“He has a fan club,” someone told me when I saw Li Binyuan’s face printed on a T-shirt. Six years ago, Sohu news site nicknamed Li ‘the young streaker’ following a performance in which the ‘naked’ young man was ‘running or cycling... just to release his stress’. I was impressed by what I read of this young man, still a student of sculpture at CAFA, Beijing, who sounded so full of energy even if he hadn’t yet found the best means of expressing it (Li added ‘stress release’ to his Wikipedia entry). At this solo show, the artist tests the limits of his physical energy by combining his training in sculpture with his performance works.
Rén Space is housed in a three-storey 1930s building that has been restored in the traditional Shanghainese style. Crossing its delicate garden on the way in, I suddenly heard a blast from Natural History (2019), a video recording of a performance by the artist at a disused factory in Tianjin. A screen on the wall shows the artist packing explosives under metal boxes filled with concrete, and then, having set a timer to detonate them, narrowly making his escape. He repeats the act as if it were a religious ritual. Beside the video lie several sculptures, their forms reproducing the exploded debris, representing the eruptive power of the moment and at the same time freezing it in the gallery space.
Three more works on the first floor of the gallery develop this tension. In the performance Justice (2011) – shown here as a video – Li extends his arm, holding a burning firework towards the sky, frozen like a living sculpture. In Room (2019) Li ignites a strip of flammable material running across the floor and up opposite walls of a bare room with two open windows. He stands straddling this burning line, keeping calm as if looking at a still life. In Divergent Paths (2012) the artist sits in a swivel chair at a fork in a road, forcing passing cars to stop by throwing firecrackers as he twists around. In this work as in others, Li questions the context of art in the world by situating himself at the centre of his own small universes.
Li’s repetitive processes deprive every action, no matter whether it is dangerous or boring, of its conventional meaning. Rumor (2019), on the top floor, demonstrates his relationship to sculpture while reiterating that repetition is key to the artist’s narrative. In this sculptural installation, 600 giant golden arrows pierce ceramic human tongues, pinning them to the wall all around the room. The implication, perhaps, is that language fails an artist who is looking to find the body’s breaking points.
Li Binyuan: Breaking Point at Rén Space, Shanghai 19 September – 26 October
From the Winter 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia