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Beynon, Kate - 1996.5.5

Kate Beynon

Li Ji (Li Ji) 1996
chenille sticks and cotton, TDK D60 audio tape
119 x 261 cm irreg.
Purchased 1996

This 1996 series takes as its subject the story of Li Ji, written in the eastern Jin dynasty between 317 and 420 ACE. The youngest of six daughters to Li Dan of Jiangle county in the Fujian province, Li Ji slayed a fearsome python that had terrorised the population of Mount Jong in the eastern Yue region for close to a decade.[1] Each year, on the first day of the eighth month, the python demanded to eat a village girl of just twelve or thirteen years, having refused offerings of oxen and sheep and killing many county officials who had tried to tame it. In the tenth year, Li Ji offered herself as the sacrifice, conscious of the ‘burden’ she presented to her parents, who had only daughters.

Li Ji’s self-sacrifice, however, was a ruse to confront the beast, which she lured out of its cave with honeyed rice balls. Equipped with a snake-hunting dog and sharp sword, she slayed the python and recovered the skulls of the nine victims. King Yue rewarded Li Ji by making her his queen and promoting her father to magistrate of Jiangle county. This ‘fairytale’ ending is ambiguous: a conservative fate for an independent warrior girl and a strategic political manoeuvre on her part.

In this body of work, the Hong Kong–born, Melbourne-based Chinese Welsh Australian Kate Beynon recounts the story in six parts: the Jiangle commandant and the mountain where the python lives, the python, Li Ji as a warrior girl, her snake-hunting dog and, finally, Li Ji as queen. Each station of this cycle consists of a line drawing executed in black chenille (pipe cleaner), with accompanying text in Chinese pictograms executed in red chenille. Once used to clean smoking pipes, chenille stems are considered one-time-only objects, to be discarded after use. They also are also a craft material and widely used in children’s craft activities. Chenille stems vary in diameter and the style referred to as ‘bumpy’ mimics well the hand-drawn variegations of calligraphic brushstrokes.

In the Li Ji series, the stems’ short lifecycle is arrested, as the chenille is pinned to the wall like delicate butterflies. At once drawing and sculpture – two- and three-dimensional – the story told in the stems spreads out across the gallery walls in large sections, offering different visual experiences depending on the viewer’s position. From a distance, the chenille reads as bold graphic lines, but as the viewer approaches, the lines seem to blur like wet ink on parchment.[2] The gallery space is also suffused with Michael Pablo and Leigh Ryan’s musical composition, an electronic track overlaid with a voice reading the story of Li Ji in Mandarin.

Beynon is renowned for her pictorial investigations into Chinese mythology and for invigorating these often-ancient legends using contemporary artistic styles, media and techniques – from watercolour paintings to digital animations to comic book–style drawings.[3] Beynon performs a type of time travel. Her hybridised subjects hail from both the past and the present, suggesting a cyclical temporal quality. They are also culturally hybrid: Chinese and Australian, ‘Oriental’ and ‘Occidental’, ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’. Indeed, the artist initially learnt the story of Li Ji from an English–Chinese language textbook while she was learning Mandarin in Australia as a young adult. Beynon uses this vantage of temporal and cultural hybridity to model defiant behaviour against the forces of race and gender oppression in contemporary Australian society – the society in which she produced the works.

Li Ji features in several other artworks by Beynon during this period, including the video animation Li Ji: Warrior Girl 2000, also held in the Monash University Collection. Li Ji exemplifies Beynon’s figurative practice, which is dominated by narratives of heroines from different cultures and time periods – past, present and future.

Dr Helen Hughes is Research Fellow, Department of Fine Art, Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University.

[1] The python was said to be up to eighty feet long and wider than the span of ten hands; its eyes glinted like mirrors and its breath formed an eerie mist that spread across the valley.

[2] Of this process, Beynon writes: ‘The chenille sticks (having a wire centre) are twisted together and trimmed. The black wall drawings were more slowly constructed and referenced the lines of historical Chinese illustrations and prints, whereas the red characters were made in a more rapid ‘freestyle’ fashion – trying to capture the flowing effect of more cursive calligraphic styles, which are sometimes quite abstract and not always legible – being more about the energy of the brushstrokes.’ Kate Beynon, email to the author, 19 December 2016.

[3] This body of work was also influenced by martial arts heroines of 1960s Hong Kong cinema.

From the series
Beynon, Kate - 1996.5.3
Kate Beynon

Li Ji (Mountain) 1996
chenille sticks and cotton, TDK D60 audio tape
221 x 248 cm irreg.
Purchased 1996