Li Hsuan is a humanitarian photographer and writer based in China.
Her work explores art’s capability to interact with history, postwar collective trauma, urban environment, and architecture. Li Hsuan views art as a powerful weapon to evoke people’s emotions and awareness.
Through her interdisciplinary research-based practice, Li Hsuan explores implicit connections between social issues and aesthetics, between abstract and representation.
Chambre Fluide: Hello Li! Let's start talking about yourself. Who is Li?
Li Hsuan: Hello! I was born and grew up in China. The main instruments that connected me with art during my childhood years were the violin and paintbrush. I remember that at the age of four, I have painted a rooster with 50 different ways, in a month.
At that time I was forced to paint and play the violin every day by my mother, who is a perfectionist and doesn’t like any of my works.
In the last few years, I spent my life here and there. Though still in the process of discovering who I am, creative energy never leaves me. But the instruments I am using now to express my thinkings are a camera and materials from nature.
CF: What’s your relationship with China as your country and What do you think about the contemporary Chinese cultural scenario?
L.H: To talk about the relationship between individual and collective environment, it is always a very difficult question. Many rules influence our daily life, such as how much we should pay for tax, or in what ways should we dress in offices. In my country, this issue may be more complicated.
However, I don’t have many interactions with the collective rules. I am a very independent person, who even don’t pay any taxes to my country. As for the Contemporary Chinese cultural scenario, I think it is in the period of transition, from the underground state to the pre-flourishing stage.
In recent years we have opportunities to see all kinds of art and cultural events in big cities in China. However, for the other parts of China, contemporary art is still a niche field, which is excluded from the mainstream.
CF: Today we are immersed in a culture of the Visual. We are literally bombarded by images. As a photographer, what role does Image play today?
L.H: Yes, today images seem very worthless unless the ones that are produced for commercial purposes.
However, the photographer’s responsibility is much more than simply “to produce” images. Images that are created by committed photographers are beyond visual consumption.
In my opinion, images are not just images, they are, first of all, a way to communicate emotions without written words; a carrier with multiple functions, including commercial usages; or a form for artists to express abstract ideas. Images also can be used for social activism, to activate the repressed energy, and to make collective changes. Therefore, in my opinion, images can be anything, if we understand them in the right ways.
CF: Let’s talk about your masters. You studied Film, Photography, and Media at Leeds University and you have a wide background in Journalism and Cinema. Who are your favorite writers and Who are your favorite Filmmakers?
L.H: To talk about idols, I have to admit that I don’t have fixed idols. When I was in high school, I love Wong Kar-Wai’s films and Eileen Chang’s novels. My favorite filmmakers are the ones who made films during post-WW2 years, directors of German New Expressionism and French New Wave, such as Wim Wenders and Jean-Luc Godard.
My favorite writers are Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer.
CF: You said you see photography as a powerful weapon to evoke people’s emotions and awareness and work that photography’s capability to interact with history, collective trauma, and urban environment. Can you explain that?
L.H: Yes, it sounds very much like an activist’s statement, but I hold the belief that photography is as powerful as literature.
My photographic works are many and varied, in terms of subjects and styles. However, history, collective trauma, and urban environment are the research topics of mine. I experiment on the capability of photography to interact with these research topics and to discuss specific theoretical questions with the help of my visual works.
CF: How does your research develop? Where do you collect your inspiration from?
L.H: My research develops at a slow pace but with a determined direction because I am always in the journey of finding balance among different theories and perspectives. Imaginations give me inspirations, life encounters inspire me to think and create as well. In terms of imaginations, for me, it is about future possibilities, also about past history. My research and artwork are usually made for a group of people or collective events, beyond individual life or experiences. I am the kind of creator who likes to stay behind the curtain.
CF: In your article Urban Utopias, Urban Photography, and Unconsciousness you say "Notions of space and time are vital components in any ontology of photography". What is the relation between temporality, spatiality, and photographic creativity?
L.H: It is a subtle yet complicated relationship. Photography is about to capture the transitory moment, and we always say that photos are timeless, that disobey the rules of the universe of time. This ontological question has been discussed by many photography scholars. A concept of “off-frame space” created by Christian Mets explains this question well. Authentic photographic creativity is likely to generate a tiny subtle detail in a photo, this mysterious deviation provides viewers a space to imagine the unknown outcome of the scene. The scene in the photo seems unfinished but is about to finish. This is why photography is beyond space and time.
CF: Let’s talk about the "Urban Fabric" project. What inspired this work?
L.H: "Urban Fabric" is created based on the photos that I have taken for the last few years. I started my passion for photography from the streets and cities. Yet, at the early stage, I don’t know there is a genre called urban photography and I haven’t developed the commitment to a discipline called Urban Studies. When I look back at these photos, I thought why not create a project called Urban Fabric which includes sub-topics “Pedestrians”, “Window’s eyes” and “Building speaks”.
The project is still ongoing.
CF: What role do art and artists play in society nowadays? How has that changed as the scope of what art is and what it looks like has also changed?
L.H: Artists are a special group of people who live a life beyond reality. As creatures who love to create, we are very close to the primal state of human being, yet, very far away from ourselves, from normal everyday existence, in order to chase or to realize a far-away vision or ideal, such as an abstract concept or historical issues inherited from the past.
I do believe society needs artists and art, at any time, especially in our postmodern age, as we are bombarded by non-human things. Although forms, styles, expressions of art have changed a lot, the essence of art remains the same with the primitive society, that is, the essence of art is always about stimulating emotions, building deep and authentic human connections, and creating transcendence of death and sufferings.