Here’s How Ancient History Inspired Li Ning’s Latest Show

“My work has always been about imagination and memory,” says the artist Li Ning, who makes prints, sculptures, videos and tattoos that feature fantastical dreamscapes populated with mysterious characters and mythical creatures. “Over the past few years in Hong Kong, if you’re an artist who has lived in Hong Kong and made work in Hong Kong, the word ‘memory’ always comes up. How do you deal with memories of recent social movements, of the pandemic time?” 

To find inspiration for his latest work, Li has dug much, much deeper into the history of the city than just the past few years. A few months ago, he was approached by the curator Ying Kwok, who was looking to commission a work from Li for the opening exhibition of the Showcase gallery in Landmark South, a new office tower in Wong Chuk Hang that is the new home of the Arts Development Council (HKADC). “Ying asked that the work have some connection to Wong Chuk Hang,” says Li. “But I don’t have a connection to it. I grew up in the New Territories, my studio is in To Kwa Wan.” 

Li was stuck. Then, while doing research, he stumbled upon a mention of some rock carvings that had been discovered in the hills behind Wong Chuk Hang in the 1980s and had since been dated to the Bronze Age, roughly 3,500 years ago. “These carvings are just 15 minutes’ walk from the Wong Chuk Hang MTR station. To have things like this just a few minutes’ walk from the city is crazy,” says Li. In just half an hour, it’s possible to wander from a trendy urban neighbourhood to a site of ancient history nestled in a tropical jungle – and back again. “Hong Kong is amazing,” he says. 

Li used these ancient carvings for inspiration for three prints that are now on show at the HKADC gallery in Landmark South in an exhibition titled Marginal Notes, which runs until October 1. Also in Wong Chuk Hang, just around the corner, four of Li’s works from a different series are included in The Floating World, a group exhibition curated by André Chan at Ben Brown Fine Arts, which closes on September 9. 

“I started to imagine who did these carvings, and for what,” says Li. He discovered there is limited information about them. The most detailed research into these ancient artworks has been done by the archaeologist William Meacham, who in 2013 self-published the book Rock Carvings in Hong Kong. In it, Meacham dates the Wong Chuk Hang carvings to the Bronze Age because their swirling, geometric patterns match those found on Chinese pottery from the Shang Dynasty, which dates from 1600 BC to 1046 BC. 

Stone Face One, Stone Face Two, Stone Face Three and Stone Face Four (2022), at Ben Brown Fine Arts

The Hong Kong Antiquities and Monuments Office claims that the carvings contain “stylised animal or monster forms,” which are possibly representations of the Taotie, a malevolent creature from Chinese mythology said to have an insatiable appetite that leads it to eat everything it encounters. The Taotie — which has inspired other contemporary artists from Hong Kong, including Kongkee — features in a print that Li made for Marginal Notes. Li’s work depicts an enormous, fish-like monster, which appears to be flying, dangling a person out of its mouth. (This is not the only fish-like monster to appear in contemporary art in Hong Kong in recent years – the lo ting appears in the art of Ant Ngai Wing-lam, Kacey Wong and Lam Tung-pang, as well as in films and novels.)

At first glance, another of Li’s prints seems to be a much more literal representation of the carvings. It reproduces a pattern taken from the rocks in Wong Chuk Hang, which in the print appear to be buried beneath tangled vines. But if you look more closely at that image, it becomes clear that the pattern itself is not printed on rocks or another inanimate surface but on an indeterminate monster, perhaps another Taotie, this one hiding in one of Hong Kong’s dense forests. 

Li’s final print in Marginal Notes is based on a photo he took of a friend walking to see the rock carvings. The friend is featured from behind, so he’s anonymous. Hovering above him is another strange creature, while to his side is a ghostly naked man who might be one of the original rock carvers. The image prompts the question: are these spectral figures figments of the man’s imagination, or are they real-life invisible forces that remain attached to these ancient rock carvings? It’s this mixture of fact and fantasy, and past and present, that characterises much of Li’s work. 

Although the works on show at Ben Brown Fine Arts are from a different, earlier series, they’re similarly inspired by rocks. They were made for Welcome Jon Looka, a solo exhibition of Li’s works at Gallery Exit over the summer of 2022. For that show, Li imagined a fictional village in a post-apocalyptic universe filled with unusual landscapes, including an island covered in strange stones. At Ben Brown Fine Arts, he is showing drawings of four of these imagined stones and a ceramic sculpture of another. 

