For people feeling increasingly salty about a world being shaped by the blind pursuit of profit, the work of London-based Chinese artist Hongxi Li is a tonic. She shares with Ryanair a similarly Kafkaesque humour, except here the viewer is allowed in on the joke: these are objects of comfort for our age of discomfort. ‘A lot of the time when I’m on a cheap airline, or on the tube, I just want to crash,’ Li says. ‘I need to be lying down.’ To express this feeling of burnout after a long trip or a hard day’s work, for a prospective new work she has salvaged a seat from an old bus and plans to recline it completely flat – sounds cosy – like ‘a hospital bed’. Ah, not so cosy — Like a patient etherized upon a table.
Anyone who has flown Ryanair knows that a seat can be a cruel joke. The fact that the object should, in theory, be designed to accommodate you for the duration of the flight (in exchange for the ticket price) is what adds insult to (literal) injury: the passenger sits capital U Upright, a little bit numb after an hour, unable to nod off, wedged in between seat banks that are distributed throughout the plane at the regular intervals of a human femur – a rare opportunity for the passenger to experience the effects of neoliberalism and market monopoly on her very bones! Lucky her.
"objects of comfort for our age of discomfort"
From fatigue to exhalation, the ‘Exhaustion’ is the title of a series of works that see Li replacing chair cushions with lung-sized, see-through balloons that she often pierces during performances, so that the chairs collapse. It’s a gesture that summons the childlike joy of a prank – a Whoopie cushion, perhaps – as well as the expression ‘feeling deflated’, the far more adult experience of having your confidence taken from you.
"almost but never quite secure"
Similarly, in the ‘Uncertainty’ series, Li hijacks stools and tall chairs and swaps out the supporting columns for springs, such that they become unsittable. This is seating made for Wile E. Coyote’s pursuit of Road Runner, leaving him suspended over a cliff edge or pogoing along between the canyons; for sure, Li would climb the ranks at Looney Tunes’ ACME design studio in a heartbeat were she not so drawn to modernist chrome, leather and the movement’s sleek forms, paying homage to iconic designs by the likes of Mies van der Rohe at the same time as détourning them. My peer from the avo on toast precariat generation will no doubt see herself reflected in these sketchy seats, recognise them from that gig at that office that one time, from being consistently offered (and be grateful, now!) the experience of being almost but never quite secure.
Indeed, Li’s debut solo exhibition at Harlesden High Street in 2022 saw the artist exploring issues of class: true to her typical approach of making site specific interventions, for Dream Rich Li responded to the betting shops either side of the gallery and the role of gambling in ‘a financially deprived area’, she says. The exhibition consisted of an original slot chair sourced from a casino in Leicester Square that Li transformed into one of her big spring-loaded sculptures (‘Uncertainty’ here being almost synonymous with ‘gamble’) and cash-out tickets framed on the walls. ‘Everything was black and white, because the whole show was trying to strip off the sugar coating of the fancy casino games, to see what is left underneath.’
In contrast, her latest installation in Look Mum No Hands #2 is sugary sweet. ‘Because [the gallery] 9 French Place is near Shoreditch High Street, it felt the perfect place to put a diner.’ Indeed, there are countless commerce and fast food places near the gallery; in particular, Boxpark (the first one opened in Shoreditch in 2011) seems like a harbinger of gentrification in London. Li’s ‘Next’ Diner (2023) sees a grotesquely greasy steak bleed into a chocolate cake, as if the imagined diner couldn’t even wait to order her next course: the word ‘Next’ is branded on the plates and serviettes – next, next, next a biting comment on our fast-paced hustle culture, our inability to savour the moment (puns intended!)
Exploring work more directly still is ‘School Chair’ (2021) — which happens to be the first chair that Li made. The headrest forces the sitter’s forehead near to the accompanying desk, marrying the suggestion of force with the idiom ‘get your head down’. ‘This type of very cheap, light, poor quality school chair set only can be sourced from China, where it is such a uniform item that you can see everywhere, across all levels of education there.’
"making it strange, so we can see it anew"
Growing up in China until the age of 17, ‘School Chair’ is one of Li’s most personal works. ‘I didn't fit in with the education system back home,’ she says. ‘They didn’t allow any individuality.’ She soon found herself rebelling — ‘I set up a smoking area even though smoking wasn't allowed, I was selling porno DVDs’. Initially, she took up art just because you could pass with a lower mark. Only when she moved to the UK did her practice click into place. ‘The teacher would be very excited about me peeling a cabbage and laying the leaves on the floor,’ she says, ‘or when I bought a real chicken and put it next to a toy chicken and took a picture they thought it was fantastic. I was like, wow, everything could be art. That’s what completely shifted my understanding.’
While Li’s practice has become more refined, its spirit remains the same: taking an everyday object like a cabbage or a chair and making it strange, so we can see it anew. In doing so, she invites viewers to consider to what extent the world is designed to suit her needs, or — recalling the artist’s experience as a child at school — if in fact the world seems not really built to serve her at all. This question finds its most provocative expression in ‘Purge’, a high-end leather chair with a commode attached.
"Pointless, hilarious, and endlessly generous"
Recalling chindōgu, the practice of inventing ingenious everyday gadgets that cause more problems than they solve, as the director of Velorose gallery David Rosenberg has said, ‘Li’s work takes the modernist tenet of form follows function and twists it: here, form follows dysfunction.’ Joyously spitting out clothes like confetti, ‘Travel Light’ (2022), a commission by RIMOWA, saw Li turning one of the company’s hard suitcases into a shredder, ‘to reverse the protective function of the suitcase to destruction’, Li says.
Over the past ten years, the mindfulness industry has boomed, as we have reached for tools to help us live with the discomfort of modern life. Of course, discomfort is a natural part of life — but it doesn’t follow that just because our government has made for us a bed of nails, we all have to lie in it. Fortunately, instead of trying yet another meditation app, we have the work of Hongxi Li. Pointless, hilarious, and endlessly generous, alluding to another, properly furnished way of life. Prickling with possibility, Li will have you on the edge of your seat.
By Sammi Gale