China Underground > China Views > Breaking the Chains: An Interview with Artist Li Xinmo

Breaking the Chains: An Interview with Artist Li Xinmo

Fight Against Invisible Violence: Li Xinmo the Artist, Critic, Feminist, Theorist & Researcher that is Breaking the Chains

Li Xinmo is a feminist artist, art critic, and teacher. She graduated from the Department of Chinese Painting, received her master’s degree from Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, and now resides in Beijing, where she teaches at the School of Modern Art at Beijing Geely University. She is mainly devoted to feminist theory and contemporary art criticism research. She targets the patriarchal society and the invisible violence from the community. In addition, in her artwork, she wants to demonstrate a woman’s power is equal to a man’s power. Li Xinmo has practised performance and body art to protest against political strain and women’s rights in China. Her creation involves a series of issues such as gender, ethnicity, environment, and national politics. Her artworks are based on a variety of media, especially performance, photography, and painting. In her various pieces of art, we can find concern for those people who are at the bottom of society, such as Chinese peasants and navvies. She is also an activism ecofeminism of the new generation, she is well known for being against pollution. Her works have been exhibited in major art galleries and museums Toronto Photo Biennial, the Prague Art Biennial, the National Museums of World Culture Gothenburg in Sweden, and the Bonn Women’s Museum in Germany. Many other art museums and galleries in Louvre, France, Italy, America, Canada, and Columbia have exhibited and collected her works. Her work has been documented in academic articles including the “National Fine Arts’’, “Oriental Art for Everyone” and other art professional publications.

This interview originally appeared in Planet China Vol 15, March 2023
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Can you tell us about your beginning in the art field? What inspired and motivated you to pursue a career as an artist? What was your breakout experience?

I studied painting and calligraphy in my childhood, and when I went to college I studied art education and design, but I found that I preferred pure art. I went to the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts to further my studies in the Department of Chinese Painting, where I studied Chinese painting, after which I studied calligraphy. In 2005 I enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of Chinese Painting at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts, where I studied modern ink painting. In 2006, I started working as a teaching assistant at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts Modern Art, so I was exposed to contemporary art, and the idea of contemporary art and the way it is expressed attracted me, so I turned to contemporary art creation. In parallel with my artistic work, I began to study contemporary art theory. I was very inspired by feminism and feminist art. The early feminist art struck me and I began to create feminist works. I went back to the depths of my memory and re-examined my life from a feminist perspective, and I realized that all the misfortunes I had suffered were due to the extremely patriarchal society I was living in. In the process I began to reflect on myself and on Chinese society, and I saw all the realities of women’s situation, including sexual assault, domestic violence, trafficking in women, female infanticide, and the gender discrimination that is so prevalent. I expanded from myself to focus on the fate of more women, and I created a series of strong feminist works. I also found it very difficult to be successful as a female artist because in China the curators and critics are basically men and they have the right to speak and choose. And they reject rebellious feminist work. I posted my work and articles online, which caused a big stir, and I received more and more invitations to exhibitions and magazine offers. This is how I began my own path of feminist art and criticism.

“WO YE SHI” Performance and Theatre 2021, Photo: Roland Von der Emden

Who have you looked up to as a person and an artist? Is there a memory, an event, an image, or a thought that you are particularly fond of because it condenses, and illuminates your artistic philosophy?

Many great women have influenced me. Woolf was my favorite author, and her A Room of One’s Own showed me what it meant to be a woman’s independence. And Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex opened the door to feminism for me. Her ‘Women are not born, but formed’ was a huge shock to me as a student. I was also empowered by Arendt and Sontag’s critical spirit and the sharpness of their ideas. In terms of art, I remember Frieda Cahlo’s works and her life stories very well. When I first saw her work, I was fascinated by the self-portraits she painted. I learnt from her how to express personal experiences as well as pain in a visual language. I was also greatly influenced by Bourgeois, Niki de Saint Phalle’s artistry and life path. I was also influenced by the work of Kiki Smith, Judy Chicago and others, as well as the work of Schneeman and Abramovic with the body, all of which inspired my art. Later on I did performance art and was influenced by them. Throughout my journey in art and life, those wonderful women thinkers and artists have always led me and drawn me closer to them and onward in my artistic journey.

