Artspace Aotearoa in Conversation with Xi Li

Xi Li 李曦 Cruel Optimism Interview

The following text is part of Cruel Optimism’s interview series. Artspace Aotearoa speaks with Xi Li 李曦 to gain more insight into her artistic practice.

Xi Li, Ritual of Subject, 2021, as part of Cruel Optimism. Photo by Sam Hartnett.

AA :What themes underpin your practice?

XL: The artwork Ritual of Subject is created around Lauren Berlant's seminal book Cruel Optimism (2011), a practice that reflects the experience of living in an urbanised context and in the context of a consumer society. I have captured four things that generate widespread paranoid desire in the contemporary capitalist narrative: fitness, sexuality, consumer symbols, and idol worship. These things as objects of desire both offer a potential future and an optimistic state of pursuit for contemporary life, but at the same time keep us hindering and frustrating us in our fantasies of autonomy.

I am interested in the inner workings of this paradox—the mechanisms by which contemporary desires and fantasy objects are formed. I want to know how a certain trauma-laden 'magic' is released and diffused in an age wherein people are obsessed with creating their own selves. I am also concerned with the dilemma of this 'magic' and how it can lead to disenchantment for us. Thus, I discuss the mechanisms of the formation of contemporary objects of desire and fantasy, based on Jacques Lacan's theory ‘Objet petit a’, which I have analysed to create a diagram of the process of the production of ‘cruel optimism’. In my practice, I have transformed this research diagram into a visual framework/element that systematically structures these objects of desire and fantasy scenarios.

Xi Li, Objet petit a: The birth of cruel optimism, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

AA: What draws you to the digital?

XL: As someone who has grown up in a world of new media, there is a natural appeal to the digital. The ubiquitous digital trends, images, videos, games, the internet all form a variety of explicit experiences. These experiences are clearly produced within a real-world socio-cultural and post-modern aesthetic, which makes me realise that the digital world definitely reflects a new way of perceiving and evaluating things in the world, which very subtly constitutes a critique of contemporary identities.

Thus, I have gradually built up a methodology that spans perception to realisation in my digital practice. I can echo the processes that shape us in today's world through the creation of anthropomorphic situations and pictorial narratives, and I can also deconstruct and reconstruct my existential reality through it. In a way, I have even been partially released from the constraints of name, nationality, gender, age, and physicality through digital creation, thus gradually generating a new identity. In any case, it is fascinating to discover and practice in this field.

AA: What did you hope to communicate with your work Ritual of Subject?

XL: In the process of creating Ritual of Subject, I have been asking myself questions such as: everyone has desires in one way or another, and many of them have even become common practices in our lives. So, what are the things that I am optimistic about, but I still find cruel in them? What is it that hinders and frustrates me, but gives rise to paranoid longings?

I want to express my subjectivity's explicit response to the capitalist world through systematic research and creative practice. And the four subjects I have chosen to discuss (fitness, sexuality, consumer symbols and idol worship) are/have all evolved as sources of meaning for constructing narrative coherence today, allowing me, at this stage, to experience varying degrees of anguish, wonder and absurdity. So, Ritual of Subject conveys my experience of Cruel Optimism, which is meant to portray our reality and the beauty, longing, intoxication, optimism, lack, trauma, repression and conscious anxiety embedded in it.

Xi Li, Still from The Idol Worship of Cynic, 2021.

AA: What are some the responses you get from your work?

For me, the creation of Ritual of Subject is an act of subversion of my insecurities and addictions, a control and challenge of 'contemporary mythology' and 'self-flattery'. In the course of this work I have captured a problem of my own conflicting consciousness; that of my subject's fantasies being constantly divided and churned up by 'indulgence' and 'disillusionment'. This detachment of the signifier and the hedonic has created a deconstructive and fluid force in the structure of desire upon which I depend.

Thus, in Ritual of Subject's live installation, four digital video works The Anti-Enjoyment Mentality of Abstinence, The Grotesque of Consumer Symbols, The Flattering of Physical Changes and The Idol Worship of Cynic are shown on four TV screens, together surrounding the 3D sculpture Aggregate of Desires in the middle of the scene, forming an encircling field. For me, the four videos are an expression of my subjectivity, while the 3D sculpture Aggregate of Desires, which is enclosed in the middle of the scene, has a power of externalisation and reconstruction through its physical presentation. I call this - a 'ritual' of the scene of desire. The whole installation responds to my 'desecration' and 'craving' for the object, but also involves the re-exploration and reconstruction of the subject, allowing me to gradually form a new individual narrative within this 'ritual'.

AA: Is celebrity/popstar worship part of the work you exhibited at Artspace Aotearoa? If so, how?

XL: Yes, one of the videos in Ritual of Subject, The Idol Worship of Cynic, presents the theme of celebrity/popstar worship. As I have been influenced by pop idol culture since I was a child, in the process I have captured a cynicism in contemporary idol worship. Idols have the attributes of a commodity/symbol, and some people and myself are reluctant to call ourselves devout fans, calling ourselves more autonomous consumers. Whether it is a specific person or a virtual idol, even if the admiration and love for the idol is real, there is an attitude of - I just want to have fun, I don't really 'believe'. But this form of 'rebellion' does not really compensate for the fantasised relationship, for it is itself intertwined with an insatiable hunger, ecstasy and longing, which is in fact captured by ideology. So, in The Idol Worship of Cynic, the myriad of eyes suspended from chains presents a psychedelic and alienating imagery, which is my ambiguous view of subjectivity in this exploration.

AA: You are currently completing your Masters in Tāmaki Makaurau, could you tell us more about that?

XL: Yes, I have just recently completed my Master of Fine Arts studies. And I am also working on a new project: The Idol Reveal (2021-present). This is an ambitious interdisciplinary project that delves deeper into the theme of celebrity/popstar worship, and from the perspective of symbolism, it has carried out a profound reveal and questioning of the subject questions behind idol worship in contemporary network culture. Arguably it will be the most ambitious project I've ever undertaken. It's still ongoing, and will include research essays, film, moving-image, VR video games, music, performance, sculpture, and multimedia installation. I have completed my first practice work in this project: The Idol Reveal: From Infatuation to the Mysterious and my first research essay in this project: The Subject Exploration and Artistic Practice in Idol Worship during my final year of Master’s study.

Because I worked on both Ritual of Subject and The Idol Reveal at the same time, their aesthetics and research were influenced by each other. The VR video game The Idol Reveal: From Infatuation to the Mysterious is filled with imagery elements similar to Ritual of Subject, such as totems, idols, sculptures and plants that symbolise energy. And the essay The Subject Exploration and Artistic Practice in Idol Worship is also influenced by Lacan's psychoanalysis, providing a critical study of idol worship combining historical and contemporary ideas within the theoretical framework of ‘Objet petit a’.

Xi Li, Digital rendering from the VR video game The Idol Reveal: From Infatuation to the Mysterious, 2022.

The biggest takeaway for me recently has been the gradual development of a methodology based on theoretical research and artistic practice through the projects Ritual of Subject and The Idol Reveal. I think this is a very good creative node.

In my essay I said: "In the current society we live in, cultures are becoming mythical. When the frenzy of self-creation has created an ardent and addictive fantasy about a phenomenon, can we understand our own value system and form a new narrative in it?" My initial intention is to understand where I am and to break through the labyrinth that I/we are in, and this is my process of exploring and responding to the world and to the current state of ‘cruel optimism’.


Related to the exhibition: Cruel Optimism: New Artists Show 2021
Published April 2022