My conversation with a performance artist, 2009, Beijing
Chinese artist removed rib on day of Olympics opening ceremony
It has emerged that Chinese performance artist He Yunchang had a rib surgically removed on the 8th of August, the day of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. He has had the rib turned into a necklace.
The artist, well known in China for his extreme performance art, told the Art Newspaper: “This is about social conditions. I feel in China, after 20 to 30 years of development, people no longer care about a lot of things. Such as feelings. A total chaos.”
The work will be shown in a retrospective show in September at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing.
He Yunchang said: “When the show is on…. there will be only a small video recording available, about this process. In fact the way this work presents the idea is still aesthetic, or, rather, normal. What I want to ask … is what in our time is cared about by us, and how many things deserve our care and how many do not. This is a representation of a process in a stage in my personal life. I think this shows a prevailing phenomenon in the society. Today, our views about many things have totally changed. To put it simply, I have 206 bones in my body when I am alive. By taking one of them out and putting it under the sun, and playing with it as a toy, it is fun. In chapter one of the Bible there is this story that God took a rib of Adam, and created Eve… I feel there are many things in life that deserve to be pursued and deserve more of our care than money and politics.”
Leading Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei commenting on the rib removal work said: “We had a discussion before he did that, we are close. His work …it’s a little bit poetic… it touches some fundamental questions about art, how we see ourselves and how we expect others to see us.”
He Yunchang has previously exhibited at the Liverpool Biennale, and has shown work widely across Europe and the US and Japan. The are plans for his work to be shown in a series of shows in Europe and Japan this year.
He Yunchang also damaged his eyesight in an earlier performance, leaving him temporarily blinded. Other performances have involved taking his body’s endurance to extremes, such as by carrying a rock around the United Kingdom, encasing himself in concrete, suspending himself attached to various objects and wrestling 100 workers in succession.
He said: “Many years ago I realized my health would be hurt by doing performance art. This is like you will trip if you enjoy mountaineering, and you will swallow some dirty water if you enjoy swimming. This is a price you pay for something you love personally. It is unavoidable. Another angle to look at it is that you feel you can do whatever you want. I forget about the too many limitations imposed by the society and law. I get freedom from inside. I surpass the restrictions of the secular world.”
>FULL TEXT CP GILL AND HE YUNCHANG< BEIJING, MARCH 7 2009
He Yunchang: Do you know Colin Chinnery personally, then?
Chris Gill: I don’t know him that well, but I had a few telephone conversations with him.
HY: You should tell him that you know me, and that you came to my place. We two have been good friends for 10 years. I have always felt that he is a talented person.
CPG: He used to work with the British Council.
HY: Yes. When he was there he coordinated this project (The Rock Touring Around Great Britain) for me. But he left the British Council after a while and went to work at UCCA, but he still introduced some friends to me with regards to this project.
CPG: I heard now he is in charge of the SH Contemporary Art Fair.”.
HY: Yes. He knows Chinese culture. At the same time, he comes from a western educational background. His mother is a native of Beijing. He was born in Edinburgh and received his education in the UK. He started working in the Chinese art circle from a very young age, so he knows the community well. He started his art career with music, in rock. He had his own band. He is not bad. The UK has done a good job in this area. I once searched for data and I found that in 2005 about 230,000 artists from around the world visited the UK to exhibit their works or do art exchange. Of course, this number covers various fronts, music, acrobatics and so on. So I think the UK is very strong among European countries in terms of art.
CPG: I don’t know how to put it, but many people in the UK enjoy arts.
HY: I think this shows a nation’s attitude, a respect for culture and arts. During such exchanges the country is also demonstrating its position and strength, like this is how I treat culture and arts.
CPG: Well, yes this is how the current government is operating. If we have a change of government, then things might change.
HY: That’s right. When I was there I heard they were to put limits on artists being granted entry visas to the country. No need to dwell on the issue, but my overall impression of the UK is quite good. For a country of its size…. In contrast, China, as such a big country, and is not doing a lot of such valuable work, having only 30,000 people in cross-border exchanges each year, compared with the 230,000 each year in the UK.
CPG: I did not know the number was so large.
HY: I needed to do research, search for data online in order to do my work, by getting an idea of the country’s physiognomy and other basic conditions. I need to do this research in order to be able to produce a program.
CPG: When was this piece (The Rock Touring Around Great Britain) produced?
HY: It started on September 24, 2006. It was completed on February 14, 2007. I gathered detailed information about the UK before creating this piece of work. Since the tour was along the coast, which totals around 6,700 kilometers in length. It was not possible for me to produce a job with too much investment in time needed. And I understood that there would be no financial sponsorship from the UK. The expenses would need to be around GBP 500,000-600,000. That was not possible. So I compressed the project into a 3.5-month program with less expense, around GBP 200,000, which would make the project doable. Similarly, I have received an invitation from Fukuoka Biennale, and I have started looking for necessary information on the web. They ask me to do a project for them. Unluckily, all I could find out about Fukuoka was some tourist information. So I probably need to buy a book about the city of Fukuoka to get an idea. Then I will make a plan for the project. So you see, I have some fixed habits and approach to my work. But I think it is necessary to know more about the place where the project will take place.
CPG: About your work in the UK, did you get any feedback from there afterwards, and did it make any impact on the general public or the art community?
HY: They were quite happy, because many did not really expect the project would be completed. Because you know, there are many backpackers in Europe. When it is vacation time, they put on a backpack and travel on foot, which is an exercise and they enjoy it.
I met many of these backpackers on my journey. They would ask me where I was going. I told them I started from Boulmer (on England’s East coast) and would go back to Boulmer to put my stone down. Oh, my god! (Laughs.) They were surprised.
CPG: How many people were there to help you on this project?
HY: I had two photographers, two guides and two drivers. Usually we were a team of seven. They took shifts. For instance, in the morning one photographer would follow me to take some photographic notes, and at noon when we had covered 20 kms, the other photographer would come to take his place. In the evening we rested, and a vehicle would come to pick up our people and take note of our point of ending that day. It was in the countryside, and because we had a limited budget to pay 7 people, we could only stay at motels. On the next day we would go from the motel back to the previous day’s ending point to continue the journey. The guides changed shifts every two weeks.
CPG: I know of a person from the UK who was also doing something similar, but he is not doing it as an artist. He is walking all the way from Shanghai to Tibet, I think. He has one leg is impaired…. After walking for several days he returns to his life in Shanghai, and later when he restarts the journey he arranges himself back to the last place he stopped.
HY: When I was doing this project, for the Liverpool Biennale, I received some funding from the organizing committee. But the most important part of the funding came from the British Artists Association, who is sponsored by the royal family. It is a government-backed trust like the Chinese Artists Association. Most of my sponsorship came from there. When I went to Manchester to submit my plan, the person in charge there said, you see, many people have worked on some kind of backpacking theme. We came across something like this before. What do you want to achieve by it? He was asking me about the general idea behind the work. I gave him a framework. I put it this way. We are in a utilitarian and pragmatic society. When we travel to a place, we go by a plane, ship or train, motorcycle or car. We travel that way because we want to get there in the shortest time. We walk very fast and are very busy every day. Because we want to get things done as soon as possible and receive maximum benefit. We have a clear goal and timeline. In my project, I will hold a piece of ugly stone in my hand and walk by foot very slowly in a big circle, and then put it back in its original place. Almost nothing will change. So the idea of this piece of work is inefficiency and ineffectiveness. It is even different in its goal from the cases of people such as your crippled friend. They may be doing it for physical exercise, or a noble cause. The concept of my work is inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
CPG: What did they say then?
HY: They agreed. But many people still thought this would be a difficult task because it has a fixed time frame. Around 3,500 kilometers must be walked in 16 weeks. So still not easy. In the end everybody was happy when it was completed.
CPG: It was in winter?
HY: It was from Autumn to February.
CPG: January and February are cold in the UK.
HY: The weather in the UK is very unpredictable. I met all kinds of weathers and land forms. Mountains, marshes, highways, grassland, sandy beach and sea shore. I took 5 pairs of shoes and wore one out. I later settled for two pairs of boots, a Korean brand. The soles had holes in them when I finished. A new pair became worn out in just a month and a half. I tried all kinds of shoes. Nike, Adidas, are were no good for my work. They are not suitable for such long arduous travel.
CPG: I also discovered that my feet are sore after traveling all the art districts in Beijing these few days.
