Editor / Yanchi
Introduction by Director
Zhang Xiaorui: Hello, everyone! Thank you very much for watching this documentary. I am Zhang Xiaorui, the director and the main cameraman of this documentary. With a particular focus on art historical writing and critique, I often got the question: who is your favorite artist? Generally speaking, I would say, I do not have a favorite artist. I keep my eyes on and study artists from different eras. Actually, there are so many impressive artists when it comes to the colors, rhythms and materials that they use. Back to our guest artist today, He Yunchang, his works are not sensual. At the first sight of his installations, paintings, photographs and most of his performances, the audience would raise their eyebrows and sometimes even ask “are you serious?"
“Wrestling: One and One Hundred” (M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong) ©He Yunchang
The audience’s doubt, however, is evidence of the fundamental reality that Mr. He shows through his works, the reality that we are living resiliently and dynamically. It seems that he started an aimless fight or game with 100 migrant workers in his work “Wrestling: One and One Hundred,” but the two rival forces on the sandpit, like a beating heart, showed the vitality of life.
His works, like pebbles thrown into the lake, eventually would cause ripples which will radiate out slowly and undulate the surrounding reflections of clouds and shadows. Despite that I watched on site all his performances in recent years, it still took me a long time to decipher and understand the puzzles and ideas that he intended to share through his works.
“One Meter Democracy” ©He Yunchang
He once said that his work “One Meter Democracy” was a gift to children. He also said that a proper performance would spread like a legend among the public. This statement can fully illustrate another characteristic of his works: you can always find inspiration in his works no matter whether you have received art education and training or not, and this inspiration will not fade away easily. As Hegel once wrote, "The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.” The dynamism that I observe in He Yunchang's works is reminiscent of the wind rushing beneath the wings of an owl when it takes off.
Q&A Session (CAAN’s Members)
Question 1: Do your performances necessarily mean physical pain?
He Yunchang: Physical pain is inevitable, considering the terrible environment that I am in. I hope to express my perception while living the very moment, so I have to bear some pain as strong as my perception is but not so extreme as to collapse me. Without any doubt, there are some other ways for me to express myself, but the one that I choose can allow me to do so to the utmost.
Question 2: What role do you think performance art plays in the general field of art and how will this art form develop？
He Yunchang: As a dynamic and authentic form of artistic expression, performance art resembles the world. As the world keeps changing with its rules remaining true, performance art moves forward with new possibilities, so it is dynamic and promising.
Question 3: The last question is more personal. Why did you decide to get married？
He Yunchang: It is such a wonderful thing to get married. As we live, we are bound to suffer. Nevertheless, there are still so many beautiful things in our life, for example, love, sunshine, easy breathing, freedom to express and present oneself, dating and marriage. All of these things are precious and worthy of our devotion. So, why don’t I get married? I am not against those wonderful things and hope that you will enjoy them as well in your journey of life.
Andrew Culp: First, I would like to thank Wang Zheng for the invitation and the artist for sharing such precious and inspiring work today. One of the concepts he shared just now that attracted me is the “Will of Flesh.” When we categorize artists, it is often talked about according to the medium in which they work. The most fascinating thing about this work is that it is not just any particular medium, but a whole series of substances including blood, wood, jade and body. That all seemed to open up to each other. In fact, the body gets opened up and spills blood and minerals deposited in the body as bone which then gets removed. Once again, the relationship between all of these substances seems to be deeply intertwined. So my question would be, is there something unique about the human body that attracts you, or is it just one substance in a series of substances that make up the art itself?
He Yunchang: Each of my works is born out of inevitability and necessity, and is aimed at reflecting my thoughts about the present and the past, my perceptions and my judgments. Therefore, I assign 51% or even 99% of the value of a performance to its concept and the remaining 49%, or even less, to the achievement that comes along for the duration. To put it simply, I consider first my perceptions and then the necessity when making a new work.
