositions of blocks of colour and lines, with Li often appearing, as he frequently does in his videos, within this geometric space. Rendering the Mind oscillates between a blend of reality/fantasy reminiscent of the film Sin City (2005) and all-out animation, while Tshumi's profound aphorisms on space clash beguilingly with Li's comic interventions. Walking naked in the animated space or strutting, Bruce Nauman-like, along a narrow corridor, Li forges a singular path.  

Li Ming is an artist based in Hangzhou, China. The Hugo Boss Asia Art Award show runs at Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China, until 11 February. A solo exhibition of Li’s work opens at Antenna Space, Shanghai, on 24 March 2018.

Li Ming, Rendering the Mind, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai

Tom Mouna is a writer based in Beijing.

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018