Chinese-Born Artist Ma Li Makes Treasure from Trash

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In Ma Li’s hands, clear plastic bottles transform into suspended fields of jellyfish-like sculptures, and colored foam and clothes hangers resemble migrating flocks of birds.

With references to Chinese history, ecological concerns, ritual and fantasy, the Bay Area-based visual and performance artist weaves unlikely materials into large-scale immersive environments, and brings them to life with choreographed movements.

A recent artist residency at Recology, San Francisco’s municipal waste company, provided powerful fodder for Ma’s natural inclination to accumulate materials from unlikely sources. “The giant pile of trash is to me a treasure mountain,” she explains.

Growing up in China in the 1980s, when poverty was widespread, primed the artist for scavenging. “Watching people repurpose old objects and materials was really inspiring, and in my blood,” Ma says.

Ma’s colorful, suspended sculptures are full of whimsy. Meet You at the Bird Bridge in the Milky Way, an installation marking the end of her time at Recology, was inspired by a Chinese folktale of the Cow Herder and the Weaver Maid. Separated by a galaxy of stars, the two lovers in the legend are reunited by sympathetic birds who form a bridge across the expanse.


Despite the use of uniform, prefabricated elements, Ma’s work looks handmade. “In China we were expected to be exactly the same, just like machine-made plastic bottles,” she recalls. “Through my work, I like to transform the bottles into individuals with different personalities.”

Trained as a choreographer, Ma’s sculptures also double as props in her ritual-like group performances. “In China, the government uses military training and giant group routines to generate a non-individualist community spirit,” she says.

Repurposing these strict routines into playful performances complete with fake flower headdresses and futuristic LED accents, she blends kitschy materials and purposeful movements into a visual language that’s all her own.

“I’m always trying to provide a dream-like experience to the audience to remind them of their childhood, and how they can still be free to play, to dream,” Ma says.

At Gathering Among Stars, a one-night performance event at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Ma played the role of the ringleader, whistle at the ready to direct her performers in a slow-moving procession up the Asian’s main staircase. The performance culminates in a celebration of what Ma calls as “imagination, playfulness and freedom.”

- Sarah Hotchkiss