HY: On the seventh day of the walk, I swapped the stone between my hands. My hands had several layers of skin rubbed off in just a week. My feet started getting blisters all over them two weeks into the walk. It hurt when I walked. Later we found a fluid, which we applied to our feet and hands in protection. The problem was solved.
CPG: Did you go and see a doctor?
HY: It was not out of the question. You might as well just rest and stop. I did not want to stop the project. Sometimes I would get a twisted ankle, but I would keep walking. It would disappear 3-5 days later. In the UK they don’t provide treatment for sports injuries (on the National Health). They would just give you a band-aid.
CPG: Can I ask where you were born? Was it Yunnan province?
HY: I was born in 1967, in Lianghe county of Yunnan province. Close to the border between China and Burma.
CPG: Is it somewhere near Lijiang?
HY: It is near Ruili. It is called Lianghe county.
CPG: Did you attend an art school then?
HY: Yunnan Art College. I learned oil painting. Four years.
CPG: Yes, they told me that you also do paintings. Are these your works?
Both spend some time looking at He Yunchang’s works.
… … … …
CPG: Do you not want to get your eyes fixed with a laser? (He Yunchang has damaged his eyesight, either due to his performance Eyesight Test, from 2003, which left him temporarily blinded, or he says his night time computer use. Currently he has problems reading texts)
HY I knew that this will be the result of reading books like that. Many years ago I realized my health would be hurt by doing performance art. This is like you will trip if you enjoy mountaineering, and you will swallow some dirty water if you enjoy swimming. This is a price you pay for something you love personally. It is unavoidable.
Another angle to look at it is that you feel you can do whatever you want. I forget about the too many limitations imposed by the society and law. I get freedom from inside. I surpass the restrictions of the secular world.
CPG: So you said in 2004 there was a government order that you could no longer do….
HY: In March it was declared illegal to do nude performance art in public. I felt this was ridiculous. Artists are not terrorists or aiming to do harm to the society. They just want to do something they enjoy. But I think the tolerance level of the society for this is quite low. [Sighs] No harm to the society is possible. I have chosen a professional space such as a gallery or a public professional facility to render my work. To me, it is a serious thing to do. There should be a difference. You cannot treat artists like terrorists, right? There are things that you walk around when you know they are there.
CPG: Some of your works affect your health, but you still go on.
HY: I feel it is still OK. I should take such consequences. The damage to my health is not what I am after. My goal is to do something fun. But I knew before hand that there would be some damage to my health, and it is something I can put up with. Because I know there are too many other bloody and cruel things in real life, such as wars. So I feel this is tolerable. One has to pay a price for what you like, be it time or something else. Perhaps my price in addition to time is health.
CPG: Have you seen a doctor lately?
HY: In the US when I was doing a work (standing on a rock under Niagara falls) I was picked up by the police. They gave me a physical examination. They said my health condition was very poor. But I feel I am still OK.
CPG: The police? The police here or ….?
HY: The police in America. I wanted to do a work at the Niagara Falls. I wanted to stand for 24 hours on a rock under the falls. They picked me up. This was soon after I finished this piece (Order of a General, where He Yunchang was encased in 1 ton of concrete), at the Buffalo Museum. I was left with around 2,000 cuts in my body when it was completed. When the cement was poured I shivered because I was cold, and the cement made cuts all over my body. The police rushed me to an emergency room when they picked me up. They said my body maybe in very bad shape. But I feel I am fine.
CPG: Are there any other artists who have influenced your ideas? At home or abroad?
HY: Very few. I liked one artist called Yves Klein when I was younger. I liked him because his forms and concepts resemble those of us orientals, which are very romantic. But in doing works of my own I’d like to avoid repeating the works of others. If a piece of my work looks like somebody else’s I think it is because I did not give enough thought to it. I consciously try to avoid the influence of other artists as much as I can.
CPG: I feel very few artists would be able to bear what you did in this picture, by putting yourself in cement. Others may just do it a little, and not to such an extent as you did.
HY: I do planning in advance as to the degree of damage, so as to have a general idea of how big the damage to my body would be. But in actually doing it, I sometimes do feel frightened and very lonely. But I feel it is still worth the effort. In my childhood and youth I had too many restrictions on me. Many things were not allowed by the society. And later I knew there are many things that are not allowed in western countries as well.
CPG: I feel you are more at ease here (in China).
