in conversation with: Li Hei Di

Working in a wide range of mediums, Li Hei Di’s most recent works are ‘beings caught in the act of seduction’. It’s about examining that recognisable feeling, what she describes as ‘witnessing sexiness in the ephemeral moments of mundane life; helplessly blushing, falling for the childish perception of a random someone; to unleash the pure animalistic desire.’ When exploring her multilayered abstract paintings and you unmask sexual references it releases that feeling of being caught. Although her paintings delve into raw desire and the repression of it, it also connects to the deeply rooted human condition of longing and the attempt to understand sex. In this conversation, we talk about the ways her queerness underpins her practice. She also explains the ways Chinese ancient history plays a role and the importance of her fish slippers.

Can you tell us more about your journey from attending Idyllwild Arts to RCA?


I went to Idyllwild Arts Academy when I was 16, after my one-year-long student exchange program in Ohio. I had never been to an art museum/gallery, I had no idea how ART is supposed to look like, I was just a kid who really loved to draw. My experience of attending Idyllwild Arts felt like entering a parallel reality, possibly because it was in a forest on top of a secluded mountain occupied with hundreds of teenagers. It felt like another dimension where time was warped and perception was altered due to the high altitude and teenage angst. The aspect that made this overly expensive private school worth it was the teachers. My painting teacher David Reid-Marr is my personal hero to this day, he really believed in me and that kept me going. David went to the RCA in the 60s, which kinda made me want to go to the RCA someday. In idyllwild , we were very privileged to learn all mediums of art-making comprehensively, painting, sculpture, print-making, photography and digital art… I think I was a little spoiled by the secluded environment and how the teachers really took care of me. 

 

 

Li Hei Di, Bubble Bath Lights Off, 140x160 cm

 

 

Then I went to college at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. I loved the intensity of MICA, if I wasn’t painting, I was in the wood workshop; If I wasn't in class, I was at Savers buying materials for an upcoming performance. I thrived in that high-pressure environment, because I used working as an emotional outlet. We were given assignments, but I always had a way to make the assignments fun and mine.  I think the intense curriculum at MICA equipped me with a good amount of knowledge in different types of art-making and really built my work ethic. I had so many great professors at MICA, Professor Cornel Rubino ( @cornelrubino) still helps me with art today through Instagram.

 

After two years in Mica, I transferred to Chelsea College of Art in London, it was a tough decision, but I wanted a new beginning. Chelsea was completely different from any art education I had, we were treated like adults rather than students, there was no obligation to go to classes or show the finished piece, but there was so much critical thinking, research, and writing. I think my 2 years in MICA taught me how to make art, my 2 years in Chelsea taught me how to think like an artist, though I still don’t fully understand either. 

 

Now I’m doing a MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art. It has been difficult learning online, it’s hard to have a grasp of the human essence through zoom, which makes me a bit timid to talk in seminars and crits. Other than that, I have more and more realized how little I know, I feel almost embarrassed of my bland confidence in art from time to time, but I think this ego crush is good for me, I’m slowly learning and re-learning. I’m going to have my studio at the RCA soon,  I can’t wait to talk to my classmates and professors in person.  

 





Li Hei Di, Air Chrysalis, 170x187 cm


 


What is your current studio practice like? Did it change because of COVID?

I’m currently renting a small space at the ASC studios in Brixton. I have been creating mostly paintings, I really miss making 3d objects in the workshop or doing a performance, but I think it’s a good thing to focus on painting for a while. Some of my classmates have their studios there too, sometimes we smoke together and check out each other’s work. 


During the first lockdown, I was at home 24/7, trying to piece together my BA final project. During that time, air-dry clay and any type of home accessible material became my medium. I made a tiny cardboard house and an air-dry clay woman (whom I call Sandra, cuz she reminds me of Sandra Oh) for my stop motion animation film Honeydoodoo.  


