Fish Out of Water



Investigating how living the hermit’s life jars against the modern, urban environment, Li Chen’s work attempts to capture city life through the eye of the recluse by using paint and neon.


“In Chinese culture, becoming a hermit is honoured and hermit tradition has potentially affected all aspects of Chinese society, especially in art. In this series, I took inspiration from the Chinese saying: the ordinary hermit hides deep in the forest, but the best hermit lives in the city. A good hermit can't be stunned by the deafening noise of the mundane, and moreover, the most bustling place can test and even prove the ability of the hermit’s sense of self.

In an interview with famous director Wong Kar-Wai, he expressed: 'we can't really escape from society (the city), just like fish and water.' Engagement in society or living in an idealistic lifestyle, the boundary between them are both clear and blurred.

This work is also an exploration into how the modern environment influences people’s lifestyles. The loose space such as the fish market and night market can be seen as a miniature city, even a society. The crowd is an inseparable element, as water and fish. The saltiness, hustle and bustle, the downright smell and the encounter. You can perceive this world as being full of emotion and human nature, with all its complexities and story-telling.

I wanted to express a sense of suffocation and depression that can be felt amidst crowds of bustling strangers in the market. My research of market places such as Marrakesh, Kowloon Town, and the Arcades Project, enabled me to narrow down my decision to paint cityscapes. In the words of Charles Baudelaire:

‘The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense job to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite’.

Street art also had a big influence over my work. Initially based around the idea of Cyberpunk, which involved a combination of high tech and low life, I attempted to find a sharp contrast between dazzling advertising signs and dark, dirty alleyways. Photography helped me capture and record my observations. Posters, overlooked advisements, graffiti, and tagging deliver a lot of fragmented messages and information about a city and crowd.

To me, neon light is a kind of visual language, a narrative of city life. It’s very hard to ignore the presence and pervasiveness of neon lights in the urban cityscape”.

See more of Li’s work via her website or follow her @catmint_li.