Li Yuan-chia And Friends Kettles Yard Cambridge – Revd Jonathan Evens

Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia & Friends Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

The boundary-defying artistic practice of Li Yuan-chia, particularly through his LYC Museum and Art Gallery, turns aspects of modern art history on its head.
The LYC Museum and Art Gallery was an example of relational art well before that phrase was ever conceived, as well as an initiative having synergies with the ‘Merzbau’ and ‘Merz Barn’ of Kurt Schwitters, Ian Hamilton-Finlay’s ‘Little Sparta’, Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, and Jim and Helen Ede’s Kettle’s Yard. As indicated by the subtitle of this Kettle’s Yard exhibition, ‘Li Yuan-chia & Friends’, Li’s initiative was a particularly relational example, one that prioritised hospitality like the Edes’ vision for Kettle’s Yard. There was considerable overlap between artists involved with the LYC and those collected by the Edes for Kettle’s Yard, an overlap that is reflected in this exhibition.

Additionally, Li’s initiative linked the earlier avant-garde represented primarily by Winifred Nicholson, who was part of the ‘7 & 5’ Society, with the then-current avant-garde including Takis, Liliane Lijn, and dsh (Dom Sylvester Houédard) and on then to emerging artists such Lygia Clark, Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and Mira Schendel. Li wrote that the LYC told “a story about the past, the present and the future”, and this was illustrated by his showcasing of Roman artefacts, works by major figures of British modernism, local artists and contemporary practices, including kineticism, land art and video. Li’s practice and the approaches utilised at the LYC also provide an early example of artists engaging with spirituality, technology and ecology. In Li’s work, this combination of interests is illustrated through his concept of the ‘cosmic point’.

The exhibition uses the practice of Li and the LYC, as is stated in the catalogue, as a “way to approach rewriting … narratives of post-war British art”, which has generally struggled to place artists and initiatives like Li and the LYC and, as a result, often ignored them.

Li Yuan-chia ,Kettle's Yard
Li Yuan-chia standing at the porch of the LYC Museum & Art Gallery, featuring window designed by David Nash. Image courtesy of Li Yuan-chia Archive, The University of Manchester Library

Li was born in Guangxi, China, and studied in Taipei, where he jointly founded the Ton-Fan collective, a group of pioneering artistic outliers known as Taiwan’s first abstractionists. Experimenting with ink painting, calligraphy, kinetic sculpture, photography and performance, he was an important artist of the mid-century avant-garde invited to exhibit internationally in the 4th São Paulo Bienal with the Il Punto collective in Milan at the influential Signals Gallery in London and in the company of Jarman and Yoko Ono in the Lisson Gallery. Finding his way to Cumbria in 1967, he developed a close friendship with Nicholson and purchased an old farmhouse she owned to create the LYC. The museum became an extension of his artmaking and can be considered his most expansive artwork. After the LYC closed in 1983, he remained in Cumbria, using the site as a backdrop for a renewed independent practice.

The exhibition begins by combining past and future. Nicholson’s ‘Roman Road (Landscape with Two Houses)’ from 1926 shows visitors the literal path that led to the LYC prior to its founding. Described by art collector and patron Helen Sutherland as being “a lovely big landscape with a road that goes deep into the past and the future”, it is appropriate that it sits alongside new installations by contemporary artists Grace Ndiritu and Aaron Tan. Together with work by Charwei Tsai that can be found elsewhere in the exhibition, these installations speak to the enduring influence of Li’s social and artistic legacy and the importance of resurfacing a story that has been obscured.

