Excerpted from The Spirit of Contemporary Art: 100 Interviews (Lu Xinghua, edit)
The artwork only provides a framework for interpretation.
- Georges Didi-Huberman
Sha Yue: Your artwork Disguise was exhibited at the 2016 Shanghai Biennale. In this artwork, you filmed Elica employees working in shifts wearing masks (these masks were scanned and produced during the first workshop event). How did you come up with the idea of creating this theatrical work environment?
Yang Zhenzhong: I collaborated with Siemens Group’s art foundation in 2003 on a similar but much more labor-intensive project called Spring Story (the title comes from a song by Dong Wenhua praising Deng Xiaoping from the 1990s). The Siemens factory was situated in Shanghai’s Pudong District, and had a massive isolated section with strict rules against entry from outsiders. There were over 1,500 employees working three shifts, day and night. Since we were working in collaboration with the Siemens main office in Germany, our film crew was authorized by the factory boss. His orders went down level by level to the factory floor, the artistic mission becoming something like a magic sword I could wave around to gain access to their busiest production areas, offices and even the canteen during working hours. Their HR department maintained a personnel chart to ensure I filmed every single worker without any repetition. I strictly followed the chart and gave speaking lines to each of the more than 1,500 employees, each one speaking two or three words into the camera. They were only told to speak certain words, and had no idea what they were saying. In the editing room, their words were strung together to form the content of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour speech.
It was just like the production line work they did every day in the factory. Each person is instructed to repeatedly tighten a particular screw, without having to know what they are all working together to produce. It’s a violent filming method and a violent post-production editing method. The production process for the video artwork Spring Story was pushed forward smoothly and miraculously.
Many such foreign-invested enterprises began to thrive in China from the early 1990s on. This labor-intensive production method under the liberal-capitalist industrial chain have absurdly meshed perfectly with the top-down “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The content these workers are collectively voicing, Deng Xiaoping’s most important speech from his 1992 Southern Tour, is explaining and guiding this “reform and opening” that is taking place in contemporary China.
Disguise was created in 2015 in collaboration with the art foundation of the Italian company Elica. It really was quite the coincidence, twelve years later, again in the name of art, and using administrative methods, to once again enter into a large foreign-invested enterprise production facility. This large-scale mechanized production facility isolated from the rest of the world is an impressive spectacle in and of itself, but my attention was drawn to the laborers absentmindedly flitting about within.
Oddly, despite being in the same foreign enterprise production relationship, and the same labor-intensive scene, that sense of rapidity and tension I remembered from Spring Story was hard to retrieve. Perhaps this is the crux of all the changes from over a decade. It seems that the administrative method of sending orders down from above, and the enthusiasm of the workers, were not quite up to the level of the previous time. I know that these changes are not a case study, but probing the background and causes behind these changes is not the focus of my work. My job is to rapidly respond under limited conditions and circumstances, find the possibilities for carrying out this project, and to incorporate these changes within. I quickly decided to make masks for the workers, and to select only fifty workers to take part.
That is because 3D scanning and 3D printing are quite convenient and feasible technologies these days. In Disguise, I used scanning equipment to make 3D scans of the faces of fifty workers, and then 3D printed masks of their own faces for them to wear. The result was that each person was still themselves, but their expressions were frozen. They wore their own“ faces ”(the masks) and worked as they did every day on the production line, but it appears more like a performance of their everyday labor. They are like workers disguised as performers, or performers disguised as workers. They have become devoid of expressions and sentiments, but it also seems like those expressions and sentiments have been concealed behind the masks.
During filming, I used a high speed camera so I could show the motions of workers in slow motion for heightened dramatic effect. By drawing out the time, the details come to the fore, and the atmosphere seems to become heavier. The background sounds were all recorded onsite on the factory floor, the sharp sounds of the machines rendered and fused with the video footage. The slow motion footage was not overly dramatized, as I had feared. I feel it came out just right. It feels like grounded reality, yet illusory and absurd, extracted from reality. It’s something entirely different from the exaggerated reality we often see in the so called art and culture world.
The work of art must be turned into a theater in waiting.
Sha: Disguise reminds me of the long-running project I Will Die, for which there is still an open call on your WeChat official social media account. This is another highly dramatic work. Could you give us a detailed introduction?
Yang: I Will Die! began in 2000, and in over a decade since, I have traveled to a dozen countries (including China, Korea, Germany, Japan, Belgium, the United States, Mexico, Lebanon, Italy and Russia). I have filmed over five hundred people of varying age, gender, race and class looking into my camera and saying “I will die!” in eleven different languages. Beginning in July 2016, I opened this project up on the Internet so that anyone could take part in this project by filming themselves saying “I will die!” Nearly three hundred people have sent in their own footage, and the collection process is still underway.
