An interview with Y.Z. Irina Li

Y.Z. Irina Li is a curator and art director based in New York. She is leading FRESCO Collective, a research-focused non-profit organization established in early 2018, through an innovative but academically loaded adventure. Trained in Art History, English Literature, and Psychology from the most prestigious schools across continents—Institute of Fine Art (NYU), Universität Heidelberg, and Tsinghua University—her projects always gleam with an interdisciplinary novelty. 

Welcome Home Mural by Shepard Fairey, at Costa Mesa, 2017. Image courtesy of Jon Furlong.

Welcome Home Mural by Shepard Fairey, at Costa Mesa, 2017. Image courtesy of Jon Furlong.

Anna Windsor: Let’s start with FRESCO’s exciting street art festival coming up this August. 

Y.Z. Irina Li: Sure. The festival is technically called “street art and millennial culture,” in conjunction with the research project initiated in August 2018 at FRESCO Collective. The influence of internet culture and digital media is also an important part of the survey. 

During an entire year of research and public programs around the theme, oftentimes I feel confounded by a gap between the academic discourse and what is going on in the “real” world—the artists, galleries, collectors, and millennials who celebrate the rise of street art in their characteristic way. The two sides appear to develop in separate trajectories, neither aggressively repelling nor actively conversing with the other. The summer festival, therefore, seeks to engage the public with our scholarly discussions on street art—what street art is, why many millennials affiliate themselves with the movement, how it has been evolving throughout decades, how the debates in street art closely relate to all urban dwellers, to name a few unsettled questions. The idea is not to develop a lecture series on such questions—I believe no scholars would fancy a consensus or pedagogical guide for street art—but to invite the public to the screenings, tours, workshops, and panel discussions. These events will bring attention to the art in local communities and the many forms of street art in exhibition spaces. 

Image courtesy of  FRESCO COLLECTIVE .

Image courtesy of FRESCO COLLECTIVE.

Anna Windsor: Do you think this gap between the academic and the commercial is unique to street art?

Y.Z. Irina Li: Definitely not—the scholarship and the market are meant to have different rules and focuses—but our attention actually lies elsewhere. FRESCO Collective is fundamentally devoted to the divide between the academics, who are eager to engage a wider audience besides their immediate fellows, and the public that is simultaneously passionate to be educated and get involved. An academic committee of internationally-acclaimed scholars sits on FRESCO’s street art research. Among them, Ulrich Blanche from the University of Heidelberg has published several fascinating books and essays on Banksy; Lachlan MacDowall from the University of Melbourne has a new book on the intertwined development of Instagram and street art scene. Other committee members from esteemed institutions in Portugal, Greece, and the UK are also approaching the topic from diverse perspectives, including those of aesthetics, sociology, and urban studies. Apart from advising the research team, committee members are invited to contribute articles on recent happenings and join podcasts to share personal opinions. We hope to make such academic devotion more publicly accessible, through our magazine, public talks, and the upcoming summer festival. Our upcoming research on time-based media again speaks to a frustrating divide as such. 

Christian Marclay: The Clock, image courtesy of  Tate Modern .

Christian Marclay: The Clock, image courtesy of Tate Modern.

Anna Windsor: Can you tell us more about this project? Why time-based media?

Y.Z. Irina Li: Personally I’m very much drawn to videos, films, and performances, but the decision to launch the research project is largely based on many conversations with time-based media artists and conservators. Frequent visitors to art museums and biennials should be quite familiar with all the dazzling experiments in new media now, yet a divide is still strongly present, even within the scholarship itself. How to understand the frame of “time”? How to deal with the technological obsolescence of many earlier works? How to conserve the viewing experience when the hardware is migrated? All these questions need a cross-disciplinary treatment, which is also why our TBM research envisions a joint effort with pioneer artists, conservators, and technologists on the academic committee. The committee on TBM includes several pioneering curators, conservators, and technologists at Tate Modern, Whitney, and many other independent but widely celebrated studios such as Dave Jones Design. At the same time, the general public is invited to participate in all the conversations; much of the TBM discourse relies on a collective understanding and experience. 

On Kawara: Date Painting, Oct.26,1971. Image courtesy of  David Zwirner .

On Kawara: Date Painting, Oct.26,1971. Image courtesy of David Zwirner.

Anna Windsor: And you are also writing on time-based art in a similar cross-disciplinary method?

Y.Z. Irina Li: Time-based media absolutely charms me; it seems a fruitful process to place myself at different angles when approaching the subject, to better appreciate its charm and interweave the multiple dimensions. Psychology was my minor in college—my major was Literature, then I had a Master’s degree in Art history at IFA—and remains an important layer when I’m considering a piece of art or literature. My writings, compared with the research projects at FRESCO, are much more idiosyncratic and spontaneous. I don’t really see a border between literature and visual art. Pairing a painting exhibition with a film, a book, or a theatre piece can bring out surprisingly complementary powers of individual media. 

Anna Windsor: Is this dispersion of canons an essential concept in “zein,” a word you use to describe your writings? How is the word coined? 

Y.Z. Irina Li: The word “zein,” embodies the ambiguity of individual media, when a medium meets and looks into another to better understand itself. “Zein” can evoke similar words in many languages—“sein” or “Zeit” in German, “zen” in Japanese, “zai” in Chinese, or more examples as other readers might think of—and all such associations come to hint at the experience of “zein.”

Anna Windsor: So “zein” is about the subjective, the current, the interdisciplinary?

Y.Z. Irina Li: I would agree with such a description. In fact, the contemporaneous and reflective qualities are again tied in with a recent survey project at FRESCO Collective. FRESCO is generally dedicated to the inadequately studied fields in contemporary art; whereas our research projects on street art and TBM strive to be structured and comprehensive, the recently started survey series looks at groups of artists who explore the similar themes that are important but yet to be thoroughly examined, especially those reflecting on pressing issues of the times. We’re fascinated by the bold styles shared among many figurative paintings, the seemingly hyperrealistic but highly intimate reenactment of everyday experience, the intricate composition of interdisciplinary works that provocatively blur the boundary between reality and fiction or alternative possibilities. 

Anna Windsor: Any survey topics you want to share with SIMPL MAG’s readers?

Y.Z. Irina Li: The series will have a broad span—ranging from artists who were given major retrospectives at MoMA and Whitney years ago but are still actively practicing nowadays, to the recent MFA graduates who newly gained much attention. What I can share with you now is that some names have been interviewed by SIMPL MAG as well. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting a mural in 1988’s New York City.

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting a mural in 1988’s New York City.

Anna Windsor: In this case, we’ll definitely stay tuned in for the release! What’s next for FRESCO Collective or your own writing? 

Y.Z. Irina Li: Circling back to the “divide” question, a benefit auction and a side celebration will be held at FRESCO in late September, concluding the summer festival. Many pieces are fairly affordable, and we see this benefit as a rare opportunity for our audience to substantially own a piece that speaks to the undyingly intriguing debates in street art. A recent article by FRESCO’s research team overviews elaborates the rise of street art and our effort in tackling its complexity. Street art now both embodies and reflects on the millennial culture, and this entanglement of resonation and marginalization allows us to probe into the radical shifts in fashion, design, mass media, and politics of the times. We need to understand why we tend to be reticent about a form of art that truly thrills and resonates with us; embracing such dissonance can be a big step to understand both street art and ourselves.