Through December, visitors to two Chinatown parks in Lower Manhattan and Flushing will find a series of banners emblazoned with large Chinese red knots, a hallmark of the cultural districts they are situated in. Looking closer, they will find at their center brilliant scenes mixing contemporary and traditional symbolism and storytelling. And if they choose to scan a QR code on the bottom of the banner, the images will begin to animate with operatic tales of love, struggle, resilience, and tragedy.
The displays, mounted to fences at Bowne Playground in Flushing, Queens, and Columbus Park in Manhattan, are pops of color that invite residents in surrounding neighborhoods to engage with Chinese heritage, immigrant narratives, and the modern reinterpretation of folklore outdoors. The series is titled The Red String and is the work of the artist duo Lily & Honglei — consisting of Lily Yang, who works primarily with augmented reality (AR), and Honglei Li, who specializes in oil painting — with the support of More Art, a nonprofit organization with the mission of producing socially engaged public art in New York City.
At the heart of each of the eight banners, measuring six by four-and-a-half feet, is a still from an animation. The short videos draw from imagery from Honglei Li’s oil paintings, and their narrative structures are inspired by East Asian folktales and opera stories.
One animation is a retelling of the ancient legend of “The Butterfly Lovers,” which Yang calls “one of the most beautiful, popular, and influential Chinese folk stories.” Two young scholars, one female and the other male, meet on their journey to university and become close friends. Soon, they fall in love. But the story ends in tragedy: She has already been committed by her family to another man, and devastated, her lover dies. She joins him in death, and only then are they able to unite in spirit, as butterflies who flutter away from the earthly world.
“We loosely reinterpret this story to depict a couple in traditional operatic costumes, wandering around New York City at night,” Yang told Hyperallergic. “The contrast between the characters and the metropolitan landscapes, such as Times Square, 7 Train station in Queens, and Brooklyn Bridge, visualizes the cultural isolation they experience and the long journey leading them to a new identity.”
Another banner, titled “The Stereotype: Life of the Invisibles,” honors the multitudinous lives led by Lao Liu, a friend of Lily & Honglei’s. The animation uses a large-scale oil painting series as its source material, and was motivated by Honglei Li’s own experiences both laboring as a curbside artist at Times Square and bearing witness to the difficult lives and deaths of people he has known. Liu worked a number of diverse jobs, including on a vegetable farm upstate, a nail salon, a restaurant, and on a construction site. When he was pursued by police officers for working without a permit in construction, he was treated brutally and left with a broken hand. Unable to continue working in construction, he began picking up bottles and cans in the streets to recycle. “That’s the last thing we knew about him,” Yang says. “We lost him.”
A priority in Lily & Honglei’s artistic practice is to elevate people whose stories have been obscured. “There are not many artworks depicting their lives, either their real, living conditions or their spiritual work,” Yang explains, referencing people like Liu. “It’s always overlooked.”
Yang sees the augmented reality component as a way to engage people in the community without requiring them to enter the prim spaces of arts and culture institutions. It’s a medium that the duo has been working with for over a decade, and with this installation, the hybridization of the physical and digital worlds is seamless: Visitors don’t need to download an app to see the animations, and can access them with the in-built QR scanners in their phone cameras.
“That’s something we’re always wanting to do: to break the boundaries of the gallery or museum walls, and directly communicate with the public, in parks and neighborhoods. That’s the audience we’re really enthusiastic about,” Yang said.
Dylan Gauthier, a More Art curator who helped organize The Red String, sees the installation as responding to the rise in hate crimes and violence. But, he added, “the animations themselves are seeking to uplift, and draw us to a place of beauty through greater cultural understanding and solidarity between new and old.”
“As artists, I think it’s an important task for us to preserve cultural heritage,” Yang said. “But it’s also important for us to transform our cultural heritage, and to reflect newer attitudes.”