Hanging in a shadowy annex in Zilkha gallery is Wesleyan architecture major Yang Li’s current masterpiece: a hanging spread, nineteen photographs wide and sixteen photographs tall, of a cardboard city on top of an ocean. If it seems like you can’t see all of the pictures, don’t worry: the twenty three photographs are repeated over and over again, which are shown on the bottom two rows. The piece is called “Wish You Were Here,” and is a collection of postcards from Li’s imaginary city.
Li speaks softly and quickly, making you listen hard to the points he makes, while packing huge amounts of meaning into his words. In the space of a sentence or two, he takes you through four years of artistic theory, his childhood in China, and the intellectual demands of his thesis. His idea of a senior thesis was born purely out of a desire to really enjoy his last year at Wesleyan with little regard for practicality, because, he says “works conceived of passion can really move people.” Over the last three years, Li has visited six continents, and he recently began looking at the pictures he had taken on his travels and searched for a theme to present itself among the hundreds of photos. “I don’t take pictures of people…I take pictures of a certain mood in a space,” Li said.
“I told my professor I want to build a city…for myself,” he said. “I want to have one, so I can look at it. I think that [would be] such a pleasure [to have].” Li set to work constructing towers inspired by his travels—which include a year of architecture school in New York and Paris. Li’s advisor was in California at the time, so every week Le took pictures of his developing cardboard city and showed them to his advisor over Skype for feedback.
In the middle of the year, when Li presented these pictures to the arts faculty for a mid-year critique, some faculty members noticed the unique perspectives the photographs had of Yang’s city, and encouraged him to keep taking photographs, and not to focus so much on the city itself. This new phase of Yang’s project, however, was a challenge because he has no formal training in photography, though he does it as a hobby. Li was not dissuaded, and with the help of his studio-mate (Angus McCollough ’10) the project moved forward smoothly.
He also partially attributes this to his commitment to his own artistic perspective.
“I am very simple in terms of ideas,” he said. “I want[ed] to make things straightforward and precise, no matter what stage of the thesis I [was in].”
In the end, Li is pleased with his results and feels that his work accurately reflects his efforts and his desire to create his own universe, rather than adhering to a particular school of academic thought or cultural identity.
“I want to do something that is so original that every human can understand,” he said. That is how a new culture is created,” Li said.
Furthermore, Li is proud of his ability to transcend not only cultural boundaries, but also the conventional classifications of art.
“I am really glad that you can’t define [my thesis] as a particular discipline,” he said. “You can’t really say it is a photography or a sculpture or an architecture thesis, it’s really in between [all of those] which is great because I think I am not bounded by anything, I am trying to express this Platonic, imaginative city that exists in my mind, that came as a result of world travels.”