LI BINYUANRoom, 2019, still from single-channel video of performance: 2 min 45 sec. All images courtesy the artist and Ren Space, Shanghai.

Breaking Point

Li Binyuan

Ren Space

“Breaking Point,” Li Binyuan’s recent solo exhibition at Ren Space, Shanghai, featured a selection of work from the last decade of his performative practice. Much of Li’s work is dominated by the notion of measuring social space through the limitations of the body, challenging both the natural and built environment through acts of absurd endurance and, to paraphrase philosopher Slavoj Žižek, not-fully-actualized, eternal threats of harm.

“Breaking Point” had, in its selection of works, chosen not to focus on Li’s acts of physical stress. Instead, three new strands of enquiry emerged: fire as a means of extending the self; the object as an equal subject; and the absurd as a means of communication.

Each of the videoed performances, with one exception, features fire as an element of change, from the earliest, Justice (2011), in which Li stands in a vacant lot, releasing a flare into a daylit sky, to the most recent, Room (2019), in which the artist straddles a line of burning rope in an empty room. In Three Forks (2012), Li sits in a swivel chair in the middle of a village intersection, throwing fireworks into the street at random, while Natural History (2019) sees him pack removal boxes with clay and explosives. Each performance, while containing some potential of danger, conflates the artist’s body with his environment (in Room, for instance, artist and space are equal protagonists) and, through use of prosthesis, expands his reach (as in Three Forks, where his physical limits expand out across the width of the street). The tension this potential engenders in the viewer could be said to represent the breaking point of the exhibition’s title, while by challenging the boundaries between the hard edge of the flesh and the ambiguous one of space through explosive acts of not-fully-actualized threat, Li presents a type of ritualized catharsis, in the same way that horror movies create and then alleviate fear.

Signal (2014) is filmed from the artist’s perspective as he looks from Hong Kong’s Lion’s Rock toward the ICC building opposite, and tries to match the flicking of a cigarette lighter with the flashing of the signal beacon atop the tower. The absurd futility of trying to communicate with an inert monolith took on particularly fresh relevance in light of the recent protests in Hong Kong, stoked by anger at the perceived failure of the government to adequately respond to social demands, as did the notion of looking for signal within noise, a condition akin to parsing messages within an uncoordinated and leaderless movement.

LI BINYUAN, Justice, 2011, photograph of performance, 100 × 75 cm.

Installation view of LI BINYUAN’s Three Forks, 2012, single-channel video of performance: 3 min 28 sec, at “Breaking Point,” Ren Space, Shanghai, 2019.
Installation view of LI BINYUAN’s Three Forks, 2012, single-channel video of performance: 3 min 28 sec, at “Breaking Point,” Ren Space, Shanghai, 2019.

While objects have previously featured in Li’s practice, “Breaking Point” represented a progression. Objects were presented as fully realized, sometimes without connection to a prior performance. Natural History includes a series of bronzes, cast from the exploded removal boxes and the lumps of clay that were ejected in the blasts. Finishing these in bronze elevated them into high-art status, and in so doing, the accompanying video of the performance felt more like a process document, a means to an end. The resultant sculptures are beautiful objects, moments of raw, frozen power. Notably, Room suggests a departure from the performance document format, as it takes on clear cinematic qualities, particularly in its use of stylistic camera angles and frequent edits to vary pacing and tension. As such, the video becomes an artwork  in and of itself, apart from the performance piece that it portrays.

Perhaps less successful was Rumor (2019), an immersive room on the top floor of the gallery, made up of hundreds of arrows fired into the walls, each one piercing a wagging ceramic tongue. As a standalone installation, Rumor is aesthetically amusing, and on opening night it was the site for many a selfie, but the obvious allusions to censorship in China made it feel less considered, conceptually, than Li’s usual work.

In recontextualizing some of the artist’s previous works, along with the inclusion of several new pieces that depart from his usual feats of endurance, “Breaking Point” offered a tantalizing glimpse of new directions for Li’s practice.

Li Biyuan’s “Breaking Point” is on view at Ren Space, Shanghai, until October 26, 2019.

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Detailed installation view of LI BINYUAN’s Rumor, 2019, ceramic, cast bronze, feathers, dimensions variable, at “Breaking Point,” Ren Space, Shanghai, 2019.