Finding the magic in light

Updated: 2012-04-15 08:36

By Judith Huang (China Daily)

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Beijing laser wizard Li Hui shines in Singapore. Judith Huang takes a close look.

Two disciples of Confucius, Chiu and Yu, approached him with the same question: "When one hears a maxim, should one immediately put it into practice?" "Yes!" said Confucius to Chiu, and "No!" replied the Master to Yu. When asked why he gave such different responses to the same question, Confucius replied, "Chiu is backward, so I urged him on. Yu is fanatical, so I held him back."

Finding the magic in light

V, by Li Hui (below), who says his use of mirrors is a reflection of a Zen poem.  [Photo/China Daily]

Beijing-based laser artist and rising star Li Hui parries questions in the same spirit.

"What would you say your work is about?" I ask Li, referring to V, a spectacular installation piece and the highlight of a recent show in Singapore.

"What was your response to it?" he asks.

In person, the 35-year-old Li is an immensely likable, completely unpretentious fellow. His round face breaks easily into a smile, and he is a man of few words, preferring to let me rattle on about the work.

"It is definitely a spiritual work," I say. "The feeling I get upon viewing it in the old chapel - you know, the Singapore Art Museum used to be a Catholic school, and the curator cleverly set up V in the chapel - was one of intense otherworldliness."

"That is definitely the most common interpretation of the work," says Li, clearly pleased. "I do not like to talk about my work, really," he says. "I think art should be beyond words, beyond explanation, because language has a tendency to breed misunderstanding."

Li likes watching other people interact with his work to see if the work is a success.

I decided to let him know how I had played with the installation.

In the pitch-black space of the chapel, a panel of red lasers bouncing off an altar-like mirror in the purest shape of reflection - a giant V. Spurts of smoke disperse from beneath the mirror, dispersing light like ghosts. Tiny dots of red light hit the floor, and danced across my body and its reflection, when I approached the mirror.

"To me, half of art is created by the viewer," Li says. "My art is always interactive, and it gains meaning through this interaction."

This highly relational philosophy underlines the piece itself. At its center, the materials used are telling: light, smoke, mirrors - basic components of creation, of illusion.

"Because I am Christian I feel like the light falls to the altar, and then rises again, like death and resurrection," I tell him. "But it can only do so in the surface of the mirror."

Li smiles and says, "In fact, the use of the mirror reflects a Zen poem [translated]: 'There is no Bodhi tree/There is no bright mirror/Everything is nothing/Wherefore is the dust?' I want the piece to generate a spiritual response within them. The lasers, smoke and mirror are just a medium."

Li showed a second work on an even grander scale at iLight Marina Bay, Asia's only "sustainable light festival".

This work, The Gate, bedazzles with complexity where V impresses with simplicity. A reflective mirror forms the shape of a door that cannot be entered, while a net of red lasers forms a wall of fiery luminescence.

At the iLight festival, visitors laughed and played with the lasers, ducking around the mirror and photographing themselves in front of it, looking like supermen emerging from another world.

"This is the first time it has been displayed outdoors," says Li, hiding in a corner watching his viewers, for all the world like a cheerful, distant god. "I'm very pleased with the effect. You can see how powerful the lasers are, how far they go."

Lasers have fascinated Li for about a decade. "I saw them in nightclubs and found them interesting. Previously my work has been too complicated. With V, I think I have arrived at the pinnacle of this art form. It has arrived at the ultimate simplicity - beams bouncing off a mirror. "

Li is definitely going places. Later this year, he will show at a gallery on the fringe of Miami's Art Basel, the prestigious Swiss-run art show, as well as at galleries in Beijing, New York and Berlin.

When talking about the state of Chinese art today, Li says there is a huge market for Chinese art, and so at the basest level it tends to be quite commercial. "But even at the higher level, there is a problem of trendiness. For instance, it is trendy to address issues such as democracy, issues of the environment. But in fact these are all things which will pass.

"What is at the heart of the matter is something wordless," he says.

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