Lei Lei, artist and winner of the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award: “The spectator should be the one to gain rights, not the artist”

Lei Lei

Lei Lei

Born 1985 in Nanchang (Jiangxi province), Lei Lei is an artist based in Beijing and Los Angeles, with his hands on animation, video, illustration, painting, graffiti, installation art, music and VJing.

An alumnus of Tsinghua University in Beijing (2009), Lei Lei has won awards at festivals around the world for his experimental animation work. In 2010, his short film This is LOVE received the Best Narrative Short award at Ottawa International Animation Festival. In 2013, his film Recycled, in collaboration with Thomas Sauvin, was selected by the Annecy animation festival and won the Grand Prix shorts - non-narrative at the Holland International Animation Film Festival. Lei Lei’s work has been featured in exhibitions throughout East Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia, and he has completed several artist residencies, including Yaddo, the Asian Cultural Council Cai fellowship, and La Bande Video in Quebec, Canada. In 2017, he was enrolled as a faculty member of CalArts Experimental Animation program in California.

Although he is not a photographer, Lei Lei won the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award in 2018 with Weekend, a video collage of images taken from photo albums and old magazines, shown in an exhibition curated by Dong Bingfeng. His exhibition will travel to Arles in Summer 2019 for the 50th edition of Rencontres d’Arles.

Lei Lei,  Potted Landscape Art Exhibition,  Bonsai Art Exhibition Office, 1979 © Courtesy of the artist

Lei Lei, Potted Landscape Art Exhibition, Bonsai Art Exhibition Office, 1979 © Courtesy of the artist

You won the Jimei x Arles Discovery Award for Weekend, a video collage of images taken from old magazines and photo albums. What was your original intention with this work? How did you collect the materials and how did you rework them in the video montage? 

It took me years to gather all the material used in this work; it isn’t something that happened overnight. For a long time I’ve had the habit of collecting old books and magazines from second-hand bookstores. And because my father worked in graphic design, we’ve always had a lot of art materials lying around in the house. I would scan or look for images and pictures in flea markets and dusty bookshops. In 2013, while working on Recycled with artist and collector Thomas Sauvin and exploring his Beijing Silvermine collection of photo archive, I discovered the charm of old photo albums from the 80’s, and realized I should pay more attention to my own family’s albums. Weekend did not emerge from any detailed blueprint but rather from a longterm collection which has been painstakingly sifted through, selected and pasted together; this became a series naturally in its own right.

Lei Lei, This is LOVE (2010), 2’38”

Animation: Lei Lei, Music: Li Xingyu, MC: J-fever

Your artistic practice started out with illustration and animation. Why and how did you start using photography?

My early work was classically artistic in style. I was given to romantic narratives. But when my animated shorts came out, my audience began to label my style. I soon realized I needed a way out. I felt that as a young artist, being boxed in was dangerous. I still had so much to explore and couldn’t do anything from a comfort zone. Starting with Recycled, I began using a lot of pre-existing material, and took on the role of compiler, drawing delicate links between myself and each raw article, exploring their inner meaning. Recycled was shown at many film festivals including the Annecy Animation Festival. I got a lot of pleasure from using different media, and exploring new perspectives on the language of dynamic imagery.    

Recycled, 2013

Animation by Lei Lei + Thomas Sauvin, Sound Art by Zafka

Some people were surprised that you won the Discovery Award at Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival because you did not use a photo camera for this project. Nevertheless the jury members for the award all pre-selected your work. One of the jury members, collector and art entrepreneur David Chau, explained: «Although no photo equipment is used in his work, he relies mainly on image and photo collages, and shows us new, unlimited possibilities for photography». What is your view on this?

I’d like to quote my curator Dong Bingfeng, as his introduction to my exhibition answers this question best: “The problem with photography today is that it has given way to imagery.” The relationship between images, how they are produced and viewed, is the relationship between the artist and the audience. In broader terms, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s an actual photo or if camera equipment is being used. What matters is the question raised by the artist’s work. I think that by selecting my work, Jimei x Arles made a strong statement. By making this decision, the festival manifested that the moving image is an important artistic medium, and should be discussed more in the future.

French release trailer for Jean-Luc Godard's WEEKEND (1967)

Why did you call this piece Weekend?

The weekend is a period of relaxation or an blank slate. It’s a time in which we need to make arrangements and decide what to do next. How we schedule our weekend determines what it means to us. In my work, fixed images are placed on a timeline and their meaning changes accordingly. The emotions and narrative change too, and this is the best part about this work. I also chose the name because I really like French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967).

In your work, you have your hands on a large range of material such as video, installation, music, VJ performance, blurring the boundaries that can be drawn between different types of arts, and creating a connection and discussion between these different genres. Were you always interested in working with such diverse equipment? 

I think I've been trying the most suitable means of expression, but this doesn’t come from my use of various materials and artistic language. No matter whether I use music, installation, moving images or film, everything will come together in the end. Dong Bingfeng mentioned my use of “nostalgia” in his curatorial introduction. I like to think it isn’t some kind of cheap consumer version, but rather an exploration of history, personal memory, delicate oral histories of family relations, that has coloured my artistic language in recent years.

I want to offer space, and a feeling of emptiness between images.
— Lei Lei

Using archive pictures necessarily sends the viewers into the past or into some sort of nostalgic space-time. What conception of history and of the past are you trying to convey?

My work doesn’t indicate a specific destination, and I hope it doesn't lead people in one direction or another. That would be very narrowing. I want to offer space, and a feeling of emptiness between images. I hope that between the music, images and dialogue, people have the occasion for self-reflection, an opportunity to add their own emotions and stories to the picture. Put another way, the spectator should be the one to gain rights, not the artist.

You have worked with archive pictures before: in Hand-coloured (2013), you created a virtual past, made up a story from old flea market black and white photos that you hand coloured in collaboration with Thomas Sauvin. How do you think collecting archives, working with fragments of history, very impersonal material, can still result in something very personal?

In Hand-coloured, I realized my experience of oral history was extremely fragmented. This realization will probably have an impact on future works. In Recycled and Hand-coloured, while gathering material, the artist is in quest for self-understanding, and while drawing links between self and image, is searching for self-identity. This process of bringing understanding and ways of expression towards myself makes my work particularly “personal”.

What do you expect from your upcoming exhibition at Rencontres d’Arles next summer?

I’ll be spending a lot of time between now and next summer thinking about this issue.

Lei Lei’s talk at TED Shanghai 2012

More information about Lei Lei’s work on his website, his Vimeo account, Instagram, WeChat: Leilei_animation and Weibo