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Dinu Li exhibits in Leeds

October 17, 2007

Dinu Li is a UK based artist born in Hong Kong and now living in Manchester. Today at 5pm he will be giving a talk at 42 New Briggate Gallery in Leeds, looking at the work he is currently showing, ‘The Mother of All Journeys‘.

It’s free to attend and will include a session of questions and answers, as well as plenty of Chinese beer and green tea. I know because I was there and enjoyed them few weeks ago during the exhibition’s opening!

Dinu Li exhibition by Christos Stavrou © 2007 All rights reserved
[Dinu Li’s exhibition in Leeds © 2007 Christos Stavrou]

Dinu Li’s work has been described as one that addresses the construction of individual and collective identity in an increasingly connected, but at the same time fragmented global village. The Mother of all Journeys is an exploration into the memories of the artist’s 80-year-old mother. Through a series of colour photographs Li charts her journey from China to England.

Dinu Li 02
[photograph from ‘The Mother of All Journeys’ © Dinu Li]

The exhibition consists of some impressive, high quality colour prints of large and smaller sizes depicting places where the artist’s mother and family have been. They are accompanied by few personal belongings and several pieces of text on paper, written by an old type-writer (another referent to the interplay of old and new, now and then). For example, near the photograph shown above it is written: “By coincidence, your dad and I both had jobs making underwear. He worked in a factory stitching English words into the waistbands on men’s pants. I would bring work home, cutting loose treads from bras. Chun Yu was the one being breast-fed at the time. Sometimes his legs would kick out, causing me to cut the bra straps.”

A warm and deeply human story unfolds in the exhibition room. The viewer is called to connect the pieces, as in a puzzle. Through traces of time and space, through someone’s experiences and feelings. Photographs, texts and sound, (a music theme keeps playing in the background), are elements which never reveal a straightforward reality but rather in co-operation with the viewer’s imagination succeed in reconstructing, or rather reinterpreting, time and personality within the individual trajectory of a loved person.

Through the images we revisit unique spaces in the mother’s journey. We can view them as they are now. A mental transformation of those spaces takes place. It’s a trip backwards in time. Ultimately a trip depending on us. The texts help us to connect with those visual representations of present and past, what we see and what we imagine, but what they evoke has an independent existence in itself. We interact and learn, both personal and collective, stories of diaspora, ethnicity and family. We become active readers and listeners, not just distant viewers, almost like the family’s far relatives. We become participants because, after all, our experiences may partially overlap with what is revealed in front of us. One piece of text reads in a familiar to me tone: “Nobody dared try their English out at the cornerstore. Eventually you ran over and came back with a pack of salted peanuts.

Dinu Li’s Mother of All Journeys in Leeds by Christos Stavrou 02
[Dinu Li’s exhibition in Leeds © 2007 Christos Stavrou]

At the background there is a small TV set and a song is playing repetitively. The same song can be heard through a CD player mounted on the wall. At first, it appears as a pop soundtrack from the 60s. It adds to the dreaming quality of the exhibition. But also it invites the visitors to construct the identity of Dinu Li’s mother. Was that her favourite song? Maybe it was his mother’s and father’s special song?… Somewhere there is another text that could be relevant, the careful viewer would have noticed, one where Dinu Li’s mother describes her engagement and refers to her new house as socially distinct, being the only one which had a record-player…

The exhibition reveals social divisions and cultural rituals intertwined with individual experience and personal memory. Humans do not appear over-determined by social processes. Little moments become humorous and lyrical. The interaction and eventful meeting of multiple signs of ethnicity, culture, and migration, but always under a framework of personal perspective -including the viewer, becomes one of the main characteristics. The exhibition song, for example, clearly reminds an old and famous western musical but after few seconds or minutes someone realises that it’s sang in Chinese. Issues of the relational, both inclusionary and exclusionary nature of culture are raised. The visitor becomes a consious part of this of course. There is a photo of the entrance of a cinema theatre. It makes you think whether this is Hong-Kong, or Britain, or somewhere else. And the nearby caption, that “Your brothers were taking you to see movies of Tony Curtis” points out to the global village we increasingly inhabit. But keep reading the same text and it offers a personal and emotional dimension too: “I would always take you to see love stories. Whenever the stars kissed I had to cover your eyes.”

This kind of ‘familiarity’ of the visual and textual material, the interactive quality of the presentation, and the feelings of love, care and endurance that the whole work brought into surface, were for me what I found as so successful and rewarding in this exhibition. The intercrossing of time feels life and the intercrossed spaces sense culture.

Dinu Li in his exhibition in Leeds by Christos Stavrou
[Dinu Li in his exhibition in Leeds © 2007 Christos Stavrou]

At some point, I managed to find the artist alone and ask few questions, a conversation that I’ll try to recreate here:

First, I wondered how important was the thinking about the compositions to his project. He said, not that much, more important was for him to be in the right place, which was not always easy. “I usually had to ask my mother: was that the right tree mom?.. Or the other one over there, etc..”

“Yet, what did you particularly try to include or exclude”, I asked again. He replied that he mainly tried to exclude any people from his frames, the viewers could read different things, if there were people in the scenes. Another question regarded what equipment did he use and why. He pointed out that the whole project started by finding one very small and old square photograph of his mother, a picture that himself did not know about. In order to reproduce that square format he used a Hasselblad.

Dinu Li 03
[photograph from ‘The Mother of All Journeys’ © Dinu Li]

“I found a photo of my mother in her things” Dinu Li said. ‘There she was, a young woman holding my brother as a baby. It was the first time I saw that picture.. I hadn’t seen my mother looking this way before…”

So, I continued, your idea for this project started by you realising that your mother had not many physical evidence of her past but memories… and then you travelled with her to so many different places, recreating reality in a way…

Yes, it was all in her mind.. Dinu explained. Many stories of her past, our past.. I knew much of it already from stories that she had told me.. In one level, this project is about the journey of her life, in another level we may question if what is shown here is reality…

I made a final thought that didn’t express that day. Dinu Li’s work, as Roland Barthes did in Camera Lucida, asserts the referential power of photography. And as another Barthes insists of his mother’s knowable presence in the world based on a photograph he found of her as a child. But he develops and builds upon it by revisiting the traces of the past and the places she has been. It is rather another accomplishment of what Barthes describes as achieving “utopically, the impossible science of the unique being” (Barthes, 1981, p.71).

[from Dinu Li’s exhibition in Leeds © 2007 Christos Stavrou]

The Mother of All Journeys (which accompanies Opera North’s production of Madam Butterfly) will run until 10 November 2007, at 42 New Briggate Gallery, Leeds.


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