“Statement” Photograph 2008

You are a multidisciplinary artist who works with photography, painting, installation, performance, and video art. What is your preferred medium of choice? Which of these art techniques best represents you as an artist? How does your approach change when you work with a different medium?

My artistic expression is more diverse. Performance art makes up a major part of my artwork. I am also often referred to as a performance artist. Performance art is the use of the body as a medium to relate to space and to interact with the audience. Performance art has a live nature and can be more direct in its expression. For painting, I try to avoid the traditional modes of painting and do some special explorations. One of my representative series of paintings are paintings made with menstrual blood , more recently, paintings made with digital technology. I also work with photography and installation. Each medium has its own unique way of language and unique characteristics, there are works that lend themselves to photography, I will pick up a camera, if a work needs to be represented in an installation, I will conceive of an installation. Photography is more static and depends mainly on the effect of the shot. Whereas I prefer an integrated form of expression. For example, I often combine installation and performance. Combine performance with painting, combine photography with writing. I also combine photography and installation to form a three-dimensional space so that a richer symbolism can be expressed. When I create performance works, I prefer to create them according to the characteristics of the space, using that performance space as part of the performance, forming a field in which I create. Performance art appeals to me because it is a more integrated art form, combining space, performance, music, etc., and is expressed in the presence of the body. I always get a more intense physical and spiritual experience when I perform a performance.

A Farewell Ritual Performance 2008
“A Farewell Ritual” Performance 2008

Physical violence is the result of a path that passes through silence and psychological violence. How important is it to break the wall of silence? What triggered you to denounce acts of social abuse, cultural submission, and inequality with your artworks? What were the main difficulties at the beginning in questioning the male gaze by creating a female narrative?

Women are largely voiceless and silent, their expression is not allowed and they are stigmatised. Women who have experienced sexual and domestic violence choose to remain silent because it is very difficult to get help and support for what they say, and they are likely to be hurt twice. This is what makes the real situation of many women unknown, and this leads to more women being subjected to violence. This is why I have always felt that it is very important for women to speak out and express themselves, so that they can bring about discussion and awareness in society, as well as change in the law and raise women’s self-awareness. This is the importance of breaking the silence. One of the reasons why I have moved towards feminism and made feminist art is because of my experiences. I experienced domestic violence, I saw the violence my mother experienced; I experienced sexual harassment, I experienced relationships that were not equal, and my experience of being a single mother all affected me deeply. It was feminist thought that made me reflect on my life experiences and my destiny as a group of women. Feminist thought has helped me to become strong and critical. Through my personal efforts I hope to help women in distress, to let them know that what happens to them is not their own misfortune, but a social issue in general, that every woman is in an institution of oppression. Through art I hope to reveal the true situation of women and give a female voice. I knew when I started making feminist art that it would be impossible to rely on male critics and curators, nor would it be possible to rely on traditional media. It was around 2008 when the internet in China was rapidly developing, so I chose the internet as my platform to publish my works as well as to publish articles. Both my works and my words were rejected, disbelieved, criticised and stigmatised because of my strong and vocal feminist views. I have faced opposition not only from men, but also from women. Up until now I have been rejected by the mainstream art world and have been on the margins. It took a lot of inner strength to get to where I am now.

“WO YE SHI” Performance and Theatre 2021, Photo: Roland Von der Emden

You use art practices to investigate your memories, dreams, and subconsciousness, as well as to respond critically to gender and environmental issues in human society. In your performance “The Death of the Xinkai River” and “A Farewell Ritual” you mix the symbols of life and death. Nature and woman cover and they identify in the same role. Can you tell us more about this topic?