HY: But as a human being I feel one should have a lot of pride, like a tree, a tree in the primitive forest. He should be able to grow freely. Maybe the wind will take away some branches and leaves, and it is normal. I cannot take too many restrictions. In doing performing arts, at an early stage I tried to make various kinds of attempts without limitations. Like putting myself in cement, looking at light bulbs, finding 100 people to fight me, and cutting the river with a knife. Through these freeform attempts, I wanted to overcome many things in the secular world and break its restrictions. These attempts might have some hidden potential. A person can have some quite interesting ideas in his life. If you feel it is appropriate, why bother whether it is art or not? No matter if others like it, I can try it. And I feel in such attempts you can bring into play the fundamental and inherent attributes of life, namely, what you can do on earth as a human being, and to what extent. This is different from taking a few days walking on vacation or travelling from Asia to Europe, which have a lot of purpose in them. So I put my interest and desire into doing this work. I wanted to do it, and most importantly, I am happy when doing it. And I also think doing this might make others feel this thing is a fun thing to do in their leisure time too. It offers this possibility. We are not invariable. This country may have its laws and social system. There are all kinds of restrictions, because we are a big family, a big society after all. But I feel a common person has a lot of potential. I put in more than 10 years of my time and energy to play with such an outdated concept, performance art. I also do paintings and other things, but I always wanted to do something I am more interested in. I do feel quite exhausted after a piece of work is done. After the wrestling project was done, it took me 60 days for me to get back into shape physically and get rid of the pain inside. This is what I don’t want and like to put up with. It is not that my ultimate goal is to ruin things. I liked this idea so I tried at it, but when it took me 60 days to recover, I also felt like I’d walk away (from doing this kind of art). But after a while, a new idea would occur to me, and I would be tempted to try again. Otherwise I would feel bored killing time every day. Throughout the years I have been doing performing art, I have maintained my interest in it. Using performance art to express my ideas and tastes, I can always find joy for myself. Many people say what you do is too scary.
CPG: Is it like some people gamble or do some other dangerous things, because it is their lifestyle? They feel at their most happy when they gamble. It looks like you are sometimes gambling with your body.
HY: I think common people have gambling and adventurous instincts inside them. Perhaps I do performance art partially because I have this too, but it is not a big part of me. I feel there is a difference. I would put it as a difference between hobby and work. I don’t have the ability to get an official position to be part of their corrupt goings on. Even if I have that kind of ability, I would not want to do those things. I’d rather stay home chopping firewood and do my thing. I reject such things in the secular world. I don’t want to be part of, and I don’t want to live with these acts in the society. Through these things I do I reject those things I hate and express my position. I cannot make myself part of the corrupt stream. I would rather do something that others might see as ridiculous. One piece of my work is about chopping firewood every day. In ancient times in China, intellectual people did household chores such as farming, cutting wood, fishing, drinking every day and sitting home naked when they were not content with the society. These are very learned people. Yang Fudong in Shanghai shot a scene called Seven Wise Men in the Bamboo Forest. You should see it. It is a performance of these ancient people’s state of mind. Though very abnormal conduct I think it expresses the intellectuals’ attitude and position.
CPG: I have seen that piece.
HY: Yes, it is called Seven Wise Men in a Bamboo Forest. It is a very aesthetic group portrait.
CPG: I see you have authored some papers. You wrote them, right? Let me follow what you say here. I just got this. It says you….(refers to essay written by He Yunchang in CCAA publication for CCAA Art Awards, 1998-2002, which refers to myth making by artists)
HY: This was in 2002. They were having an event, and asked me for general thoughts on my works in those years.
CPG: So your thoughts at that time were like this, right?
HY: Yes, at first my thoughts were generally like that. Later there were some changes. Gradually, in each piece of work I had its…. This is a short article from 2002. They required a note from everybody.
CPG: I know what you mean. I felt interested when I read the paper, because you were doing your things, right, and others said this changed and changed and changed again, and what would it be like another 20 years later. At last there is a guy in China, who….
HY: ….said totally opposite things.
