Snooping Through Studios: Jia Xi Li

Jia Xi Li [] is a textile artist based in London at the Sarabande; a foundation set up by the late Alexander McQueen to propel visionary creative talents. She grew up in China and Canada before moving to New York to study fashion and then London to do a masters at the Royal College of Art. During her MA, she explored materials and developed an innovative approach to working with knit to make sculptural works.

Her work challenges preconceived ideas about knit as she combines yarns in order to produce a knitted fabric that is rigid and self-supporting. Jia Xi values the emotion, history, and humanity in her work. Court Spencer went to her studio to find out more about her work and what she’s got coming up.

Knot by Not at Unit 1 Gallery Workshop, London, 2021 (Image Credit: Paul Tucker)

Court: Hey Jia Xi. So nice to see you again and thank you so much for your time. As you know, I first came across your work when you had an exhibition at Unit 1 Gallery in London. Can you talk a little about how that show came about?

Jia Xi: Hi Court, great to meet you again. After graduating from Royal College of Art, I was selected to attend a solo residency program at the Unit 1 Gallery Workshop in London. It was such a great opportunity for me. I utilised the great studio space inside the gallery and created a body of work. Stacie, the gallerist, was very supportive and helpful. She curated my first solo exhibition in London.

Jia Xi’s studio (Image Credit: Ruibao Li)

Court: That’s incredible. I’ve not met Stacie McCormick but she always comes across really well online. Can you tell us a bit more about your studio here at Sarabande and the support you receive?

Jia Xi: Sarabande is a very special foundation founded by Lee Alexander McQueen. There are 15 to 16 artists and designers selected every year. We can use the studio in whatever way we want for one full year. There are different mentors who help us on content making, press, curation, and digital presentation. We have a gallery space on the first floor in the Sarabande foundation building. This September, Sarabande just opened a second building in Tottenham, London. We have another gallery space in the Tottenham site.

Court: Wow, that sounds incredible to not only have great studio facilities but space to exhibit work and the support of mentors to help you develop your career. You’ve got a solo show coming up later in the year. What are you working on for that?

Jia Xi: The solo exhibition will take place at Sarabande Foundation Tottenham site. There will be new sculptures and wall pieces shown. I dive deeper to the idea of ‘Private Archive’.

Court: Ah, that sounds brilliant. I love the series where you’re archiving aspects of your life. Let’s jump back to your studies and how you’ve arrived at your current practice and this series of work. You did an undergraduate degree in fashion and then within your MA you focused on knit but rather than making garments, your work moved more into fine art and sculpture. Can you talk us through that?

Jia Xi: Before going to university, I was attracted by the work of Rei Kawakubo the founder of Comme des Garcons and the Japanese sculptural fashion pattern cutting by Shingo Sato. So, I went to Parsons to study fashion womenswear. However, because of my personality, I was tired of the fast-paced fashion industry, but I found my passion in the making side of textiles. So, I decided to come to London and study knitted textile. However, a few months after I moved here, the pandemic hit. The whole experience of staying at home influenced me. Instead of designing textile for other users, I focused on studying myself as a user of the objects that surrounded me.

Radiator, Knitted Textile, 2021, PLA filaments, light components (Image Credit: Paul Tucker)

Court: And can you tell us a little more about the way you use knit to make these incredible sculptural pieces that are often self-supporting?

Jia Xi: I am always interested in changing the nature of a material. So, I did a lot of experiments to try different structures of knit and combine different types of technical yarns. I create this solidification process that allows me to cut the knit without fraying and collage them together to build sculptural shapes.

Court: That’s fascinating that you can make knitted textiles so solid. Across your current series of work, much of it is dominated by bold colours. Is there a significance to these colours for you?

Jia Xi: The use of colour in my work relates to my art concept about memories. Different people have very diverse ways of remembering. Some people remember things in words, and some others remember things through touch. My memories and my dreams are all in black and white visuals. For my recent series of work, I use the bold colours to intensify the duration of a particular time and memory.

Court: That’s really interesting. I’m not even sure if I dream in colour or in black and white. I know much of what you’re working on at the moment is based on objects from your life in the UK. Do you pull from influences from previous places you have lived?