“I will die!” is like a stage line. I am fascinated by how each person performs this line for the camera, and their various expressions before and after they deliver it: joyful, satirical, serious, indifferent, embarrassed, afraid, feigning magnanimity… I intentionally used a small, non-professional camera to film them, which serves to interfere in the process. In the footage, they are clearly aware that they are being recorded. Photography, video, and even very longstanding means of artistic expression such as portraiture and sculpture, are perhaps inventions meant to resist death and leave behind evidence that we have lived. If it weren’t for death, many of the techniques and methods of human activity would be meaningless. Even in debates about whether life has meaning, no matter where you stand, it all comes down to the unavoidable nature of death. All religions and philosophies attempt to understand or hypothesize about death in order to guide our attitudes and ways of living.
Death is then perhaps the only true required course for all of us. In Hans Ulrich Obrist’s book series project do it, I wrote out the following routine for everyone to do: “Every morning, when you wake up, go to your bathroom, face the mirror with smile, and say: ‘I will die’.”
Now I have opened up this project with an online call for selfie videos, on one hand because technology has given us all smart phones, so that photographic documentation and dissemination is a possibility for everyone at any time, something unimaginable a decade ago. On the other hand, selfie videos are like looking in the mirror, and there is this aspect of proactively pressing there cord button, which is very different from being passively filmed. I hope that the use of selfie videos will bring richer expressions and broader dissemination.
The artwork, along with the a rtist’s personal life, together form an “art-fiction”.
Sha: In previous interviews, you have stated that Disguise was established on Lacanian mirror theory. Do you read Lacan often? Also, what do you think is required reading for the artist?
Yang: Lacan was mentioned the press release and critical essay from the organizer when Disguise was first released. When I saw that, I guiltily searched the Internet for “Lacan mirror theory,” which is a winding discussion of human self-awareness and self-recognition. I rarely touch on the theories of any particular philosopher in discussing my artworks, because my reading habits are very complex and chaotic, and I often forget things after I read them. I choose my reading entirely on my interests. There’s no systematic research to speak of. This is one area where various artists probably differ quite a lot. I do not feel that there is any particular required reading for the artist. We are not professional theoreticians. If we have time to read more of the things that interest us and hold our attention, even if it is merely a mindless way of passing the time, it can be nourishing. Haven’t the constant flux, rapid spread of information and harsh realities of the Trump era left a lot of theorists and philosophers flustered? Has theoretical reading not become a luxury at this point?
Sha: Among your artworks, Hipic is my favorite. This is a project that has been going on for a very long time. In an interview about Hipic, you mentioned an issue you often have, which is looking for a file and having to search through a dozen different hard drives, or reading the social media site Weibo all the time, rarely posting anything yourself, just looking at what others are saying. What implications does this sea of information have for your work and life?
Yang: Hipic began in 2007 as an image-centric art project I devised together with Xu Zhen and Huang Kui for BizArt Art Center. We attempted to transform all the rubbish pictures proliferating on everyone’s hard drives and the Internet into time, with the Hipic website constantly showing a non-repeating series of images changing every minute, 1,440 pictures each day, 525,600 pictures each year. Anyone can upload an image to the Hipic platform whenever they want to occupy time. We held lively events for this project at the M50 Art District in Shanghai, and the 798 and Caochangdi art districts in Beijing, and took part in various exhibitions around China and internationally, collecting countless photographs both online and offline. The Hipic project was like an Internet organism. In this digital era, it could theoretically be fed and kept alive forever, but after holding on for five years, due to technical constraints and a few unfortunate events, the Hipic project was sadly terminated. We’re not adverse to the possibility of reviving it sometime in the future if the conditions are right.
The sea of images, videos and various forms of information implies that we are struggling to survive in a massive heap of fragmented digital refuse. Whether in life or in work, few of us are able to escape the altered state of existence Steve Jobs designed for us. The genius of this design is in forcing all kinds of dispensable demands on us, which gradually cultivated a dependency that eventually turned it into necessity.
Sha: Instead of closed and critical, your works show more of a sustained openness and posture of abandonment. How much is this connected to your experiences growing up in the 1980s?
Yang: I often feel that my generation has been quite fortunate. We may have been brainwashed by a highly homogenizing, distorted education, but Chinese society in the 1980s brought us an unprecedented transformation of the economic model and cultural openness. Like many other people my age, I devoured centuries of Western art history, and was influenced by superficial readings of various schools of Western philosophical theory and so called bourgeois liberalism, mixed with various new notions of ancient Eastern philosophy.
