Beyond the World in White: Identity and Resistance in the Visual Language of Li Yuan-chia

Publication Date

April 2018


Phillip Wagoner


Art History


English (United States)


In the years since his untimely death in 1994, the career of Chinese avant-garde artist, Li Yuan-chia (1929-1994) has piqued the interest of a rather limited number of scholars. Yet those who have faithfully committed the time to acknowledge, document, and interpret the deeper symbolic implications of Li?s work, do so with great sentiment and confidence in the profound individuality of his practice. I am certainly no exception. Academic discourse concerning Li?s art remains unjustifiably scarce and a further investigation of his unique, transnational oeuvre to be imperative. This thesis has emerged from an adamant conviction in Li?s exceptional contribution to art history and contends that the conceptual significance of his art is at its crux paradoxical, characterised by utmost formal simplicity yet retaining an infinite complexity. Li?s limited edition White Book (1965) lies at the heart of my thesis. Despite its relative obscurity today, the monochromatic visual language of its ten hand-printed geometric abstractions provides a primary point of departure for my discussion of his artistic practice. White Book is a precursor to some one hundred and fifteen catalogues and books made by Li, but as I argue, it can be read to represent the epitome of Li?s philosophies and beliefs, and his conceptual artwork is best characterised and understood through its context. The first chapter of my thesis thus commences with a detailed formal analysis and critical appraisal of White Book and its ten engravings, turning to consider elements beyond its formal qualities and apparent conceptual significance, to include an investigation of Li?s use of cryptic mathematical equations within the titles of each engraving. The concluding interpretations of this introductory assessment of White Book, will reveal the profound philosophical intricacies and conceptual complexities of Li?s creative insight, broach the historical and cultural importance of Li?s neglected abstract oeuvre within the grand narrative of the Chinese avant-garde. My following chapter details the implications of Murilo Mendes?s later 1966 preface to White Book and builds upon my previous elucidation to consider the artistic influences, surrounding Li following his migration to Bologna. My examination of the impact of Li?s westward migration, stylistically exemplified by his incorporation of western notions of abstraction and European modernism, with the philosophical and religious ideologies of his cultural heritage, broaches the trajectory of my last chapter. Finally, I extend my interpretations to examine Li?s wider creative practice, particularly with regard to his conception of the Comic Point, to illuminate the symbolic significance of his geometric visual language as a representation of his cultural, familial and self-identity; and also, an act of resistance against the prejudiced institutionally-constructed definitions and limitations concerning who could or could not make art.

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