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Who Was Li Yuan-chia?

In this blog post, co-curator of Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia & Friends, Amy Tobin, tells us more about its central figure, Li Yuan-chia.

Li Yuan-chia, the subject of our exhibition Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia & Friends, was an artist, an inventor, a builder, a poet and a friend. He created artworks and, as the exhibition title suggests, he made worlds. By this we mean that he not only made objects or shared ideas, but that he created contexts in which others could participate. The clearest example of this was the LYC Museum & Art Gallery that he ran from 1972 to 1983 in the small village of Banks in Cumbria. At the LYC, Li showed over 320 artists and invited others to read poetry, run workshops or make performances. Radically, this invitation did not depend on any credentials but on an open invitation and self-selection. He believed everyone should be given the opportunity to make and show art, and it was up to them if they wanted to continue.

Li Yuan Chia in the gallery of the LYC Museum and Art Gallery, Brampton, Cumbria, 17 July 1976, Edinburgh Arts 1976.
Li Yuan Chia with Edinburgh Arts participants at the LYC Museum and Art Gallery, Brampton, Cumbria, 10-14 August 1978, Edinburgh Arts 1978.

What Li did at the LYC was important because he created an experimental art space that was not about power, privilege, value or wealth. The subtitle of the exhibition ‘& friends’ instead shows that friendship was one of Li’s motivations, and his method.

Friendship was a means for this artist to connect to the world, and he made friends all over the world as he travelled from rural Guangxi in China, to Taipei in Taiwan, to Bologna in Italy to London, England and then North to Cumbria. Friendships inspired many of these displacements, each time Li’s artistic worlds grew and expanded, encompassing more and diverse ideas that broke from any national style. By the time he arrived in London he was ready to expand the form of his work too, making installations in which visitors could participate and play, mini-cosmos that made you feel intensely connected into something larger. He named the philosophy of this work – the cosmic point.

Li’s idea of the cosmic point transformed into the mantra ‘Space | Time | Life’ at the LYC. Cumbria represented a degree of freedom from the struggle that many artists faced trying to make work in busy and often expensive cities, and he wanted to share it. Nonetheless, Li’s time running the LYC was demanding. He made publications for every show, calendars for his growing roster of ‘Friends’ of the LYC, he organised displays, hosted artists, renovated buildings, remade gardens and raised the funds to keep holding space, time and life.

While the LYC was open, Li made far fewer art objects. There were definitely installations, reliefs and sculptural assemblages made amid the LYC, but many of his prolific bodies of work came into being before and after the Museum. This is one reason why we think of the LYC as one of Li’s artworks: the museum was the ultimate expansion of his cosmic points and installations. Of course, the LYC Museum also took Li’s own initials, like an artist signature. When he says the ‘LYC is me, the LYC is for everybody’ in one of the early catalogues, you might get a sense of how the Museum was also about how each individual finds a place in the world by connecting to others.

Li Yuan Chia at the LYC Museum and Art Gallery, Brampton, Cumbria.
Li Yuan-chia, Untitled, 1994, Unique hand-coloured photographic print. Image courtesy of the Li Yuan- chia Foundation.

Li was, like Jim and Helen Ede, a friend to artists, but he also struggled with being in the world. He lived daily with casual racism, at a moment in British society when difference was met with hostility and sometimes treated as threat. And this differentiation persists in the belated interest in his work by the British artworld. He also seems to have struggled with mental health, at times losing the energy and will to organise exhibitions, or to connect. His later hand-tinted photography shows the LYC complex quieted, without any population. Sometimes Li appears in these images, often facing away from the camera or with his face shrouded. Sometimes he performs jubilation, sometimes concentration at other times he seems to retreat within domestic or sculptural compositions. These are not necessarily portraits of Li, but they are not, not of Li either.

Li was many things: a demonstrator, a teacher, a mentor, an artist. But he was also a man trying to cope with the world, to remake it, and certainly to open things up for others.

Images courtesy of Demarco Digital Archive University of Dundee & Richard Demarco Archive and the Li Yuan-chia Foundation