The exhibition, as a whole, retraces Li’s commitment to fostering creativity, his interest in play and his investment in new ways of being in the world. The first gallery contains examples of his calligraphy and ink paintings, alongside increasingly minimal works on paper, sculptures and installations. These explore what Lesley Ma describes as “the conceptual core” of his art: the ‘cosmic point’, which is “the beginning of everything / and also the end”. As Sarah Victoria Turner writes, this concept is discernible in his work “across media from his early ink paintings to the installation environments he created in Cumbria, using whatever materials came to hand”.
Works by artists who engaged with the cosmic and other unseen forces in the mid-twentieth century can also be seen here, including Hsiao Chin’s painting ‘Rising Sun’, Lijn’s kinetic sculpture ‘Cosmic Flares’ and a work from Takis’ multimedia ‘Signal’ series. A selection of Nicholson’s prismatic paintings, made later in her career when she frequented the LYC, are also displayed here and further on in the exhibition. Nicholson wrote that she had “always been interested in prismatic colour, on mother-of-pearl, in water ripple, in flower light” as “the prism discovers for me how form is related to colour”. After meeting the physicist Professor Glen Schaefer in 1975, her interest in prisms was rekindled, and she began painting specific prismatic pictures that re-explored the colours of the rainbow in her painting. Nicola Simpson writes of the “entangled cords of influences and shared vision” that link “Liliane Lijn’s Cosmic Flares II … or Sunray (1967) to the delicate ink and watercolour mandalas Mira Schendel painted on rice paper, to Charwei Tsai’s inky dynamic We Came Whirling Out of Nothingness I-IV (2014), to the bold prismatic paintings of Winifred Nicholson and then out and beyond to you”.

Taking us deeper into the exhibition, Simpson also writes of “the importance of the friendships between Li and artists that exhibited at the LYC”, including “the profound interchange of artistic and meditative practices enfolding out of shared interests in Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist methods in the work of ‘friendpoints’ such as Madelon Hooykaas and the Benedictine monk dsh”. The creative practices that Li energised through friendship and collaboration often require the coining of new words, such as ‘friendpoints’, ‘poempoints’, ‘poetpoint’, ‘poemenvironments’, and ‘typestracts’, to describe the linking of ideas, media and relationships.
A set of shelves in the second gallery, reminiscent of those in the LYC and Kettle’s Yard house, displays smaller sculptures, works on paper and archival material by artists including Audrey Barker, Thetis Blacker, Schendel, Barbara Hepworth and Hamilton-Finlay – many of whom exhibited at the LYC or adopted Li’s philosophies around the world. This gallery, which takes its cue from the LYC motto, ‘Space | Time | Life’, also includes a window that Nash made for the museum in 1979, Shelagh Wakely’s floor-based installation ‘Towards the inside of a container’, and a sound collage by David Butler, based on the work of innovative composer Delia Derbyshire who lived and worked at the LYC in 1976. In the gallery, themes of home, belonging and nature are explored through Li’s textiles, hand-tinted photographs and sculptural reliefs; these include two textile wall hangings, which he painted and gifted to friends to use as draught excluders.

The LYC’s children’s room provided a place for young people to experiment with art making, while craft workshops played host to communities of making. Much like Kettle’s Yard, the LYC also had a library, a garden, and spaces for socialising, transforming how we encounter art. Inspired by the drawing machine originally installed in the children’s room at the LYC, Anna Brownsted has created ‘Drawing Machine #6’ through weekly creative sessions with young people at the Akeman Community Centre. This interactive work is displayed alongside Aaron Tan’s multimedia sculptural work, modelled after the LYC kitchen cabinets, in the Kettle’s Yard research space, along with a selection of archival films and materials drawn from Li’s papers at the Rylands Library, University of Manchester. A satellite display, ‘Making New Forms: Li Yuan-chia and Friends’, at West Court Gallery, Jesus College, Cambridge, is then dedicated to Li’s calligraphy and works on paper made throughout his career.

Further work by many of the artists included in the exhibition can also be seen in the home of Jim and Helen Ede, where their collection of 20th-century art and objects is displayed. Among the artists in the Kettle’s Yard collection that are featured in the exhibition are Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Ben, Kate and Winifred Nicholson and Hamilton-Finlay. Both Kettle’s Yard and the LYC were created by those who believed in the connection between art and life and were interested in the possibilities of what an art space can be, whether collections (in the case of Kettle’s Yard) or exhibitions (in the case of the LYC). They developed over time, but both were shaped primarily through friendships and personal relationships. ‘Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia & Friends’ traces this shared ethos of living with art, so a visit to the house provides an important continuation of the exhibition’s themes.

‘Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia & Friends’, Kettles Yard, Cambridge, 11 November 2023 – 18 February 2024

‘Making New Forms: Li Yuan-chia and Friends’, West Court Gallery, Jesus College, Cambridge, 11 November 2023 – 18 February 2024

Visit Here



, ,