A4 Art MuseumExhibitions
Artist Case Study

Feng Li: Good Night

2021.11.21 - 2022.03.06
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Exhibition information

A Night Walk in the Daytime: Let’s Make a Night of It!


Feng Li’s social media presence is always full of surprises and might even be more interesting than his work. We see a pig blocking a doorway, a fat cat that likes to lie flat, a house filled with all kinds of strange objects, spontaneous travels, pictorial conversations across time and space, and a new and surprising candid shared every day. Perhaps his life allows us to get closer to him than any label ever could. As Feng spread the proofs of more than 1,000 pictures out on the desk and shared with us the stories behind them, he became more excited about the encounters in every picture: “I don’t know how I took that one. He just appeared downstairs from my building, and I pressed the shutter.” Compared to the people and scenes frozen or surprised by his flash, Feng’s eyes have a keen radiance. He truly likes taking pictures; if he did not hold exhibitions, publish catalogs, or have to work, taking pictures would still be the greatest motivating force in his life. When he calmly told me this, I saw a simplicity and freedom that I had not seen in an artist in a long time.


Feng Li’s encounters began in 2005 at the Moonlight Lotus Pond lantern display in Chengdu. Massive figures, flowers, animals, and ornamental mountains made of wire mesh covered in silk stood in the large open space by the lotus pond. Their colorful lights and mechanical movements faintly shone through the winter haze. Those lights flickering through the grey mist struck a chord with him. He was impressed by the refreshing absurdity: “The black night was illuminated by an indescribable radiance; it was indistinguishable from daytime.” A massive Christmas tree stood in a grainy black and white world, emitting that first dazzling white light. With this, Feng Li started his Good Night series. The strange scenes he captures on the street with his keen eye blur the specificity of time and place and make it more difficult for us to clearly discern whether these people, actions, or spaces are beautiful or ugly. For him, pictures conceal another possible reality.


Feng Li’s photographs do not have a specific theme. You could say that his pictures reflect the meandering path of his own life. Early on, he studied traditional Chinese medicine and he later became a government employee whose job was to take photographs. In this relatively free working environment, he sometimes took work photographs, and occasionally switched into “Feng Li mode.” In all of his work, from his early years on the streets of Chengdu capturing every expression, posture, or juxtaposition that entered his line of sight to his more recent series taken along the Yellow River and in Dunhuang, Arles, and Berlin, his natural way of taking pictures and his keen sense of when to stop have made Feng a prolific photographer. He is a lot like a starving hunter. He does not have a set path to follow; he charges alone into the urban jungle and takes what he needs without shouldering any other burdens. The ethics of photography, artistic trends, systemic mechanisms, and market systems have practically no meaning for him. What he cares most about is whether he has successfully captured something that day.


Feng always has his camera with him, whether he is at an exhibition or at the dinner table. Eighty percent of the things that catch his eye do not get away. His way of taking pictures is very direct and intuitive. He has faith in what he sees, because if concerns of composition, significance, or value start to creep into his mind, that momentary feeling or encounter may cease to exist. Because of the use of an intense flash in his pictures, many people have drawn the comparison to Weegee, and many see Diane Arbus in his portraits concealing the spiritual maladies of contemporary people, but over time, Feng has proven that this is his own vision, and not an assemblage of appropriated styles. In confronting the immense absurdity of our times and tearing the mask off a polished reality, he has always done one thing in his own way: press the shutter. He is like a magician showing how he does a trick; every day, both online and offline, he performs street magic and attracts a crowd of people. He could see this as another kind of absurdity—countering absurdity with absurdity and meaninglessness with meaninglessness.


In 2020, Feng Li shot his Fairytale series with locals during his residency at Luxelakes, which incorporated a huge balloon installation, festive costumes that people could wear, and various strange props. In this project, Feng shifted from being a spectator to being an amateur director. This seemingly futile experiment layered absurdity upon absurdity, but it also inspired his new work. In recent years, his photographs may have become more experimental and fun, even if they have somewhat less power and impact than his early Good Night. However, Feng finds this very natural; it’s simply a different stage of life. Through his collaborations with more cultures, fashion brands, and neighborhoods this year, we have certainly seen that he has many more possibilities yet to be unleashed. Freedom is still the state that Feng ultimately pursues.


During the Aranya Theater Festival this year, Feng Li spent the night drinking with a subject from one of his pictures, which landed him in the emergency room. Having survived, he felt more at ease, saying, “I want to do something fun.” When he and I talked about ideas for the exhibition, he pointed out a picture of the seemingly endless ball pit in the New Century Global Center in Chengdu, and said that we should fill the gallery with those plastic balls, then it would no longer be an exhibition space; we could return to that night, that absurd night Good Night born.


“Good Night” does not mean a peaceful night or a goodbye; it is a new beginning for Feng Li. Everyone should set aside their masks and take as many pictures as they like.


Li Jie


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