Wearing long hair, listening to rock'n'roll, shaking one's legs and smoking cigarettes are among the many traits of a failure in society according to my chemistry teacher, Mr. Chen, as he slowly turned his head towards me. He bragged about his wonderful British master's degree and how disciplined he was. Those were my high school days. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. I came to the United States when I was a teenager. Growing up in Hong Kong, creativity was not encouraged. Many of my friends from high school either wanted to be doctors, engineers or perhaps businessmen. My plan was to pursue my study in engineering. Coming to America liberated me. Via the influences of my "American" friends and pop cultures, I became increasingly interested in the arts to express and to communicate using visual language.
As an immigrant, I am developing an understanding of home and place. I do not look American. I speak English with a somewhat Chinese/British accent. Trust me, I am a legal resident. As a matter of fact, I am an American citizen. I used to drive a Honda and carried a copy of my citizenship paper in my wallet . I am a good driver and I am not a drunk. My car was old and slow. My face turns slightly red after I have a beer. I hate it when the cop is behind me. I get very nervous and my ability to communicate in English deteriotates.
I used to work as a waiter in a Japanese restaurant run by a Taiwanese family. Sue, one of the sushi chefs, often mentioned to me, "Your English is good. You have a good future and you will make good money." Really. I wondered. Sue came from Taiwan and worked everyday to support her two children. A highschool friend from Hong Kong, Raymond, visited me a few years back. During dinner, he pointed out, "You are no longer young. You can't make a good living from art. You'd be better off getting a professional job. Perhaps pursue your art in leisure time. Allow me to pay for the dinner this time, my friend."
I've lived and worked in a storefront in the Mission district in San Francisco for years without a lease . In the past, there were several occasions when I encountered racial slurs. For instance, once when I was leisurely walking to my house, some buttheads driving by in a pickup truck told me to go home while another time, a Latino man called me Bruce repeatedly in the gym where I used to workout. Frankly, I cannot afford a home. And Bruce is dead. Stupid. Call me Jackie,Woo or Chow Yat-Fat, please! At least, they are still alive.
The concept of home has been central to my work . Home is not here or there. Home is within myself. My work explores personal feelings of dislocation, loss and longing, and the search of self and home. I use photography as a tool to express these ideologies. In my earlier work, I was particularly interested in the Van Dyke printing method. Its characteristic brown tone lends a sense of age and history bridging the land of my past and the shore of my new home. My work is a personal investigation of my heritage. By examining my roots, I am trying to find a sense of place and harmony within myself. Using a self-portrait model, I am interested in presenting my work in the form of mixed media installations. Life is complex and multi-dimensional. The installation approach to image making serves as a vehicle to integrate the many layers of my work. My photographic installations incorporate self-portraits, family snapshots, materials culled from mass media, consumer products, sounds and videos to address the issues of home, family, racism and immigration.
The multiple personae series entiled Flash It explores the notion of identity in multiple presence. This series of work consists of humorous color self-portraits of myself dressed up in numerous radically diverse costumes. For each persona, my California driver's license is manipulated with a new name and address. Instead of claiming a fixed identity, I am investigating an elastic one. I am interested in the issues of change, disguise and assimilation in the contemporary American society via the influences of popular culture. As a whole, the multiple personae raise the issue of the ambiguous schizophrenic identities within myself. The window installation entitled Home Sweet Home is a mixed media installation which incorporates photography, lights, sounds and domestic items, reflective of my experiences. The continously playing audio tape is a recording of myself reading a list of questions that one might be asked during the citizenship test. The text collected from the media imprinted on napkins and underwear reflects recent hysteria towards immigrants and anti-Asian violence in this country. The self-portrait triptych backlit by a lightbulb, suggests a sense of hope and harmony within myself. The window installation entitled Citizenship is a mixed media photographic installation which consists of the enlarged green card and naturalization certificate hung from the ceiling, a list of the citizenship test questionaire mounted on the windows together with personal items hung on the wall and placed on the floor. With this project, I intend to challenge the preconceived notion of nationalities. The viewers are being confronted and questioned about their identities and the meanings of being an American citizen.
The mixed-media installations serve as a vehicle to convey the ironies and contradictions that one confronts as a newcomer to a land of supposed freedom, equality and opportunity.
Note: Saiman Li's work is also featured in Windows on Main Street.
Saiman Li was born and raised in Hong Kong. He received a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 1993. His work has been included in many group exhibitions as well as several solo exhibitions including the Alternative Museum and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Li was awarded an ArtMatters individual Artist Grant and was the recipient of a WESTAF Individual artist grant in Photography in 1995. He was recently an Artist-In-Residence at Giverny through the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Program in 1997. Saiman Li's exhibition in UNCOMMON TRAITS: RE/LOCATING ASIA is the largest solo exhibition of his work to date. Li currently lives and works in San Francisco.