Recently, performance artist He Yunchang held his solo exhibition “A Chang” at Today Art Museum. This exhibition is intended to comprehensively investigate He’s art career over the last 20 years, and reveal the ideological framework of his artwork. With this purpose in mind, the exhibition not only brings He’s live performance act, but also displays He’s artwork in a variety of art forms, such as performance art, photography, installation art, as well as some video footage regarding the backstory of He’s art-making.
On July 14th, CAFA ART INFO had an exclusive interview with He Yunchang. On the one hand, this interview serves as an attempt to present He’s personal development with performance art in the form of an interview. On the other hand, it also tries to understand the condition of art in contemporary culture, by selecting He as an entry point. The conversation with He seems to be extremely random as it drifted from one subject to another, yet He offered some penetrating insights that set people thinking.
Interview Time: July 14th, 2016
Interview Location: Today Art Museum
Interview Writer: Zhang Wenzhi
Translated by Miao Yinan and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO
CAFA ART INFO: Hello, Mr. He. As we know, this exhibition is a great academic survey exhibition which attempts to conduct a systematic investigation into your performance art career. Now, let’s recall the starting point of your engagement in performance art. First of all, what made you decide to switch from oil painting to performance art? Given the fact that back in those days, performance art was not considered as a career with a bright prospect.
He Yunchang: Back then, I didn’t want to remain in my place, or live a boring ordinary life just like everyone else. Also, I was tired of oil painting and wanted to try something new.
CAFA ART INFO: How was the overall environment for performance art in the old days?
He Yunchang: Back then, performance artists were treated like rats crossing the street, being despised and lambasted so loudly by the public. To put it mildly, we were seen as “psycho”. I feel like back then they could have attempted to kill me. Although my description could be exaggerated a tiny bit, it’s as close as I can get to reality.
CAFA ART INFO: How did your artist peers, your family and friends see you as a performance artist?
He Yunchang: At the time, many people would still come by and try to convince me to stop doing performance art. They were like, “Stop doing that! Why don’t you go back to oil painting?!” I understand that they were saying it with conviction and earnestness, and I could sense how worried they were. Pretty much it was like is-this-kid-going-to-do-drugs-or-kill-people kind of anxiety around people. My family was okay with me doing performance art, cause usually they don’t really care about what I do. At that time, I was living in Kunming by myself without any of my family.
CAFA ART INFO: Based on my research, your first performance artwork was called “bankruptcy plan”. What did the piece look like? I didn’t find a detailed description about it.
He Yunchang: At that time, China was under economic reform and has begun issuing bonds. You know, certain bonds become invalid after a specified date of exchange. I had a friend who was doing an exhibition at Yunnan Arts University at the time. Mr. Wang Lin from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute was the curator of this exhibition. Wang told me that he would like to make something that’s interesting and fun to play with. So I came up with the idea of doing a performance act at the opening ceremony. The exhibition was held on the first floor of an art museum, in an area where the above courtyard is rotating. So I took seven boxes of abandoned bonds to the rooftop and dropped them to the bottom. While I was dropping them, I was also shouting out, “We’re going bankrupt! We’re going bankrupt!” I could literally see the school security team rushing up from one side of the courtyard, so I quickly ran away from the other side.
CAFA ART INFO: Back then, what was the public reaction towards this performance artwork?
He Yunchang: I remember that, within 6 months after that exhibition, several kilometers around Yunnan Arts University was covered with abandoned bonds. At that time, Wang Lin, as the curator, was pretty happy about the aftereffect. So he took some photos for me. Unfortunately, back then I didn’t even think of documenting any of my artworks with photographs. Later on, Wang Lin sent me his pictures, but I lost them. Then he gave them to me again, but I lost them again. Since then, he’s been moving a lot, so he doesn’t have those pictures any more. That’s why now it’s so difficult for people to access the photos about that performance.
CAFA ART INFO: Since then, you started your career as a performance artist. And you’ve been doing it for the last 20 years, with new artworks constantly coming out every year. Among all your artworks, what are the ones that received positive criticism?
He Yunchang: There are actually works with positive criticism? How surprising! But I don’t think that matters at all.
CAFA ART INFO: What about the ones that you personally feel satisfied with?
He Yunchang: What’s over is over. What’s gone is gone. They are just some trash with the passage of time. Regardless of whether I will be doing performance art in the future, what I’ve done in the past belongs to the past. I try not to stick to the past, so that I could pay more attention to the changing contemporary art environment. Anyway, we should never look backwards, instead, we should look forward.
CAFA ART INFO: Okay. Then we move forward. After going through your performance art career with this great exhibition, have you got any plans or thoughts for the near future?