Li Hei Di, Honeydoodoo-Model
Li Hei Di, Sandra


Covid gave me the opportunity to really focus on art and self reflect, I definitely feel that I have grown as an artist and a person through this very difficult time. I think before I was more like a craftsman, I was just a kid who loves to draw, I didn’t care what I was drawing or painting or making, I love the process, but having so much time during covid, I really reflected on all the work I have made as an art student, and slowly starting to understand what is my work, what could I bring into the world, what does it really mean to be honest in art. 



Do you have any routine/rituals before you start working? 10 cups of coffee? 10 cups of tea?


I almost always forget to drink water when I’m at the studio, too lazy to make coffee and tea. One ritual I developed recently is to take off my shoes and wear my fish slippers before I paint. Now it has become a superstition, I feel like I can’t paint well without wearing my fish slippers.


Fish Slipper



Can you describe one of your works and tell us a little bit about it?


Li Hei Di, The Carrying Bag Theory, 158x170 cm


In this piece, I initially painted very gestural with bright intense iron-oxide red. After picking up a call from my mother, I all of a sudden find the Iron-oxide too much, too loud, too raw, I slowly cover it with white until only a few items are uncovered.   


A lot of my work showcases raw desire or the repression of desire, balancing the animalistic and unavoidable disciplines from reality. My personal repression comes from the struggle between my queerness and my responsibility as the Chinese child of a very conservative family.


I have been secretly living with my partner, but I told my parents I live alone. My parents would call me every day to check on me, there is little left to say to them because I have to filter out everything that has my partner in it. I DID come to them a few years ago, but they were so heartbroken and their health was deteriorating, I was eventually shoved back into the closet. The strange thing is that I have never felt ashamed about being gay before I came out to them, but after over and over again being told that I was putting them in pain, that “my happiness is built on their heartbreak”, shame is creeping onto me. 


Living a double life really got to me these days. We are in love, in hiding, but I feel a slice of guilt when I kiss my partner on the lips, I feel watched, I feel they know. It’s such a stereotype Asian gay story, but it’s my everyday life. When the west has mostly accepted the queer, moved onto other more advanced issues, I’m stuck in between this fuck up cliche ultimatum.  


I want a life where the people I love can co-exist. Things might get better as time grows, but for now, I veil some information for the picture to work as a whole. This painting for me is possibly a reflection of me trying to make the best of my current situation. 

 



Li Hei Di, Funnel Chest, 30.5×40.6 cm



In your bio, you mentioned that your works embody desire from women that lived during the time of Tang dynasty Qing lou. Can you tell us in which way you embodied this history in your works? Is it through the color palette or something else?



It has little to do with the color palette. I see my works as living beings that could seduce people, that could strike a chord in the way that women(or men) in ancient Chinese Qing Lou (青楼) did. In Tang dynasty, Qing Lou had little to do with transactional sex, It was the chamber of poetic and intellectual seduction. Working women in Qing Lou were not prostitutes, many of them were highly intellectual and talented artists with the power of choosing their clients based on the client’s knowledge rather than wealth or status. The relationship between the working women and their clients was not blandly sexual, it was spiritual and romantic admiration from both parties, they were more like intimate confidants. In a way, my process of painting is like making seductive beings that could implicitly extricate the deep human desire for intimacy and understanding, which people can project their raw desires on. (well that’s the goal, I’m still working on my skill to carry this through the medium of painting)


Reading Tao Mu-Ning(陶慕宁)’s Qing Lou Literature and Chinese Culture (《青楼文学与中国文化》) really opened up my understanding of Chinese history of sex and romance before 

westernisation. Tang Dynasty was the most sexually open period in Chinese history when queerness was very common and sex was seen as a form of art like many other ancient Asian culture. I’m trying to understand sex from a non-western point of view, to reject sex to be understood as the bland heteronormative fucking, to refuse to see sexiness only in the superficial physiques and the objectification of women. Sexiness exists in every ephemeral moment of mundane life, and it should be seen and celebrated, therefore I capture them in my painting and hopefully manifest them into beings.  

