Li Ming, MEIWE, 2015, video, sound, aluminum, LED lights, asphalt, water. Installation view. Photo: Wang Peng.

Li Ming, MEIWE, 2015, video, sound, aluminum, LED lights, asphalt, water. Installation view. Photo: Wang Peng.

Li Ming

Li Ming, MEIWE, 2015, video, sound, aluminum, LED lights, asphalt, water. Installation view. Photo: Wang Peng.

“New Directions,” Li Ming’s recent exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, had a cultish atmosphere. In a dark corner of the gallery, an ominous sculptural light box flashed the word me in severe white block letters; below the installation was a man-made pond that reflected the pulsing letters as the word WE, creating an entrancing symmetry. At the opposite end of the space was the video essay MeIWe #1 (all works 2015), comprising a minimal electronic sound track and interwoven clips of runners pulled from films, home videos, and product advertisements. The video also features a text describing the 2007 Glenn Ligon work Give Us a Poem (Palindrome #2), to which Li’s installation heavily owes. In it, Ligon references a 1975 Muhammad Ali speech wherein the athlete offered his audience the poem “me, we.” Four projectors, each playing a short video of a mob of runners, were installed equidistantly on the floor facing a wall covered in mirrored aluminum. This wall reflected abstracted versions of the videos into the space, and when viewers moved through the reflected light, they cast overlapping shadows on the opposite wall. In effect, the viewers’ shadows appeared to be running in some blurry parallel universe. This illusion was intentional: The floor was paved with a layer of asphalt to create a simulation of a road. The result of all of this was something between a Situationist playground and an immersive, ritualized space.

The premise of the show was borrowed from a short essay, “The Appearance and Disappearance of a Group of People,” written by the art critic Guo Juan in 2015. The narrative text, which emerged from an ongoing conversation between Guo and the artist, offers an abstracted discussion of subjectivity. It seems to describe a process whereby an individual—here “One Person”—adapts to a collective, becoming “Two People” and then “A Group of People” before returning to “One Person.” Though two iPads displayed the text (one in English, the other in Chinese) in the space, the exhibition wasn’t conducive to reading; viewers were instead absorbed in the installation’s atmosphere, its transmuting images and overlapping lights. As one’s shadow mingled with those of other viewers, the exhibition’s emphasis on the interdependency between individual and collective came to the fore.

Li created a “MeIWe” logo, which was emblazoned at the gallery entrance and recurs in the video essay. The logo, designed to be easily recognizable (as if to encourage its dissemination), depicts the word ME stacked over the word WE, the words separated by the letter I rendered horizontally. It appears in a gradient that changes from red to yellow to green––the three colors used on phone apps for joggers. It seems safe to say that for many runners today, their efforts only exist if their phone, Fitbit, or Apple Watch records their statistics (time, distance, route, calories burned). Underpinning Li’s appropriation of the palette of jogging apps is the idea that the surfeit of biometric data supplied to corporations by smart-product users amounts to a uniquely contemporary abstraction—one that troubles concepts of “me” and “we.” The iconic quality of Li’s logo seems to imply that the apps to which we report and by which we measure ourselves have a religious aspect. The process of recording personal statistics—those related to diet, exercise, sleep—might be seen as a new way of identifying the self vis-à-vis the collective, or a reciprocal exchange between the individual and the elusive big data. We are only beginning to understand the types of relationships made possible by new technologies and the forms of individuation and transindividuation they promote. This exhibition signaled that there might be ramifications for using our phones to fulfill social and political participation.

Yang Beichen

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.