Artist Interview: Lili Chin (New York, USA)

You have exhibited extensively across multiple cities. Would you like to highlight a memorable or notable exhibition?

The work for my solo show, Transfigured Elements at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art in New Haven, CT, was conceived when I was in residence at MASS MoCA | Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016. I layered fabric onto armatures to create large sculptural boulders, suspending them from the ceiling and casting video projections onto the surfaces. In parallel, I impressed found objects upon clay and used frottage techniques to create thin, organic, and undulating forms, which I then laid onto a woven tapestry. The installation was presented alongside my series of drawings and works on paper that explored rocks and mathematical sequences.

Simultaneously, Laelaps, a commissioned site-specific video installation, was screened in conjunction with Yale-China for their Lunar fest. The exhibition was well-received, and I was delighted that this show brought together my diverse range of artworks in a cohesive and elegant exhibition.

Could you tell us more about the hidden relationships between the subjects of your exploration – plants, shapes, repetition, figuration and ancient history?

During the Ancient Greek empire, as with the Renaissance in Italy, there were few distinctions between disciplines. Artists were also engineers, architects, and even botanists. Similarly, I see cross-connections between the body, geometric shapes, the Fibonacci sequence, and writings by ancient thinkers. The organic design of plant growth has been analyzed to determine the Fibonacci sequence and irrational numbers like Pi. Ancient Greeks like Pythagoras and Euclid had profound respect for geometry and insisted that our entire cosmos is built on shapes and energy.

Renaissance theorists and painters such as Leon Battista Alberti and Piero Della Francesca, a geometrician turned artist, reflected on ancient Greek philosophies and used these ideas. Inspired by these writings, I have begun to explore connections across a variety of disciplines through wavelengths, vibrations, energy, and spatial depth. I believe that the cellular design of nature has a hidden intelligence connecting the micro to the macro. These cosmological connections bear mysteries that I can unearth as I discover artistic forms in biological and molecular shapes, patterns, and color.

Is there a reason behind naming the series Istoria?

Istoria refers to a style of narrative painting written about by Leon Battista Alberti in his 1435 treatise On Painting. It also means ‘learning through research’ in Ancient Greek. These prints parallel an installation I am working on titled Istoria’s Garden, which features video and ceramic pieces to create an immersive, experiential garden.

Tell us about how you began experimenting and using printmaking techniques in creating your works. What do the processes of print afford your practice?

The act of impressing through printmaking is always highly intuitive and direct. It brings us right back to the cave painters who used their hands as stencils to create motifs along the walls or petroglyphs with incised carving found in the Ancient Near East. These intuitive processes create delight and wonder that I find meaningful and revel in. I relate to the physical and tactile experiences of immersing, pressing, pushing, rolling, etching, laying down, and collecting. All these activities involve actions that I use in my sculptural and film work. I appreciate creating a relief of an object and making an image transfer. These methods remind me of developing film – they enable me to engage a surface and see what will happen with both positive and negative spaces. I roll my sculptural elements out into a slab, as I etch out the negative space to consider form and texture.

I find it very natural to transition to print with processes I already engage in. I layer my objects and materials, be it casting a projection onto a fabric boulder or superimposing images in a film. Through layering, new relationships and images emerge – it is by placing things under or putting them on top that new, unexpected connections appear. The arrangements in my sculptural work exist in the liminal state where process and fresh associations speak to me spatially and reveal themselves, like an exposed photograph developing over time in an emulsion. When I place images and objects side by side, their new proximity develops a syncretic relationship, and these playful associations come alive in my studio. It’s like a theater of operations I have to pay attention to and see what will emerge.

Sometimes printmaking reminds me of moldmaking or casting. In these processes, both the mold and the waste become material that I will use. Similarly, with printmaking, I will reclaim discarded materials or further distress them, before placing them in unique combinations to form a new visual expression. As with assemblage or collage, I will create an object, drawing, or print and let it sit for some time. I then return, creating a montage with the ensemble of chosen images and objects to push the work into a new direction.

Why does creating based on free association play such a large role in your practice?

When making an artwork, I emphasize the journey over the destination. As I trust the world of invisible connections, I lean into my subconscious state to direct my decisions. Like taking a long walk in the woods, where I research the geographical terrain of the forest, taking into consideration the time of day and the weather, preparing my journey with basic essentials, I know there is only so much I can anticipate. When I embark, a series of experiences unfold, and the surprise of chance encounters leads to new discoveries and exciting moments.

 

There is a performative element when engaging with chance moments and free association. It allows for a kind of slippage, enabling the unseen and the unplanned to take over. In this light, my work shifts from being prepared to the experience of being present, allowing the experience of making to awaken the unconscious mind. Carefully waiting and tuning into my materials, I find kinship with the Dadaists and Surrealists who embrace uncanny associations and objects. In a semi-prepared, semi-automatic spirit, my art-making removes layers to uncover concealed and interior states of mind. With elements of surprise, these works unfold ideas that explore psychological and formal associations through images and materials.