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"A digital oasis": Li Yilei's conceptual sound art brings light and hope in a dark time

Jemima Skala speaks to the conceptual artist about returning to China at the peak of the pandemic, their collective NON DUAL and how Aspergers informs their relationship with music

  • Words: Jemima Skala | Photography: Joan Low
  • 2 September 2021

Li Yilei never imagined that, as a national UK lockdown was announced, they would have to make a dash from their home in London to China, the country of their birth. Writing a detailed account of their pandemic travel experience on Facebook, Yilei recounted not being able to eat for 30 hours after taking off from London, being made to wait for five hours upon landing to have their temperature checked, and being separated from their luggage for over two days while quarantining in a hotel in Shanghai that didn’t have toiletries available.

Ahead of them stretched 16 days of quarantine alone in a hotel room. Out of that time, while having to monitor their temperature twice daily and disinfect the toilet every time they used it, grew their newest album ‘之 / OF’. It explores the feeling of watching time pass and the gap between actual time passed and how long it feels like. It’s a sensitive, buzzing body of work that oscillates between calm and tension, holding the two together at once and exploring the space between them.

Read this next: "A local culture created": How the pandemic connected China's club scene

‘之 / OF’ will be Yilei’s second full-length project, following on from their debut release ‘Unabled Form’ on LTR Recordings in February 2020. As well as pursuing their own conceptual sound art practice through exhibitions and performances, Yilei is also at the helm of the collective NON-DUAL, a space curated specifically for early-career artists from East and Southeast Asia.

Check out our Q&A and mix from Li Yilei below.

What was your experience of returning to China at the beginning of the pandemic?

It was an extremely special experience during my trip back to China last year. I left the day after London went into its first lockdown. I wrote a detailed account of it. It was also kind of crazy that I was returning "home" but I did not know anyone there, and had no idea how the art and music scene worked, or even how to find information on what exhibitions and events were going on. I felt very excluded for a few months and struggled to find people to connect with and opportunities to showcase my work.

How did that affect your process for ‘OF’?

Métron Records and I started to discuss the album 'OF' at the beginning of 2020. I had some demos but it was all very scattered and I hadn’t got any idea of what or how I wanted this new project. By the time I reached China, I had to deal with environmental changes and cultural changes, especially having to use VPN to access overseas sites, being in quarantine and lockdown, and feeling the barrier and creative blockage in many aspects. I was going through some inner reflection, detox, and healing.

The pandemic certainly didn’t help much with my mental health, it heightened my past issues, and made me reflect more on death, the state of panic, healing, and time. From this, I was trying to produce something that soothes, eases and mends. The album is also inevitably mixed with moments of tension, tenderness, and grief - much like what we as humans have experienced collectively since the outbreak of the pandemic, but at the same time there are glimpses of light and hope within all of us. ‘An oasis in the digital era’ was what I had in mind for this album.

Coming back to China also helped to mould this album to lean onto a more traditional side in terms of combining traditional Chinese instruments with analogue synths, finding a balance between modernity and traditional aesthetic, conceptually looking back to ancient Chinese culture etc.

Did you find another way to express the uniquely performance-focused aspect of your work?

As I have been in China, I have been fortunate enough to resume live performances by July 2020. I have had to perform virtually for events that were meant to take place in UK and Europe.

I don’t have a problem with moving things online. I think this is an inevitable change that we all have to face one day which has been accelerated by the lockdown. It is fun to explore different ways of presentation, be it physical or virtual. The major change I realised was that I find myself spending more time adjusting my performance to suit the camera and the screen. Other than that, I think I may just be enjoying this new change to my performance as it takes away a lot of the other anxiety-inducing experiences that come with a live show for me, from even getting out of the house to having to be in a social setting with many uncontrolled elements that contributes to a sensory overload.

Read this next: Li Yilei announces new album '之 / OF'

Tell me about your recent art shows in Shanghai.

Ever since I was back in China in mid-2020, I was lucky enough to resume my practice and continue doing live events. I have been trying my best to engage with more activities and get to know more about what is happening in China's art/music scenes.

I have collaborated and composed for a theatre project, did some sound and movement workshops and some other virtual gigs for UK and EU. I have also been taking the time to focus on art-making, which is a lesser-known part of my practice. Just this month I put on a solo exhibition in an independent artist-run space in Shanghai. It is not a conventional white cube, that’s why I liked it.

This show includes my practice as research work from 2016 to 2021. It is called “Disonata” and the Chinese name for the exhibition was called “不音“ (buyin) which translates directly to “sound-less” or “unsound”. The history of sound art has been overlooked or treated as an extension to avant-garde art. The form of sound art presentation has always been linked with sound that can be heard. The curator, Zhangyuan, and I felt that it would be crucial to put on a sound art exhibition that had no physical "sound" in it, especially in China where this field is such a new genre. The exhibition consists mostly of event scores, graphic scores, and some documentation of my past performances with its relics.

