Installation view of XIAO-YANG LI’s “Totem Index” at Narrative Projects, London, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects.

Totem Index

Xiao-yang Li

Narrative Projects
China United Kingdom

In his 2012 treatise The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, linguist and philologist Michael Witzel suggests a commonality between all the world’s major myths. However, that original story is long forgotten. Although boundlessly generative in its influence on the stories we tell today, it is unspeakable. A great deal of erudition is required to evince the form of such old and ineffable things, because their truth is to be found in between an innumerable multitude of effable ones. In Xiao-yang Li’s first solo show, “Totem Index,” at Narrative Projects gallery in London, the artist exploits a wide base of knowledge to explore one such truth.

At the center of the exhibition was an interest in the female form that navigates mythology, philosophy and art history. As a point of departure, Li took Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s mythological study The Unspeakable Girl: The Myth and Mystery of Kore (2012). Kore means “maiden” in Greek, and is another name for the goddess Persephone, the myth of whose abduction by Hades—god of the underworld, of which Persephone became queen—is the subject of Agamben’s book. However, Kore is also the name of a kind of freestanding ancient Greek statue, depicting a young girl bearing the neutral “archaic smile.” Though it may be Persephone, the true subject of the korai sculptures is unknown.

XIAO-YANG LI, Beware of the Pot People!, 2017, oil on linen, 60 × 40 cm. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects, London.

XIAO-YANG LI, Catalogue of Goddesses II, 2017, oil on linen, 61 × 97 cm. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects, London.

As with these ambiguous female forms, the figures in Li’s paintings are liminal, representing the many possibilities of the body without speaking them. In a number of canvases, the forms are suggestively unrealistic in scale. In Beware of the Pot People! (2017), for instance, a figure of bold brown and turquoise brushstrokes stands on a plant pot in the phlegmatic pose of a kore statue. In other paintings, such as Catalogue of Goddesses II and Battle Wheel Man (both 2017), several different representations appear at contrasting scales. The effect in both cases is to distance the figures from mere description—framing them as archetypes—but also to give them a performative aspect, highlighting how flat shapes can create the illusion of volumes and concepts.

Performance is more explicitly referenced in Where is My Head (2017), where thick streaks of paint in lightly differing values of brown construct a headless figure in a theatrical pose upon a stage. The head lies a little way from the feet, gazing into the audience as an object to be observed and yet, by its separation from the posed body, defiant in its isolation and autonomous stare.

XIAO-YANG LI, Where is My Head, 2017, oil on board, 34 × 44 cm. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects, London.

Installation view of XIAO-YANG LI’s Battle Wheel Man and After Pontormo at Narrative Projects, London, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects.

The sense of individuality created by the head and its autonomous gaze is rare among these works. As the exhibition’s title suggests, more archetypal figures generallyprevailed. These were most prominent in Night Keeps Watching (2017), in which a diagonal line separates two differently constructed figures and sets them against opposing color schemes and compositions—one cool and cluttered, the other rich and forebodingA limb, fleshy in both color and form, sits between the two figures, grounding them in physicality. However, each of their faces is obscured—one by abstracted color and line, the other by abstracted composition—making the figures slippery and resistant to identification.

XIAO-YANG LI, Night Keeps Watching, 2017, oil on linen, 180 × 150 cm. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects, London.

As a consequence of this resistance, Li frequently directs our attention toward her technique, particularly her compositions. In canvases such as Battle Wheel Man—where limbs, miniature figures and mechanical wheels frame a central masculine form configured after a pattern observed in the London undergroundthese are taken from life. In other works, on the other hand, the composition reflects the artist’s erudition. The color and composition of After Pontormo (2016), for instance, strongly evoke the early mannerist style of the Italian painter after whom it is titled.

XIAO-YANG LI, Offerings to Pythia of the East, 2017, installation of 12 ceramic sculptures, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Narrative Projects, London.

This and other works often contain references to stairs, which, by forcing depth into a composition, highlight the tension created by reducing bodies to flat surfaces. Steps also imply hierarchy, and added to a subtle, unspoken and slightly unsettling sense of unbalanced power that ran through these paintings. In addition to works on canvas, in a collection of small ceramic sculptures placed on a set of four steps, Li created an ambiguous symbolic hierarchy that combined representations of female faces and bodies with industrial and elemental forms. The configuration of familiar forms was both reflective and productive, like an incubator for mythologies; lying somewhere between the many simply described figures of “Totem Index” was a semblance of truth that cannot be spoken.


Xiao-yang Li’s “Totem Index” is on view at Narrative Projects, London, until July 15, 2017.

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