«I’m interested in the power of art to heal and transform»
Sonia Li was born in Taiwan and lived in different countries growing up. She eventually settled in New York City, where she made her name as a visual and installation artist. Living in different countries made her a strong and independent person, quick to adapt to any environment.
Sonia makes art of the self, inspired by stages of her personal transformations. Her works in video and installation use themes of nature to metaphorically portray these internal changes. She creates visceral visuals and experiences that are ‘lush’ and ‘intoxicating’. Working with interactive technology, her immersive installations offer a space for visitors to self reflect.
Sonia is intelligent, cheerful and warm, an artist with as many nuances as her work.
– You were born in Taiwan but moved to New York when you were very young. What did this change mean to you?
I moved to New York twice. First time I was in New York was in junior high school for two years. Then I moved back to New York for college in 2001, and have been living in NYC ever since. As a child growing up in different countries, the challenges allowed me to adapt to situations quickly and developed a strong sense of self at an early age. It was not easy growing up in foreign countries but I got used to being on my own most of the time.
«The challenges allowed me to adapt to situations quickly and developed a strong sense of self at an early age»
– How do dance and psychotherapy influence your life and work?
Life is funny and pushed me in certain directions, with a series of coincidences that lead me to dance. Two years ago, I distinctly remember in one of my first classes, I felt that I had met a higher being. I knew the intense spirituality came from meeting my true self for the first time, and I’ve never felt such certainty and clarity in my life. Being in touch with my true identity leads to immense changes in my belief system – to let go of things that no longer serve me, to think less and do more. Because of this process, I’m able to cultivate inner strength through actions of creating my own realities. More and more, I find that I rely on my intuition and practical judgment.
My work is an extension of myself, and metaphorically reflect the different stages of my personal transformation.
«My work is an extension of myself, and metaphorically reflect the different stages of my personal transformation»
Dance is a language which encourages the brain to spark new cells, interconnecting to form new neuro pathways. The plasticity of the brain constantly adapts to the physical changes in the body, impacting perception, comprehension and memory. I see my work as visual evidence of my internal changes. In the moving visuals I make after I dance, it is clear that my brain forms new neuro pathways depending on the physical activities I do.
Film stills taken every 10 seconds. Each element stayed within its own parameter and does not change much. This was made when I was doing more internal somatic bodywork
Film stills taken every 10 seconds. The elements change rapidly and move out of their own parameters. This was made when I started to take dynamic dance classes.
I’m interested in the power of art to heal and transform. I researched multi-sensory environments (MSE), specialized therapeutic spaces for people with cognitive disabilities to empower them with emotional and physical interactions. The artistic experiences I design weave together MSE research in sensory therapy, neurology and psychology.
«I’m interested in the power of art to heal and transform»
– At the moment of creating, how is your relationship with technology?
Technology is such a malleable tool. It activates artistic concepts that traditional fine arts medium can only metaphorically accomplish. Although the concepts of my work are very much rooted in fine arts expression, technology makes the experience of my work alive so that visitors can experience and engage at an intuitive level.
Working on the computer can be difficult for the body and I try to stretch and move every two hours. Even then, I definitely notice the toll it takes on my body. I hope that there will be healthier resolutions for computer workers in the future.
«Technology makes the experience of my work alive so that visitors can experience and engage at an intuitive level»
– What artists are a reference for you?
I was trained in the fine arts. I look to Louise Bourgeois, who infused her feminine and surreal works with metaphors of sexuality, body, death and the subconscious. I love the raw energy in El Greco paintings. I’ve always enjoyed German Expressionism, gothic architecture and art.
– In several pieces like in the Whale installation you look for audience participation; how do you integrate their participation in the work?
Art is created to reflect back to the viewer. I create interactive experiences with technology. In that sense, the experiences of the visitors are what make the work. I think of these installations as vessels for each individual to get in touch with their internal selves. The visitors connect to these experiences on their own terms and create personal emotional connections.
«I think of these installations as vessels for each individual to get in touch with their internal selves»
Whale is an interactive multichannel sound installation. It is inspired by the positive work I was doing in psychotherapy, and I wanted to make an experience that would empower each individual. The visitor lays on a subsonic vibrating bed, experiencing waves of vibration through the body. When speaking into the microphone, the user’s voice triggers whale sounds. Sound is a material in the context of sculpture. In using techniques to sculpt and spatialize sound, it creates an expansive sound field, in which the visitor feels ‘enveloped’ and ‘immersed’. When I interviewed the visitors, everyone had a very different experience, ranging from meditative, happy, peaceful to powerful, intimidating and otherworldly. Each of these description is highly personal, and reflect much on each visitor and their own psyche.
– Although you are living into an urban environment your work contains many elements of nature such as rain, flowers, animals or bird sounds, do they depict your inside and its transformation better?
Nature is soothing for me and I naturally gravitate towards it. I like the universality of nature and how everyone can related to it in their own ways. In Drawing Rain, an immersive performance installation, I put together an ambience with the act of drawing and rain sounds as a metaphor to my inner emotional space. The digital live drawing generates the organic rain visuals and spatialized rain sounds.
– You devised video art pieces which integrate dance and installations. Have you ever done live performances yourself?
I’ve performed live drawing as a visual artist, but have yet to perform in dance. I’m cultivating my body to dance more efficiently and effortlessly, but I prefer to dance for myself right now.
– From your thirteen years´ experience living in New York, how is the contemporary art environment in the city? Has it been determinant for you to develop your work?
New York has a thriving arts scene in every category of art form. I’m fortunate to have seen many exhibitions and important works come through the city. Seeing many different kinds of works allowed me to cultivate an innate understanding of artistic expression that felt genuine to my own voice.
«Seeing many different kinds of works allowed me to cultivate an innate understanding of artistic expression that felt genuine to my own voice»
– It is the third time you have been to Spain. What impression you got of our country?
I enjoy Spain and the people very much, and danced a lot. Madrid feels a lot like how I grew up in Taiwan. I went to Toledo and was so glad to have seen El Greco’s visions in real life. The food is amazing, I love Spanish tuna and olives!
«Madrid feels a lot like how I grew up in Taiwan»
«I enjoy Spain and the people very much, and danced a lot»
– How is a regular day in your life and in your work?
I dance in the mornings and then make my work in the afternoon. Living life as a dancer and artist means that my daily life is dedicated to structured and disciplined practice of these art forms.
«Living life as a dancer and artist means that my daily life is dedicated to structured and disciplined practice of these art forms»
– What projects would you like to realize and where would you like to see your work in the future?
I’m currently researching artificial intelligence and working on Movement, an interactive installation where dancers generate the experience, incorporating immersive video, sound and bodily senses. It borrows from Whale, using a similar setting and technique to mold and spatialize sound to generate visceral sensations. The video art I regularly make after I dance retain the optimal energy of the mind-body connection, and these visuals are used as a part of Movement. My work is large scale and I see it in venues like museums, festivals and places where people come together to share experiences. I’m always interested in hearing from different kinds of people for collaboration ideas.
I’m giving an artist talk on May 5th at 5pm (NYC time) at Brooklyn Research, a technology innovation space (more info below). Movement is a part of FILE Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the SESI Gallery of Art, July 3-August 12, 2018. It’s an honor to be a part of the largest new media festival in South America!
– How is your free time?
I like going to museums and galleries, taking walks in the park, playing with dogs, making video and sound recordings. In the summer I love going to the beach!
– A dream you would like to come true