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Primary Preoccupation

[whitespace] Saiman Li Primary Suit: The photo and video documentation of local artist Saiman Li, painted head to toe in monochromatic theater paint, is on view at the SF Art Institute's Walter McBean Gallery through Jan. 17.

Local artist Saiman Li talks about his work as a red, yellow, blue or green 'color man'

By Christine Brenneman

Scorning the pretension and seriousness traditionally associated with art, local artist Saiman Li makes work that is all about adventure and color theory. Born in Hong Kong and now a permanent San Francisco resident, his latest project, Primary: My Different Colored Days, is an installation of photos, videos and props from Li's performance high jinks as a red, yellow, blue or green "color man." In San Francisco and other cities in the U.S. and Europe, Li paints himself from head to toe in monochromatic theater paint, dons the same colored clothes and simply hangs out, doing mostly ordinary things and provoking any number of responses from onlookers. With the help of a grant, Li traveled to locales as varied as New York, Paris, Barcelona and Amsterdam to further this piece and obtain more hilarious photo and video documentation of his performances as a "color man."

How did you come up with the idea for "Primary Colors"?

See, when I started doing art, I took design classes, color theory. Every color can be mixed with the primaries. The skin color, you can take it and separate it by percentage. I'm taking every color out of my skin and analyzing its aura. I was always interested in Halloween and makeup. It's playful and it's fun. It's really cool; I can play a character. I try to incorporate this into my work. It's an exploration.

How do you see this piece in the art historical tradition?

In terms of history, when I do these projects, I don't think about this sort of thing. I don't have to, I just do it. When I see something that I like, I just take a recording of it or a picture of it. When I see color and shapes I say, 'Wow, that's cool, that looks like a good painting,' but it's a photograph. All these pictures are quite spontaneous. I see it and I get it right there; capture the action or I capture the formal color.

How did travel become a part of this project?

In the beginning, I started this project in San Francisco, since I live here and I didn't mean to go traveling. I am very low income! I can't afford to go traveling around. I got into a residency program in SF. I had the space, I started taking these pictures. I was fortunate enough to get a grant to go to Europe to do this. I'd never been to Europe in my life and I could never afford to. I was a tourist myself. I tried to learn how to get around, and whenever I could, I would do the project. Wherever I go, I would do a little bit of it.

Who takes the videos and pictures?

For the videos, all kinds of people helped me.

You didn't bring someone with you who was your photographer/videographer?

No, but I wish I had a slave! That would be different, but it's not like that. I would meet people randomly and they would spend the day doing it. Some people are really excited. Sometimes I have friends who are willing to help me for a day or two. I have this friend I met from Germany; he would drive down to Amsterdam and meet me and we would work on it for three days. And he met me in Paris; he was into it!

How did the particular place/city affect what you were doing?

Not a lot. I mean, Europe is Europe. I think it's very subtle, I don't think there's a huge difference. I think I felt most comfortable in Barcelona, though. When I arrived there, there were a lot of street artists around. In America, some people look at it as a race thing. Maybe in Europe I just don't know, I don't understand what the hell they're talking about.

Do you consider yourself a performance artist?

I think for this project it is appropriate. When I started this project, I didn't have the performance in my mind. I just thought about taking some portraits because I have a photography background. It just developed in that way. I don't see myself as a performance artist, but now I guess I am! I'm excited to learn new ideas and new mediums, new ways of expressing myself. During this project, I blur the line between photography and performance.

How do the authorities or police react to you?

I was on Golden Gate Bridge once and I was escorted out. The police or security or suicide watch person asked, 'Do you have a permit?' And I was taking a picture and said, 'What permit are you talking about?' I was, like, taking a picture! Give me a break ... And then she called the policeman; they stopped traffic in the middle of the damn bridge, caused a traffic jam and escorted me away. The policeman was telling me that I could potentially cause an accident on the bridge and they didn't want that. Not on the Golden Gate Bridge! And the policeman wanted a picture of me with him! He asked me to send it to him and he gave me his business card.

Did you send it to him?

I sent him a price list ...

What role does comedy or humor play in your work?

I want to make it funny, it's my intention to make it funny. If I could capture a serious moment I would do that too, but most of the time it becomes funny. You just can't help it.

What do you see yourself doing next?

In terms of this project, there are still a lot of possibilities. I don't know how much longer I'm going to do it. But if I go to new places across the country, I would love to go to Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, the desert, a volcano, outer space. I'm all for it! But I'm scared of heights.

Li's Green Man installation from Primary: My Different Colored Days is on view through Jan. 17 at SF Art Institute's Walter McBean Gallery, 800 Chestnut (at Columbus), San Francisco. Call for hours, 415/749-4564.

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From the December 7-20, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc.