A white silicone armchair comes to life with a jolt when a long rubber tube, attached to its seat, suddenly whips the air, darting out of control. The compressed- air propelled tube violently beats against the transparent case protecting viewers from mutilation, but not from jumping with fright.
An imposing robotic arm is locked inside a huge glass case like an animal on public display in a zoo. The arm flexes restlessly and gracefully in the futile attempt to contain a viscous red liquid on the floor, while security cameras up on the ceiling record spectators’ reactions.
Titled respectively Dear (2015, in the Arsenale) and I can’t help myself (2016, in the Giardini Central Pavilion), Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations, were among the most noticeable works at Ralph Rugoff’s 58th International Venice Biennale. The Beijing –based art and life duo, are among the top protagonists of art in China today.
They began to collaborate in the late nineties, as part of the most irreverent artistic current, the “Beijing Shockers”. The obsession with death, old age, violence and the problematic knots of global society are issues that they often deal with in sensational ways.
At the outset of the new millennium in China, the artists sparked controversy over their shocking use of materials including live animals and human corpses . Among the most controversial installations on the theme of death, Sun Yuan’s Aquatic Wall, (1998) was an installation using live fish and crustaceans partially walled in a gallery. Together, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu put fighting dogs face to face on a row of treadmills (Dogs that cannot touch each other, 2003), and covered a three-meter column with a layer of human fat, collected in beauty farms. (Civilization Pillar 2001-5).
In more recent works, technology and synthetic materials have replaced organic ones, without abandoning high impact effects. I met the artists at the Biennale, not without some apprehension given their fame as “Enfants Terrible” of Chinese art. But I found myself facing a very interesting and witty couple, ready to talk in the round about their work.
In a previous interview, you said that in “I Can’t help myself”, the high-tech installation at the Central Pavilion in the Giardini of the Venice Biennale, is meant to provoke in viewers “joy and panic” at once. Could you explain why?
Sun Yuan: When we experience panic or joy, our body produces similar substances, such as dopamine and adrenaline: only the quantity varies. To explain myself better, I will give you an example. With a philosopher friend, we imagined what would happen if we heard a dinosaur’s scream while we were talking in my courtyard. Obviously, we would be compelled to make a quick decision. My friend claimed he would run away, I thought that I’d probably stay.
If I fled, I would miss the unique opportunity to know what a dinosaur looks like, despite being aware of the risk of being eaten. The dilemma is twofold: if I stayed, but I was eaten, and I was the only person left in the courtyard, no one would know what a dinosaur looks like anyway. It is a hypothetical situation in which excitement and fear are experienced simultaneously. With “I can’t help myself”, we wanted to reproduce a similar experience.
Could the work be a metaphor for the fear of an unknown future then? The red liquid recalls the blood and the fluid movements of the machine seem to be those of a majestic and a little anxious animal …
Sun Yuan: This wasn’t our first intention, but the piece can cause such a feeling. Actually, the liquid reminds us more of strawberry jam, but many people interpret it as blood. Ultimately, both interpretations are fine for us.
Many of your works, including “Can’t help myself”, concern the concept of ‘control’.
Sun Yuan: Surely, control is a problem that all of us humans face. The two basic problems facing humanity are survival and evolution. Once survival has been secured, the issue that remains to be faced is how to continue evolution, and in this process the idea of ‘self control’ is fundamental. “Can’t help myself” also addresses this aspect.
The machine is a tool that carries out our orders. At the same time, it also controls its own movements, which are harmonious and elegant, because if they were messy, they would not be effective in containing the liquid that flows in all directions. The machine represents for humans an ideal model of self-control.
Does the idea of a machines/ artificial intelligence-controlled future make you uncomfortable?
Sun Yuan: It is not for us to worry about the future, this burden concerns the people who will come in the future. As for a machine-controlled future, if we could go back to the stone age and deliver a cell phone to a caveman, he would feel threatened exactly as it happens to us with new technologies.
In an installation which is currently on display at the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano, you exhibit two works in hyper-realistic style, “I didn’t notice what I’m doing”, life-size resin reproductions of a rhinoceros and a triceratops, and “Teenager Teenager” which shows a well-dressed man sitting on a sofa with his head stuck in a huge rock. These pieces are put into dialogue for the first time. How do they interact with each other?
