Artist Hongxi Li uses metalwork, ceramics, and upholstery to transform functional furnishings, like chairs, into non-functional art pieces that explore human relationships and social structures. Through the use of humor and repetition, she aims to make complex themes more approachable. Li's work is influenced by socially engaged art and often involves collaboration with participants through workshops, dialogue, and other methods. Li uses a variety of media such as sculpture, sound, scent, installation, video and live performance to create connections between activism, technology, and community.
This interview was recorded after a solo presentation, SHAPED at V.O. Curations curated by DATEAGLE bringing together installation, sculpture, performance, sound and video to explore the history of design, patterns of human behaviour and humour. Li's sculptural assemblages beckons the audience to pay attention - her subtle yet persistent allusion to human bodies in the materials that she seamlessly subverts. Displayed in a former office building, the exhibition explores the bodily expressions, structures and restrictions embedded within the cycles of our daily route: the pattern of going from work to bar then home. Within each chair, Li has altered the functionality of its design, subverting its purpose to instead reflect the conditions of our environment. In the corporate office At Work chair, Li has re-worked the original 1930s Brno chair designed by German architect Ludwig Mies van Der Rohe. The chair is curved, making it near impossible to sit in. The design is reflective of the physicality of the body's posture whilst seated in an office all day. This stiffness is also reflective of a shrugging posture that is bent in submission and reminiscent of the ancient Chinese custom of Kowtow (approx. 771–221 BC), an act of deep respect shown by kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground. The At Bar chair is an extension of Li's Uncertainty series (2021-ongoing) exploring mobile, active chairs. Replacing the solid pole of a 2000s Crescent bar stool with a large steel spring, the chair is in motion and unsteady when sat on, reflective of dizzying nights out. The final chair in the show, the first in a new series titled Exhaustion, is a chair with an inflatable seat. Reinterpreting the Italian architect Giotto Stoppino’s 1970s Cobra chair, the seat's air cushion gradually deflates with the weight of the sitter, characterising the on-going and irreversible fatigue tied up within these patterns of daily lives.
Walking through this beautifully installed show, I couldn’t shake the accuracy of the artist's interpretation into our daily lives. Such is the power of Li's work: her investigations into the endless possibilities of sculpture, her pairing of ancient design with mundane materials, and the subtle upending of our perceptions nudge us to examine our own expectations of function and form.
Hongxi Li: I grew up with my grandma and grandpa, I had a very typical Chinese childhood. I grew up in a little town called Xiamen in the south of China by the seaside. Chinese people call it the Hawaii of China, but don't go there! The sea is black and it is very polluted.
My grandma tried to send me to the best public middle school and I finally got in but because I didn't do my homework properly, I hung out in the smoking area and I started a porno DVD trading business, so I got kicked out of that school. My grandma tried to find a place for me to continue my education in China. In the end, she sent me to a boarding school. That's where I first started art class. In China, you are given an exam score discount if you are an art student. In my second year at high school, I got completely bored of school. It felt like a very closed off, small world. I asked my parents if I could study abroad in the UK. It was very spontaneous.
When I started studying at university, I was really depressed. I was unclear about my identity: I was trying to fit in but there was a big cultural gap and I felt really disconnected to what was happening in China. For a long time I felt like I was in a grey area. During that period my dad really helped me get out of that headspace. He introduced me to some traditional Chinese books. For some reason, I've just started reading it. More than ever, I felt so grateful and proud to be Chinese.
HL: The first chair I made was a school chair, a very particular school chair found in China. I made it last year in the summer when I went back to China. I sourced the chair whilst I was there. It only cost me eight pounds. I found a little foundry in a town where they had a bending machine in order to redo the back of the chair. At that time, I was working remotely for a tech company, so a lot of the time I was working whilst also FaceTiming the guy helping me with the chair in the foundry!
I think the school chair was clearly from my school memories because I couldn't fit into the school system. I felt like there's so many rules of saying “no, no, no, no, no,'' to me. Everyone was telling me how I should behave as a student. I couldn't fit in and that's why I got kicked out. In a way, when I started studying in the UK it felt much more liberating.
HL: The first spring-based chair that I made was for ‘Dream Rich’, a show at Harlesden High Street which was curated by DATEAGLE ART. The chair does not allow for people to sit on it because the spring is so sensitive, but the chair itself is very performative. It has a lot of movement.
All of my chairs are based on previous chair designs. Through my own intervention of altering these original designs, I get to know more about the structure and design process. Sometimes the chair will be associated with the context in which it will be shown, for example in Harlesden, there is a casino right around the corner to the gallery and I sourced my first slot chair from a casino. My spring-based chair series is titled as my ‘Uncertainty’ series, which made a connection in terms of gambling and other uncertainties associated with casinos. I always find that the work starts to be associated with its wider context and environment.
I often go to many different places and cities to find chairs. For the chair in 'Dream Rich' I was visiting every single casino in Leicester Square asking the manager for a used slot chair. Most of them turned me away.
HL: Definitely Tony Cragg. I saw his exhibition at Houghton Hall in 2021 and that was the moment that I felt like I wanted to be a sculptor. It was the first time in my life that sculpture really impressed me.