These pencil drawings deviate from Li’s signature style. In these works, the rocks are all positioned against a plain, white background, as if they’re floating in mid-air. They’re also drawn three-dimensionally, carefully shaded to give a sense of their physical forms. As most of Li’s other work takes the form of linocuts, much of it is self-consciously two-dimensional, almost cartoon-like in its flatness. 

Li’s characteristic style has developed partly because of his work as a tattooist, which he pursues alongside making art. “For me they are different scales of communication,” he says. Tattooing is inherently an intimate process, normally only involving Li and the client. He describes the process of tattooing somebody as being like a “ceremony.” It’s also partly collaborative: he must listen to the client and understand what they want on their skin. “Tattooing is about learning how to read other people, and knowing how other people see things,” he says. “Making art is like trying to know more about myself. Deciding what I stand for and trying to express those views through works.”  

But they involve very similar techniques. “Making a linocut is all about lines, like a tattoo. The tattooing really inspires the printmaking,” says Li. Just as a tattoo artist uses a needle, making a linocut requires Li to use a knife to cut an image into a linoleum sheet. These tools don’t allow for the shading that you can achieve with a pencil or paintbrush, which means that almost all of Li’s work is created solely through line drawing. Li’s full name is Li Ning-fung, but he works under the name Li Ning because “when these two words are connected, they become lining, which is the main element of my tattoos.”

Most of Li’s prints also feature busy backgrounds, which he also attributes to his tattoo work. “In tattooing, there’s a term called ‘flash,’” he explains. A tattoo flash is a tattoo design drawn on paper, like the ones displayed on the walls of tattoo parlours and enclosed in binders that are given to clients. Flashes are complete images designed to be copied directly onto the client’s skin. 

If you look closely at Li’s larger prints, including one of the pieces in Marginal Notes, you’ll see that they are collages of many prints cut out and pasted together to compose one complete image. “I always draw each part of the print as an individual flash,” says Li. “Most other artists draw in a different way: they draw the whole landscape, the whole composition, at once.” Li’s approach results in packed, busy artworks, filled with detail, making the minimalism of his pieces at Ben Brown unusual. “I’m trying different things,” he says. “I normally create imagined worlds and two-dimensional works. Sometimes I want to have some 3D things to make the world more reliable, more real.” 

While he uses flashes for his prints, he never uses flashes in his tattoo work. “I tailor-make every tattoo,” he says, meaning each of his clients receives their own unique artwork on their skin. “Human skin is the most precious material. I find the mindset of tattooing very enjoyable because you can’t lose focus – you’re focused for a few hours on one thing. It’s good for my mental health, I think.”

Li first began tattooing when he was studying for his fine art degree at the Hong Kong Art School. “This year it’ll be 10 years since I started tattooing,” he says. “I always wanted to make marks on bodies. I remember when I was in secondary school, I went to the beach with all my friends. I made stencils and I lay them on their skin, waiting for the sun to make marks.” The first tattoo Li ever gave was to himself, when he was in his late teens. “If you take off the trousers of tattoo artists, their legs are 90% covered with tattoos they’ve given themselves,” he says, laughing. Now Li is one of the most in-demand tattoo artists in Hong Kong; he is booked out until the end of 2023. 

Li is currently exploring ways to bring his tattooing and printmaking even closer together. He is a research fellow at the Hong Kong Open Printshop, a non-profit printmaking organisation in Shek Kip Mei, where he is experimenting with using a tattoo machine in the printmaking process. He is also trying to make films. “I really want to make video works,” he says. “To make videos using different types of prints.” 

It’s easy to imagine Li’s psychedelic prints coming to life through the medium of video. Some of his works even include direct references to films and TV shows, such as David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. He hopes that his research at Hong Kong Open Printshop will allow him to make work in new and interesting ways, which will allow him to share his wondrous worlds with different audiences. “I’ve always been focused on the imagination part of making art, on making stories,” he says. “Now I’m trying to learn more about the technical part, so that I can develop my work further.”

The Floating World runs until September 9, 2023 at Ben Brown Fine Arts. Marginal Notes runs until October 1 at Showcase in Landmark South.

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