Back to the Basics: Li Mu’s Perception of Human Relations and Social Interactions By Biljana Ciric
As of late, Li Mu has become a more active participant in the art scene. In 2007 Li Mu moved from Su Zhou to Shanghai, on his own, and this has proven to be a very important decision in Li Mu’s life. Having left his teaching position at the Su Zhou Academy of Art and Design, he arrived in Shanghai to pursue his own artistic practice. Through the years, without a proper job to support his artistic production, Li Mu has had to exercise a great deal of patience and persistence as he has stayed dedicated to practicing as a full time artist.
Early on, Li was working mainly with video and photography, but his work of the last two years has taken a new direction that cannot be easily categorized. Many of these works are more process-oriented actions, themselves a part of his everyday practice that are very hard to distinguish from the rest of his daily activities. These ideas and actions are presented in a variety of different formats: as objects of documentation, piles of very detailed drawings in journals, photographs and writing on his blog, etc. His practice over the last two years is a bit difficult to present in an exhibition format as it seems that Li Mu is working in a way that is closer to a way of life than the creation of autonomous art objects.
One of his most important works that began this new trajectory and which established this new relationship between the artist and society was the project Public Knowledge. The driving force of the project was Li’s desire to share, an urge to share with people that he doesn’t know in order to establish a common relationship. For Public Knowledge, Li put his personal library on exhibition so that various people would be able to read books from his collection, or borrow the books without the need to return them. This project was presented in a small apartment in the French Concession area of the city of Shanghai, and later developed into another project entitled Blued Books, which lasted for half a year from 2008 to the middle of 2009. This offshoot took place in a Juvenile Reformatory in Shanghai, where the artist worked with the youthful residents—all of whom were under the age of 18—in order to develop the library for them so that they would be able to borrow books over the weekend. At the end of each month the artist would then come and discuss with them their thoughts and reactions to the books, acting as a catalyst for their personal expressions. In this way, Blued Books mainly presented pictorial, art related publications in order to give the troubled young residents the opportunity to begin working out their own ideas, to cultivate their imagination and communication skills. The Blued Books, then, were tools used by the artist as references for acts of free expression and helped to raise the self-esteem of these youth. In his journal of the project, Li Mu talks in detail about the days spent with the residents, their reactions, and his role as mediator. Here within he also notes that this project is not only an art project but carries with it the greater responsibility of doing something for others, and doing it right. This “doing right” by the other participants moves beyond the productive role of the artist, affording him the more complex role as a friend or teacher, as someone who listens and is situated between the institutional system and its subjects.
His interest in books and the book form continues in his daily practice as he often takes a book and will cut it in half with kitchen knife, then placing it back on the shelf again. Another example is the book he made using his personal database of telephone numbers and contact… From these rather minor actions we can see that his approach to public forms of knowledge has changed over time, so that the books he owns may no longer be legible, or the book is incomplete, leaving behind its original role while simultaneously offering a more direct encounter with this underprivileged form. Through these and many other actions he introduces a distortion that questions the actual role of an object and our relation to it.
In October of 2008, Li Mu began a series of visual diaries. Each day he takes a photograph of his left hand with a message written on the palm. This image of his hand with a message upon it, along with the environment around him (wherever he happens to be), marks the very moment that has moved him in some individualized way on that particular day. These various tiny moments are the attempts made by the artist to record the details of his everyday life and as protests against forgetting all the little moments that make up our life as a whole. The messages on his palm are more or less abstract notes, rather than references to concrete things and happenings. In one such message he writes: “I can see, I can listen, I can breath that is happiness.”
One of these very moments occurred in January of 2009, when the artist found a name card of a person that he had never met. This seemingly banal act, however, has led him to develop a new project, wherein Li Mu sends a present to this person every month, accompanied by a nice letter, but never reveals who he is.
This project and the many other projects like it are time-based, process-oriented actions that become very much a part of his life on a daily basis. In this way, it seems appropriate to say that Li Mu is trying to experience life in its most bare, human form, but at the same time this desire brings about an uncomfortable feeling that is difficult to recognize in ordinary societal relations. Sending a present to an unknown person each month for an entire year without any definite outcome; tampering with the communicative nature of books as objects; documenting his daily life in an abstract way, where locations are left anonymous and messages do not convey information; all of these things invite us into an artistic universe that Li Mu has woven around and through his life, and the people and objects that affect him. At the same time, these personal vignettes become reflections in a mirror that the artist then directs towards the viewer, creating a rather disturbing and fragmented picture of the world.
Thus, it can be said that Li Mu is compiling a collection of ideas, objects and contexts, all the while trying to develop new ways to communicate this information with other people. Similarly to artist Simryn Gill, Li Mu requires a very active involvement with the world around him as part of his artistic process, a significant development in his own artistic career that grew out of his feelings of loneliness that developed after moving to Shanghai. His daily actions suggest a possible awakening of the senses and the very basic instincts of humanity, their needs and feelings—like walking barefoot on the ground, another of his daily practices.
round him as part of his artistic process, a significant development in his own artistic career that grew out of his feelings of loneliness that developed after moving to Shanghai. His daily actions suggest a possible awakening of the senses and the very basic instincts of humanity, their needs and feelings—like walking barefoot on the ground, another of his daily practices.