Before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home…. It is a human thing to do to put something into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair… and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people.
—Ursula K. LeGuin
I feel ownership over the surname Li despite my Jewish-American upbringing. I went to China during the summer of 2018, hoping to meet estranged relatives and mourn the death of an absent father. I learned of Li Youngzhou’s death in 2016 from his sister Li Sze Min via facebook, allegedly ten years after he died. I didn’t meet any relatives while in China, instead I visited grave yards and funerary sites, taking inventories of what people “carried to death.” I reflected on the essential and superfluous items I carried in my own Mountainsmith “Lily” backpack. What is carried on a trip to the grocery store? To Virgina? To the other side of the world? Into the afterlife? What choices are made out of necessity? What is carried out of fear?
LeGuin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, describes the bag as the original object. She uses the vessel as a metaphor for an all inclusive version of storytelling, an alternative to the hero/action arch. The vessel has always been integral to the way I think about my work. From my formative years studying pottery and mold making, to my interest in the body as an emotional container, the vessel remains an important conceptual and physical aspect for my sculptures.
The sculptures from the project At Home developed out of an awe of state change: watching wax cool from liquid to solid, or evaluating the threshold between desire and disgust. I used the familiar -- a toilet, a counter, a tile, a sponge -- as sites that shape the body’s calibration to routine. By using the common in unexpected ways, I examined transitions of matter and feeling, complicating what may seem static.
Pass Away, my most recent and ongoing project, contains three sculptural elements: a conveyer belt, weapons and bags. Two sets of lintels and posts punctuate the conveyor belt sculpture, they are modeled after funerary engravings found at the Qianling mausoleum. The thresholds mark the final division between the living and the dead in Qian county, and indicate a transitory moment in the work. The weapons incorporate manufactured objects and life casts. TSA approved items are weaponized through augmentation and arrangement. Traveling alone as a women heightens defensive and resourceful awareness, and these weapons protect from both physical and emotional threats.
My bags have characteristics of bodies: protuberances of limbs, breasts or phallus, as well as concavities that evoke mouths, vaginas, or ears. The construction of Duffle, Backpack and Wheelie Bag confuse mass produced and hand fabricated elements. My bags are a literal interpretation of sacks and bodies as holders for all that is contained, and the subjects of a journey, one where expectation and fulfillment never quite match up.
Jessi Li (b.1987) grew up in Jersey City, NJ. They hold an MFA from Hunter College (2019) and a BA from Bard College at Simon’s Rock (2009). Li makes sculpture using a broad range of materials including fabric, glass, clay, and repurposed everyday objects. Their work relates to the body whether through direct figurative depictions or the sculptural reimagining of utilitarian items, such as bags or tools. Li is interested in the transmutation of material as it relates to the transformation of self, death being the ultimate transition. Their sculptures often contain transnational iconography through pattern and decoration, and tackle themes of fear, protection, comfort, displacement, and intimacy. Li has been an artist in residence at Chautauqua School of Art, Pottery Northwest, a fellowship recipient at Pratt Fine art Center, and a post-baccalaureate student in glass at VCU School of Art. Li Lives and works in Brooklyn, NY, teaches ceramics at Greenwich House Pottery, and is the Exhibitions Manager at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum. They have shown their work nationally in group and solo exhibitions in New York, NY, Jersey City, NJ, Seattle, WA, Milwaulkee, WI, Cape Cod, MA, and Toledo, OH.