An Order Without Order: The Aesthetics of Li Xiaofei

by Gu Ling


In this moment in our lives, we are surrounded by a web of noise between the visible and the invisible. We purposefully follow our daily routines, without taking an automated approach. Li Xiaofei’s partiality for an ordered sense of aesthetics, a deep examination of the experience of the individual in an ordered environment has been the focus of 16 years of practice.

The video series “Standard of the Same Time” in 2004 and the photo series “Standard corresponding to it” which uses dense shots of roads and architectural details, comprises a kind of interlaced abstract painting: fractured and non-converging still when we view it, the surface of the road is consistent, a car driving in and out of the same shot, the grayish tone of concrete tall buildings, the mechanical nature of the light and shade of the picture, the overlapping diagonal and straight surfaces. Consecutive frames are shown in one picture, like a gradient effect found in picture editing software. Li’s camera is like a peephole into urban public space; he edits the logical space of the picture by eliminating the subjects in the centre of the camera as well as the noise and hustle.

 “After 2000, When the mountain flowers are in full bloom, She will smile mingling in their midst” and the later “Song of the Burial of Flowers” focus on individuals: the former is an interview with children talking about their dreams, worries and memories. Most of the children behave naturally and talk freely. The video frequently shows several interviews simultaneously, so that the different answers to the various questions posed are evident. The later work tells a story about two homosexual lovers, who are seen cuddling each other buried beneath a blanket of fallen petals. The scenes of swaying green, the tree branches and the remains of fallen flowers—all demonstrate Li’s ability to fuse emotions with the surrounding environment.

“Performance Outcome is Everything” the 2010 Subway Light Box series and the video “His Language Will Change With Your Thoughts” can be seem as the preface to as well as the starting point for the “Assembly Line” series—an ongoing body of workfeaturing.workers’ narrations about their workplaces interrupted by those of the other workers. Just like in the earlier connected, multi-frame shots: Li Xiaofei’s video language disturbs the logical normal state of things: while an alternating pattern of abrupt endings and restarts human’s awkward co-existence with machines.

Ten of thousands of shooting hours have given birth to a pastiche of symmetry, centering, machinery, motion, displacement, rules, speed, rhythm and color. In such an expansive project, Li exhausted his connections in search for factories, which are the origins of urban life as well as the foundation for consumption and thus manufacturing. From large metal processing factories and automobile assembly plants to smaller ones producing furniture and home textiles, these workshops are seen by the artist as a unique visual space. These places, which are designed purely for practical use, have become objects to be admired through the lens by the artist. The pungent smells, suffocating dust and deafening noises of machines all disappear in the clean bright eye of the camera. In the world he constructs, personal narratives are only one part—a part which was gradually reduced—just as the descriptions of the daily lives of the individuals are weakened and swallowed by the machines. Sociological discussions on industry manufacturing, environmental pollution, capitalist exploitation and living conditions are hidden behind the camera lens. The almost peaceful expressions are the gestures of the workers as they repeat certain movements, turning this mechanical environment into something seemingly rational and sensible. But still we still feel deeply moved in some way. 

Li Xiaofei says: “Actually, the relationship between human beings and machines is of a parallel nature. Sometimes they interlace with each other. I tried to interlace them as if they were slices—human, machine; human, machine, provoking another sense of reality which is real, yet at the same time imaginary. … I myself could not tolerate staying a second longer in the factory; watching the workers, though, they seemed to be fully immersed in their work. I think the environment you are in has a direct effect on this. Environments determine how you feel.”

These deep feelings are perhaps the product of the innate unwillingness and restlessness of human beings. Li’s latest solo show “Crabs and Chocolate” at OV Gallery is a smart summary of work completed during a number of residency programs over the past few years. From the Southern tip of New Zealand to the Northern fringes of Norway, Li brought footage shot in a purified video language. “The only difference I found between the two places was the color or the sea water,” Li said. “It was dark blue and black in the North Pole, and dark green in the South Pole.” Compared with his previous work, we see an increasing atmospheric clarity, the saturation level of the videos has skyrocketed, rising in inverse proportion to the PM2 levels: the baby blue images of the snow-capped mountains reflected in the silent lake: the swaying reflections of the forest on the rippling blue water and the lovingly clumsy sheep and naïve and curious cows in an idyllic pasture. The mechanical pace of the various factories is slowed down in the light of the natural environment which brings a whole new frame of reference to the cigarettes filing through the cigarette machines and the yarn threading through the industrial looms in a color pallet reminiscent of Paul Smith. People are able to escape this artificial environment, but at the same time they are confined by it. The king crabs imported from Russia to Norway create paradoxical ripples throughout the economy and the ecosystem. And the production and consumption of the chocolate also leads us to reflect upon ideas of consumption and colonialism.

And both of these appear together at the same time in the “Assembly Line” series.  A new, loud and noisy environment appears: each work switching between mute mode and sound mode, the sound track of each work interfering with the others in the space of the exhibition hall, producing a sense of overwhelming violence, an invisible driving force produced by the artist injecting torque into each shot through his camera, everything happening so quickly and in a limited way.

Not aiming to record or investigate, the visual is both Li’s starting point and his destination. In the dark art space and on the screen, machines, human beings and images of nature mingle together with anxiousness and calm. They have all been produced by Li’s camera—in an order, yet without order.