Spanning tintype portrait photography, calligraphy dissolving into the walls on which it’s painted, and ephemeral balloon forms blown through zip-tie matrices, Max Li seems to have little concern for developing a crystallized artistic identity. But while many artists working today cultivate interdisciplinary practices, Li’s work also differs in that it isn’t underpinned by a theme or subject of interest. Self-expression, which would suggest an identity prior to the work, does not appear to be Li’s intention. Rather, his is a practice of curiosity that destabilizes the self. In one series of performances, Li simulates basic English language classes like those he experienced in his native China. Together, Li and his audience relearn what they already know. 

Such a practice that destabilizes through curiosity cannot separate an attention to the world from an attention to oneself. If this ascribes his practice a function it is on the condition that it not be understood as a means toward a particular satisfaction. Li’s work is interested (as opposed to disinterested) but interested in metabolizing the yield of his curiosities and ignorances in a discursive, non teleological way. His work is also interested in inciting this process in viewers as well. In Solo Walks (2018-ongoing), he approaches strangers to have them photograph him as he assumes some aspect of their clothing, occupation, or posture. Each embodies the other’s position, if only for a moment.


Such a practice informs the abstract and provisional framework of meaning he constructs. At the time of writing, this framework includes concepts like “eye-tickling,” the “Peripheral Zone” of consciousness and “taming the self” through art. Li folds each new experiment into this framework, adding an increasing degree of articulation in the process. In 2021 he conceived of his Site series. Over multiple iterations, he arranged the objects in his studio into temples of ordinary objects made foreign. The same set of objects confront the viewer anew with each iteration, uncanny through the cumulative memory of all past ones. More recently these arrangements have turned into imposing presences formed by large hollow box constructions wrapped in black plastic. They dominate and alter the spaces they occupy as ambiguous psychological metaphors. As the sustained and cumulative nature of these projects suggest, we would best understand each of Li’s experiments when we see them from within the entire oeuvre of works and writing. With the totality in mind, we see that he makes through thinking and thinks through making, but that both ultimately serve to push the walls of subjectivity from the inside outward. In doing so, he invites the viewer to join him. 

Over beer Li tells me that a conversation is like a sculpture: each person contributes to gradually produce an object, observable in the round from all the perspectives that helped shape it.
last updated 11/17/2021
©MaxLi 2021