He Yunchang: I used to like planning everything ahead. But now I’ve become more and more casual. I don’t like thinking about plans any more. So I’d say, I will just take everything as it comes. Let it be. Next year will be definitely different from this year. Even tomorrow could be different from today. It’s best to just let everything happen naturally.
CAFA ART INFO: As this exhibition runs a systematic survey on your entire career as a performance artist. Do you think that your art creation series follows a pattern? That is, do you have any storyline or theme that you want to tell specifically?
He Yunchang: Story-telling is just a lie. It’s like you go out in a primeval forest where there’s no road ahead. Suddenly someone shouts out, “This way!”, and then you come over and fall into a deep hole. If there’s any pattern, I’d say that I focus more on the “breath” behind materiality, though sometimes I present it in a painful way. It’s hard for one to live to 100 years old. However, one’s breath may still be left in the world even after one’s death. Moreover, what I said about this pattern could be fake as well. My artworks are always there for people to comprehend. What I told you is just a hint, it requires you to realize the meaning on your own. Maybe I didn’t try to express anything intentionally at all. For instance, it’s the same thing when you take a trip to Beijing Fragrant Hills Park. Rather than the physical existence or the material quality of the park, it’s your sensual experience during the trip that defines what the park really means to you. Actually, the park is nothing but a park. It will always physically exist there, whether you take the trip or not.
CAFA ART INFO: Performance art was born in the context of Western Contemporary Art development. When it was introduced to China, does it produce anything that conveys a Chinese social-economic context?
He Yunchang: Performance art comes from the West, so does oil painting and rock’n’roll. But all of these are just a type of “tool” and “technique”. We borrow it and we can use it as well. But essentially, it’s just a tool that works the same as a knife. What’s important about art is not the form. The “technique-dominated” era has long passed. Instead, today the essence of art is to inherit the highest spiritual pursuit of an era. Actually, my artworks, including the stories and allusions they use, can be seen as a piece of wood. If you lay it down over a river, it could function as a bridge. What you will see and experience after you cross the bridge is none of my business. All I did was just leave a piece of wood there. I set a reminder for you. However, as for whether it turns out to be a deep hole or a bright way out, it depends on individual comprehension. The setting of my artworks is indeed very broad all the time. None of my artworks are as certain or simple as smashing an egg with a hammer. All my artworks are embodied with infinite uncertainty and possibility.
CAFA ART INFO: In regard of the media utilized for art creation, art expresses the world and individuals through different media. I see our bodies as undoubtedly as the most direct way to experience the world and ourselves. Just as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” How do you see your body as a medium for art-making?
He Yunchang: Even the human soul falls outside my field of interest. It’s true that some people see performance artists as some stupid idiots. Actually, performance artists are the ones who are making art with the most precious resource in the world. Indeed, they are making art with their lives. In the field of performance art, many artists are racking their brains, as for them, they’re utilizing their bodies to accomplish the highest spiritual direction.
CAFA ART INFO: This is the first domestic exhibition you have held. It must have been through a few approval processes from institutions and a detailed mechanism. Now that the exhibition has successfully opened, what are the new insights you have come up with about the relationship between performance art and art museums?
He Yunchang: Traditionally speaking, people used to see the art exhibited in an art museum as something that’s always aesthetically pleasing, high-end, magnificent, classy, and full of positive energy. However, the world is constantly changing. So if one still holds such an opinion, obviously he/she is out of fashion. In the past 80s and 90s, mainstream society viewed performance art as something that should be loudly hated and despised. After all these years, there have been so many performance artists willing to fully put their heart and soul into it, and advertise it at all costs. As a result, mainstream society’s attitude towards performance art has been considerably moderated. This is a sign of the continuous social progress. Although many of my art pieces exhibited at this exhibition look familiar to the public, with only a few background contexts added, this performance art exhibition at Beijing Today Art Museum will serve as a positive introduction and promotion of performance art. Probably performance art would become a trendy thing in the future, and people will eventually understand that it’s not a bad thing to do at all.
CAFA ART INFO: As I enter the exhibition hall, besides “Longevity fruit”, which has been much discussed in the media, another piece of your collection, “Dragon’s Teeth”, has also received a great deal of public attention. “Dragon’s Teeth” is basically a wooden tower made of the wood you have accumulated during ten years of wood-chopping. So I’ve got a question, if I live in a mountain village, will I be chopping wood daily as well. Then, what’s the difference between your performance art and my daily activities?
He Yunchang: I think this difference is like the difference between wine and water. Water can be found everywhere, but wine needs to be fermented. You could put a drop of wine in the ocean, and say this is wine as it has been fermented. Similarly, the difference between a performance act and daily behavior relies on this type of perception and consciousness.
Translated by Miao Yinan and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO