He Yunchang

Artist:  He Yunchang 何云昌

DOB: 1967
POB: Kunming, Yunnan
Education: Yunnan Arts University 1991
Lives and works: Beijing
No. works in collection: 7

Brief Bio:
Born in Yunnan in 1967, graduating from the Oil Painting Department of Yunnan Arts University in 1991, He Yunchang is a key figure in the development of challenging avant-garde conceptual and performance art in China. His work has been exhibited widely in China and internationally and his participation in group shows since the notorious ‘Fuck Off’ exhibition in Shanghai in 2000 has brought his performance practice to audiences world-wide. He Yunchang was selected for the China Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013. He Yunchang’s work is characteristic of a particular form of punishing body art that emerged in China in the late 1980s and 1990s. Endurance performances that centred around masochistic acts of subjection or extreme states of physical suffering, sometimes involving invasive surgical interventions, became increasingly common. In ‘Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth Century Chinese Art’, critic and curator Gao Minglu suggested that the overt violence that characterised such practices resulted from the artists’ sense of rupture: in the tumultuous change wrought by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Reform and Opening’ policies, and the consequent introduction of new ideas and influences into Chinese culture, they were ‘straddling cultural epochs and influences while trying to forge a new way.’ He lives and works in Beijing.

Artworks

#1. Accession No: 2013.142

Title: One Meter of Democracy
Date: 10 October 2010
Broad Medium: Photograph/Work on Paper, Video/Documentation of Performance/Time-based Media
Specific Materials: 6 x photographs, 1 vide0
Dimensions: 6 prints, each 32 cm x 46 cm, video, 12 min 7 sec

Description: Six photographs and video of a performance by the artist in which he had a doctor make a one-metre incision from his shoulder to his chest. The onlookers were asked to “vote” on whether the operation would take place; the artist repeated the “vote” until the consensus was yes.

Exhibition History: Reformation 2014

One Meter of Democracy (2010) challenged the endurance of viewers, as well as the courage of the artist. In a quasi-democratic process, He Yunchang invited twenty-five friends to vote in a secret ballot on whether he should have a surgeon cut a one metre incision the length of his body, from collar bone to knee, without anaesthesia. Twelve voted in favour, ten against, and three abstained. The performance was documented in video and photographs that reveal the emotional cost of witnessing this gruelling event. This work, sometimes also known as ‘Asking the Tiger for its Skin’ was also staged on a symbolic date: 10 October 2010 was the 99th anniversary of the Wuchang uprising and the Xinhai Revolution which led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. The final image shows the group with sombre, shocked faces. Repelled by the ruthless self-interest and materialism he saw in contemporary Chinese society, He Yunchang’s transgressive act called into question the suffering experienced by the people; like the ritual endurance actions of the shaman, it suggests that transcendence is found through pain.

#2. Accession No: 2017.087 Title: One Meter of Democracy Date: 10 June 2010 Broad Medium: Video/Documentation of Performance/Time-based Media Specific Materials: single-channel video Dimensions: 12 min 15 sec Description: video of a performance by the artist in which he had a doctor make a one-metre incision from his shoulder to his chest. The onlookers were asked to “vote” on whether the operation would take place; the artist repeated the “vote” until the consensus was yes.

Exhibition History: NA

One Meter of Democracy (2010) challenged the endurance of viewers, as well as the courage of the artist. In a quasi-democratic process, He Yunchang invited twenty-five friends to vote in a secret ballot on whether he should have a surgeon cut a one metre incision the length of his body, from collar bone to knee, without anaesthesia. Twelve voted in favour, ten against, and three abstained. The performance was documented in video and photographs that reveal the emotional cost of witnessing this gruelling event. This work, sometimes also known as ‘Asking the Tiger for its Skin’ was also staged on a symbolic date: 10 October 2010 was the 99th anniversary of the Wuchang uprising and the Xinhai Revolution which led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. The final image shows the group with sombre, shocked faces. Repelled by the ruthless self-interest and materialism he saw in contemporary Chinese society, He Yunchang’s transgressive act called into question the suffering experienced by the people; like the ritual endurance actions of the shaman, it suggests that transcendence is found through pain.

#3. Accession No: 2013.205
Title: Self and Self – A Beginning
Date: 2012
Broad Medium: Oil/Painting
Specific Materials: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 320 x 232 cm

Description: Large canvas depicts the artist completely covered in yellow paint, crouched to tie his shoe. In the background are a row of smaller images of the artist engaged in exactly the same action.

