- 26 Feb 2018
In the most recent issue of PMC Notes Hammad Nasar, independent curator and Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre, wrote a feature article on his research on the archives of artist Li Yuan-chia as part of the PMC's London, Asia project. You can now read the article below.
The LYC Museum & Art Gallery, located in the village of Banks astride Hadrian’s Wall, showcased the work of more than 300 artists between 1972 and 1983. Its transformation from a dilapidated barn into a hyperactive space for art was the single-minded effort of artist Li Yuan-chia (1929–1994), whose initials gave the museum its name.
Li acquired the barn from the painter Winifred Nicholson, whose work was showcased in four separate exhibitions at the LYC Museum. Li also showed the work of Winifred’s former husband, Ben Nicholson; daughter, Kate; and grandson, David. Around this familial nucleus was an exhibition programme of prodigious range and eclecticism; mixing local artists (Andy Christian, Susie Honour) with totemic national figures (Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth) and contemporary artists, now of international renown (Lygia Clark, Andy Goldsworthy), but then barely known in Britain.
The programme was indebted to Li’s circuitous cosmopolitanism, his commitment to art as a mode of experimentation, and his simultaneous engagement with the everyday and the transcendent. The initial vehicle for his artistic explorations was “the Point”—the “origin and end of creation”. Originally a spot of colour or mark in monochromatic paintings and reliefs, it eventually took the form of magnetised objects that could be moved around on metallic discs. He called these magnetic works “toys”, inviting active audience participation. Li was also a poet, designer-maker, and curator—of art and social interaction. For him art was social interaction.
Born in Kwangsi, China, Li moved to Taiwan in 1949, where he was part of the influential Tan-Fan Group of artists experimenting with abstraction. In 1962 he moved to Bologna, where he was associated with the Punto Group of artists. An invitation to show at Paul Keeler and David Medalla’s Signals Gallery brought him to London in 1966. He also had three solo exhibitions at Lisson Gallery between 1967 and 1969. But London’s regard for Li was not wholly reciprocated; a trip to Boothby in 1968, at his friend Nick Sawyer’s invitation, saw him settle there, opening the LYC Museum in 1972.
The Museum consumed Li. He built it himself—undertaking all building, plumbing, and electrical work. It hosted four new exhibitions a month, each accompanied by a catalogue that he designed and printed. Apart from galleries, LYC Museum had a children’s room, library, performance space, printing press, communal kitchen, and garden. It was an open space for the multiple possibilities of art
The artist Shelagh Wakely, who exhibited at the LYC Museum in 1979, saw the Museum as “a work of his [Li’s]”. It was an example of social practice before such a thing was named and tamed. And after its closure in 1983, it became the site of Li’s remarkable experimentation with hand-tinted photographs.
The networks and practices that the LYC Museum enabled and enriched have yet to be studied widely. Li’s own friendships and correspondence, for example, with the concrete poet and Benedictine monk, dom sylvester houédard, or the pioneering sound artist, Delia Derbyshire, Li’s assistant at LYC Museum (1976–77), also remain largely unexplored.
The LYC Museum is an exemplary site from which to consider the historic entanglements with the potential to enrich and expand existing histories of British art—a central concern of the Paul Mellon Centre’s collaborative research project, London, Asia.
The archives of Li Yuan-chia, dom sylvester houédard, and Delia Derbyshire are housed at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. The John Rylands Library is one of four public collections from which Hammad is curating an exhibition in conversation with the AHRC-funded Black Artists and Modernism Project led by the University of Arts London and Middlesex University in May 2018 at the Manchester Art Gallery.
Banner image: Li Yuan-chia produced a large body of hand-tinted photographs in the 1990s. This example is from the John Ryalnd Library's collection of the working copies. Li selected and marked the ones he considered finished artworks, which are in the collection of the LYC Foundation. Image courtesy of the LYC Foundation and The University of Manchester.
About the author
Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre