Straddling by Chinese artist Li Yonggeng certainly does catch one’s eye in Galerie du Monde’s current exhibition, A Path to Life. Aiming to showcase both Li’s public and private life, the exhibition is split into two series: “Sew” and “Do”, the latter of which Straddling is part of.
At first glance, the installation is minimal. Seven sets of the artist’s old shoes are separated at a distance by a long bamboo stick on ground and wall levels. The shoes, a mixture of trainers and slip-ons, have clearly been well-worn. As such, their colours have been dulled and muted, nearly fading into monochrome. Right from the get-go, a mood of sadness is set, but aesthetically, the overall look is definitely visually pleasing.
While there is unity in colour in the materials, there is contrast in form between shoe and bamboo. A thin stick balances the first shoe of each pair with the second—the entire art piece emits a sense of nervous tension. In daily use, shoes come in pairs, yet the bamboo separates the two halves at a longer distance than makes the viewer comfortable, requiring the additional support of the wall. Sometimes, it is the absence of something particular that emphasises a certain point. In this case, the absence of a permanent setting medium, like superglue to join the objects, lays additional stress to the discomfort of the viewer. There is an incompleteness about the whole installation. It reflects the fragility and temporality of life.
Li was born, grew up in and currently lives and works in China. His works use objects encountered in his everyday life that contain certain histories. These objects are not altered in any way—rather, they are combined and presented with a new visual perception that evokes emotion in the viewer. The artist cleverly draws on their attributes and keeps them as raw as possible. By including his own personal objects, he builds a connection between his private life and his practice. For example, his bamboo sticks are the same as those he uses in his yard to grow plants. Bamboo is also oftentimes a symbol of China, thus the inclusion of this particular material in the installation points to Li’s heritage and childhood.
Yet Straddling’s dimensions are varied with reason—it is not a permanent, site-specific exhibition. Combined with using such an ordinary everyday item as a shoe, which is universally recognised, is the significance of a work of art that can be set up wherever there is a wall. This speaks of a common topic that is present everywhere in the world. It is universally relatable and everyone can walk away taking something from it.
As humans, we are not immortal. At any time, things could go wrong—whether it is a small incident like losing a wallet or a fatal accident like contracting a life-threatening disease. It may not happen but eventually, something will give way—someone knocks down the bamboo sticks, the wall collapses, or the materials simply erode with time. This art work points at another universal truth: nothing is permanent.