I expected something dramatic, yet nothing special happened...
Na Yingyu(NYY): When you were choosing the works to copy, did you think of which works to copy first?
Li Mu(LM): I started with the most difficult works, followed by the easier works. Maybe in this way, it will be easier to do the project as time goes on.
NYY：What are the difficulties you faced when remaking Sol LeWitt’s works, were there too many pieces?
LM：Yes, we made 15 wall sculptures. The villagers all thought it looked like a ladder, we then picked a nickname for the wall sculpture—“A Turning Ladder” .
NYY：You presented them to 15 families?
LM：The first piece was hung on the wall of the building next to the library as a public display.
NYY：How did you make the decision who to give the “ladder” to?
LM：There were some factors which interfered with my decision. For example, my father thought I should give them to the people closest to us. I followed his advice. But I still think I should give them to those whose surname is not the same as ours, such as our librarian, Mr. Wei.
NYY：So in total you gave out 14 “ladders”. Among the 14 families, how many of them have the surname “Li”?
LM：Over half, because many villagers living near the library have the family name “Li”.
NYY：Are there many relatives that received the “ladder”?
LM：I gave one to my second eldest sister. My father asked me to give one to my eldest sister. But I said “no”, because my eldest sister lives a little far from here.
NYY：Is there anyone who came to you and asked for one?
LM：Yes, the wife of the production team leader. She saw others had the ladder and wanted one. I told her that I had given them all out. She left, disappointed. I felt sorry. I was wondering whether I should give her the “ladder” that I kept for the library. I mentioned this to my father. He said that I should give her the “ladder”. If not, we would offend them. Because her husband is the production team leader.
NYY：Is he still the production team leader?
LM：Yes, he is probably going to be promoted to village head.
NYY：How much did you spend making the 15 “ladders”?
LM：5000RMB, including the money I paid to feed the workers.
NYY：Did your father say something about the way you spent your money?
LM：He cares about the money. He said five or six “ladders” would be enough and questioned me about why I made so many.
NYY：Why did you make fifteen “ladders”?
LM：I thought the more the better. As it involves more people, you can see many different people’s reaction and attitudes towards the “ladders”，which will increase the richness of the work.
NYY：How did the villagers use the “ladder”?
LM：Their use of the “ladder” is quite simple. Most of them just hung it on the wall and put something on it, treating it as a storage shelf. For example, Mr. Wei put the tea box, shampoo, etc. on it. My father’s dear friend Fan Jingsi, hung it in the corridor outside the door. He treats this “ladder” as a work of art and therefore put some craftworks on it. Another villager called Lai Yuan thinks the lattice in the ladder is perfect for holding pictures. So he wants to develop his future wedding pictures to be the same size as the lattice and then set them in the lattices.
NYY：Isn’t there anyone that uses the “ladder” in a different way?
LM：My second eldest sister treats it as a work of art. She thinks it will destroy its aesthetic beauty if she put something on it. So she just hung it on the wall of the sitting room and did nothing else to it, leaving it the way it is---an art piece. My father hung his birdcages on it. He raises many canaries.
The villager Li Taifeng is walking in the village with the Sol LeWitt’s wall sculpture---the “turning ladder” on his shoulder
NYY：Your second sister is the person who is most tolerant of you in your family?
LM：Yes, I think so. She doesn’t judge my work. No matter what her younger brother does, she supports him. So she doesn’t doubt my project.
NYY：Is your second elder sister the only one who supports you in your family? How about your mother?
LM：I don’t think my mother cares about it. What she cares more is that she can see me everyday. She is happy with that.
NYY：How many months have you been here since your return?
NYY：What’s the longest time you spent staying at home after you graduated from the university?
LM：Two weeks at most. This time is the longest.
NYY：Is this the happiest thing for your mother?
LM：Yes. In the past, every time I was leaving home, my families and neighbors would gather at the door and waved goodbye to me. But I couldn’t find my mother among them, you know……I feel I understand her. She doesn’t care what kind of artwork I’ve done outside or how successful I am. She just wants to be closer to me and see me everyday. Then she will be happy.
NYY：How about your father? What did he think of the “ladder” thing?
LM：He thought I was wasting money. He didn’t want me to present the “ladders” to those who have nothing to do with us. At the beginning, he discussed this with me and asked for two or three “ladders”. He said that he had so many birds and needed them to hang the birdcages.
NYY: In the process of giving out the 14 “ladders”, did anything interesting happen?
LM： Nothing special happened. It’s quite normal. They just carried them back home and hung them on the wall. I was expecting something interesting or dramatic to happen, but in the end, nothing like that happened.
NYY： You made two wall paintings after the “ladder” thing，didn’t you? In between these two things, did you do any work?
