The poet Bella Li works with collage and photography to produce genre-defying pieces that are at once referential and strikingly original. Her 2017 work Argosy, a hybrid poetry and collage work, won both the New South Wales and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for poetry, and Lost Lake (2018) expanded her visual and poetic work into further experimentation with encounters between image and text. With her newest work, Li is pushing the limits of this encounter even further.
You’re about to send a new book to the printer. What is it about?
My intention is always to make work that gives the reader a great deal of interpretive latitude, so that’s a hard question to answer. But it might be useful to speak about the genesis.
All of my books so far have evolved from small commissions. This work, Theory of Colours, which takes its title from a 19th-century treatise on colour by Johann Wolfgang Goethe – who is most famous as a writer, but was also a decent self-taught scientist – began as a shorter piece, commissioned in 2018 by Peril Magazine in collaboration with NIDA. The theme was “You are not here”, which made me immediately think of ghosts.
The commission for Peril allowed me to indulge in certain interests, which formed the grounds for what would become the book. Over the next three years, I worked on other short pieces – several of which forced me to work exclusively in black and white (due to printing restrictions). These, too, influenced how the book took shape, both visually and thematically.
I had intended Theory of Colours to be primarily about colour theory. When I first began I was thinking a lot about colour and light, their necessary relation, and colour as a perceptual, as opposed to a strictly objective, phenomenon. But the project veered in different directions, and colour ended up being more of a structuring principle, as well as a language or medium for the communication of ideas.
You start with what you think will be a small work, and then you uncover something big in the process! How important is it to allow a project to veer around and surprise you?
Yes! It’s like being infected with a concept, which then takes over and grows and in many cases mutates.
Surprise is an important element – I’m constantly being caught off guard. For instance, my first book was supposed to be about something entirely different, but then Argosy came along and displaced it. The same happened with Lost Lake.
The rather uninspired analogy I have for the process of making work, whether it be a smaller piece or a full-length book, is that of standing in a dark room. Every now and then a light flickers on and reveals the dimensions of the room, its fixtures and fittings, a little more clearly, before flickering off again. As you progress, those moments of light and clarity become more frequent – until you can see everything well enough to say: okay, I know where I am now.
For me this clarity only lasts for as long as it takes to pull something together. Once it’s out in the world, the work becomes opaque again – I find this really satisfying.
Can you tell me a bit more about your process of composition, for both images and text?
Usually I start with a theme or concept. If the work is to include images, I’ll find or make these first. I have a growing collection of old books and magazines, on pretty much any topic you can think of – including crochet! – collected over the years from op shops and second-hand bookstores, as well as a store of my own photographs, mostly taken on film. I often know what I’m looking for, and once I’ve settled on source texts, I’ll usually make a series of collages. These images are less important for their specific content, and more for the way in which they create a foundation – tonal or atmospheric landscapes – out of which the text can be generated.
When it comes to the text, I have a few different techniques. One is ekphrasis – responding directly to another work of art – not just visual art, but also film, literature and music. Another is collage: finding phrases from other books – novels, scientific textbooks, manuals et cetera – or dialogue from films, and arranging and rearranging them until some kind of oblique narrative and coherence suggests itself. In the process I splice together different sources, amend the originals, and add my own words and phrases, so that the result is just that – a textual collage. Another is “just writing”, which is as loose and unstructured as it sounds.
In Theory of Colours, I use all three techniques. I am always looking to create work that opens out onto other works and worlds, other fields of knowledge, and other times and places – through much of the book these references are hovering in the background, rather than explicitly present, and the influences are generic rather than specific. If I were to name the artistic genres that shaped the work, I would say: horror, ghost stories, weird fiction and science fiction/speculative fiction – also westerns.
It was important to me that the entire work had a conceptual, thematic and tonal coherence – so what didn’t fit or contribute had to go. These fragments are now in the pool of “lost books” that may or may not ever be made. Image-wise, the book contains collages made from existing images, but also more abstract images and forms that centre on colour and shape.
I love how expansive and intuitive this process sounds. How do you protect that creative journey while navigating deadlines?
If I didn’t have deadlines to meet, I would never finish anything! Deadlines are crucial to the completion of a project – always in reality a provisional moment in time, but a necessary point of severance, at which you let go and move on.
Theory of Colours is due to the printer in less than a week, and for a variety of reasons, it’s been really stressful putting it together – a couple of weeks ago, I seriously almost threw in the towel. One of the things that made me persist, among others, was watching that epic five-setter between Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open. When he was being interviewed afterwards, Thiem said that by the start of the third set, when he was down two sets to love and about to have his serve broken in the opening game, he was already grieving the loss of the match. But he just kept doggedly hitting the ball over the net, and ended up winning.
I can’t play tennis to save myself, but after seeing that interview I felt like I could at least give this book another go.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 6, 2021 as "Caught off guard".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription