IN TOUCH - Being, Becoming

Expressed in epic 3D images, Xi Li's Being, Becoming is a digital sculpture that is both organic and synthetic. The work reflects on identity through a narrative framework that brings together elements of Eastern and Western mythology. Being, Becoming is one of the Foundation's 2022 IN TOUCH Arts Commissions - short digital art works created with the express purpose of sharing on digital media. The Foundation introduced IN TOUCH funding in 2020 to provide a way for artists to produce works connecting New Zealand with Asia amid Covid-induced barriers. In this article we chat to Xi Li about the work and the inspiration behind it.

Watch Xi Li's IN TOUCH Arts Commission work Being, becoming

Can you describe the work and its themes?

Being, Becoming 所是,所成 is a cross-cultural and transcultural vision of personal identity, discussing global perceptions within the logical framework of Chinese Confucianism, Taoism and Western philosophy.

The work depicts a series of epic 3D animated models and scenes through a mythical narrative framework, building a vision of existence that intertwines the philosophical idea of 'Unity of Man and Nature 天人合一' with the human ecology of New Zealand. It represents the transition from cross-cultural experience to transcultural self-perception and ideals: a state of 'being' and a process of 'becoming'.

What inspired the work? How did it evolve?

The starting point for this work is the personal experience of self and reflection on identity.

As a person in an intercultural context, I find that I am often in a fluid position. My perceptions, thoughts and even definitions of my own identity are always interpenetrating and intermingling with the meanings and symbol systems of different cultures. It's not just me; all participants in globalisation are facing the challenge of transcending established cultural frameworks. Thus, a deeper exploration of self-identity and cultural identity naturally became inherent in the work.

By creating different scenes/spaces, I needed to reintegrate my new experiences, values and symbolic meanings in order to understand the things that construct me in a broader way.

As the title of the work, Being, Becoming 所是,所成 combines my own experiences in both Chinese and New Zealand cultural contexts and develops this global understanding from the question of 'who I am' to 'who I can be'.

A still image from Being, Becoming with various symbols, including a Ying Yang and an egg

Xi Li: "The starting point for this work is the personal experience of self and reflection on identity."

Can you explain some of the more important imagery/symbolism that appears in Being, Becoming?

The work contains many metaphysical symbols and imagery of Eastern philosophy, presenting a vision that transcends time, space and cultural boundaries.

The film begins with a scene: the 'Egg of the East'. Set on a golden base like a phoenix's tail, it floats on an endless pink ocean. As a sacred symbol of the origin of existence, it represents the birth of my individuality, self-awareness and the primordial state of life.

And inside this sacred egg there is a female avatar. She is like a foetus in the womb, as if a visible individual universe is waiting to emerge from within. This represents the transformation of my self-image and individuality from a state of mindlessness to a state of mindfulness.


A still image from Being, Becoming depicting a woman bent overin a womb-like patttern

Xi Li: "The integration of New Zealand and Chinese cultures has provided a new frame of reference for my understanding of cultural identity"

The second scenario is the 'Ethical Structure of Self-Cultivation'. It is the ordered world/system that contains my national elements, cultural iconography, symbols and scenes.

The 'Egg of the East' connects all the objects and structures from a high place in the centre, and the whole scene seems to be a root extending downwards, intertwined with the sun and the moon, the spinning totem, Taiji and the vortex. This symbolises the hierarchy and complexity of the cultural system, my inner sense of identity, the logic of my philosophy of existence: the growth of the individual gradually recognises my culture of origin and develops and integrates the cultural identity into the idea of 'self'.

The final scene, 'Ideal Realm', presents a dreamy and bizarre world. It is a projection of imagination and reality, involving my observations and perceptions of the natural world.

In this section, a new sense of identity and the reintegration of its personality on a higher level. The five substances that make up the universe, 'gold金, wood木, water水, fire火 and earth土' and the symbols that form the basis of life, 'air, earth, fire, water and the universe', are suspended in the air.

The body of the female avatar, which reflects my spiritual power, becomes the landscape, interacting with the world around it, the plants, the rivers, the earth and the sky, unifying with everything and expressing the harmony with the functioning of life. 

Do you see similarities between myths and symbolism present in New Zealand/Maori culture and those of China?

The "egg" appears in the mythology of both cultures as a sacred symbol of the origin of the self/life/existence. In addition to this, many totems also produce a wonderful connectivity and commonality.

I see myths and these symbols as narratives of human existence built up through different symbolic imaginaries under semiotic mechanisms.

It helps us to understand, interpret and imagine, and intertwines intangible and tangible materiality. And in these similarities, I can feel a certain powerful force that originates from life itself and an infinite expectation of the world.

A still image from Being, Becoming depicting an egg-like object surrounded by a pattern of molten gold

Xi: "The "egg" appears in the mythology of both cultures as a sacred symbol of the origin of the self/life/existence."

What does the work say about the coming together of New Zealand and Asian cultures?

Being, Becoming 所是,所成 is a summary and aspiration of a stage of identity. It discusses the possibility of developing an identity in a globalised context, showing the psychological processes and ideal forms of life I have developed in New Zealand and Chinese culture.

The methodology of this work concentrates on the idea of harmony. It is an attempt to make these feelings and inner consciousness perceptible to the cultural other through a subtle and exquisite aesthetic.

Harmony is the harmonisation of different elements of things that differ from each other, bringing them into a new state of equilibrium and contemplating the broader contextual interventions of the 'world'.

A still image from Being, Becoming depicting a female figure rising from a swampy, organic landscape

Xi: "As a person in an intercultural context, I find that I am often in a fluid position."

The integration of New Zealand and Chinese cultures has provided a new frame of reference for my understanding of cultural identity, and the physical separation from Asia has allowed me to create an identity of 'in-between' within the New Zealand cultural milieu.

As in the Chinese idea of 'Unity of Man and Nature 天人合一', the self is a co-constitutive and co-participant in the universe, nature and society, and we ourselves have the capacity to bridge and achieve a higher degree of self-development and freedom of interchange within different cultures.

The transition from intercultural to transcultural is an ongoing, gradual process, and a true understanding of the environments and cultures that make up 'who I am' and the creation of a new conception of the subject is a potential challenge for all of us, and my vision for the future.

About Xi Li

A portrait image of Xi Li

Xi Li

 Xi Li (李曦) is an interdisciplinary artist from Harbin, China, based in Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand. She received a Bachelor of Photo Media from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in 2019. In 2021 she received Master of Fine Arts (with first class honours) at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland.

Xi Li's creative practice includes film, digital image, photography, installation, performance, 3D animation, VR, game design, music, and multidisciplinary fields. She explores various experimental concepts through Eastern and Western philosophical frameworks, with topics covering identity, ideology, subjectivity, subculture, popular culture, globalization, and more.