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Patrick Li ’23 on Artistic (Im)Permanence in Installation

I must confess: I love writing the Artist of the Week because I meet some of the most creative, intelligent, and passionate people on campus. So, when I met with Patrick Li ’23 in Kohlberg, I expected them to be brilliant. However, I never thought they would come prepared for our meeting with a slideshow of installation work and 20+ pages of poetry. 

Before I had the chance to prepare myself for the interview, Patrick began elaborating on their first installation piece. “I took one installation art class last semester … this one was a warm-up project. We were given one copy of The New York Times and called to make an installation out of it,” they said. “You just sort of plaster onto a window, but you’re able to see both sides of the paper. I guess even when we’re thinking about this, it’s still sort of flawed in a certain way, right? Because we’re still only seeing The New York Times from that perspective. Then there’s also a little bit more complicated life play where depending on the time of day, you see one side or the other, right because if it’s at night, you only see the inside because there’s no light coming back.”

While Patrick acknowledged that, functionally, their setup was straightforward, the way they discussed light fascinated me. Each installation played with color, whether that be through light manipulation or monochromatic hues. In Patrick’s work, color has a sense of movement and flow. Interestingly, two of their installations were in Singer. They wanted to bring more life to its somewhat sterile atmosphere, “[Singer is] quite a cold building. These pieces were thinking about how to make it homier.”

Manipulating tablecloths from their sister’s wedding, Patrick created a flowing, orange-hued sculpture in the center of Singer. “I borrowed the idea of a modular sculpture from Erin Wheary, who was the visiting school professor for a little bit,” they said. 

They named the piece “Rupture,” a fitting name for a sculpture with humanlike movement. Its fleshy, orangish color brought warmth to the impersonal staircase. Patrick wanted to keep the sculpture up in Singer but ultimately was forced to take it down after the end of the fall semester. “I basically thought that not many people go to Whittier unless you’re like an art major, so I was thinking about the spaces around campus that could be personalized a bit. [After being contacted to take it down by faculty] I took down the [runners] and I was thinking about what I could do to move forward. I know a friend and I were considering reinstalling the ribbons for someone else. I mean, it’s modular. Right? So the intention was not perfectly permanent, but for it to sort of move and shift and change. So maybe that’ll come back at some point,” they elaborated.

As a fan of Patrick’s sculpture before even meeting them, I was disappointed to hear that their work was forcibly removed from Singer. Given the fact that the space is so numbingly bare, I loved their utilization of the structure. Patrick continued exploring ways to brighten up Singer last semester for their final project. “So, no one ever goes into the space [basement of Singer], but the hope was to breathe life into this space and then also [use] old dance books that no one was even touching in the dance hall room that were free. There’s a little bit of a choreo too. This piece was called “Warming Up: After Mahler, Fonteyn, Martins, Cunningham” and references Mahler because the music of this piece is actually the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra warming up [and tuning] to Mahler. It’s all building up,” they explained. “I guess you can wonder: is this the performance that we’re waiting for? Is there something we’re building up to? Because the music never sort of resolves itself? It’s always just sort of in the process of tuning.”

After the forcible removal of their dance piece from the basement, Patrick and their group worked with Donna Fournier to create a permanent installation in Underhill Library. Patrick asserted, “Yes, cooperat[e] with other artists, dancers, musicians, but also work with people who might not consider themselves artists (e.g. the grounds team/grass experts Ian Altamuro and Nick Lang).” 

Initially, Patrick contacted The Phoenix to encourage discussion and raise awareness about open spaces on campus. “What are the rules around it, right? There’s a special art committee that you have to go through if you’re putting up a more permanent installation. I think that when you take an art class, you’re expected that the things that you make in that class are sort of macro pedagogy, especially with something like an installation where you’re entering public spaces. The rule is to take it down and leave no trace, right? … I have been always thinking about qualifications for art … What constitutes an installation? If I had a bagel here, and I put it back every time it was removed, it’s sort of an installation. It changes the way you think, not significantly, but it changes the way we interact with a space perhaps … If the problem with my installation is that it’s too permanent, then I can move it. And then once you yell at me again, I’ll just move it somewhere else.”

Patrick raised an interesting dilemma: what is the permanence of any installation? Should it have any permanence at all? Or, should your work fade into obscurity, crammed into a corner in your childhood room? Most of my work lies in a pile, rubbing charcoal onto the backs of other pieces in a portfolio. Is that truly where art should be? The question of permanence fascinates me because the second a mark hits the paper, you create art. Intentionality aside, it becomes an extension of yourself, whether through numbers on your calculus exam or a figure drawing of your friend. Why is there a compulsion to create anonymity out of our individuality?

Patrick played with the same questions when they tried to install a patch of grass on the dirt that tents usually cover. “This was like a theoretical piece that I wanted to do, but it didn’t come to fruition because I asked for permission … My idea was to be very deliberate about making this perfect square of green grass to show that there’s something off about it, right? Because if the grass around is completely dark green, and then there’s this very supple green grass, it’s implying that it’s a special [sacred] space, right? It changes the way people move across space. But obviously, at a certain point, when the grass integrates into the rest of the field, the installation de-installs itself naturally. So that was my first proposal. But alas, I tried to do it through the arboretum and it didn’t quite work out.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into a failed patch of grass, but I think it’s an apt metaphor for a desire for conformity. I admire Patrick’s commitment to individuality and legacy. “My interest is to help us reconsider what our spaces could be,” they asserted. If their modular sculpture is forced out, they look for new spaces to fill. The grass installation didn’t work, but they still have ideas on how to spruce up the arboretum. They are creatively subversive, and even if I tried to capture the entirety of their brilliance in an article, I would fail. Simply put, the only way to do so is by permanently installing their art. 

If you’d like to experience Patrick’s work before they leave, visit their lunchtime concert on April 24. 

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