HY: I feel a work of performance art has a life and it walks. If found interesting, it will be passed on. Later, the way people describe the work might be different from the artist’s own idea. I think it is not a big issue. Since 2002 my ideas on the works I do have kept evolving, with more thoughts being added to the initial ideas. I always want to have new ideas, and the methods once used become old-fashioned. I have never repeated any of my works. Because I feel that would be too unbearable, and I would not do it over again. Each piece I would reconsider how I did it. From 2002 through now, I think my ideas might have changed a little. But if I collect my thoughts, basically it would be about the same. On the surface it appears to be endless harm to my body. Each piece reflects a kind of concern over, and a representation of the state of the society. Some pieces show my personal hobbies. I found it fun. Others might show I am in favor of or in disapproval of something. These are presented in my works.
CPG: You are 42 years old. Your health was probably in a better condition a few years back. Now you probably should have some change of mind, so that it would not affect your health too much.
HY: Last year I completed a piece of work, in which a rib was taken out from my body and made into an ivory piece. In the future I will not now be able to do such work as wrestling or other things involving intense physical action. I perhaps will do some static works instead.
CPG: Was that a broken rib that was taken out?
HY: It was taken out on purpose. (He Yunchange shows rib, turned into a necklace, and wears it)
CPG: How many ribs? Oh, one.
CPG: Did you ask people to do it for you?
HY: I talked with a hospital to do it for me. I found a privately owned hospital in Kunming. It was on August 8 last year, the day of the Beijing Olympics’opening ceremony.
CPG: Has this been on public display?
HY: It will be put in a show on September 12. This is mine.
CPG: Oh, this is yours. The purpose of your work is ….?
HY: This is about a social condition. I feel in China, after 20 to 30 years of development, people no longer care about a lot of things. Such as feelings. A total chaos. After completing this work I took a photo with my mom and some good friends.
CPG: When you had the operation was the process recorded?
HY: The show will not be until September. When the show is on…. There will be only a small video recording available, about this process. In fact the way this work presents the idea is still aesthetic, [laughs] or, rather,“normal”. What I want to ask in this is what in our time is cared about by us, and how many things deserve our care and how many do not. This is a representation of a process in a stage in my personal life. I think this shows a prevailing phenomenon in the society. Today, our views about many things have totally changed. To put it simply, I have 206 bones in my body when I am alive. By taking one of them off and putting it under the sun, and play with it as a toy. It is fun. In chapter one of the Bible there is this story that God took a rib of Adam, and created Eve out of it. I feel there are many things in life that deserve to be pursued， and deserve more of our care than money and politics.
CPG: Are there other artists in Beijing to whom you told about this work?
HY: I have few contacts outside. When I am free I just stay cool. I have been in Beijing for 10 years, and the Forbidden City is the only place I have been to. And I visited the Great Wall with a friend. Besides those, I have not been to any other places of interest. I am not a person who enjoys going around and about. You cannot find any personal blog of mine on the web. A friend once built a blog for me and put 7 photos on it. Later I called him and told him to take some of them off. Now there are only 2 or 3 photos there. I have little contact with the outside world. Today, my works are totally out of my personal pursuit.
CPG: You went to Kunming after the performance at the Ullens? (Opening of Our Future exhibition at the UCCA in Beijing, where He Yunchange did his performance Deep Diving, on July 17).
HY: Yes, after that.
CPG: At that show I met a British journalist. She also saw you do your work. When you got down she described you just looked like you were in toxic shock.
HY: Yes, I looked very painful.
CPG: Yes, we all wondered how you were.
HY: Yes, a little….(uncomfortable). Based on my over 10 years of experience in performance art, there should not be any collaborative problem in work. Still you need to put up with some physical pain. Sometimes it is because there is a miscommunication with my workmates. We need a good consensus before hand for the work to be a perfect performance. The day before doing the work, I must do some preparations. Generally speaking, I think it worked out quite smoothly. I would be fine with a satisfaction rate of 70 percent or above. Each time I do it, I always have a lot of dissatisfaction. To me this is a very normal thing. I may not be a perfectionist. I cannot make everything perfect. On the contrary, in each and every of my works I see some dissatisfaction.
CPG: Your show in September means something important to your work. You will be doing a retrospective?
