Experiencing Fei Li’s landscapes is like walking into a jungle. Her tangled calligraphy leaps and coils across the paper like vines, folding in associations with visual language; the disparate sensations of walking through dense vegetation and reading a scrawled manuscript are flattened into one experience, such that the idea that the two were ever separate seems like an abstract theory. Li’s work suggests an almost synesthetic relationship between embodiment and reading, naturalizing the simultaneous experience of bodily movement through space and cognitive or cultural movement through language. It does not seem strange to believe that one can feel like one is reading a landscape like a book.
Li’s landscapes are fundamentally abstract, yet their linguistic evocations seem like conflations of written text and figurative image, despite being neither. Based on Li’s training in Chinese calligraphy from when she was two years old, the movement of her brushstrokes seems to call forth a visceral association with writing. They almost resemble metonymic Arabic calligraphy drawings, in which the word for a figure is written to stylistically resemble it. However, Li’s work refers not to a singular object or phrase but rather to a holistic sensation of movement and space. The result is a dynamic series of ink drawings that encourage a viewer to engage with a form of reading that precedes language, a paradoxical experience of translating without words. This is not to say that the work’s meaning is beyond words, but rather that it demonstrates the reciprocal relationship between words and meaning. Far from being unable to be articulated, Li’s landscapes feel like the beginnings of a new written language.