Jia Xi: In 2022, I did an installation based on objects in Guimaraes in Portugal where I travelled and lived for two months. My work is very location oriented, but the reason to create this series of works is because of the influences from previous places I have lived. The constant moving experience influenced my opinion towards ‘home’ and ‘shelter’. This experience enables my emotional feeling towards objects.

Jia Xi Li on top of the roof of The Standard Hotel with her sculptures (Image source:

Court: Thinking of the idea of home and shelter, you were recently commissioned by The Standard Hotel in Kings Cross to make three outdoor sculptures. This was a first for you working on a commission for an outside space. How did this opportunity come about and how did you make your work weatherproof?

Jia Xi: This commission happened after a studio visit. The Purple PR company was looking for an artist to decorate the rooftop at The Standard Hotel London. At the beginning, they liked my flat wall pieces. However, they changed their mind when seeing my knit sculpture and installations. It was a big challenge for me production-wise. An outdoor textile sculpture is very rare to see. But, they still chose to trust me and allowed me to explore new techniques. In this commission, I used fibreglass and resin to make the sculptures strong and weatherproof.

Court: Has this experience opened your practice? Do you think you’ll make more works for outdoors?

Jia Xi: Yes, it has indeed widened my practice. I am now very confident to accept outdoor commissions.

Kettle Light 05 in Definitions of Drawing II at Sunny Bank Mills, Leeds. (Image Credits: Courtney Spencer)

Court: I’m thrilled that you agreed to be part of Definitions of Drawing II, an exhibition I curated for Sunny Bank Mills in Leeds. In this show we have three of your works. Can you please talk us through the pieces, how you chose the objects to use and their significance to you?

Jia Xi: My recent works are about creating a private form of an archive. To me, this represents the intersection where remembrance meets forgetting. These objects enclose the traces of humanity, history, and relationships. Each object is not merely recorded and moulded just because of its singularity but because of what it means and does in relation to the other stored objects. Everything is like a mirror reflecting the stories of others. An object is not an individual entity but a compound structure of traces of time, and reflections of life.

Each piece stores a duration of my life and memory. Windowology: Look Out and Radiator store both my lonely private life during the pandemic era. However, Kettle Light number 5 (pictured above) is a by-product of the expansion of my carbon footprint. It stores the memory of my studio life.

Court: I love the way you’ve made these incredible objects and that they embody or hold a period of memories for you. It feels like so much more than just having a photo to capture a moment! After studying in New York, how does London compare? What are some of the things that you’re enjoying about living in the UK?

Jia Xi: I love both cities. New York is a very exciting city, but the pace of NYC is too fast for me. Everyone on the street walks so much faster than in London. For me, London has the right pace. Importantly, I’m allergic to UV, so the weather here is perfect.

Court: I think that might be the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe the UK weather as perfect! That’s brilliant, it’s so nice when you find something that feels right. And as we come to the end of the interview, there are a few questions I always ask. What has been a career highlight so far?

Jia Xi: I am very new to the art industry. I can’t really answer this question yet. But, every time, when an audience member shows interest in my work and is willing to spend time getting to know more about my work, I feel accomplished.

Radiator, Kettle Light 05 and Windowology: Look Out at Definitions of Drawing II at Sunny Bank Mills, Leeds.

Court: That is a really lovely answer, and it is exciting to find those people who are interested in your work, who connect with it and it really speaks to them. And do you have a dream project or something you would love to see happen at some point?

Jia Xi: Marcel Dzama is one of my favourite artists. He had a project working with the New York City Ballet. I personally love the staged scenes in his drawings and sculptures. In that theatre project, he transformed his drawing into an actual moving scenery work. I was obsessed, and I hope to work with performance or create moving installations in the future.

Court: I have no doubt that you’ll make that happen and it’ll be incredible! Do you have any shows coming up that we can keep an eye out for? And what’s the best way for people to connect with you and see what you’ve got on?

Jia Xi: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, I will have a solo exhibition at Sarabande Foundation at the Tottenham site this October. People can contact me through my Instagram. I will put exhibition information there.

Court: Jia Xi, thank you so much for your time. I absolutely adore your work and am so excited to see what you’re making for your solo show. You know I’m a huge fan of your kettles so I’m delighted to hear that more kettles are being created! Thanks again.