LM：I was preparing two light installations. One is the “HI HA” light installation made by John Kormeling. Van Abbemuseum sent me the detailed drawing of the design. I showed it to my former classmate who now makes lights in town. They couldn’t make it, nor had they ever see that kind of material. So we had to use substitute materials to finish the work. The other is the 55 Circular Fluorescent Lights made by Dan Flavin. We found that no one sells that kind of lights in China. But they are available in South America. However, the shipping cost is too high. So I found similar lights on the internet which can be used as a substitute. They have been sent. Actually, that kind of lights are all produced in Guangzhou, but they informed me that the minimum order quantity is 2000 and they wouldn’t produce one piece for me.
Li Mu and Lu Daode are at the work site, making the Sol LeWitt wall painting
NYY：You finished the two wall paintings (Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing no.56 , no.480). Before finishing, did you ever consider finding a local painter to work with?
LM：I was thinking of inviting him (Lu Daode), but wasn’t sure whether I could manage to involve him in this project. It might be more interesting to have an old painter join me in the work, so I found him and asked his advice. At the beginning, he resolutely rejected me. For one thing, he said that he disliked Western art and was even against it; for another thing, he said he had many orders to paint statues of the Buddha and had no time to help me with the painting. At last, he added that he was afraid of the height and wasn’t willing to do it. I told him that he would be paid for the work, for the art museum sponsors this project. On the other hand, it wouldn’t take him too much time. Two or three days would be enough. So it wouldn’t delay his own painting. After I told him this, he accepted my invitation to work together with me on the wall painting.
NYY：Did you take something else into consideration for your choice of Lu Daode?
LM：There is one thing that attracted me. I wanted to know more about this person through painting. When I was very little, I knew he could paint and was the only painter in the village. Maybe this cooperation is an opportunity for me to learn about him, which I’ve longed for since I was little. In my subconscious, I wanted to get close to him. I am curious about him.
NYY：Do you prefer one of the two paintings after finishing them.
LM：No, I like them both.
NYY：Back to the project, this project started three months ago. Is it going the way you expected or do you find that it is deviating from your original intention?
LM： I thought it would turn out to be different and dramatic, but nothing special happened in the process. Everything is proceeding naturally.
NYY：Usually, this kind of ordinariness wears down one’s passion. Are you affected by it?
LM：Sometimes, it does. You think why is it so ordinary and wonder if the project itself is an ordinary thing. But there is something in my personality. No matter if it is ordinary or dramatic, I always finish what I am doing.
NYY：Have you ever doubted this project?
LM：Yes, for sure.
LM：The last time I met Chen Tong in Shanghai, the first words he said were “you are treating the villagers as your laboratory rats in that project”. Many other artists also think that it’s unfair for the villagers. Because they think that the villagers can’t tell whether an artwork is good or not and this project might destroy the village’s cultural and natural environment. They even said that it’s a new form of cultural colonialism.
NYY：What do your think of that opinion?
LM：First of all, I didn’t refute their opinions and attitudes towards my project, and I didn’t I try to defend my work. I just told them what I was doing. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to defend it; on the other hand, I won’t know whether it’s cultural colonialism until I’ve completed it. I don’t want to define my work. The intellectuals and artists tend to judge a thing according to their own experience and concepts. They don’t have a lived experience in a village. Their knowledge of the village is based on their own concept. Since I have returned to the village from Shanghai, I have discovered that the things I am doing are very small things, very small.
NYY：What do you mean by saying it’s a small project?
LM: I once said that my whole project as far as the village is concerned is like a stone thrown into a mud pool which drowned and didn’t even make a ripple. It was swallowed by the environment. My project can’t change the village’s cultural ecology; neither can it destroy its natural environment nor mentally influence the village people. In fact, it is far from being that influential. At its best, it provides villagers with something to chat about or opens their horizon as they see something that they never saw before.
NYY：The cultural colonialism of the village claimed by the intellectuals is now turned into an entertainment event, isn’t it?
LM：I think so, because the villagers are interpreting and digesting my work in their own way. Also they are using that work (the Sol LeWitt wall sculpture) in their own way.
NYY：To what degree do you think the villagers pay attention to the Qiuzhuang project? According to a five-point scale, how would you score it?
NYY：It’s not overlooked?
LM：No. On the surface, it’s the talk of the village. They are now used to the existence of the library and are no longer suspicious of it. Though they are curious about me and the library, their curiosity won’t change their values and their daily life. It’s the seasoning to their life，providing something they can talk about. Or I would say it enriches their life.
NYY：What do you mean by “enrich”?
LM：There are two paintings in the village. They find them beautiful, though they can’t understand what it’s all about. I feel good as long as they think they are beautiful. I think they are enriching the village and even beautifying it.
NYY：Do the village people think the same way?
LM：I don’t know.
NYY：Did you ask them about that?
LM：Yes, the kids usually say they are not beautiful, but the adults usually say they are beautiful.
NYY：What exactly did the kids say?
