Lin Li's Above Us, the Sky

Lin Li's Above Us, the Sky

The Glasgow based artist's latest film delves into the life of Brian Quail, an anti-nuclear campaigner who's dedicated most of his adult life to the cause. Here she reveals how she's gradually developed her artistic career and discusses how making Above Us, the Sky has had a significant impact on the way she approaches her artistic practice.

Tell us a bit more about your background as an artist?

Originally from Hong Kong, I have been living in Britain for over 30 years and now reside in Glasgow. With an academic background in Social Sciences, I became an artist later in life after years of employment experience in teaching, academic research and visual impairment services. My transition to a career as an artist has been a gradual one, with knowledge and skills in art being acquired through evening classes and courses with the Open College of the Arts, and the building up of a creative practice over a long period of time. I am now practising as an artist on a full-time basis and have been doing so for seven years.

What was it that made you gravitate towards film, moving image and sound as creative mediums?

Through my artistic work, I explore and reflect on life and the world around me. In this process, I have used different languages of practice (painting, sculpture, moving image and sound) to translate my reflections from the intangible to the palpable. Music and the voice have always been important mediums of expression for me because of their effectiveness in communicating the ethereal. Before I started making films, I had created works in which manually produced sounds are integrated with painting or sculpture. However, the static mediums have their limitations in conveying some of my concerns such as impermanence and the passage of time.  

With digital technology becoming more affordable and readily available, I started making short videos in 2011. This has opened up many creative possibilities and allowed me to explore approaches such as using the voice as a medium in conjunction with moving image, for example, in my first video Drifting, or So Near, So Far

Another possibility is the adoption of a more socially engaged approach in which interview materials and other voices play a crucial part, such as Fragments of Peace which was made after a residency associated with the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. Above Us, the Sky is my second attempt in making a film using interviews as the main methodology. 

Apart from moving image work, I have also developed a number of standalone audio pieces (e.g. I cannot remember my mother’s voice, some of which were originally made as soundtracks for my films (e.g. So Near, So Far which was broadcast on the temporary art radio station Radiophrenia earlier this year).

When did you first meet Brian Quail and what was the catalyst for making Above Us, the Sky?

Brain Quail has campaigned for nuclear disarmament for decades. Apart from writing to politicians and to newspapers and speaking at rallies and other events, he has also engaged in non-violent direct actions. When I first met him, I knew nothing about his peace activities. We both sang (and still do) in the Glasgow-based choir Russkaya Cappella and served on the choir committee at the same time. 

When we held committee meetings in his flat, I was impressed by the way his home was decorated and by the many different objects in it. In my previous career, I had the opportunities to visit many people in their domestic environment (for research or service provision purposes), and Brian’s living space seemed to be quite different from the other Scottish homes I have visited. When I found out later about his involvement in the campaign against nuclear weapons, I wanted to learn more about the issue and about his engagement in the campaign. 

After numerous conversations, it became clear to me that Brian is an interesting character with strong values, and someone who dreams of peace and a better world for future generations. At the same time, like most of us, there are complexities in his personality and his life. 

The combination of a compelling character, a colourful living space which reveals his values and ideals, and the significance of the issues raised in his campaign gave me a sense of a story worth telling, and has made me decide to make a film portrait of Brian.

Brian Quail in Lin Li's Above Us, the Sky

How do you hope audiences will react to watching the film? Is there anything in particular you yourself learnt whilst making it?

It is always difficult to predict how viewers would react to a film or a piece of artwork, particularly in this case in which the subject has such a distinctive voice. Making the film has enabled me to get to know Brian better but at the same time has raised many questions about how we get to know another person, and, for a filmmaker, how to represent another person. 

Through the film I endeavour to share with the audience some facets of a complex character and hope that they will be able to find something in my representation of this character which they can relate to or react to. Some of the questions I have thought about during the process of making the film concern the ability of an individual to influence state policies; other questions interrogate the meaning of certain words which came up in my interviews with Brian such as ‘peace’ and ‘humanity’. 

In my research and conversations with Brian, I have learned a lot about how he makes sense of his activism and also the debate about nuclear (dis)armament. My film does not offer any detailed examination of this issue as there is already a large quantity of relevant information in the public domain. Yet I hope that the view Brian has communicated in the film could perhaps trigger more discussion and pondering, particularly amongst people who have not paid much attention to this topic before.

In the process of making Above Us, the Sky, I have also gained more experience in dealing with the technical aspects of making a narrative film which is reality-based and involves situations which I have little control over. There are also concerns about balancing my artistic intent and sensitivity to Brian with the question of ‘truthfulness’ in representation. 

What can be included in a short film like this is inevitably partial and highly selective. Through some very helpful mentoring from Luke Collins (with the support from Creative Scotland’s Open Project Funding), I have learned not to overload the content of the film and find a rhythm that suits my intent.

After the premiere next month, where else will people be able to watch it?

After the premiere on Thursday 6 August at 7.30pm at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, there will be another opportunity to watch the film in an exhibition which will take place in the Gayfield Creative Spaces , 11 Gayfield Square, Edinburgh, from 3 October to 8 October 2015. There will be a special screening of the film at 2.30pm on Saturday 3 October in Gayfield.

More info

Lin Li's Above Us, the Sky received support through Creative Scotland's Open Project fund. Found out more about how to apply here.

This article was published on 24 Jul 2015