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Li Binyuan: Life and works of a ‘streak’ artist

He is known as “streaking brother” in China. Last spring he streaked for ten times in the middle of the night at Beijing’s busy residential area Wangjing, sometimes holding an inflatable doll, sometimes a large wooden cross, and sometimes with a naked woman in tow. He is also known for walking a rooster in the middle of Beijing’s bird flu outbreak in May 2013. His individual art exhibition titled “I Have Issues” was staged in Beijing’s renowned 798 Art Zone from August 24 to September 22.

Li's streaking stunts. Photo: weibo.com

The real-life Li

Artist Li Binyuan (厉槟源) has seen his naked pictures spreading on the Internet for over six months now. His latest stunts include walking around Taipei cross-dressed in high heels and long yellow wig while carrying a cardboard cutout of Marilyn Monroe. Then he posted on his Weibo account a picture of himself topless in a pair of star and stripes skinny pants and high heels right next to the Monroe cardboard. His “provocative” stunts and pictures attracted a plethora of comments on Weibo, many of which from men. “I find it funny,” he said.

Photo: Courtesy of Li Binyuan

In real life, however, Li gives a totally different vibe as his alter egos in his many art works, which some people might call “eccentric”. Slim-built and soft-spoken, Li comes across as a normal 28 year-old man, even a bit shy.

We met at his studio in a lesser-known art district called Heiqiao, or black bridge, hidden in the northeastern suburb of Beijing. Even the taxi driver had some difficulty finding the way. The spacious studio was crowded with all kinds of art works. There was a brand new antique-style bicycle by the side of the door. Li explained that he lost his motorcycle and decided to buy a bicycle instead. The motorcycle was featured in many of Li’s art works, including the streaking series where Li rode the motorcycle naked with the big wooden cross on his shoulder. “It was painful to say goodbye to my motorcycle. But I prefer not to think of it as being stolen. It is just being used by someone else now. Perhaps they could come up with something good with it too,” Li said.

Li was very easy to talk to. He answered every question, including the embarrassing ones, laughing at himself loudly when he gave straightforward answers some Chinese might consider too direct. “I love to talk to people,” he said, adding that he likes interactions of all kinds, with the media and with his online fans and critics, which he then incorporates into his art work. In his exhibition “I have Issues”, he agreed to have a total stranger writing down his understanding of his works and made the hand-written illustrations part of the exhibition, which was well-received by the visitors.

Li’s work, which is controversial at times, has generated much criticism online. Li welcomes the negative voices. “I accept everything people say, however harsh it might be. Words cannot hurt me. Instead, they are encouraging and help me understand myself better. I don’t think of myself as an artist, first of all, I am a person.”

Behavior art vs performance art

On September 27, Li was featured in an art and culture salon hosted by the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program (AIE) in Beijing, where he was referred to as a Chinese artist “famous the world over with his series of performance art pieces.” In fact, many of Li’s recent works are very much like performance art, the most well-known of which is his streaking series. Three videos of Li’s streaking, one documented by Li’s friend, one by a video sharing website funshion.com and one compilation of an assortment of TV coverage, were presented together as a piece of art titled “Heaven”. Behavioral videos like this dominated Li’s “I have Issues” exhibition alongside his installations.

Li, however, does not like to see his art being labeled as performance art. He defined his art in one of his most famous quotes: My body is a space and my time is my art work. “My body does play an important part in my art, which is similar to performance art. But my art is impromptu, driven by my need to express my thoughts and feelings, unlike performance art which is often carefully orchestrated. And I do it for myself, not for an audience, which is another difference.”

Another reason why the categorization is unpleasant to Li is because the art form has a negative undertone in China as it is mostly associated with nudity, violence and blood. “I believe my work is not like that, don’t you think? I should prefer to call it behavior art.”

Li’s first-ever behavior art creation was an assignment for a class called “material and concept” in his third year in college. The students were asked to finish a piece of art within five minutes. Not used to such requirements, Li was pushed to his limits. Desperate, he picked up two rocks, and smashed one against another with full force. In five minutes’ time, he broke them. The entire process was filmed and was applauded by his classmates and professor.

“For a week after that, I couldn’t even hold my chopsticks because my hand kept shaking,” Li recalled, “I loved that feeling. From then on, I began to involve my body in my works. The process of creating art is also to learn more about oneself. And this process is very important to me.”

The streaking stunts which made Li’s name, however, did not start with the intention of making art. Li did it mostly because he needed to vent his frustration of a failed relationship. “Running naked on the street was like a catharsis.” The streaking was caught by someone on camera and uploaded on the Internet, generating heated discussions which propelled Li to actively turn it into a piece of art.

The netizens’ in-depth interpretations of his streaking surely surpassed Li’s expectation. He admitted that he did not think much about its “meaning” when he decided to do it. “I just liked the image of running naked under the orange light of the street lamps. It has a Terminator feel to it, romantic and magical.” Li said. As for his choice of the cross, he said, “I think everyone is carrying a cross on their back. I simply materialized it. I guess with my streaking I was throwing out a question: Who we are? Where are we all headed living in a city that is so cold and brutal?”

Li said because of his repeated streaking he was invited by the authorities to “drink tea”, a Chinese euphemism for interrogation. “Copycats of me appeared all over China. They were worried that I was up to something,” Li said.  

Ai Weiwei visiting Li's exhinition on its opening day. Photo: weibo.com

Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist and political activist, who went to the opening ceremony of Li’s I Have Issues exhibition, was in favor of Li’s streaking. The two artists first met in 2012 when Li was invited to take part in an exhibition called Fuck Off 2 curated by Ai Weiwei at The Groninger Museum in Groninger, the Netherlands. “We’ve been on good terms since then. Before my exhibition I met him and he asked me, ‘Are you still streaking?’” Li laughed. “I am going to carry on streaking next spring. Definitely.”

