Amiko Li’s ‘The Purpose of Disease,’ curated by Katie Geha, opened at The Dodd Galleries at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia, on February 27th, 2020, but was closed prematurely by the outbreak of Covid-19 in the U.S. Nevertheless, the show’s relevance continues to proliferate. Li began research for this work in 2017 upon discovery of a mysterious rash spreading across his body. As he investigated remedies for the condition, other threads of research, ranging from tetrachromacy in birds and the relationship between photographs and text, gradually converged experiences of mind and body. The following conversation with Li considers the multiple entry points to embodied and cultural dis-ease.
Laurel V. McLaughlin (LM): This project seems to have many different points of origin. Could you discuss how they emerged and converged within this exhibition?
Amiko Li (AL): I was trained as a photographer, but for the past couple of years I have collected many materials that are difficult to unpack in their full complexity through just photographic prints. Initially, I had a hard time literally translating my research into pictures; for instance, I wondered how to make pictures about language and consciousness, rejecting the duality of mind-body. I went to different labs from Plant Biology to Vision Science at the University of Georgia where I teach, and realised that I much preferred to have these materials exist in the backdrop of the non-linear space I was creating. In this exhibition, I am translating these materials into photography, text, and ephemera – media that are not aestheticized, but everyday.
For me, the photographs in the exhibition are more open-ended, they are less about specific location or exact identity; the texts and objects scattered around the gallery space provide hints to introduce the interpretation of the photographs. For instance, research papers on the role of jasmonic acid as a traumatic signalling system that allows plants to defend themselves against insects and animals are displayed alongside a scan of an engraving by Pieter Brueghel based on Hendrik Hondius’ portrayal of three women affected by the ‘dancing plague’ in 1564 in Flanders. I am creating a space with multiple entry points and various voices.
LM: In many ways, the work is critically linked to your larger practice as a photographer. Dis-ease and its numerous manifestations, resonances, and dissonances manifest within the “sight” of the lens and your relationship to it. Could you discuss the photographs in the exhibition and how they meditate upon the fallibility, or inadequacy, of sight in particular?
AL: People used to say “seeing is believing.” Now it is difficult to believe that any image exists without modification or curation. I remember seeing carefully-selected pictures in English textbooks when I was studying in China. They were Risographs and for me, a peep into a set of cultural norms that seemed unfamiliar and strange. I did wonder if those photos were taken by a Chinese photographer (and who paid them to go there), or if they were imported.
The earliest photograph in the exhibition is ‘Body Drawing’ from 2017. I had a full-body rash and was hospitalised for almost two weeks. During the first days of its emergence, I asked my mother to take a picture of my back for me to see. When the doctor could not give me a diagnosis, I was desperately searching for pictures online. I wanted to know the exact cause of my rash, comparing results from different bug bites to allergic reactions to foster a sense of control and agency. This, of course, led me nowhere.
LM: The relationship between text and the photographs—on mirrored surfaces, sticky notes, and the window panes—creates an embodied dialogue within the viewer. How do you envision this relationship?
AL: Back when documentary photography functioned as “visual proof” in contexts like newspapers, image and text were closely intertwined. Photography is capable of providing all these vivid details, but at the same time remains generic. We take photos of information, much like note-taking, such as views from rooftops, the opening hours of parks, check deposits, and wall labels in museums. With that in mind, I infuse these familiar interactions with information mediated by the lens with poetry and questions, referencing signage on mirrors in a changing room and post-it notes in a corporate office. I wonder how the viewer feels reading about how dull our vision is compared to birds standing in front of the same window pane…
LM: You reference forms of dis-ease, some of which you diagnose from culture at large, and some of which resonate with you personally, almost as autobiography. How do these dualities function in your work—culture and self, dis-ease and disease?
AL: In “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), Donna Haraway discussed problematic dualisms, such as truth against imagination, public against private, thought against emotion, and self against other. I have noticed there is an expectation of me as a queer artist from China to address issues of identity, human rights, and surveillance technology. I wonder how to tackle these nuanced problems without playing the victim, especially since there is an assumed boundary between the East and the West concerning brainwashing and consciousness which is not accurate and fed by political propaganda. When my identity and my work is interpreted as representative of all Chinese people, or even worse, all Asians, autobiography and specificity become crucial. In this body of work, I incorporate metaphors such as plant migration and acupuncture therapy to challenge the simplified gaze and the lack of nuance concerning Chinese culture.