HY: You mean the September 12 show. When I return from Fukuoka (I leave on September 5) I will be doing that show. I agreed with the gallery that not all of my works will be put there. I was planning to do a show at the Indonesian national Art Museum. They asked for all my works. But they could not hold it there in that museum. And I will have a personal show in Essex and Liverpool in the UK. The show is split between the two cities, and the works were distributed between them for display. Still, they could not show them all. Although I don’t have a lot of contact outside, I know quite a few people in Beijing and China at large who know what I have been doing. So I don’t think it necessary to put a lot of things into this show. So I think I still need to figure out what to send them. I will discuss it with the gallery. I definitely won’t put all of my works there.
CPG: Among the Chinese media and general public, do people feel any influence from, or know your works?
HY: Some people know. I feel the mainstream society in China rejects performance art. From the authorities to the academic circles, there are hardly any good opinions of us.
CPG: Do you feel maybe after 20 years people will know more about you?
HY: I don’t care at all. I can always do what I want with what I have today. I think I’d rather take things as they come. I hope the social environment will somehow change in the future, when many forms of arts can be treated fairly, without prejudice. I don’t think this is something I can personally determine. I just hope so, but I don’t care. You don’t allow nudity, right? I just must do it. I find a professional space to do it. If you come to arrest me, I will admit it as my bad luck. [Laughs] I still have my position, attitude, and basic courage of a human being. I do my works under the existing circumstances.
CPG: You were a painter in Yunnan, and later wanted to do this instead. Is there anything special that made you want to change this way?
HY: Yes. Most importantly, it occurred to me that there are too many restrictions in paintings which are planear. Should I try something different? I tried mixed materials and abstractive paintings, and a lot of other forms. And performance art. Later I found this is what I love doing. I could not stop it and have worked on performance art for 10 years by now. At that time I basically thought I was a young artist. The year I started this was 1994, when I was twenty something. Let me see…. I was 27 or 28 when I started performance art. I thought I was young and should not be doing paintings all my life. I should try something else.
CPG: Your paintings are good.
HY: Now I paint because there is still skepticism and rejection for this form of art (performance art) in China. I paint in order to present my work photos in a different form. A few years later, future researchers and amateurs may use this as yet another way to know me. I am not enthusiastic about using resources such as the web or the media to spread the word about my ideas. But this way I can create another thread to be know by successors. So all my paintings are about my performance art work. Most of them. But a bunch of my new paintings are about a few of my friends. I have not started them yet. I collected photos for two years as materials. …I would like more ways to show people my works. I don’t think too much of my paintings. Many people can do what I can.
CPG: Overseas it is a little easier, right? Especially in a communist country like China, you need to be careful.
HY: Yes. Now international exchanges are significantly dominated by the authorities. Artists like me aren’t valued. So I think I’d better stay quiet, for better or worse, and do some work that I enjoy doing. We need to live.
CPG: You should live. Don’t make any more scary works, so your health would not deteriorate… I have not heard of any artists overseas who are as avantgarde as you.
HY: I like some artists overseas who do pretty good performance works. One cut his artery open as his subject matter. Another subject matter is blood that is dripping down slowly. Other artists are more reserved in the approach used. I remember a young artist from Eastern Europe. He went to an island in the sea and dug a small piece from it. [Laughs] I also like those witty pieces with smart plans. But I feel we have limited social resources. If I were to do it, I would prefer to make the work more solid, thick and heavy. You see, each year I struggle to meet the conditions needed to do these works, and I would want them to be robust. Those easier plans, I would make them wait until I am old, like in my 50s or 60s. Now I am still strong enough.
CPG: Have you thought of hiring others to do it? Like giving them ideas and letting them do it.
HY: Many people have raised such a question, whether I would like to do easier jobs and whether I would like to have others do them. I had some thoughts in this direction, but so far no action. So far I have not done anything with another artist. But I worked with some volunteers such as peasant laborers. I also did a drinking alcohol performance with some common people in Korea during the Pusan Biennale. I drank with a hundred people there. So this piece of my work involved other people. But they are not artists.
CPG: What did you drink?
HY: Red wine.
CPG: You drank 100 glasses?
HY: I drank 37 glasses. Everybody had an equal opportunity (a 50 50 chance to drink). When I did the 76th glass, I was carried out by older artists from Japan and Korea who are in their 70s. They would not let me drink any more.
CPG: It could make you sick that much alcohol.
HY: Many things are bad for your health. But I think I am expressing my personal views in a strong manner.
CPG: But you said you have a little fear inside sometimes.
HY: I was not afraid when I did this work. I was totally drunk. There are a couple of works which made me frightened actually.
