Ruth Ju-shih Li: Yet, with every ending there begins anew

“From ancient times to the present, we have all shared an eternal obsession with life. This obsession governs, influences and even dominates our behaviour, our psyche and our spirit, especially when we are aware of its imminence or imminent demise. However, all endings are new beginnings, and the passing is accompanied by a rebirth.” – Ruth Ju-Shih Li

She use to spend almost 300 hours for an exhibition, creating an artwork born to be destroyed out of 70 kg of ceramic clay. During the exhibition, the unfired work looked different each day as the temperature and humidity changed slightly: shrinking and disintegrating. Just like lives, as time passed, it gradually returned to become dust.

This is not the first time I saw Ruth Li’s work. But being in the exhibition, along with the crisp sound of the clay separating from the body of the work, I couldn’t help but receive the strong signals from the work which was shocked that she had once again transcended herself.

A few years ago, a close friend of Ruth passed away after a tragic illness and her father and brother were struggling with cancer. She began to think about the concepts of life, death, and time, which inspired her to create the Ephemera series. Like Ruth Li’s autobiography, this series began as a meditation, incorporating natural inspirations such as plants, flowers and bird feathers to infuse her narrative with senses like poetic and attractive words. However, her work is more than just self-soothing. During the changing, falling, decaying and returning of ceramic clay to the earth over and over again, she explores the similar destiny of the life of human beings who share the same path. She invites others to connect, to heal and reconcile with life in her work.

“From ancient times to the present, we have all shared an eternal obsession with life. This obsession governs, influences and even dominates our behaviour, our psyche and our spirit, especially when we are aware of its imminence or imminent demise. However, all endings are new beginnings, and the passing is accompanied by a rebirth.”

Ruth is the third child in her family. She lived with her parents, sister and brother in Sydney’s North end, just near Lane Cove National Park in her childhood. Every weekend she would explore the park and create art from branches and stones. Without any prompting or guidance, this almost instinctive and primitive exploration became the starting point of her artistic journey and epitomised the numerous way of creation she has undertaken since.

Ceramic is a wonderful medium, with the longest history which also contains the most humble and unassuming qualities at the same time. From the Ikea dishes that hold the three meals of the day to the teacups filled with milk tea on the streets of India, it is easy to use and can be found in every corner. Whether it is the Western myth of Genesis or the ancient legend of Nuwa’s creation of human in China, clay is a common material for the creation of life in different cultures. The sense of familiarity and commonality coincides with the artist’s pursuit for a universal language that is not confined to a particular culture, class or creed.

Perhaps because of her respect and dedication to the material itself, Yoshihiro Suda’s work has always resonated strongly with Ruth. His surrealistic wood sculpture installations take the most mundane of flowers and plants and subtly place them in the most overlooked corners and along the edges of windows, forcing audiences to slow down, and refocus and question reality in a world of information overload. Land Art has rewritten the history of art and has had a profound impact on Ruth’s practice. Her work is not based on the smearing of a canvas or the sculpting of a rigid medium. Her choosing of material from “Land” and “creation from nothing”, even her childhood adventures in the woods, are confirmed by the contemplation that comes with Land Art.

The culture and identity is a topic that cannot be ignore by discrete ethnic groups. Ruth’s grandfather moved from China to Taiwan just before the end of the Civil War, and her parents took the family to Sydney when she was three. Growing up in a Western environment, and even though identifying with her Australian-Chinese identity, Ruth was fascinated by the search for her culture of origin. She never deliberately explores or uses Eastern elements, but the subtle influence from her family is evident in her work.

In the Ephemera series, Still Life from a Distant Memory and Bamboo Study, Ruth delicately articulates ceramic clay on a Chinese flower stand and a bamboo respectively. The former is inspired by her memories of traditional mahogany furniture from her grandmother’s home in Taipei, while the latter is an exploration of ‘spatial painting’, where the world created by bamboo and ceramic clay is a reverie for the white space and mood of oriental aesthetics.

Jingdezhen was Ruth’s base before the epidemic. She was selected for the Jingdezhen Tao Xichuan International Art Residency Program in 2016 and set up her own studio the following year. From barely speaking Chinese at the beginning, she now proficiently refers to herself as a ‘Jing Piao’ (foreign artists or designers who regularly visit Jingdezhen every year), and spends much of her time creating works there every year. As a ‘foreigner’ with the same face as those around her, she is often caught between a strong sense of familiarity and a complete culture shock. The collision of cultures – language, food, community, relationships – gives her endless inspiration. The Frame series, created for a solo exhibition at the Yingge Ceramic Museum in New Taipei, Taiwan, is a self-portrait of Ruth during this period. The exquisite oval base is made of kaolin clay and requires high pressure slip casting using Jingdezhen’s unique industrial grade equipment to produce a flat, moist and perfect finish.

I have no way of knowing what it feels like to be a Zhuang Zhou dreaming of a butterfly, or to be transformed into an immortal, but seeing the feathers and flowers in the poetic dream created by Ruth, growing freely on the white porcelain frame, I felt as if I could fly with her across the mountains and seas in the vastness of the world.

Last March, Ruth was rushed back to Sydney from Taipei before the Australian border closed. There were only three passengers on the flight, including her. After return to Sydney, she was worried about her creation for a while. From raw materials to technical processes, there were many challenges to creating ceramics in Australia compared to be in the unique environment of Jingdezhen. Fortunately, once again, memories contributed to her incredible inspiration. The palm trees all over Taiwan, the dust sprites from Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and the unique black ceramic clay in Australia all meet in Ruth’s hands to create a light and delightful ‘bubble’.

Sydney has now been closed for four weeks and a state of emergency was declared on Friday. Halfway through the Ephemera series: the freshly bamboo that Ruth had cut herself had already been perfectly installed in the corner of the gallery with her brother, and I am not sure if its colour was still green. The branches of plants were neatly laid aside, and the unfired clay might have grown cracks. At this moment, it is as if I am entering an abstract spiritual experience that Ruth try to create for us. 

Between the utopian images of plants and animals, in the dreamlike bubbles, I see not the fragility and unease of life, but a new persistence and expectation.

– written by Man Luo, Co-Curator of Dorveille; translated by Lawrence

Vermilion Art

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