My art consists of two directions, one is to look inwards and know myself, creating work based on personal experiences and experiences. I believe that art is first and foremost about being honest with myself and translating memories that have influenced me and cannot be forgotten into visual language. I use art to reflect on everything I have experienced as a woman. From the biological cycle to marriage and childbirth, the process projects all sorts of gender issues. “The individual is political.” Every individual is a part of society, and the fate of each individual necessarily carries the context of the time and society in which he lives. My personal experience as a woman is at the same time the common experience of most women. The other direction is outward, looking at and expressing historical culture, social justice, natural ecology and gender politics. “The Death of the Xinkai River” is one of my earliest performance artworks. This work combines water pollution with the fate of women. In a patriarchal culture, women and nature are simultaneously excluded from men and human society as the Other. Thirty years of modernization in China have led to a dramatic deterioration of the ecological environment, with water pollution being a particularly serious problem, while the situation of women has not changed substantially, and sexual violence against women is a common occurrence. I went into the polluted river covered with cyanobacteria and combined the death of women with the death of the river, a tribute to a river and a representation of the fate of women. This work is also a reinterpretation and response to Shakespeare’s play Ophelia. “A Farewell Ritual” is another of my works that combines the female body with contaminated water, this time by immersing myself in a glass tank filled with contaminated water. The exhibition hall was filled with the strong stench of decaying water plants. These works of mine can be understood from an eco-feminist perspective. The idea of eco-feminism has also had a great influence on me.

“I Want to Breathe” Photograph 60X40cm 2006
“I Want to Breathe” Photograph 60X40cm 2006

You are the founding artist of Bald Girls. You have highlighted the invisible violence, suffering, and pain that so many women have buried deep in their hearts. The tragedies experienced by women are universal. Many who shared their own stories were pilloried and criticized. How can we build a culture which challenges all preconceptions about women and that offers a spirit of independence and freedom?

I’ve been telling my experiences in an artistic way, and I’m telling a lot of women’s stories at the same time. My idea is, first of all, to bring to light the parts that are hidden, hidden in the darkness, hidden by culture and society. In a male-dominated society, women are viewed and misinterpreted, but the true experience and state of women is not known. Women are silent, the other half of the silence. Feminist art is about women speaking for themselves, telling their own stories and experiences, and seeing the world through their own eyes, asking questions and offering their opinions and criticisms. But a patriarchal society is unwilling to accept women’s eyes, women’s thinking and women’s criticism. So society as a whole resists and resents women’s rights. In China, I am on the margins, and it is difficult for my work and my feminist ideas to be accepted. In 2012, I took part in Bald Girls, an exhibition in which I showed my works that I had previously been unable to show in public spaces, to raise some female voices. Since then, Bald Girls has exhibited around the world, engaging in dialogue with women artists from different countries. Words are very important and art is powerful. Feminist art allows women to express themselves in their own way. How do we change society? I think the most important thing is to change the consciousness of people. And it is precisely the consciousness of people that art can act on. When people start to become aware of gender inequality, that is the beginning of changing gender issues. In addition to art, there is literary expression, sociological research, philosophical discussion, and the improvement of laws to gradually build a more equitable society.

“WO YE SHI” Performance and Theatre 2021, Photo: Roland Von der Emden

What is the value and meaning of the female body and subjectivity in practices against gender stereotypes? How can art convey a new future? How much do media and social networks influence social and cultural battles nowadays?

In a patriarchal society, the female body is an object to be viewed and used, as a vehicle for reproduction and desire. Women are not considered to be independent individuals with subjectivity, but must be dependent on men in order to exist. In traditional Chinese society and culture, women have always been subordinate, their meaning being to reproduce and raise offspring, to serve men and to satisfy their desires and needs, while the female self and female desires have been ignored. Women have lost their physical autonomy as well as their spiritual subjectivity. Many feminist artworks are related to the body, and female artists try to present a real female body, not one that is viewed as an object of desire. The female cycle, the female birth, abortion, female desire, sexual violence, etc., are the most real experiences of women, but they have been obscured. It is therefore an important part of feminist art to show and express these obscured experiences. For example, Yoko Ono’s performance ‘Cut’ and Scheunemann’s ‘Inner Poetry Scroll’ both use the body to express women’s experiences and resistance. Feminist artists use the body as a medium to create works that actually change people’s perceptions of the female body. Art is sensitive and ahead of its time. The voices of women through art are increasingly being heard by the world and their presence is being seen. We are seeing a gradual change in society where women are becoming more powerful, where women are becoming a presence that cannot be ignored, and where women are becoming more independent. And all the efforts we are making now will have an impact on the young women of the future. We live in an age of the internet and new media, where old orders and ideas are being replaced by new ways of producing, new ways of interacting, new social models. The internet is accelerating the process of democratization, the inherent roles of gender are changing, multiculturalism, equality and social justice are becoming the consensus of humanity, and on this basis the emancipation of women is inevitable and unstoppable. The internet has provided a platform for women’s voices to be heard. It has amplified and accelerated the spread of women’s voices, and has enabled women to form links, and from links to become communities, influencing, supporting and collaborating with each other. On social media, women share their lives, experiences and ideas, and women collaborate and form communities, all of which subconsciously influence and empower women’s psyches.