CPG: Oh, the one with explosives?
HY: In this one (Wrestling, one and one hundred), I was exhausted when I was fighting with the 5th person. When it was the 20th, I thought I was already dead. Then I could see 70 more people behind him. At that point I felt desperate. But then I thought I should finish it. It took me 66 minutes to finish fighting with all of them, 100 people.
CPG: Did your body hurt that day?
HY: I rested for 60 days to recover from that one. I told those peasants I would give an extra 5 Yuan each time I was beaten by one of them. In 2002, in order to get that extra 5 Yuan, they would do it more seriously instead of putting on a show. If I beat them instead, they would not get the money. So they would be more serious about it. [Laughs] I hired them to fight with me.
CPG: You could manage to deal with a few people at the beginning?
HY: Yes. I beat 3 out of 4. Later I was hopeless. For the harm to the body, I was prepared. It is to express a kind of hope I have. I think it is still worthwhile to devote myself to this. I can bear this, although it is not my goal. Not my ultimate goal. I am not saying life is to bear pain. What I want to express instead is a man is born to have his own ideas. Life has its pride. A human being should be free to do what he wants. As for all kinds of pain put on him over time, they may be an inherent part of life. Life is very strong too. Don’t think the Chinese people is that easy to bully. I think the Chinese people can bear pain to an unbelievable extent. I think they may be the people most capable of enduring hardship and pain in the world. You see, there are often demonstrations. They are probably an advance in social system and consciousness. Many things actually are not different because of the social system, but because of human attributes. For instance, you can see criminals everywhere, such as murderers and thieves. And you can see corruption everywhere. Is it a problem of the system? I think it is about human nature. There are a lot of negative things in human nature. Putting the social system aside, I think it reflects the dark side of human nature. Human beings are problematic. Humanity has a good side and a bad side.
CPG: Foreigners do not understand the Chinese very well, their way of doing things. In some of your earlier works we see traditional Chinese ways of doing things.
HY: I think it is completely the traditional Chinese nature inside. The Chinese are very strong inside. You can often bump into a Chinese who looks very tame, even to the point of weakness. We say very soft. But there is a saying in China. Even a rabbit will bite you if cornered. I think all peoples share this characteristic. Inside there is a very tender side, but there is also a very tough side. My works probably show a tough side of the Chinese people. I think it is an attribute of life itself. [Sobs] Something about the nature. It is very tender and reserved. But it is also very strong.
CPG: Many foreigners are frightened when you come to this part.
HY: I don’t think there is anything to be frightened of. Because foreigners also have both a tender side and a tough side. This is not to say it is the purpose of life. I think I reveal one thing, that human being has a strong side. I personally value this more than other things. I think one should not be living like this every day and should have some other thoughts. I think I shed more light on the strong side of the human nature. I am more focused on this.
CPG: You said in Newcastle you wrote two characters on the ground and ran around them for 2 4 hours. (The performance Dragon Fish at the Baltic art center)
HY: Yes, 24 hours around the characters. This was also a very self-centric thing to do. To earn 1 million Euros, a person can work desperately for 3 months, not 24 hours. Then to win a beautiful girl he kept pursuing her for 6 months. For a couple of very boring and trivial words, I spent 24 hours making an extreme effort. They are mine, they are what I cared about. The unsaid idea behind it is that every one of us has something we care about. We can devote ourselves. We can all make an effort.
CPG: To control your mind?
HY: Dragon Fish is one of the dragon’s nine sons. It is an imaginary creature. But I would make an attempt concerning this thing that never existed for 24 hours.
CPG: Did people watch you for the 24 hours?
HY: A camera was following me all the time. At first there were people watching, but at last it was just me and the photographer, and the assistant to the cameraman. Crazy.
CPG: I went to university in Newcastle.
HY: Newcastle is a very beautiful place. I like it.
CPG: I worked there as a teacher of arts at Newcastle. They had a new guideline at that time, there, people admitted to the mental institution with mental disorders were released into the community. The ruling says they should be in the society rather than in the asylums. So they released these people. The first step was to teach them art.
HY: This is the very mild side of western societies. In China they would be given medicine.
CPG: They all took medicine.
