Dreaming of Home: Won Ju Lim and Ma Li

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday

Dreaming of Home: Won Ju Lim and Ma Li

By Genevieve Quick February 6, 2019

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday explores how artists create counter-narratives that fuse science fiction, present-day life, and histories of colonization, displacement, and economic and political inequities.


Does one come from a home or make a home? For diasporic people, a home is not necessarily the place of one’s birth but rather a nebulous amalgamation of memories or imagined futures. This is true for many diasporic artists, whose unique vantages of space and the self may redefine notions of time and place. In Won Ju Lim’s California Dreamin' (2002) and Ma Li’s Techno Taichi: Dance Dance Republik (2016–present), the artists immerse participants in constructed worlds that fuse illusion and physicality. These dream-like places and imaginative futures parallel the artists’ shifting and hybrid cultural positions in regard to the concept of home.

In Won Ju Lim’s California Dreamin' at the San José Museum of Art, the approximately 150 foam-core and Plexiglas architectural models suggest an idealized, futurist city. The lit models cast multiple layers of architectural shadows on the surrounding walls, creating an illusory skyline that transforms object into image. Here, Lim has also projected postcard-like images of Los Angeles’s palm trees and golden sunsets. Place becomes that which the images and objects represent: “L.A.” becomes a fantastical installation inhabited by the viewer. With Lim’s scale shift between miniature replica and immersive environment, viewers occupy both the spaces outside the models and inside the installation. Additionally, their shadows become integrated with the wall projections. Viewers can oscillate between being their individual selves and being parts of the populace that occupies the installation, as physical forms and as shadows. The many layers of experience in Lim’s work places her viewers in an unstable, dream-like state, where they leap between the physical and imaginary, such that place becomes amorphous and unfixed.

Won Ju Lim. California Dreamin', 2002; foam-core board, Plexiglas, lamp, digital-video projection, and still-image projection. Courtesy of the San José Museum of Art. Gift of the Artist and Haines Gallery. Photo: JKA Photography.

For members of a diaspora, the question of where one is from can be an innocuous icebreaker, a coded inquiry about one’s ethnicity, or a charged interrogation of one’s belonging. Born in Korea and raised in L.A., Lim was living in Germany when she created California Dreamin'. As a diasporic artist twice over, Lim was feeling homesick for L.A. In a 2008 interview, Lim identifies L.A. as the place of her belonging. She fondly talks about the richness of being an L.A. artist and the duality of her relationship to that landscape. Informed by the scale, speed, and distance that driving on the expressways creates, L.A. is mediated through the frame of the windshield, where one is both in the city and temporarily set apart. As California Dreamin’ captures this duality of scale and place, Lim’s work is also about how the diasporic artist remembers and locates her home. While in Germany, Lim identifies her home as the place she was raised rather than born. In many diasporic narratives, individuals choose the place and time that they identify as their home, which may be unfixed and nonlinear. Moreover, identifying L.A. as her home is a subtle declaration of the American aspect of Lim’s identity, membership, and art-historical frame.

On November 4, 2018, Ma Li’s international artist collective, Kepler 452b, took over a dimly lit San Francisco nightclub for a dance and performance event entitled Interstellar Rebirth! The collective, named after the Earth-like planet discovered by the Kepler satellite, imagines voyaging to the distant planet. In the tradition of marathon-like raves, the event began at 2:00 in the afternoon and continued for sixteen hours. Among the performances, Li performed Techno Taichi: Dance Dance Republik. Using Chinese fans as props, Li jubilantly instructed the attendees in a series of movements based on tai chi to pulsing electronic music. Participants learned to move in unison, opening their fans with a swift shake of the wrist, lunging and opening their arms. Li, who like Lim has roots in Germany and California, uses a nightclub to propose opportunities for fantasy and role playing. With her roving international collective of artists, Li and her collaborator imagine an intergalactic home that leaves the political, economic, and cultural divisions of Earth behind. Li’s fantastical utopia connects disparate parts of the world and embraces the hybridity of cross-cultural exchange.

Ma Li. Techno Taichi: Dance Dance Republik, Nov 4, 2018; performance. Courtesy of the Artist and the Great Northern, San Francisco. Photo: Eisuke Muroga, Lee Lester

While in the former DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, known as East Germany), Li developed Techno Taichi as a fusion of contemporary techno from Berlin and tai chi, the traditional Chinese martial art. With roots in Buddhism and Taoism, tai chi originated as self-defense and is practiced to align one’s energy, culminating in both spiritual and physical benefit. Recent medical research has determined that it is particularly therapeutic in strengthening balance and coordination in the aging body and can counter depression, anxiety, and stress. In tai chi, the concept of self-defense both neutralizes external attacks and mitigates the body’s natural degradation. Rave culture’s ecstatic dance and repetitive beats—particularly in trance music—strives toward mind- altering experiences, sometimes enhanced with psychoactive drugs. As Western utopian and New-Age movements have adopted Eastern meditative practices, Techno Taichi hybridizes contemporary culture and ancient traditions where physical movement facilitates the idea of home as a state of mind, such that one does not need to physically traverse space.

Dressed in cultish red tunics and robes, Li and her collaborators make reference to the Communist histories of China and East Germany. Additionally, in Asian traditions, red is symbolic of joy and good fortune. While nightclubs are sometimes hedonistic places of individualism, they also thrive upon the positive energy of a dancing group. Li uses the choreography of collective movement and the momentum of a dance party to propose a unifying and hybrid identity. The work’s collective momentum adds a layer of suspended belief for a mythical home. When surrounded by group engaged in a twist of New-Age, techno party culture, and Communism, individuals may feel more likely to participate. Moreover, as many in the diaspora negotiate the sense of being afloat, as individuals in foreign places, Li makes an exuberant community a home.

Ma Li. Techno Taichi: Dance Dance Republik, Nov 4, 2018; performance. Courtesy of the Artist and the Great Northern, San Francisco. Photo: Eisuke Muroga, Lee Lester

The idea of home becomes particularly significant for someone removed from it, when one might feel the nostalgia for belonging or imagine a joyful connectedness. As two Asian-born artists living in various places in the world, Lim and Li explore the concept of home as an amalgam of real or fictional places that proposes fluid international identities. Lim’s and Li’s dim environments remove participants from the bright light and certainty of daytime and invite immersion in murky tableaux and role playing. For the diasporic artist, to declare a home is to frame and author one’s identities—rather than allowing society to impose them—and to claim membership within a community. While we think of the location North, South, East, and West as sets of binaries with absolute global positions, the mobile individual encounters the relativity of location: traveling eastward, one will eventually end up in the West, and vice versa. Lim’s and Li’s dream-like works converge East and West—wherein East is representative of the former Soviet blocks of Europe and Asia, and the West of the United States—where the cultural attitudes of the East have intermingled and expanded into new ideologies for re-beginnings fueled by imagination.

Won Ju Lim: California Dreamin' was on view at the San José Museum of Art through September 30, 2018.

Kepler 452b: Interstellar Rebirth! was on view at the Great Northern in San Francisco, CA on November 4, 2018.

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