Li Xinmo
“The Death of the Xinkai River” Photograph from the Performance 2008

Can you share with us any meaningful story related to your artwork from backstage that you have carried in your heart over the years?

I remember when I did my first work ‘I Want to Breathe’ in 2016, one of my students and I went to a very remote place and saw the migrant workers who had silicosis and were seriously ill but had no money for medical treatment or compensation, I listened to them talk about their ordeal and felt deeply powerless. I remember an old father who was alone, picking water, his son died of silicosis and the new house he built for his son’s wedding was left unfinished and stopped there, I took a picture of him and to this day I cannot forget his face full of vicissitudes and his eyes full of sorrow. In 2017, I did another work,” A Person’s Complaint”, in which a female employee was fired from her company for no reason, and when she went to the leader to try to find out why, she was taken to the Public Security Bureau by the policemen and beaten and kicked her vagina . This led to her having depression for ten years. I made a documentary film of her. She r took the documentary and forced her leader to do compensation for it. In 2021, I worked on the art project “WO YE SHI,” which is related to sexual assault, One day I received a letter from a woman who wanted to take part in this art project. In the letter she told her life story of how she had been sexually abused by her own father when she was two years old, which had continued until she was fourteen. She left home to go to school and studied art. After she had her first boyfriend, her psychosis began to flare up, she underwent psychotherapy and she went on to have a child with a lama, who was a child with cerebral palsy. I remember how heavy my heart was when I read her letter and saw her paintings; it was as if I was engulfed in a great darkness and felt extraordinarily cold. I also cannot forget the day I met her, with her daughter with cerebral palsy sitting beside her. She later followed my project to the exhibition. She also shared her experience of undergoing spiritual healing at the workshop I did. She seemed very happy and in a much better state of mind that day. Some days ago she suddenly told me that she had uterine cancer and she said that this was her fate. She said she wanted to do the exhibition with me.

“WO YE SHI” Performance and Theatre 2021, Photo: Roland Von der Emden

What is the one piece of advice you wish you’d received as a young artist? What is one piece of advice you’re glad you ignored? What advice would you give to women who want to achieve their goals and are facing the prejudices of patriarchy?

When I was younger, I wanted to hear more encouragement. I wanted to be cognitively inspired, not just professionally, but also in terms of reading. I am always more of a follower of my inner calling and generally don’t listen too much to other people’s advice, unless it’s from someone I admire. I like to read and when I felt confused, I have read books to find the answer. I’m glad I didn’t follow my mother’s advice : a girl should just have a stable job and get married, don’t have too high aspirations and don’t read too many books. And then there was not following the advice of my first boyfriend: give up art.

I would say to women:

  1. Read more feminist books, know what feminist thought is and the mechanisms by which gender is established in society.
  2. Read more books on philosophy to understand the development of the human mind.
  3. Read books on sociology to understand how society works as well as to understand social justice.
  4. Be financially independent, mentally independent, and be an individual who lives and thinks independently.
  5. Don’t live in the eyes of others, don’t conform to the demands and rules that society generally places on women, listen to your heart and move towards your ideal goal.
  6. Be the determined maverick that you are.

Featured image: “The Death of the Xinkai River” Photograph from the Performance 2008
Photos courtesy of Li Xinmo

Last Updated on 2023/03/13

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