"Nirvana-Flesh" (2013) ©He Yunchang
Wang Zheng: I will interpret the body in Mr. He's works from the perspective of Buddhism and Taoism. Taoists believe that the key to a body is “qi” (literally, breath or air) which is an embodiment of the order of the universe and nature. Mr. He's works show the relationship between the body and the universe and nature. For example, in his work "Nirvana Flesh,” he burned his clothing, which looked like shedding the skin. On the day of his performance, with the “skin” completely cast off, the inner part was revealed, but what we saw was not only the body but also things beyond words. “Shedding the skin” in this work was a metaphor for the entire Nirvana process. Also in his work, nothing separated his body from the environment. Nor did we even see a clear separation between what was considered inside and what outside for they had become one in the burning process.
Andrew Culp: In many works of performance art, the human body is a critical characteristic. When many artists describe their performance art, the word "struggle" is often used. The body and struggle are especially relevant in your works. The word "struggle" itself has a very strong physical quality. It is related to the body. In your performance art, you often have your own struggles, or struggles with yourself, including cutting yourself to face this very deep pain. Some are competitive struggles with other elements, like wrestling, sometimes with natural elements or other dimensions. I am curious about the deeper meaning of your struggle. What is its purpose? Is it to beat something? Or to overcome what? Are there winners and losers in such a fight? Does it make sense if it fails? Do you think this struggle is necessary? Without this ordeal, what support would your performance art rely on?
He Yunchang: Whether it is a struggle or fight, it is aimed at presenting the reality of the moment. Each period is cruel and furious in some sense. As individuals of a particular time, artists present the reality of their times and predict the future, in a physical and very rational way and also in a way immune to the world’s trends and lies. They exit and grow as they keep updating their perceptions and presentations according to the ever-changing environment. Art is a continuous process that witnesses how one exits, grows, becomes independent, changes and develops, a process that resembles the way of life and the world.
Andrew Culp: The third question is about the public performance of pain, suffering and cruelty. Sometimes, you use modern tools, for example, a scalpel and a lighter, to cause pain. What does it mean to you to present such pain and suffering publicly?
He Yunchang: If there is one social event that resonates with me, I usually would build and present my idea about it to the public through my work. A work can remain appealing and keep its vitality in the long run if it can explore a topic in depth and width, resonate with a larger audience and have a longer time scale. When creating a new piece of art, I feel that it may take five years for the public to understand the work’s concept and charm. Without enough resources for new works, not to mention related publicity and promotion, I need to contemplate before each creation to ensure that the allure of the work can reach a climax in five or ten years.
Wang Zheng: I have two follow-up questions based on what Andrew has asked. I don’t think the body is a pure concept; it embodies the order of the universe. The body, with some metaphorical meanings, has been used politically throughout history by scholars to express their political requests. The body, as well as the nation, is considered as an organic entity. The first question, how do you think of the relationship between the political side and spiritual side of the body? The second question, it seems that in your works you use your body to reflect current events. There are many sensitive things in today's world. How do you use your body to express your ideas about those things?
He Yunchang: To answer the first question, I would say the body, as something unique, is the most precious thing of the world. Each of us lives only once. Our body is something objective. It reflects both the past and the present. It can predict the future and carry people’s expectations. In every era, the body, as a medium, can honestly reflect people’s wishes and ideas. As said in one story, a man of faith set himself on fire. When asked why he did so, the man answered that he had nothing but a body so he would like to devote his body to his faith and ideal. His behavior, as a kind of performance art, tells us that the belief that a person has can be more important than his or her body.
As for the second question, what I hope to do is figure out the essence and rules of the current and future world. A person lives only once. What else should one be fearful of if he or she is brave enough to abandon his or her own body? In our entire life or in most of our life, we are always in pursuit of things that are the most beautiful, are essential and can reflect the laws of nature in the most truthful way. Usually I feel lucky to come up with the most creative ideas, so I am obliged to present them through works. Those ideas are too wonderful to refuse.
Q&A Session (Audience)
Wanwan: I have a question for the director. The documentary is narrated in a very young, friendly and somewhat formal voice. In my opinion, that voice is not consistent with Mr. He's work and his aged voice, and keeps interfering with the work. Why did you choose such a young voice for the narration?
