A Joke That Makes Us Cry: Hongxi Li’s SHAPED at V.O Curations

Review / July 2022

A Joke That Makes Us Cry: Hongxi Li’s SHAPED at V.O Curations

By Jacob Barnes

       The legacy of vaporwave, the online, meme-ified electro subgenre of the 2010s, seems to be growing. Now a decade-plus on from the vaporwave’s initial releases, the very themes the genre explores have again reared their head—this time in Angel, London. Hongxi Li’s solo exhibition SHAPED, curated by Vanessa Murrell and Martin Mayorga of DATEAGLE ART, and on view at V.O Curations until the 22nd of July, returns to some of the key thematics that emerged from vaporwave’s early releases, primarily through a retooling of otherwise mundane objects co-opted into capitalism’s broader systems.

Music critic Simon Reynolds captured vaporwave’s political import when he wrote, “[this music] relate[s] to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio-video entertainment area.” Indeed, from this description alone, Li’s angular seating arrangement—the primary element of the cosmos of sculpture, performance, scent, sound, and video which comprises the exhibition—comes into clarity. Works like “At Work” (2022) meld the functionality of modernist design (in this case, that of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Brno Chair) with an absurdist excess, using ubiquitous silhouettes to underscore their misappropriation in an increasingly hostile world. The horizontal plank that functions as an extension of the sculpture’s back forces the chair’s occupant to compact themselves, chest to knees, as if preparing for impact on a crashing plane. Played out in Li’s accompanying video, it’s suggested that this fold has some kind of perverse utility: the occupant places his laptop on the plank’s top, proceeding to type—nonsense. That which masquerades as stylish functionality only represents a climate of illogicality, in which sincere human need is entirely obfuscated by the opportunity to own something new.

Similarly, “At Bar” (2022) suggests an unbreakable loop of foregone conclusions: the steel spring support underneath the stool’s seat makes the sitter wobbly before they’ve so much as had a drink. In this instance, the furniture seems to be making demands of the user: drink more, buy more, have more fun. The stool appears to be inculcated into the process of (literal) consumption itself; an enthusiastic cheerleader for a preordained set of outcomes. Again, Li’s use of recognisable design—although, in this case, far more common than her other, modernist influences—allows some of these more threatening slants to go undetected, the piece’s co-option becoming hidden by its seeming innocuousness.

If there is a utopian strain in Li’s first two works—the functionality and sleekness of “At Work”’s design, the sincere revelry associated with bar stools—such pretence collapses in SHAPED’s final piece, “At Home” (2022). This time, drawing from the Cobra Chair design of Italian Giotto Stoppino, Li’s “At Home” mirrors the original, but for one key difference: the seat of the chair slowly deflates as you sit in it, eventually causing the sitter to fall out. The sinister edge of Li’s “capital[ized] commodities” begins to show as the work demands the sitter’s constant attention and exertion. Thus the final nail in the coffin comes quietly, albeit effectively: the progressive subtexts that undergird design, and by extension, the materials around and through which our lives take shape, have been entirely subsumed by a need to reinforce the capitalist order. It is through this order that we continue to ceaselessly buy and consume, forever turning the cogs of our economic system. What becomes so abundantly clear is that our ability to resist these systems is not challenged by the oppressive forces that we can perceive, but instead by encoding mundane objects in such a way that eludes our notice.

It is on this final, downbeat note that Li leaves us. It is a joke that makes us cry, or better yet, the whimsical dressing-up of a terrible truth. But we cannot look away: the distressing sense of total order and safety that predominates Li’s work ought to sound as an alarm to those interested in sustainable futures. If we leave laughing, or even interested in perhaps owning a more functional version of the chairs ourselves, if only for their thoughtful design and resultant utility, we remain blind to our own repetition of the problem. While vaporwave could appeal to the hidden utopianism to which the neoliberal order at least paid lip service, Li is afforded no such luxury in the harrowing order. Instead, by employing farce, a kind of upbeat tune akin to the thumping of electro, we are drawn to the irreconcilability of the current status quo and the desperate need for change. If not, like those seated in “At Home”, do we not risk falling from our perches?

Image Credits:
1-4. Hongxi Li, SHAPED, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and DATEAGLE ART