In a world where modern migration takes place because of such insidious human behaviours as war, overpopulation leading to scarcity, and now climate change, travelling for art’s sake could seem inconsequential. But what if the mark you leave behind addresses the foibles of human behaviour in a way that causes people to stop and reflect on them? As he moves around the globe, Aaron Li-Hill’s work undertakes humanity’s dominating position toward nature—a position that has culminated in a world quite literally on fire.
I greet Li-Hill, in this year of our global pandemic 2021 DC (During Covid), from his new home in Berlin. The necessities of the pandemic have lodged our interaction into the dimensions of a laptop screen. Still, after spending the last year without a workspace, finally securing one seems to have left him in good spirits.
“I have a studio space now, which is huge because I’ve been without a studio space for the last year,” says Li-Hill, who was based in London but wrapping up a residency in Australia when COVID spread like wildfire across the globe.
“One day I was working on my show, and the next, I had to pack up everything and fly back to London,” he remarks. “Wildfire” is the operative word because, even as Li-Hill scrambled to get out of Australia before it closed its borders, actual wildfires were scorching large swaths of the country. Wildfires were also the subject of one of his shows: an example of art going beyond an imitation of life and becoming a reflection, or even harbinger, of it.
Li-Hill compares humanity’s vulnerability to the effects of its worst impacts on nature through his work—and what greater example of our vulnerability exists today than COVID?
“COVID is taking away a little bit of humanity’s hubris in terms of being the master of our domain, by putting a little halt on the incessant forms of things we’ve labelled as progress,” Li-Hill asserts when I ask him his thoughts on the pandemic.
“COVID is happening globally at a pace that humans can recognize and understand the need to react to, whereas climate change affects us all but is happening so slowly that it’s hard for us to recognize as an actual crisis,” he says. Perhaps not wanting to sound pessimistic, Li-Hill offers, “I am hopeful it potentially gives everyone the feeling that we can affect change on a large scale though.”
Enter Perils of a New World, Li-Hill’s last solo show at the Hall in Brooklyn, New York, which closed just a month before COVID hit. Li-Hill examines our complex relationship to our environment and the climate change being wrought as a result of our disregard for it.
Li-Hill has been a vegetarian for 15 years in an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint created by factory farming and the consumption of meat, and his work engages with the Western world’s reliance on trying to subdue nature to disastrous effect. Practising what he preaches appears in his work through the basic action of upcycling what the world sees as detritus—representative of issues related to humanity’s hand in climate change. “There’s a moment in reclaiming objects like wood specifically, where I sand it down, apply a coat of varnish, and it becomes imbued with a sense of value,” he says of the transformed materials. “I also find a psychological connection with an organic form that’s been cut down and milled to an exact measurement, which is like a taming of nature but still having a connection to the natural characteristics of the object.”
When asked how he reconciles his use of some environmentally detrimental material like spray paint and plastics, he replies, “Spray paint is something hard for me to grapple with because it’s not environmentally friendly. I’ve been trying to create more carbon-neutral sculptural work made out of air-dried clay and wood, but this conundrum also represents the conflict of real life.”
Still, even he can’t get away from the contradictions that seem interwoven into our system, which makes the work more relatable somehow. “The carbon in spray paint remains locked into the object the artist creates on, and if you treat it with enough value, then the carbon stays locked within the object,” Li-Hill explains. “Something is interesting about that.”
In addition to the materials, when looking specifically at works like Perils of a New World or a hostile force and defensive nature, there is the recognition of a pattern developing. Jutting lines of materials overlapping each other reference how humans operate within our linear thought processes. A multitude of straight lines, from A to B, demonstrate a kind of efficiency when restrained, but in greater numbers they create chaos. It’s an artistic contextualization for clear-cutting trees to build overpopulated cities without regard for the natural world and unregulated mass industrialization with little thought to the environment.
Again, in hostile force and defensive nature, there’s an image of a female hunter holding a bow and arrow on one side, and on the other, a man in furs holding antlers. It represents the aggression the Western world has against the natural world and how that interaction has been, for so long, to dominate rather than live in harmony with it. The man in furs, both an avatar for nature and for humanity, demonstrates how this destruction of natural habitats is us destroying ourselves.
Li-Hill has been busying himself adjusting to life in Berlin, taking German language classes and setting up his new studio, which is a 20-minute bike ride from his home. Before letting him get back to the business of his life, I’m reminded of the Warhol quote, “Art is anything you can get away with.” Curious to know what an artist whose work takes on such serious themes thinks about the statement, I ask if he agrees.
“Art is an industry that’s not free of the conflicts facing humanity, and although art is good at reimagining that world, how is that artwork utilized and disseminated to the public? If we as a society recognize art is needed, and publicly fund it in a way that it didn’t have to exist in such a commodified market, I think it would change things a lot.”