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Li Yuan-chia and the books of the LYC Museum and Art Gallery

19 May – 27 July 2017

Li Yuan-chia (1929-94) was a pioneer of abstract art in 1950s Taiwan, and is now considered one of the first Chinese conceptual artists.

Li was a great innovator, who worked across an extraordinary range of media - from ink painting, reliefs, performance and participatory works to concrete poetry, sculpture, photography and film. This display concentrates on his work as a sculptor. Prior to leaving the repressive conditions of Taiwan under martial law, he had already begun to stray from abstract paintings with conceptual experiments, which included producing artworks by making marks on scrolls of fabric.

After joining the international artists group Il Punto (‘The Point’), co-founded by the artists Hsiao Chin (b. 1935) and Antonio Calderara (1903-78) in Milan in 1961, Li travelled to Bologna where he stayed for four years. Subsequently moving to London after an invitation to exhibit at Signals in 1965, Li had three solo shows at Lisson Gallery between 1967 and 1969. During the 1960s he began making reliefs and panels, with punctured, painted or collaged points, and experimented with photography. Li also began writing poetry, or what he called ‘songs’ in Italian and English, and incorporating texts in Chinese and English into his artworks. Possibly, he was inspired by the visual texts of his friends, the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel (1919-88) and the poems of Dom Sylvester Houédard (1924-92).

Combining different elements, Li created participatory art works and ‘total environments’ that could be wandered through, made from hanging discs, magnetic points, poems, photographs, crumpled tissue and polythene sheets. He proposed the concept of Toy Art, which meant, as he wrote in the catalogue for his exhibition at his studio at Boothby in 1968, that his works were ‘very simple’ but could be played with and so had ‘many possibilities’ and were ‘good for everyone, from children to old men (and women)’.

In 1968, Li moved to Cumbria, with the idea of taking his participatory experiments further. Four years later he established the extraordinary LYC Museum and Art Gallery at Banks, near Hadrian’s Wall in a dilapidated farmhouse. There, Li held over 330 exhibitions, concerts and poetry readings for local and international artists, poets and musicians and made catalogues for every exhibition from his own printing press. He supported scores of emerging artists, such as Andy Goldsworthy (b. 1956), David Nash (b. 1945) and Shelagh Wakely (1932-2011). Reportedly attracting some 30,000 visitors a year, the LYC Museum is also remembered as ‘community space’ that included a library, a children’s room, a sculpture garden and a small theatre.

This display is drawn from the Henry Moore Institute Research Library collection and comprises loose components from the exhibition catalogue of Cosmic Point (1967), Li Yuan-chia’s first show at the Lisson Gallery, London and a range of LYC Museum and Art Gallery artist books and catalogues.

This display has been developed by Dr Janette Martin, Archivist-Curator at the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, which holds the Li Yuan-chia Archive. She has worked with Dr Diana Yeh, Lecturer in Sociology, Culture and the Creative Industries at City University of London on this display. Dr Yeh was curator of the Li Yuan-chia exhibition at the Richard Saltoun Gallery (2016) and is Trustee of the LYC Foundation.