HY: Yes. Medicine makes them quiet. This is a difference in social development. There are too many questions and problems in China. I think this is one of the key reasons that I keep doing performance art. But I think the society will need to develop. A little bit more patience. I always think artists are not politicians. They cannot solve any practical problems. But their ideas will provide some reference to the society. Open up mindsets.
CPG: Perhaps because in China many social systems, such as the media, are not open. So probably many things have to be put into the arts.
HY: Also the focus and purpose of the media is not necessarily consistent with the orientation of arts. They probably think they should just do anything that is liked by others to be put on show. But artists are not under such a duty. I don’t have to let everybody understand my idea. I just endeavor to make what I do perfect. I try my best to render my idea as well as possible to show it to people. That’s my personal responsibility. I always maintain a forward momentum. I am not going to stop.
CPG: Have you thought of teaching?
HY: I don’t have the patience. I lack that.
CPG: You would be bored of seeing student work?
HY: Being a teacher you will always try to influence others with your ideas. This is something I hate most. I would tell students what I think it correct and good. I don’t think I can do this. I should not. I cannot do such work. This is the fundamental reason. Second is my lack of patience.
CPG: From your essay, I understand you set time limits on your works.
HY: About timing. I think it is an essential element of our work. I always keep timing in a range that my body can generally endure. This puts a limit on the size and volume of my projects. So I always set the time frame before hand.
CPG: How long do you usually spend conceiving a new work?
HY: Some plans take longer, like 6 months. Others take a shorter time. The one that took me the longest time is the one about Niagara Falls in the US. I spent 6 months on it. But later the project was not done as planned. It made me extremely upset. There are others that take less time. The first idea of the piece called ‘The rock’ came to me in October 2005 in New York. I saw people there were all walking about in a rush. I remembered that in Beijing, everybody was also in a rush to make more money, with nothing else in mind. Too boring, I said to myself. I fancied myself one day coming to New York to do a very ineffective piece. Whose idea would be the complete opposite to the state of mind in the east and the west. Luckily, I met Colin and some friends from the UK after I returned from the US in October. They supported my idea. The project took just a few months from planning to completion. This was the smoothest case.
CPG: The stone, did you put it down?
HY: I put it back later.
CPG: Did anybody take it?
HY: Maybe somebody has taken it. I don’t know.
CPG: What happened to the stone?
HY: It was rubbed very smooth. I don’t think there is any big change.
CPG: How did you select the stone? Just at random? By the rough size?
HY: I first took one this big (holds arms akimbo). It was too heavy. I tried it but it was too heavy. For thousands of kilometers of walking. Then I took a smaller one. I weighed it. It was 3.6 kg. But during this journey in which I carried the stone for over 100 days, sometimes I put it on the ground, and a few small pieces broke off. I did not want that to happen, so I put it down more gently after that. This work offers in a contrast with those works about mountains and water. We already have mountains, water, and waterfalls, these strong forces of the nature. I think it is a good use of the resources. The form of work can have infinite variety. In my earlier years I preferred outdoor projects. A person’s internal strength can transcend nature. He can fight with not just this society, the system, but also himself. He can even generate power as big as the power of nature. It is an idea. Just a thought.
CPG: After I came to China I found that the Chinese have a lot of traditional thoughts about things such as the sun, water and so on. Five thousands years of Chinese history is all about these things. Yinyang, etc. Foreigners do not know much about this, me included….
HY: A very tall boy and a small girl would make a typical contrast. One is big and the other is beautiful. The contrast is a method often used in China in art works. Also, in my works in cement, I borrowed the sense of might and strength from overseas.
CPG: A friend of mine at university, his grandfather invented cement. He had a certificate on the wall at home. But he sold the patent to buy alcohol because he was an alcoholic.
HY: I think cement is fun to play with.
CPG: I think you have too much cement in China. In Hangzhou you can see big pieces of the mountains taken to produce cement. So you hear people say mountains in Hangzhou are now the skyscrapers of Shanghai. What happened to the cement work later? Did you discard it?
HY: It disintegrated and some parts were shipped back to me. The remainder was discarded. It was too heavy to be shipped back whole.
CPG: If some collectors ….
HY: Collectors prefer painters. They would not buy my stuff. I keep something for myself, such as the bulbs work. I also preserve some papers. I think I will just let my things take care of themselves. If somebody likes them, so much the better. If not, I just keep them here.”
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