Li Ran is an artist known for his performances and pseudo-documentaries that investigate the institutions of art history and contemporary art. Employing mimicry, repetition and satire to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, Li draws attention to dominant narratives that have been accepted as truth.
Li began exploring mimicry in the 2012 performance Mont Sainte-Victoire at Magician Space in Beijing. The name of the work derives from the mountain Paul Cézanne immortalised in his paintings, which Li took as an entry point into modernism. In the four-act performance, the artist read from an original script, switching between various personalities ranging from a middle-aged man to a left-wing youth, a rapist and a victim. On the surface, the performance seemed to be a personal investigation into art history; the dialogue consisted of the artist's own writing as well as borrowings from prominent essays such as Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text and Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilisation. However, by consciously introducing fissures to the artwork—by quoting poorly translated selections of the texts or presenting the dialogue in illogical sequences—Li's act was in part a critique directed at Chinese artists, who in his view have accepted ideas imported from the West without critically scrutinising modernist concerns.
Since then, Li has adopted mimicry as a tool to challenge dominant narratives. His 2012 video Beyond Geography—created for the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale—imitates the narrative structure and style of the BBC Discovery travel series. In a quest to 'excavate the "exotic lands"', Li adopts the role of the nature show host, a character who is a cross between a fetishist and an anthropologist. The zealous explorer-adventurer navigates through the jungle—an 'expedition' that takes place in an empty film studio with a blue screen—and encounters an exotic tribe played by a group of young Chinese actors. In keeping with the original series, Li even narrates in the earnest manner of Discovery, in Chinese. By mimicking widely recognisable characters, Li engenders suspicion over the authenticity of popular media while exposing the construction of the exotic other.
Li also dissects the crafting of the 'other' in Retransformation of the Supporting Roles (2017), a two-channel video in which he positioned footage from 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Chinese films next to his recreations of them. During the period, antagonist characters were required to have a more Caucasian appearance than the heroes to reinforce the idea of the enemy of China as Western. Because of the lack of Caucasians living in China at the time, minorities from the Uyghur, Kazakh, Muslim and other communities were hired to play the villains. In his re-enactment, Li cast Chinese minorities of similar origin to reproduce scenes from films such as Surprise Attack (1960) and Death-Pay on the Coral Island (1980) as a way of suggesting that such propaganda mechanisms are still operative today; often, when internal political conflicts arise, mainstream Chinese media find a common enemy in foreigners to discourage the disagreements.
Since graduating from the Oil Painting Department at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2009, Li has exhibited extensively, including at the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2017); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2017, 2013); CAFA Art Museum, Beijing (2012) and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2012). He has also participated in multiple international exhibitions, notably La Biennale de Montréal (2014); Biennale de l'Image en Mouvement, Geneva (2014); Moscow International Biennale for Young Art (2014), in which he received the Best Artist Award; Gwangju Biennale (2012); and the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale (2012). In 2017 Li was nominated for the Future Generation Art Prize by PinchukArtCentre in Kyiv for his Retransformation of the Supporting Roles.
Li currently lives and works in Shanghai.