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Featuring newly commissioned and existing works that combine music, sculptural assemblages, and video installation, it explores the complexities of colonial history, cultural memory, and hybrid identities.
Li’s work in the exhibition combines autobiographical allegories with a tapestry of cultural influences. Visitors are taken from the night markets of Hong Kong to the blues parties of Hulme and Moss Side, via Jamaican recording studios owned by the descendants of Chinese coolies. The reggae classic ‘Always Together’ runs through the heart of the exhibition, where music becomes a medium for cultures to meet, mix, and become hybrid.
As a child wandering through the working-class market districts of Hong Kong, Dinu Li overheard ‘Always Together,’ mistaking it for a Chinese folk classic. Years later, the song unexpectedly reappeared like a phantom at one of the inner-city blues parties Li frequented during his 1980s Manchester youth, and decades after that, the song once again re-emerged on YouTube.
It wasn’t until much later that Li learned the song was actually recorded in Jamaica in 1967 in one of a small number of Chinese recording studios, some of which helped shape the sounds of Lee Perry, Augustus Pablo, and Bob Marley. Through his work tracing the history of early reggae, Li’s exhibition, ‘A Phantom’s Vibe,’ serves as a means of unearthing the underrepresented history of Chinese coolies in Jamaica, subverting main-stream cultural hegemony.
Li infuses the gallery with his own dub track, ‘Skanking Hawker,’ interspersed with sounds from a tribal mountain song recorded from the hinterlands of China. The composition is completed with a sampling of ‘Always Together’ sung in Chinese by Stephen Cheng, manifesting the ways in which music can offer a sense of escapism for marginalised groups as vibrations reverberating from their sound systems act as symbols of expression and defiance.
In ‘A Phantom’s Vibe,’ Li brings the ambience of Hong Kong markets to the gallery through sculptural works informed by stalls and vendor’s carts, featuring pom poms, hair extensions, fake pearls, and reggae-coloured cable ties that combine to form a new lexicon. Union Jack-coloured tarpaulins, ubiquitous in Southeast Asian street markets, act as screens or backdrops. Li’s seemingly idiosyncratic arrangements avoid singular, linear narratives and instead attempt to forge new connections and alliances between slippery cultural boundaries.
In addition to the five new works featured in the exhibition, visitors to ‘A Phantom’s Vibe’ can also view Li’s video installation Nation Family (2017) and photographic slide projection Folk Songs (2013).
Throughout his practice, Li creates a discourse on the intercultural complexities of contemporary identities. He challenges boundaries and classifications, exploring fresh perspectives and establishing novel systems of reference.
This exhibition represents a new direction for Li’s work, as he integrates an environmental impetus into his practice. He creates his sculptural assemblages from discarded, salvaged, and second-hand materials, which he will repurpose into future works.
Dinu Li said: “I feel deeply rooted to the street markets of Hong Kong, the place where it all started for me. It is a place that has provided so much visual and sonic stimulus. And a place where I got my first taste of black music as a child. My latest work represents the spirit of a place and music. The exhibition at esea contemporary feels quite a coincidental experience, as the building in which the gallery is located used to be one of Manchester’s market districts. It seems as if the exhibition was meant to be.”
Xiaowen Zhu, the Director of esea contemporary, said: “We are thrilled to present Dinu Li’s ‘A Phantom’s Vibe,’ a much-anticipated exhibition that seamlessly weaves together music, sculpture, and video installation to explore the complexities of colonial history, cultural memory, and hybrid identities. Li’s use of discarded materials and his intercultural discourse further solidify our collaborative approach to create a thought-provoking and environmentally conscious display of contemporary art in the heart of Manchester. ”
esea contemporary (formerly the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art) is the UK’s only non-profit art centre specialising in presenting and platforming artists and art practices that identify with and are informed by East and Southeast Asian cultural backgrounds. ‘A Phantom’s Vibe’ is the organisation’s second exhibition since its relaunch in January 2023.