String Together: A Conversation with Lily & Honglei

String Together: A Conversation with Lily & Honglei
Image Detail: "The Red String" at Columbus Park, Manhattan (fiscally sponsored by NYFA), 2022; Photo by Lily & Honglei Art Studio

Lily & Honglei talk about their new public art piece commissioned by More Art and their biggest asset as immigrant artists.  

Asian American artist collaborative Lily & Honglei’s augmented reality-based artwork The Red String is on view in public parks in Chinatown, Manhattan and Flushing, Queens until mid-December (if in New York City, check it out!). The work was commissioned by More Art as part of their Engaging Artists program, and was fiscally sponsored by NYFA.

Here, they discuss the challenges of turning studio art works into public art pieces, and how they integrate traditional culture elements with emerging technology to reflect the new realities of Asian immigrants. 

New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA): Your public art project The Red String opened in Flushing, Queens, and Chinatown, Manhattan, in October. Tell us more about the project and how it demonstrates what is at the core of your artistic identity? 

Lily & Honglei (L&H): The Red String consists of physical and digital components reflecting immigrant experiences, East Asian cultural heritage, and Asian American identity. 

We installed a series of large banners along the fences at the parks with distinct designs inspired by patterns of Asian red strings—also called Asian knots—the folk art symbolizing unity and love. Using smartphone augmented reality technology, viewers can scan QR codes on the banners and watch interactive animations inspired by ancient Chinese folktales and traditional operas. 

We installed a series of large banners along the fences at the parks with distinct designs inspired by patterns of Asian red strings—also called Asian knots—the folk art symbolizing unity and love.

Lily & Honglei

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has fallen victim to elevated racial bias and physical and verbal attacks in New York City and nationwide. The intention of The Red String is to heal the communities that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and its subsequent anti-Asian sentiment. 

By emphasizing the significance of Asian American cultural heritage that symbolizes collective identity, the work contributes to uniting cultural groups and communities (inspired by the words archeologist Cornelius Holtorf). By installing the work on major roads in Queens and Manhattan, we intend to strengthen the visibility of Asian Americans in the city, responding to some racist remarks that want us as a group to ‘disappear.’

Meanwhile, the project aims to promote intercultural dialogue and communications between these two Asian enclaves and the broader American society. Sharing visual experiences inspired by our cultural heritage and delivered by smartphone technology, The Red String highlights questions such as: “How can we, Asian Americans as a resilient community, develop and create new heritage as cultural memories in a complex society?”

The Red String project embodies the core of our art practice, which integrates Eastern visual tradition with emerging technology to reflect the new realities of Asian immigrants. It also demonstrates our approach to combining studio art practice with social engagement in creating public art, through which we intend to amplify the voice of our Asian immigrant community.

"Stereotype: Life of the Invisibles" paneled artwork
Image Detail: “Stereotype: Life of the Invisibles” (fiscally sponsored by NYFA), 2022; Photo by Lily & Honglei Art Studio

NYFA: What were some of the challenges you encountered when you created The Red String? How did you overcome those challenges and what were some of the resources you turned to for support?

L&H: As a socially-engaged art project, The Red String interweaves multiple artistic disciplines, including painting, Asian folk art, video art, live performance, and emerging technology. Because the project is taking place in New York City parks, the materialization also requires institutional support. We experienced many technological and logistical challenges during the production period, such as developing a smartphone augmented reality application for smooth audience experiences, and working with local cultural groups to strengthen public engagement. 

Exhibiting our oil paintings and animations within a public art framework, The Red String was transplanting our artworks from studio to outdoor public spaces, which seemed a daunting task for us, whose presentations mostly took place in museum and gallery settings in the past. Realizing collaboration would be the key to solving these challenges, we turned to More Art, a New York City-based organization specializing in large-scale public art and socially-engaged art projects, for support. Their professional network and technical expertise assisted us in materializing the installations in Flushing in Queens and Chinatown in Manhattan. 

To continue developing The Red String as a multi-year project, we also reached out to NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship for support, providing comprehensive guidance on fundraising strategies for artists. From there, we connected with The Kunqu Society of New York, who became our collaborator on The Red String. As a cultural group headquartered in Flushing and dedicated to traditional Chinese opera performance, Kunqu Society contributed many soundtracks to the media components of The Red String

With shared values and missions, our collaborations with organizations have transformed our artist project into teamwork that has expanded the project’s outreach and influence.  

Artwork by Lily & Honglei Art Studio
Image Detail: “Stereotype: Life of the Invisibles” (fiscally sponsored by NYFA), 2022; Photo by Lily & Honglei Art Studio

NYFA: From your perspective, what is the biggest asset you both have as immigrant artists? 

L&H: Immigrant artists’ most significant assets include our cultural heritage and life experience. For instance, Asian folk art and traditional operas inspire us to create new artistic expressions. By integrating cultural heritages with contemporary art language and new technologies, we strive to spotlight more stories of Asian immigrants in the U.S. 

Meanwhile, despite many struggles and hardships, our immigrant experience expands our perspectives on multicultural societies. This first-hand experience grants us a deeper understanding of human sufferings, a new angle to examine racial relationships, communities, and histories, and envision our future path. 

Despite many struggles and hardships, our immigrant experience expands our perspectives on multicultural societies. This first-hand experience grants us a deeper understanding of human sufferings, a new angle to examine racial relationships, communities, and histories, and envision our future path.

Lily & Honglei

NYFA: You have presented your work with institutions such as Queens Museum and Eyebeam Art + Technology Center. You also have received grants from the Jerome Foundation and NYFA, and your project is fiscally sponsored by NYFA. What are some tips to maintain relationships with your funders/presenters? What were some tips/advice that you wished you knew when you started building your art career in the U.S.? 

L&H: As immigrant artists who came to the U.S. relatively late with no opportunity to attend prestigious art programs, it was very difficult for us to establish connections with art institutions in the beginning. We found the best way to communicate with funders/presenters was through our art projects that demonstrated our creative energy and innovations. Collaborating with other artists also helped us build a professional network. However, not every collaboration will be fruitful; to have a successful outcome, all parties involved must have shared values and missions. For us, that means contributing to social changes, inclusiveness, and cultural diversity. 

Where to See The Red String

The Red String is on view now through December 19, 2022 at Bowne Playground, Flushing; Now through December 18, 2022 at Columbus Park, Manhattan.

About Lily & Honglei 

Lily & Honglei is an Asian immigrant artist collaborative whose art practice integrates Asian cultural heritages and traditional mediums with emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Striving to make a voice for marginalized groups in societies, their work often focuses on the immigrant experience and Asian American cultural identity. 

Lily & Honglei have presented their artworks at numerous contemporary art venues, including the Museum of Art and Design, Queens Museum, Eyebeam Art Technology Center, Asian American Art Alliance, Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, and Wilfrid Israel Museum of Asian Art & Studies. Their AR projects have been presented along with ManifestAR collaborative at Whitney Museum. Lily & Honglei are recipients of People’s Choice Award at Museum of Art & Design, New York; the Creative Capital Award for Moving Image & Visual Arts; the NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship; New York State Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grants; Queens Art Fund New Work Grants; and Jerome Foundation (via Turbulence.org); among others. Their art practice has been discussed by many art historians such as Margaret Hillenbrand and Angela Becher. In 2022, Lily & Honglei were commissioned by More Art to create The Red String for Asian immigrant communities in Flushing, Queens and Chinatown in Manhattan.  

–Ya Yun Teng, Program Officer, Immigrant Artist Resource Center (NYC)

This post is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #152. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events. Learn more about NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.

Amy Aronoff
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