A life immersed in art

Li has that look of a person with a rough past. Coming from a peasant family in rural Yongzhou of Hunan province and having lost his father at the early age of 12, Li must have had a difficult time growing up. But he focused mostly on how mischievous he was as a child.

“I was such a pain in the neck for my parents. Once I saw other children drinking Wahaha (a popular dairy drink for children back in the 90s) and wanted to have some too. So I went back home and found a bottle of pesticide out of the bottom of a drawer which looked like Wahaha. I drank the whole bottle and nearly died,” Li recalled.

“I think I had hero complex when I was little. I fought with other children all the time and took pride in winning the duel. I even used to steal money and buy candies to bribe my “lackeys” so that they would line up and let me bring them all down with my Kongfu, Bruce Lee style.” The wild Li as a child can still be found in many of his current works, where power and strength play a key role, like in the behavior art piece “Die Loving” which featured Li smashing 161 hammers within 30 minutes. However, that does not seem to jibe with the quiet and thoughtful adult Li who loves poetry and paints serene landscapes.

Li loved painting when he was a child. “It comes naturally to me. Painting was my way of expression. I remember drawing pictures of my family with a chalk. It calmed me down.” In his childhood, he also showcased his skills as a sculptor years before he graduated from the sculpture department of the renowned Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. “I scooped up clay from the river and used it to sculpt a Buddha from memory. I showed it to my father who would not believe it was my work and insisted I stole it from someone else.”

Years later, when he became a professional artist, art was not just a medium to calm him down, but something that gives a voice to his deepest thoughts and strongest feelings. “I think I still have this painting complex. In my first couple of years in college, I painted a lot, and even rented a basement to do it,” Li said.

Many of his paintings are still hanging on the walls of his studio. “Mostly I paint what lies in my sub conscious,” Li explained. His paintings all have a tranquil quality in them. It was hard to pinpoint which school of painting they belong to. Li laughed, “There is no school. No style. If you insist, I’d say it’s my own style.”

Li walks in front of one of his paintings with a watermelon on his head (top). Li's paintings Scene (景bottom left) and Love Please Don't Go (bottom right). Photo: Courtesy of Li Binyuan

Li paused to think about it further, and said, “I don’t stick to a particular style. What I do is I try to express the most complicated side of myself. For now, paining alone is not enough for that purpose. I need to do something crazier, like streaking. They are all part of me.”

“I don’t separate life with art,” Li continued, “My exhibition is simply a sample, where each of my work represents a slice of my life. Life is forever moving forward. So I will just keep on presenting the liveliest side of it in my art.”

A poet and philosopher

Li Binyuan at his studio. Photo: sino-us.com

Like his art, which is at the polar opposite of priggishness, Li does not seem to pay much attention to decorum. He was comfortable just being himself, having no problem resting his legs on his desk while he talked, as if we are old friends having a casual chat. Unlike his art, which is at times rough-cut and seemingly superficial, Li is a person with deep thoughts and delicate emotions.

Even though he may not have the look, he is a poet. He likes the Beat Generation, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the traditional Chinese poetry. He was the head of the poetry society at college. “The name of our society was Blank.” Li said, “It means waiting to be filled with imagination.” While we went over his paintings, we found a poem on the inside back cover of a painting album titled “To my lover”. Li stood up and read out his poem to us in his not-so-standard mandarin which still carries a tinge of accent of his hometown. “I am not good at reading poems,” he smiled shyly as he finished. In fact, it was the genuine emotion that made his reading touching, rather than his recital skills.

Yet this artist with a poetic heart often does what is in some people’s eyes “tacky” art. Li explained it in one of his Weibo posts: Art is like fart. Let it out, and you will feel comfortable. “Yeah, it is vulgar,” Li laughed when we mentioned this quote, “But it is my intention to bring the most embarrassing elements to the forefront, to confront people. Art should offer a new way of looking at things, and oneself.”

“To me, art does not need to preach, or have deep meaning. A lot of times I don’t even know what I want to express. My art might just come from a dumb idea I had. There is no reason behind it. Art simply reflects the artist’s desire to express his feelings. It is this desire that is the most authentic, the most vibrant, and the most likely to strike a chord,” Li said.

Cui Cancan, the director of Li’s I Have Issues exhibition, characterized Li’s art as “stimulating and alive”. The anonymous volunteer illustrator of Li’s exhibition echoed the same view in one of his captions, “If you cannot be touched by his work, then you are beyond repair.”

Like a flowing river

A nonsmoker and nondrinker, Li joked he was probably more suited to be a monk than an artist. “I don’t rely on these things for inspiration. I rely on my brain.” To him, it is important to keep his mind sharp and alert even though sometimes it is painful.

“Choosing art is choosing a life style. I like to live free. And the most exciting aspect of art is its boundless possibilities.” Li said he doesn’t care what title the media gives him. “Be it a streaking brother, or chicken-walking man, I can turn it on its head whenever I want. I don’t confine myself within a title.”

For now, Li is happy devoting his time to behavior art, which unfortunately, is not financially promising. His paintings are still selling. Occasionally he does some private sculpting to earn some pocket money. Li said he does not expect to make big money with his art. “If you think about how much money you are going to make before every creation of art, it takes the joy away.”

“Bruce Lee said ‘Be water, do not be assertive, but adjust to the object,” Li concluded, “I see myself as a flowing river, passing the rocks and the dams that stand in my way and forever moving ahead.”

 

At the end of our interview, Li performed a short piece of Behavior Art for us. You can check it out here.

More photos of Li's I Have Issues Exhibition coming up. Keep clicking~


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