HL: It all started with the chairs. The chair itself is a sculptural piece. When I started to fabricate the chairs from 3D renderings into a physical sculpture, it opened up more possibilities which led to the performance experiments. I started to create some performance clips with it just on my phone. Without any expectations I posted it online and people started to go crazy! I realised that having a body present in a chair is an activation of the sculpture. Performance makes you more aware of the environment that you create: sounds, scent, lighting etc. That's how ‘SHAPED’ [Li’s second solo exhibition in London curated by Martin Mayorga and Vanessa Murrell of DATEAGLE ART at V.O Curations] came together and expanded. We had eight collaborators working on the exhibition for sound, scent, performance, choreography, photography. The show explored this pattern of going from work to bar then home that reflects what urban residences endure in their daily lives. I wanted to explore how the chair can reflect this uncomfortable cycle of capitalism and how restricting it can be.
HL: I went to see Olive Hardy' theatre show at Sadlers Well last winter and I was very moved by how much emotion she could create in her choreography. I knew that I wanted to work with her! It was her first time choreographing with sculpture in a gallery context. We developed our ideas from scratch. We wanted the performance to be very organic and so we created a persona for each performer and a few principal functions for them to follow as a framework. Within this loose framework, the performers could be spontaneous. I knew that I didn't want an overly dramatic performance because, as an object, a chair is universal and so easy to understand. I didn't want the performance to get in the way of this, it needed to be accessible. The movements attempted to imitate the mundane, it was basically giving an observation into how we navigate these everyday scenarios that everybody goes through. The movements we make in a bar and how we interact within the workspace: stretching, fidgeting and rigid typing on a laptop. Naturally, every performer brought a different behaviour to each scenario.
HL: I found that the audience really connected with the work and audience members often wanted to share how they connected with it. Everyone connects so differently to the work and that’s the beautiful thing about it. I remember my friend telling me that he often goes to art exhibitions and performances, and he tends to think very deeply about the work and wants to decode what is happening in the show. When he viewed my ‘SHAPED’ performance, he realised that the meaning of the work was very direct, it was right in front of him! I want to achieve a directness in the work.
I often find that people find the work humorous! This is unintentional, but I think the humour matches my personality. When I started to get this reaction, I wasn't sure about how I felt about it, but my friend reassured me and reminded me that my work is exploring heavy topics. The humour and lightness makes it more accessible. I’ve accepted that this is just part of my style.
HL: I started making digital renders because I couldn't make physical chairs in the beginning. I was in a full-time job and I didnt have a studio at the time. I was making these for one year or two, but I felt so stuck, it was really frustrating because I wanted to commit to making them in a physical form. So I quit my job, got a studio and started to make them.
HL: When I first moved into my studio, I hit rock bottom in my life. I felt so much internal emotion. The twisted, intertwined balloon shape really expressed how I was feeling at that time. The balloon is a temporal and not a permanent medium, so I wanted to transform these shapes into ceramics because I feel like this medium is delicate and fragile. It carries this quality of human emotion. There is an obvious connection with the chair: the chair is an exploration of an external environment, and the ceramics are an internal expression of feeling.
The ceramics practice is completely the opposite to the chairs: one is a very precise planning exercise, and the other is more spontaneous and following the material. Because they are so different, they both fit into different parts of my personality. In a way, the ceramics are from my internal feelings: they make me more aware of the external environment and societal issues, and this comes back to ideas that I explore with the chairs.
Right now, I am in a group show called ‘CORP’ with Chino Amobi and Arthur Marie at The Residence Gallery. I am also looking at the architectural structure of piping systems, inspired by the architect Richard Rogers. Through this structure, I want to reflect the architecture that we live in. I will use these structures to display my ceramic works. For the chairs, I have a strong calling to volunteer in a care home and I want to share a visual diary during my time volunteering. I am also currently working on my first commission with Rimowa, I’m looking forward to it as it will be the first time working with a suitcase! Stay tuned to see what I will make with it, it will be shown in Berlin in early November.
Hongxi Li (b. 1996, Xiamen) lives and works in London, UK. The artist is a member of the Royal Society of Sculpture and was recently shortlisted for New Contemporaries (2022). Recent commissions include As Seen By, Rimowa x The Community, Kant Garage, Germany (2022). Recent exhibitions include SHAPED, V.O Curations, UK (2022), Dream Rich, Harlesden High Street, UK (2022); Mudlark, Generation and Display Gallery, UK (2022); A Paradise For The Smiling Alligators, Urban Wall Park, Lecce Art Week, Italy (2022); Control the Virus Vol 01, DATEAGLE ART, online (2019); Early Work in Futurism, M50 Innovation Plus Art Space, China (2019); Producing Future Homes and Communities, Tate Modern, UK (2018); Queer Exploring, Menier Gallery, UK (2017); Sweatshop & Dream, SanDao Gallery, China (2014). Li graduated from Goldsmiths University of London (2019) with an MA in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and Chelsea College of Art, University of Art London (2018) with a BA in Fine Art.