   


Li Hei Di, Happy Little Oysters, 40.6×50.8 cm



Your latest series, ‘objects of desire’ and ‘pillar of the motherland’ was created in 2020. Is it fair to say that the series is your own artistic response to the pandemic?


‘Objects of desire’ was a result of me spending too much time at home and starting to find every daily imagery sexy. Seeing the same sceneries every day really blurs the line between objects and humans, maybe I was going crazy and starting to see the humanness in objects and became seduced by them, or the sexual energy in the house has possessed the objects and turned them into seductive beings. ‘Objects of desire’ paintings were possibly my attempt to seduce viewers with my mental projection during the pandemic. 



‘Pillar of the motherland’ was more of a reflection of my teenage years, I think a lot of people regress to their teenage selves during the pandemic, so did I. Especially doing online school at home made me think about my experience of being a teenager in China, being young and powerless, being forced to sit and study, when my bones started to grow into crooked shapes, warped by the incomprehensible amount of information. 


Li Hei Di, Pillar of the Motherland



Can you tell us more about your curation project with Yage Guo “Melon Cauli” at the Asylum Chapel in 2019?


Yage is my best friend. Making a show from scratch, completely out of passion, with my best friend is definitely one of those stories that I’m gonna brag about with my grandkids. It felt legendary because though we were inexperienced, we absolutely gave it the best we had. 

 

It feels like soooo long ago. I remember we really wanted to make a show together, we didn’t care about sales or who would come, we just wanted a show that we could both pour our hearts into. It was at the asylum chapel which was an impossible place to curate, we had to borrow lighting and make all the paintings stand cuz we can’t hang things on the walls. But to be honest, Yage is so much more reliable than I am, she took care of most things, I was very impressed by her. At one point, a couple of hours before the opening, we were running around like headless chickens, there weren’t enough power outlets and Yage couldn’t find her bag, but eventually we figured it out, because every artist participating in the show helped us in the curating and setting up. We were so grateful for everyone in the show. 



Before we did “Melon Cauli”, we thought ‘how hard could curating be?!’ damn, it was hard, because you have to think of everything. 



Surprisingly a lot of people came to the opening, it turned out great! 

A few lessons to be learned:


I should have worn something nice to the opening.

I should have talked to people during the opening rather than just stick with people I knew.

We should have had someone a bit more professional than me document the show.

We should have put up posters a bit earlier.

We should have to advertise it at least 3 weeks prior. 

We should have invited people directly and personally...



Lei Hei Di, Finding Pylorus, 191x200 cm



What do you find most exciting in our contemporary culture?


This is hard to answer because I have never lived in ancient culture, there is no comparison. Everything that’s exciting seems to have its side effects. I have really liked watching TV shows and movies ever since I was a kid, but all those crazy soap operas I watched as a kid really warped my sense of reality. But I think digital media really made information more accessible especially for people with dyslexia, I really would know how I could survive school without youtube and Audible, and I really would know how to speak English if I didn’t binge-watch Friends and Modern Family. 


Youtube is exciting I guess 


The Invention of silicone, great material for sculptures and dildos.


The technology of prosthetics is exciting


I grateful for the invention of contact lenses


Food delivery service 

 

 

 

Do you have any life soundtrack? Like when a sad song comes in and you pretend that you’re in a music video, kind of song.


《2002年的第一場雪》 by 刀郎 (“the first snow of 2002” by Dao Lang)





Li Hei Di, JÄTTELILJA, 35.6×45.7 cm


Can you tell us something that people would be surprised to know about you?



One summer I went to an English intensive class in China, the teacher gave me the English name: Crystal.  


I can’t believe I was called Crystal that whole summer.


 


To follow the projects Li Hei Di is working on, you can visit her instagram and her website.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
 
where's the frame - ‘in conversation with’ is a weekly series featuring emerging vanguard artists. Stay tuned for more interviews, published every Friday.