On a recent visit to Manchester Art Gallery, my friend and I happened upon an exhibition of Li Yuan-chia’s work. We had visited the special exhibition on the top floor and weren’t going to look further into the gallery. We have visited many times before and have seen the permanent exhibits. We were working our way downstairs towards coffee, when I was distracted by a Bridget Riley. This was out of place. We’d had enough; we were ready for refreshment. But the Bridget Riley was a breadcrumb that distracted us and we turned the corner only to be blown away by several giant metallic discs. Each disc adorned with a splattering of magnets, restricted by the palette of gold, black, red and white, Li’s work is distinctive.
A few years ago, the Tate Modern in London displayed three of Li’s original discs. These were delicate, suspended by thin wire from the ceiling. They turned almost imperceptibly and were placed, firmly, wisely, necessarily, out of reach beyond an alarmed wire. They could be admired. They could be watched. They weren’t for play.
Manchester Art Gallery has done something different. They have commissioned new versions of these works. Far more heavy-weight than Li’s originals and with magnets cut from plastic, rather than delicately hand-decorated. This Magnetic Playground recreates the experience of the LYC gallery. Children are invited, they are welcomed and play is possible, but is not just for children.
The LYC Gallery closed before I could possibly remember it, but I remember the house. I remember the garden. I remember Li.
I remember the solid, sticky traybakes that he used to make and share with us. I remember photographs drying, pegged over the bath. I remember his patience telling us an elaborate folk story contained in a single Chinese character. My incredulity that so many complicated details could be contained in the individual brush strokes that combined together to construct the artistry of the character and the incidents of the story.
The LYC Gallery was near Hadrian’s Wall, in the wild, debatable lands between England and Scotland. My parents were friends of Li and we used to visit him in the house that had been a gallery. My brother and I played in the garden, which rose steeply from the back of the house to what – for us – was a maze of pathways. The garden was full of eggshells. As children it felt as though the garden might crack open to produce new life or perhaps there was some exciting creature buried there. I wonder now, as an enthusiastic gardener, if that was an attempt to ward off slugs!
In Manchester, we sat and watched a short film that has been made by Helen Petts. An exploration of the house in its setting. Capturing some of the lingering sadness that taints the space that Li was unable to escape.
Behind us was the laughter of people enjoying the space. People playing a three way table tennis game. People drawing at the table. People creating new composite shapes with magnets.
There is a sign on the wall taken from the LYC Gallery, which invites visitors to ‘Enjoy yourselves, but don’t waste paper. The paper is free. Please leave the table tidy.’ This gentle exhortation to tidy playfulness resonates with me. I want you to play and I will provide the space for you to do so, but please recognise the parameters of the game. It is those rules that make play possible. Respect the time that you given to the game by committing and playing whole-heartedly. Playing is most enjoyable when you dedicate yourself fully to it.
For the first time in Manchester, I saw a connection between Li’s work and my own. Work that I have known as long as I can remember. I recognise in my own playful methods, the restrictions that Li placed on his work. The importance of playing for adults, as well as children and, if possible, all playing together.
Photographs taken during visit to Manchester Art Gallery.
This exhibition is on until 22 April 2019. More information can be found here: http://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/speech-acts/