How does your conceptual art practice relate to your music making for you?

My musical practice is not too far away from my art practice. They are distinct but associated in a way that they are both extraction of phenomena around myself, an abstract collage of my scattered, a more poetic rendition of my perception.

Coming from a fine art background, my work explores the existential nature of phenomena, listening motifs and the politics of sound. Through sound, performance, text and cross-media materials, I am trying to explore the conceptual and environmental applications of sound and the possibilities of non-hierarchical listening. Practicing minimalism in form, anti-artificiality, anti-consumption and anti-elite art. Through fragmented abstraction, I try to perceive and amplify the subtle boundaries between phenomena and individuals, poeticism and emptiness.

Sound is a very translucent and intermediate form. I quickly gained a lot of interest in it and started using and adding sound in my work in 2016. At one point I placed some concealed contact microphones on the floor and walls of a small room, and the footsteps of everyone entering the room were amplified. In 2017, I recited 100 words that describe emotions into a microphone, then smashed and dismantled the mic, deconstructing a functional device into a sculpture. After these experiments with sound, I struggled with how to record and exhibit these works, so I recorded and posted the sound recordings on Bandcamp, and started to work with some music labels releasing some field recordings, ambient and experimental music albums, one after another. However, I will be continuing to make work with different materials and forms without defining myself and my ‘role’ too much.

Tell me about your work with NON-DUAL collective.

The name NON-DUAL comes from ‘nondualism’, a fundamental ideology in most Eastern philosophies - Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, to name a few. It is the essence of being, without dichotomies, binaries, or a centre. There is immensely vast and deep wisdom in many East Asian religions/philosophies, much of which is overlooked and neglected for the more "ethnic", "exotic", "oriental" image and aesthetic. For example, some of John Cage’s practice was inspired by zen and Buddhism, in particular the idea of emptiness had influenced his work a lot, but that was not often being brought up.

This collective has put on numerous live art, contemporary art, and experimental music events around London. We allow East and Southeast Asian creatives to be put on the same platform as everyone else, and we have worked with artists from over 15 countries. This collective was formed because my partner and I felt that there was no space in the UK arts scene that felt welcoming for early career artists who made work that gave an all-encompassing perspective to the E/SE Asian experience.

How has your work on the collective changed during the pandemic?

We have had to cancel and indefinitely postpone our series of events that we had planned, and have been taking time to regroup and plan. Our core members were spread over different countries, and have thus been on hiatus. In the meantime, we have been fostering relationships with like-minded people and organisations, and picking up skills on community organising and running an organisation, so we will be able to provide a comprehensive and sustainable platform.

What are your plans for it?

Towards the end of this year, we'll be coming back with a full program, tailored more towards fostering a community and self-care, especially having to deal with the collective trauma that the diasporic community has faced due to racism from the pandemic, and political powers in play over the last year and a half.

Due to Covid, we realized that hosting public events will be quite a challenge considering we do not have our own physical venue, it will be hard to curate events at this special time like we used to. However, one of our upcoming plans for this is a monthly London-based supper club that will feature East Asian flavours, as we hope to bridge cultural gaps through mutual understanding and the common language of food. We are also looking to curate a selection of artist-made objects and items that will be available for purchase.

Read this next: "Only about the music": Southeast Asia's underground is in a golden era

Do you think your experience of Aspergers has shaped your relationship with music?

Definitely, yes. My music speaks for me. It can convey and digest a lot of my inner complexities and transform them into a universal language, frequencies, vibration, and resonance. I even think it communicates better than my vocal interactions. Communication is a difficult thing - it is always hard for me to find the right balance, and music is a perfect medium to do so.

It has been constructive in terms of producing music and art. I can hear everything when I’m out. Ever since I started to use a recorder to consciously record and collect sounds that I hear, it has become less overwhelming and scary. Soon I had a very substantial collection of field recording samples and sounds from the environment. It's like a coping mechanism for me - enables me to feel more in control of my surroundings.

What’s one thing you wish people in the music industry knew about Aspergers?

People with Aspergers have sensory processing issues - we are extremely sensitive to smell, sound, light, touch etc. There is no filter to stop information from coming in, and no way to express the tsunami that is going on inside. For some, it can translate to panic, meltdowns, and fibromyalgia. Female aspies, especially, deal with it without others knowing, which is also known as masking.

It can be a painful struggle if I do not take care of myself. For example, taking public transport is very difficult for me - I often have to factor in at least an extra hour for any appointments, because I would end up getting off the tube or bus and walking for miles to reach my destination. If a meltdown happens it can take weeks to recover from.

Tell me about how you put together your Impact mix and your inspirations for it.

This mix I did is a collection of experimental electronic tracks that hype me up during the day. These are some tunes I have been listening to recently while reading manga centred around queer narratives.

Jemima Skala is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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