Exhibition History: Commune 2014
Self and Self—A Beginning (2013), a large oil painting depicting He covered in bright yellow house paint and kneeling to tie his shoe, against a background of smaller images of the artist engaged in exactly the same action, looks back to a work from 1999. In Golden Sunshine, he had painted himself with yellow industrial paint and, suspended from a rope, attempted to paint the walls of a prison in Kunming with the same sunny yellow, before using a mirror to deflect the rays of the sun onto the wall. He suffered skin damage from the paint, and twice fainted whilst hanging in mid-air during the two-hour performance. This self-portrait, one of a series of paintings, represents He Yunchang’s younger self, his dreams and ambitions as yet unfulfilled. The colour yellow, traditionally the colour of imperial power and the ‘dragon robes’ worn by the emperor, entirely covered his body. He’s performances focus upon the individual, the common man, and thus are positioned against the forces of authoritarianism and the repressive apparatus of the state.

#4. Accession No: 2013.141
Title: Swimsuits
Date: 2011
Broad Medium: Photograph/Work on Paper
Specific Materials: Photographs
Dimensions: 2 pcs, 610 x 1184 cm and 613 x 1498 cm

Description: In photographs shot after Ai Weiwei’s arrest in Beijing in 2011, He Yunchang is depicted posing with a group of naked women, each wearing photographs of Ai Weiwei’s face over their breasts and genitals like a bikini.

Exhibition History: NA
Although He Yunchang’s work has used his own flesh, with an almost existential focus on the body of the individual and the will to survive, he has at times entered the minefield of politics. In 2011, after the arrest of Ai Weiwei, He Yunchang, like many fellow artists, responded to this exercise of state repression with satire. When authorities revealed they were considering charges of pornography against Ai, due to nude photographs found at his studio, He Yunchang posed with a group of naked women, with photographs of Ai Weiwei’s famous face covering their breasts and genitals, worn like absurdist bikinis. The resulting photographs, called Swimsuits, mocked attempts by Chinese authorities to find charges to lay against the celebrated dissident.

#5. Accession No. 2014.054
Title: When Pigs Can Climb Trees
Date: 2011
Broad Medium: Bronze/Sculpture
Specific Materials: Bronze
Dimensions: 182 x 102 x 110 cm

Description: small bronze sculpture of pigs in a bare tree.
Exhibition History: NA
He Yunchang’s sardonic sense of humour is employed in When Pigs Can Climb Trees (2009), a bronze sculpture almost two metres in height. Tiny pigs cavort over the bare branches of a bronze tree, in a visual representation of the impossible. Like much of He Yunchang’s performance art, in which he undertakes acts that are ultimately pointless (cutting a river with a knife, circumnavigating Britain carrying a rock, dialling numbers on an unconnected telephone) this work, too, suggests that life is essentially absurd.

#6. Accession No: 2017.085
Title: Blooming Season: Snow in June
Date: 2015
Broad Medium: Photograph/Work on Paper, Performance Documentation
Specific Materials: photographic documentation of a performance
Dimensions: 60 x 42 cm (36 prints)

Description: A suite of 36 photographic prints documenting the artist’s body healing over the period of a year, following a performance in which he had people rub his skin with sandpaper. Performance date 4 June 2015

Exhibition History: NA
He Yunchang’s body became his physical material, a vehicle for expression. Whether casting himself in concrete for twenty-four hours, circumnavigating Britain carrying a rock, standing in the middle of Niagara Falls, staring at ten thousand watts of light for one hour, or wrestling one hundred complete strangers in Kunming, his works have tested his strength of will and physical endurance. A suite of 36 photographs, Blooming Season: Snow in June (2015), for example, documents the artist’s body healing after a performance that took place on the significant date of June 4, commemorating the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which he asked people to rub his skin with sandpaper. Works such as these reveal a history in China of shamanic ritual. They also make references to Daoist philosophies of individual freedom, and to the western thinkers, including Freud, Nietzsche and Sartre, who influenced He Yunchang’s generation of university students in the late 1980s.

#7 Accession Number:
Title: Blooming Season: Snow in June
Date: 4 June 2015
Broad Medium: Performance Documentation/ Video/ TBM
Specific Materials: Single-Channel Video
Dimensions: 12 min 28 sec
Brief Description: A performance in which the artist had people rub his skin with sandpaper on June 4 2015

Exhibition History: NA
He Yunchang’s body became his physical material, a vehicle for expression. Whether casting himself in concrete for twenty-four hours, circumnavigating Britain carrying a rock, standing in the middle of Niagara Falls, staring at ten thousand watts of light for one hour, or wrestling one hundred complete strangers in Kunming, his works have tested his strength of will and physical endurance. This performance took place on the significant date of June 4, commemorating the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which he asked people to rub his skin with sandpaper, causing great pain and physical distress.

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