Beijing-based artist Li Binyuan is best known for his highly personal, politically-charged performance and video works, which often consist of sustained physical efforts and use his own body as the primary material. The most recent of these works, Breakthrough (2019), was performed at the opening of Lisson Gallery’s group summer exhibition in London, ‘Afterimage: Dangdai Yishu’, curated by Victor Wang. Li Binyuan is part of a younger generation of artists emerging from China, born after the tumultuous years of revolution and working within a global context in which new media and networks such as yingxiang yishu 影像藝術 (video art) and xingwei yishu 行为艺术 (performance art) have arisen.
In Breakthrough, Li stands atop a purpose-built brick tower at which he proceeds to chip away with forceful blows from a hammer. The process continues for as long as is needed for the tower to be completely dismantled – in this second iteration, the performance lasted a total of six hours. The work is evidenced by the mound of broken brick in the gallery for the remainder of the exhibition.
As well as challenging perceptions of technical artistic ‘skill’ as traditionally taught in China, Li’s works expose an understanding of the body as a political symbol, and its relationship to emotions and objects. These dualities are perceptible in other works such as Drawing Board 100” x 40”, which sees the artist standing braced against the unrelenting gush of water from a burst roadside dam, holding a wooden panel over his head as a shield. The work is a reference to Li’s personal recollection of being caught in a flood as a child – a reliving of previous mental and physical exertion, and an exploration of the body’s relationship to memory and fragility in the face of nature. What first appear as futile gestures of human performativity give way, through their duration and recurrence, to the sense of acts that are more intimate and particular, landing somewhere between the deeply personal and the ambiguously political.