Sun Yuan The way in which these works interact is not important, but rather the concept they share, exemplified by the title: “I didn’t notice what I’m doing”. To know the world and to survive, we humans have developed intuition even before knowledge and experience. But even intuition is sometimes deceptive, because many things that intuitively seem related, in fact aren’t.
Today intuition belongs mainly to the animal world. Modern humanity no longer needs it. But for the artists it is still very important, their intuition is highly developed. So, as the title suggests, these works are intuitively related.
Is this perhaps because you often leave the meaning of your work open to as many interpretations as possible?
Peng Yu: All artists should keep the meaning of the work open and let the viewers do the rest. However, the world we know is necessarily made up of points of view, without which it would be difficult to make sense of it. Whenever we act, we must create a perspective from which to build our actions, just as you certainly have a perspective for the article you are writing. This does not necessarily mean that the perspective we choose is the right one.
For example, in “I didn’t notice what I’m doing” a triceratops and a rhino are placed next to each other and the first perception is that the two animals belong to the same species, due to their physical similarity; as a matter of fact, from an evolutionary point of view they have no relationship. This is the angle from which we approached the work, but obviously many could interpret it differently.
You graduated from the prestigious Central Academy of Arts in Beijing in oil painting. But your artistic practice has developed in a completely different direction. How did the experience of the Academy shape your current practice?
Peng Yu: Our current practice has nothing to do with our past experience, they are connected precisely in the sense that after the Academy we decided to take exactly the opposite direction!
Sun Yuan: Personally, I have a nice memory of university. Back then, the rules in China were very strict. Unlike today, it was allowed to study only one subject, you could not take simultaneously, for example, painting and sculpture. I had chosen contemporary painting. Then I discovered that I wasn’t interested: I wanted to understand what art is, to study it in all its aspects.
For this reason, I stopped attending classes and taking exams, and I spent my time playing basketball. As a consequence I had no grades. I was called by my professor, who asked me why I wasn’t painting. Instead of answering, I started asking him why painting was considered the only form of art, and what “art” really meant. He was a very open-minded professor, and he replied frankly: at the Academy, they would not have taught me what art was, but only the techniques to practice it. But he was impressed with my questions, and he decided to give me a good mark even though I had not delivered my classwork …
I read that since childhood you were a bit rebellious, and that you used art to rebel against your father.
Sun Yuan: Yes, I was, as a child I wanted to control the world… and to be able to express myself.
You were part of what in the late 1990’s was named the “Beijing Shockers” group. Was yours, at least partially, a reaction to movements in painting such as “Cynical Realism” and “Political Pop” that perhaps you perceived as commercial art forms?
Sun Yuan: Like all new artistic movements, I don’t think these movements were commercial at start, until they began to be ‘consumed’ and became repetitive.
Peng Yu: As soon as we graduated, our “shocking art” was reacting, rather, against the idea that painting was considered in China the only form of art. At the time, contemporary art concentrated only on oil painting and drawing, or in any case on works that could be hung on a wall. Back then painting had started to be commercial, so we found other ways to express ourselves.
Could you tell me what was the artistic environment like in Beijing in the late 1990s? Particularly in relation to the exhibition “Post Sense and Sensibility Alien Bodies & Delusion”, organized in Beijing in 1999 by curator Wu Meichun and the artist and curator Qiu Zhijie. The show is considered today a milestone as it marked the birth of a new avant-garde in China. Then, artists introduced corpses and specimens of dead animals as the main vehicle of expression to provoke strong and direct sensations.
Sun Yuan: At the time, there were no galleries or museums in China, contemporary art was totally underground. We were unknown then. We could only set up one-day exhibitions in basements of residential buildings, where there was less control. When the police found us out, they closed the exhibition and we had to flee.
The things that interested us then, were those outside our common experience: traveling unexplored paths left more room for our imagination, and, as we said before, it stimulated feelings of pleasure and fear at once.
Where did you find the corpses you used in your installations or performances in China at the time?
Peng Yu: It wasn’t easy, we borrowed them from medical universities, which are often located in hospitals in China.
I read that Peng Yu had a puzzling experience during one of the first visits to a morgue in one of these hospitals, when he saw a carpet of human heads on the floor …
Peng Yu: Yes, at first, I was in a state of shock. I calmed down when the morgue manager arrived, and a neurosurgeon, who was holding a human head as he was returning to his office to perform an anatomical dissection. Maybe the same doctor was going to perform surgery on a living person the next day, and the thought was quite disturbing.
