w-t-f: A Senior Thesis Exhibition by Eric Li (introduction)


Images courtesy of Eric Li.

Eric himself would tell you what themes his work is located in: the spoon, the spoon & the orange, time, graphic design in the context of visual arts, probability, true forms (final states vs process). However, I want to zoom out and look at the overarching show structure that these themes exist in, and for me are maybe swallowed by. This structure is built upon two pillars:

The first pillar is vulnerability. Eric's spoken frequently about his frustration with conversations about his art—the misunderstandings, the conceptual desync, the need to explain his thoughts. This gallery reflects his desire to hold a kind of lecture-performance without an actual physical, embodied lecture-performance—maybe it's one that will occur, or has that already occurred. His interest is in process over final product, and so he's providing context from the get-go, in the hopes of stimulating a productive conversation that doesn't just rely on what we can see with our eyes. On the pedestal we have work from Eric's past two years and on the walls we have the respective captions. You have to cross physical space to link them together.

The wall text is transcribed verbatim from recordings of Eric talking about the work, and includes textual reproductions of all his filler sounds—uhhs and umms. This choice occupies two layers of meaning for me:

1) I want to be accessible: I want to give you my words as plainly and directly as possible outside of my standing next to you and whispering them into your ear.

2) I want you to understand me: but I want you to earn it. I will not clean up and streamline the text for you, and moreover I refuse to place text by the work. I want to be vulnerable, but in a controlled space where you must demonstrate through your efforts that I can trust you with my vulnerability.

While it's a little dramatic to call this layout 'hostile,' I do think Eric is deliberately issuing a challenge to the viewer. Even the mapping between caption and artwork is imperfect by choice: every caption points to an image, but not every image has corresponding walltext. I think this is really telling: when a vocabulary of relationships is established, but then secretly broken, what does this say about the tension between art and design in Eric's work—or about his beliefs as a graphic designer?

The second pillar is Eric's relationship to the VIS program as a graphic designer. When I look at this show, I see possession.

I don't believe possession is a bad thing. When you care deeply about something, you want to align yourself to that thing. When you have strong tastes and strong opinions, and strong drive, it makes sense to want to refine that thing further, transforming it into a object of active desire, a force of enthusiastic alignment. From the VIS logo to the VIS website to the House of VIS to the Monticello Sans typeface project—which became the name of the combined junior/senior show, thus representing the entire VIS program—I see in Eric a very real and powerful desire to package the VIS experience in a way that a) gives it presence on campus, but also b) plants Eric's flag in it. In this show, Eric has chosen to show work that i find almost provocatively institutional. It's a fetishization of something he himself has made.

Looking at these banners, I don't get the sense that the VIS flag represents the VIS program. Instead, I see it as a symbol of Eric's ownership of and stake in VIS. Most tellingly, the wtf flag, Eric's personal emblem, is located at a point distinct from and much higher than everything else. Here we must rely on the old adage "Show, don't tell." Eric wants to tell us about his struggles as a graphic designer in VIS, but at the end of the day, he's shown us that he's pretty certain where VIS—and where he himself—stands.