selection of Li's Cameras in a row
Behind the scenes Collections Guest post Photography

Li Yuan-chia: Life and Art through the Camera Lens

Two of our placement students talk about their work with the photography collection of Li Yuan-Chia.

This year at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library we have been lucky enough to have two Masters students from the Institute of Cultural Practices  working with us in the Visual Collections: Jennifer Singh and Xinyu Zou. Both have done a superb job of working on documenting the photographic works of Li Yuan-chia. This work will have such a positive impact on this previously undocumented material in the Li Yuan-chia archive. For anyone interested in learning more about Li Yuan-chia, the exhibition Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia and friends with be showing at Kettle’s Yard, the University of Cambridge’s modern and contemporary art gallery, later this year.

Jennifer writes:

Li Yuan-chia, a contemporary artist, poet and art gallery curator, was a unique figure in the art scene of the mid-to-late 20th century. Born in Taiwan in 1949, Li was a part of the Ton Fan group, a group of students vital to the development of contemporary art in China. Li moved to England in 1965 and later opened an art gallery in Banks, Cumbria in 1972. As a Heritage Studies MA student at the University of Manchester, I have been working on a placement with the LYC collection at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library. The photographs taken by Li during his time living in Cumbria have been the central focus of my placement.

Colour image of boxes containing photographs stacked up on a Library shelf.
Boxes of Li’s work on the Library shelving.

This collection has been fascinating to work with, due in large part to the varied nature of Li’s photographic work. Ranging from curated abstract scenes to candid shots of his local village, the collection encompasses a wide range of images, many of which remained hidden from public view. It is not just Li’s artwork that is on show in these photos, but also moments from his everyday life; a trip to a festival in Ireby, a day out in Carlisle, or an afternoon spent in his garden at Banks. All are captured here, providing the viewer with an intimate glance into Li’s life, and the memories he felt were important enough to immortalise through the camera lens.

Of course, Li’s more curated photography is the true star of the collection. Images of himself, always with face obscured, are abundant. In many photographs, he sits in his garden, head bowed down away from the camera. In others, he sits at a desk, pen in hand. Other notable images include a living room scene set up outdoors, utilising tree stumps as tables placed next to armchairs. The images feel quiet and sombre, lacking people. His unique technique of hand-colouring images provides many of his photographs with a certain surreal atmosphere, warping images of nature into something less familiar.

Black and white portrait of the artist Li Yuan-chia sat looking pensive, holding a white mug.
Li Yuan-chia. Image by permission of the LYC foundation and The University of Manchester

Cataloguing Li’s work has been an invaluable experience. Seeing his photographs, still in the boxes he left them in, feels poignant and sometimes sad. I was struck by the connection I felt to the artist; when holding his photographs, I could not help but feel the absence of their creator. The collection includes many repeating images, failed attempts at capturing an image before the final product was achieved. By viewing these images as a cataloguer, I was granted a more personal insight into the work and time that Li dedicated to perfecting his art. From a more practical standpoint, learning to record these repeating images was a challenge that I had not anticipated, yet it certainly allowed me to gain experience and confidence in cataloguing that I hope to take forwards into my future careers.

I have greatly enjoyed the chance to work with John Rylands Library and their archives and I am immensely grateful for the experience it has granted me in cataloguing. Working in the reading room has been a great experience and I’d like to thank the staff who helped make this happen. The LYC collection is truly fascinating, and I highly recommend giving it a browse.

Xinyu writes:

Hello! My name is Xinyu Zou. I am a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester studying the Master’s degree in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. I am currently working as a placement student at John Rylands Research Institute and Library, where I am working on the archival management of the photographic works of artist Li Yuan-chia. I am very grateful to the John Rylands for allowing me to be in charge of sorting out the artworks of a Chinese artist during my postgraduate study.

Black and white image of the artist Li Yuan-chia stood outside the LYC museum in Banks, Cumbria.
Li Yuan-chia and LYC Museum, Image by permission of the LYC foundation and The University of Manchester

Li Yuan-chi is one of the most influential abstract artists in early China. After he moved to England, he taught himself photography and left most of his photographs behind. In the process of archiving, I found out that these photos were taken in the last 28 years of the artist’s life in a house in Cumbria, northern England, and most of the images I processed were wooden sculptures.

Black and White photographs laid out on a desk, a ruler and some acid free paper slips are also visible
Working in the John Rylands Research institute Reading Room. Image: Xinyu Zou

Before this project, I had never done anything close to collection management. I want to thank my supervisor Anne Anderton for her initial instruction, including the basic introduction to the library, and for teaching me how to use forms for archival management. During the execution of the project, I was often fascinated with the works of art in Li Yuan-chia’s photos. He had a house in the countryside, which he used as his inspiration and studio. He created many works of art there, some of which were cut into different shapes and placed upright on the ground or lawn. Sometimes they are combined with pieces of daily life, such as sunshades, books, chairs, and so on. He experimented with different black-and-white photo effects at different exposures, which allowed the viewer to see more clearly the unique textures he left on his wooden sculptures. During the placement, I also came across some problems that were difficult for me to solve. For example, I often struggled to name the artist’s works, because his works are too abstract and his works on wooden sculptures are often repetitive, I can only distinguish them quantitatively. Due to the artist’s own abstract creative thinking, some of the descriptions I made include my own understanding of the works, which will hopefully help staff members in the future.

Although I am not a professional cataloguer, I feel like I was using my time on this placement effectively. I got to know a great artist during this period, and I was glad to have had a new experience and an insight into abstract art that I – in all honesty – I did not understand before! These precious experiences will help me keep an open mind for the future and have taught me a sense of responsibility for arranging artists’ works.

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