Some of your pieces with corpses, seemed almost inspired by a feeling of tenderness, I’m thinking in particular, of Honey (1999) and Oil of Human Being (2000).
Peng Yu: Back then, the idea of death and the unknowability of tomorrow obsessed us, we were love with the theme. The works you cite were inspired by this feeling, they were our way of embracing the future.
Civilization Pillar, in 2001, marked an important change of direction. Before then the materials we used were perishable and conveyed feelings in an extremely direct way. With Civilization Pillar, we literally “extracted” the meaning of the work through a chemical process, the same that is used to extract soap from fat. From that moment onwards, we began to incorporate chemistry into our work, also to preserve it, and to collaborate with scientists. Sun Yuan’s mother is a chemist, she has helped us in this sense.
Curtain and Aquatic Wall, which employed, live shellfish, caused quite a stir in the late 90s and early 2000s. In these installations, there seems to be a close link between the concept of death and the consumption of food. Was yours a criticism of booming consumerism in China then?
Sun Yuan: Of course, those works were influenced by consumerism. However, they used consumerism as a strategy to find ways to get into a very ‘sensitive’ topic, death. Often when we are faced with something that we do not want to face, we tend to apply a “suspension of judgment”, to use a philosophical term.
So how do you invite people to reflect about these problems? How to draw spectators into the work? For example, building a particular atmosphere around this topic, a scene that is both beautiful and dramatic, using what people consume.
The video of your performance Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, shown at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2017 and removed a few days after opening due to public protest, has sparked much controversy in America. Do you think it was misunderstood? Can you comment?
Sun Yuan: Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other was definitely our least understood piece. But I don’t mind the misunderstanding, quite the contrary. The meaning of the performance had nothing to do with mistreating animals, rather the installation prevented them from hurting each other. We protected them without exerting control, letting them steam off their combativeness, because aggressiveness is a natural fact.
I believe that everyone has a dark side and needs to express it. With this work, we didn’t want to talk about ‘aggression’ per se, rather to present a problem. The work gave the viewer the opportunity to let out their own aggressiveness. During the exhibition, we received thousands of emails from people who insulted us heavily, sending truly horrible messages.
A famous French writer, Gustave Le Bon, in the book Psychologie des foules wrote that human beings, when they collectively perform bad deeds, implement strategies that present them as good and acceptable. For example, the Olympic games, sublimate aggressive competition presenting it as a ‘civilized’ sports competition.
Those who insulted us heavily did it in a “legal” way, not physically, hiding behind a computer screen. But precisely for this reason, an even worse evil came out. Truly it was the most meaningful reaction that our work could provoke.
A question for Peng Yu: In the West, at least in Italy, we haven’t had many opportunities, so far, to see solo exhibitions of Chinese women artists. What is the current situation in China in this regard?
Peng Yu: I don’t think many female artists in China are currently able to run a solo show. It is not because I underestimate women, on the contrary, but it is truly very difficult.
Is it because they have less chances to attend Art Academies or for other reasons?
Peng Yu: I am often asked why there are few women artists in China. I think it’s not a civil rights issue, I think it has more to do with the idea of independence. Chinese society in general, and not only women, is not individualistic like Western society. So, if one does not think individually, how can he express his own point of view? The cause therefore lies more in the social environment than in the artistic one. I hope this can change.
Do you think that art can convey ideas that, even indirectly, translate into forms of social transformation?
Sun Yuan: No. I don’t think so.
Peng Yu: I think that perhaps with our work we can influence the language of Chinese art, but certainly not transform society.
When you visit other artists’ exhibitions, what attracts you the most?
Peng Yu: When I find something that resonates with my work.
Sun Yuan: Not for me, I prefer when I see something that I’ve never seen before, or that I don’t understand.
Peng Yu: But is there ever something that you don’t understand?
Sun Yuan: Not really… To be honest, I see fewer and fewer new things that excite me, in fact most of the times I get bored, I have to look for something outside art to get inspiration.
As we are at the Venice Biennale, may I ask you if you work mainly for a global audience or especially for yourself?
Sun Yuan: my answer is that I didn’t notice what I’m doing and I can’t help myself!