LM：“So ugly”, the kids said. But the adults will say they are beautiful. The color is beautiful or they will say the lines are beautiful.
NYY：I’ve almost asked all my questions and can’t think of more.
Sol LeWitt’s wall painting (Wall Drawing no.56) in Qiuzhuang
LM：What do you think of my work since you came here?
NYY：Sometimes I feel a little bored.
LM：Is it that you feel bored or you think this work is boring?
NYY： Just like other village projects, you paint on the wall, open a library and so on. I expected it to be boring, but it’s perhaps the most suitable form. I’m still observing it.
LM：You’ve had the experience of doing village projects. When you first read my plan, you should have known what it would develop into?
NYY：No. When I first read your plan in NY, I probably agreed with those who thought your project was a cultural colonialism. Is he taking advantage of the villagers? I had this doubt in my mind, but it was removed after I came here.
LM：You don’t think it’s a cultural colonialism?
NYY：I don’t know much about this concept. But I thought that you were probably taking advantage of the villagers and turning it into a profitable project. Anyway, you can sell this project in the end. After arriving here, I discovered that this is a journey through your childhood memory mixed with your personal ambition. It’s an adventure in your life. Whatever the adventure is, you will experience some meaningless and boring time. I didn’t say I don’t like the boredom. On the contrary, I like it. I really like this boring state where everything happens naturally. You just let it happen and it will speak for itself.
LM：Did you feel bored in the process of doing your previous projects?
NYY：Eighty percent of the time, yes, sometimes even higher. You just wish you could finish it as soon as possible.
LM：when you don’t feel bored, is it for a short time?
NYY：I wish to finish it right away and then leave that place. What should I do here? I didn’t come here to help them. Nowadays, many village art projects are related to the social trends, such as “help and change people”. If you don’t follow that trend, your work has the chance of being identified as a cultural colonialism. Because you don’t help them, let alone change them. Did you ever think of helping them? Why didn’t you want to help them?
LM：In what way! Plus, I don’t have the power. You can help repair the road or build a bridge. This is the kind of help that the villagers need.
NYY：Do you think that your work here is helping them?
LM： It’s not help. It’s like giving a bowl of water to someone who is not thirsty at all. Do you think it’s a kind of help?
NYY：But I feel that your original intention of coming here is more or less to help them, isn’t it?
LM：Yes, I had that consideration at the beginning.
NYY：Why did you change your mind?
LM：Because I found they don’t need it.
NYY：How much does art mean to you? Everything?
LM：I don’t know.
NYY：Is it very important?
LM：Yes, very important.
NYY：Is it important to you or to others?
LM：To me, not to others.
NYY：Do you think that you are very selfish?
LM：For me, I have the strong wish to complete a thing. It has nothing to do with interest.
NYY：So in the process of doing your work, you basically didn’t care about others’ feelings?
LM：I tried hard to persuade myself to care about their feelings. Because their feelings and participation will become a very important part of my work.
NYY：When did this idea come to you, before or after you started the project?
LM：Usually, I don’t think that far when I’m putting all my heart into the work. It’s like painting. All that you think about is how to brush the color evenly or how to paint it better. At that moment, you don’t listen to anyone.
I feel I’m fighting alone in the village. It’s a battle that has no victory. This is what I think when I feel negative. But when I feel positive, I think that it’s still a good thing. Because no matter what the project finally turns out to be or what my art is about, I know there is a library in the village. This, to me, is always a good thing and I really hope it will remain there forever.
NYY：This month there are people coming to measure the villagers’ houses. They will be demolished no later than the end of this year. What will you do after that?
LM：Find another place. As long as there is a house available, I will rent one again. Actually, if you calm down to think about it, you will find that the library is a very important part of the project. It’s like a base from which all the other works come into being. It’s the source of my other works. Without the library, my other works look like spaceships landing from the air, totally alien to the villagers. But the library has a buffering function, offering people the time to learn about me and my works. But I also feel confused about the library, because I don’t know what to do with this library. I just know that I don’t want to make it a library in a general sense. It’s an ordinary library, but I feel it’s not enough. I’m not sure what else we can do with it.
Also, what I found meaningful is that this project is fun for people. For example, when the old painter Lu Daode worked with me on the wall painting, I was happy to see that he enjoyed working with me and felt fulfilled. Because of this, I think this project is meaningful.
NYY：Do you think that it brought lots of happiness to your family?
LM：Yes. My mother is very happy with my return. Then you came, and Zhong Ming next. Gradually, more friends came to visit. Don’t you think there is more energy in my family? I wish the whole project can bring more happiness to the whole village, like the happiness I brought to my family, the happiness the painting brought to Lu Daode. Then I will think that this project has value.
Time: April 25,2013 Location: in the cottonwood, backyard of Qiuzhuang
Recording Transferring: Zhong Ming Translator: Helen Zhang Proofreader: Ellen Zweig Angela Zito