Zhang Xiaorui: Actually, we tried different voices, a female one and an aged one similar to Mr. He’s. However, we eventually decided on the voice of a young boy who was learning broadcasting. There was a budget issue behind such a decision as well. We also managed to create an absurd contrast in the voice used and the one expected. Anyway, the voice is just one element of the documentary and the most important thing is still the content.
Mr. Mo: I feel glad to see through your works that we share the same ideas about some matters. These ideas show our concern with the fate of individuals from different parts of the world. I am wondering whether there are any specific phenomena that you are concerned about and how you think of those phenomena?
He Yunchang: The pandemic that we are confronted with is a catastrophe. I have my own thoughts about it and created a work named “Disenchantment” to express the thoughts. In my opinion, art can show us a way of life. The saddest thing of our time is that we aspire to do something but fail to achieve it. To avoid such a situation, we should devote ourselves to anything that is worthy.
Over the past years, I have kept looking for resources to support my creations. In fact, over a period of four to five years, I could not find enough resources for the projects that I really hoped to work on. For example, when trying to get public resources for my personal projects in China, I was asked to soften them, so it would be hard for me to make something really exciting. In such a situation, I preferred to carry out some small projects with my own money, a way of financing that I have kept for years. Although in this way I had to compromise the scale and depth of my works, the most important thing is for me to express my concerns and concepts freely. I have many interesting ideas but it would take time for me to realize them. For example, I first conceived “One Rib” in 2003 but it was five years later in 2008 that I eventually translated the conception into reality. Likewise, I thought up “Blooming Season: Snow in June” in 1989, but it was thirty years later that I finally realized it, having my concerns and ideas expressed.
Yuzhi: We use pinyin acronyms in online conversations and comments. For example, we may use such acronyms to refer to words such as “death” and “money” on Douyin for these words are prohibited on that social media platform. How can the younger generation express themselves freely when confronted with such a problem?
He Yunchang: Solutions always outnumber problems. People’s pursuit of freedom and bright future is unstoppable since they can always find ways to overcome the problems that they encounter. People, including the young, cannot be prevented from chasing happiness just as the world cannot be stopped from moving forwards. If not allowed to do things in one way, we can turn to another.
MoonJia: We can see and feel a myriad of things each day in this era. How do you find the one that you want to work on out of such a vast amount of information?
He Yunchang: That is a problem of relevance. There are many things that happen each day, some bad and some good. Maybe you are extremely concerned with some of them for they match your personality. You can always find things that are relevant to you, to the world or to the age. Among the vast amount of information, there are always things that you find it hard to forget or things that resonate with you. If allowed to choose only one from them, you then can figure out the thing that you want to focus on most. That’s because, in such a situation, you must be decisive and decide on the thing that you are extremely concerned with and the thing that you would like to devote most of your efforts to.
Yao Yucheng: Will you think about which group of audience you are going to target before creating a new work, or do you focus just on what you want to express?
He Yunchang: That is a good question. I think what artists should consider is whether they have a strong will for a new creation and whether they would like to devote themselves fully into such a work. What matters is not the audience but the artists’ idea. The artists should express themselves as fully as possible, not necessarily following some trends or catering to anyone.
Zhao Shuwen: How do you think of the cooperation with another artist and how do you build such cooperation?
He Yunchang: Two artists may be different when it comes to their concepts and ways of expression. It is good if we can leave the next generation with diverse art concepts and works. Also, it is interesting to see artists work together on the same project while holding different ideas, to propose something incisive that can help to obsolete deep-rooted objectionable rules.
Anonymity: What are your expectations on the younger generation of artists?
He Yunchang: I hope they can make the most of themselves and lead an independent and happy life. Also, I hope they can form their own judgments and ideas while remaining happy. Happiness can help us to overcome all unpleasant things and obstacles. Each person, particularly each young one, is irreplaceable. They must believe in their uniqueness and irreplaceability. They are the best. I hope that they do keep these words in mind!