In the Studio with Hei Di Li

Hei Di Li is a Chinese contemporary visual artist whose works often present themes surrounding desire, limitation, and the dangers of freedom and love. We met with Hei Di to tell us more about her upbringing in Shenyang, her greatest influences, and goals for the future.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

 I think the word “artist” still feels a bit strange to me. I still can’t comprehend the idea of being an “artist”. When I make stuff, I see myself as an unsupervised kid. The idea of “I’m an artist” is like a nagging parent; I don’t want any of that parental pressure to confine me, especially while I’m playing.  

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I’m from Shenyang, a city in the northeast of China (AKA: Dongbei, known by the Europeans and the Japanese as Manchuria). Dongbei is a magical place, the old industrial centre of China with low GDP, mad cold in the winter and where people are straightforward and live life with unintended humour. My upbringing was textbook typical Chinese kid: the only child with helicopter parents, buried with endless homework and exams. Ever since primary school, I was almost chained to the desk, studying (or pretending to study), but I always figured out a way to draw underneath my school books. I drew secretly in class, I drew secretly at home. It seemed like I was studying all the time, but I was drawing all the time. I think the lack of freedom to create gave me passion. Now with all the freedom to create, painting or making stuff doesn’t feel like work to me, it just feels like I finally get to play.  

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

After 15 years born and raised in Shenyang, I went to Ohio alone for a one-year student exchange program. After a year, I was too spoiled by the easy-going American education and no way could I go back and survive in a Chinese high school. So I googled “private art high school in the US”, the first school popped up was “ Idyllwild Arts Academy” in California. I applied and magically got in, then my artistic journey began. Up to that point, I had never been to an art gallery and had no idea what art was. The only art education I had in China was in those art exam prep studios, drawing wine bottles and Michelangelo’s David’s head; that was extremely traditional. But in my overly expensive American private school, along with picking up all the bad habits of rich kids in boarding schools, fortunately, I actually started to learn about ART in comprehensive and progressive ways. Then I spent my angsty teenage-years making angsty paintings, then my angsty paintings got me into Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), two years later I transferred to Chelsea College of Art in London. MICA and Chelsea are completely different in styles of teaching. The difference is that Professors in MICA actually teaches; in Chelsea, everything’s up to you, teaching art is like a taboo. I think the two dramatically different experiences enabled me to approach art with both discipline and freedom.

What’s the message of your work?

 My work often presents desire and its limitation, implying the potential dangers of freedom and love. On one hand, I think this comes from my experience of moving around and living in foreign lands, constantly struggling with the sense of belonging. On the other hand, being confined by the rules of my traditional upbringing, the idea of “ forbidden love” is also a consistent undertone of my work.   

My visual habit is very Dongbei Influenced. When I paint I can’t stand negative space and I can’t help to use big bright red and green. My paintings are often so chaotic like many unrelated paintings all together, but that’s very Dongbei wall decor, very visually homie to me. I think that’s why I sometimes have trouble understanding western contemporary art. Aspects of western contemporary art believe in purpose and necessity, which often gives viewers something to focus on and something to imagine. But I have a habit of believing in the necessity in the unnecessaries, seeing the unnecessaries as extra warmth. This habit affects my decision making. Sometimes when I make a sculpture, I can’t help to throw a few more elements in to create a scene because subconsciously I don’t want the sculpture to feel too cold and alone. 

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

My high school painter teacher, David Reid-Marr

All films before 2005 by Wong Kar-wa

Durian Durian” & “Hollywood Hongkong” by Fruit Chan

Piano in a Factory by Meng Zhang

Books by Gabriel García Márquez

Books by Haruki Murakami

All movies before 2004 starring Gong Li

The Best TV show in Chinese television history: Hou Gong Zhen Huan Zhuan (the 76 episodes Chinese version, not the terrible Netflix version.) 

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

My painting are not very planned. I rarely have any ideas about what I am going to paint when I’m priming my canvas or panel; but sculptures, videos, performances are planned due to their restrictive technical processes. No matter what media I’m using, I always try to tell a story. Painting to me is like writing a story in a dyslexic way. I don’t have the audience consciously in mind, because I always assume that the audience understands me. 

How has your art  evolved? Do you experiment?   

I’m constantly experimenting with different styles and mediums because I don’t want any parameters for my work. I’m always changing and my life is always eventful, so every new piece of work is a big change from the one from before. It’s hard for me to make in repetitive work that consists one concept or style because I’m easily bored. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I don’t usually aim for the finished product to be “good”, I’m so young, every work is a learning process. I probably learn more from a “bad” piece than a “good” one. One thing I am proud of is my work ethic: I always finish each piece of work to its full potential and never leaving a painting half-ass because I feel responsible for my materials. For example, each canvas is like a new life to me and I want to give each painting the best possible life, I would feel unethical to neglect one canvas than other just because I don’t feel like it anymore. Most of the time, work always works itself out as long as I don’t give up on them.  

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

I want to make complicated and dramatic paintings that are full of stories and scandals, involving blood-spitting lovers and concubines in the palaces. 

Someday, I want to have a big studio. 

How have you been staying creative during the pandemic?

During the quarantine, I was constantly making tiny clay figures and tiny cardboard furniture that remind me of China, which was later generated into my video work “Honeydoodoo”. The movie set expresses my longing for Dongbei, the film reflects the quarantined life. I tried to capture a lonely woman’s day in the village house. At first everything is very plain, just like one of those aimless days when we didn’t do anything all day but eating, watching tv and scrolling on the phone; somehow time goes by so quickly, it feels like we just woke up then it’s time to sleep again.  When the night falls, digital media such as TV and smartphone seduce her into cinematic lucid dreaming. Impregnated by her dreams, aborted as she wakes, she is abandoned in sobriety with familiar shapes/touches from another untraceable reality.  


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