In Western societies, the custom of foot-binding readily evokes negative feelings of pain, discrimination and sexism. By contrast, Chinese calligraphy is viewed positively and associated with abstract beauty and freedom of individual expression. Yet beyond these simple judgments are complex, culturally embedded practices—black and white readings are simply too one-dimensional.

While foot-binding encompasses an intricate network of deeply rooted traditions and social functions, the practice of calligraphy is similarly bound up in a history of strict rules and physical, moral disciplining. 

Aixia Li's artistic examination of these two phenomena attempts to negotiate their cultural particularity with regard to the entangled processes of cross-cultural translation and misunderstanding.

In the first part of Li’s photographic installations, a series of LED-lit wood boxes show one of the thirteen constitutive brush strokes of the Chinese written character chan (to bind, to weave, to tangle)—the term for "foot-binding." By re-patterning the character into a circular shape, Li decomposes the formally determined structure of chan and recodes it into a new sign. The boxes light up in varying frequencies, illuminating in turn the portraits of thirteen formerly foot-bound women. Their feet will forever bear the marks of their binding but Li has begun the work of reconstituting this enclosure.

Accompanying these portraits are a series of wood boxes containing the personal biographies of each of the depicted women. The original contents of these boxes are replaced by individual accounts obtained through interviews and then reproduced by Li in brush and ink on epoxy resin. Li used as many 'layers' of writing as the amount of spoken words would require. In doing so, she explores the possibilities and limitations of both historical and personal narration and reception, thus tracing the discursive conditions and boundaries of the represented and signified; of the self and other.

Finally, Li produced a series made up of overlapping words: English-language terms written in Roman script. These are an attempt to open up a gap, an in-between space that deliberately defies flat structures of acquired knowledge and judgement. This open space asks for new inscriptions, which will be produced through the multiple layers of figure and image.

In the words of the artist, "When using the Chinese element as a medium and questioning the characteristics of Chinese customs, I must embrace the non-narrative, because perhaps only then there would be a difference perceived...also, because the materiality of a medium that is based on interpretation (language) might be destined to be parochial [narrowly restricted in scope or outlook]."

Li’s exploration of deconstructed forms of language aim to bring the perceiver and the perceived closer together in a moment of intimate encounter that is evoked by sensual experience and tacit knowledge. Her various methods of visualizing unbound forms of the character chan result in dialectical tensions along the thresholds of the tangible and transient, readable and unintelligible, distant and near. Just as we begin to believe that we can identify the facial expressions and gazes of the portrayed subjects, or decipher some of the words written in ink, they merge, or change, or disperse into an ungraspable form.


Exhibition of all 50 LensCulture Emerging Talents: Barcelona, October 13-31

Aixia Li's work, along with photographs from ALL the LensCulture Emerging Talents will be shown in an exhibition at the Galeria Valid Foto in Barcelona. Please join us for theopening party on October 13, 2014—we hope to see you there! See a preview of ALL the winners here in LensCulture.

ALL winners have already been featured at photo festival screenings in Dublin, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Amsterdam so far this year. Next screening in Korea at the
Seoul Lunar Photo Fest.