This all suddenly exploded and was forcefully extinguished over a few months at the end of the 1980s. For a common student like me, the changing times were like a roller coaster ride that dilated time. For little people like us, the idea that we can witness or take part in changing the world is an illusion (perhaps this openness and posture of abandonment you mentioned is connected to these experiences). We quickly find that the real change in the world comes from the top and catches people unawares. The sheer power of the economic reforms of the 90s captured everyone’s attention. Contemporary art was a bit behind, first entering into an underground state and then erupting. I moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai in 1997, and was able to eke out some spare time after work for my artworks. I had the fortune of meeting many new friends who were striving to do the same. Together, we independently organized many exhibitions, such as 310 Jin Yuan Road, Art for Sale and The Same but also Changed. Our exhibitions were often shut down by the censors, but the illusion of an underground “revolution” brought us a sense of satisfaction. After 2000, the underground scene changed for the better. We continued organizing and promoting various exhibitions and activities, and now we had art spaces and bridgeheads like BizArt Art Center.
Today, the new standard for all processes of individuation is thus:
each individual brings their own new knowledge to the collective debate, through which a new collective understanding emerges: this is the new common knowledge, aletheia.
Sha: 922 Rice Corns and Na Xiong Na Er are two of your most humorous works. The former embodies a struggle between the sexes, while the latter stresses the excess masculine traits of the modern city skyline. Could it be that you’re a feminist? Could you talk about how you get along with women (especially women art workers)?
Yang: I really despise so called feminism that is just false demonstrations of political correctness. Women, men or whatever genders all have their own strengths and weaknesses. We must first admit to the existence of gender differences if we are to truly achieve mutual understanding and respect between them. More and more women are taking part in contemporary art, and may eventually outnumber the men. This is a major difference from the 1980s and 90s, when women contemporary artists were quite rare.
The artwork 922 Rice Corns was from the year 2000. I scattered some rice on the ground, and wanted to know how many grains there were, and in a mode of thinking unique to humans, I decided to count them by having a rooster and a hen eat the rice. Chickens and other animals seem to have no need for counting, and only care about eating their fill. This makes the male and female voices counting out the grains of rice eaten by the rooster and hen appear quite ridiculous. The desire to compile statistics is a uniquely human fixation that has nothing to do with chickens. Funnily enough, it was not until the artwork was exhibited that I noticed much of the discussion was about the struggle between the sexes, with people seeing it as a counting competition between a man and a woman. The rooster dominates the center of the screen, while the hen circles around and scavenges the rice grains around the edges. Furthermore, the rooster is constantly looking around warily for any danger in the area, while the hen cares only about eating her fill. In the end, the hen eats more, faster. It was all quite natural. Don’t you think this interpretation of the battle between the sexes is an interesting revelation of modern human thinking? In the end, the rooster and the hen did not eat all of the rice. They casually ate their fill and left the scene. I had the male and female voices offscreen continue counting the dozen or so remaining rice grains until we came to the final count of 922.
I made Na Xiong Na Er in 2007. The title comes from the song The Internationale. When I was young, I thought “Internationale” was a chant like “Namo Amitabha,” or some unknowable future, calling us to rush out to it. The video also uses the anthem’s prelude march in the opening. This quite a mischievous video artwork. The camera points at various landmark Shanghai skyscrapers and moves up and down over and over again, making it seem as if the buildings are thrusting upwards into the sky, paired with the sounds of women moaning in pornographic videos to the rhythm of their movement. My aim was to make the viewer embarrassed, or go red in the face, or maybe feel violated. Even if everyone shares a naughty laugh, it is still quite fun.
The elementary unit of art today is therefore no longer an artwork as object but an art space in which this object is exhibited: the space of an exhibition, of an installation.
Sha: You currently live and work in Shanghai, and the city finds wonderful expression in many of your works, such as Na Xiong Na Er and Let’s Puff! The work Let’s Puff! presents a vision and feel of Shanghai as a city being manipulated and altered, leaving a very deep impression. But it is as you said, “Living in a city like Shanghai is at once exciting and depressing.”
You previously lived and worked in Hangzhou, a relaxed city with a beautiful landscape. How do you feel about the ways of life in these two cities, and how do you choose between them?
Yang: Actually, every city in China is undergoing rapid change; Shanghai is perhaps just a more striking case. I moved to Shanghai in the 1990s to take up a job as artistic editor for a foreign invested magazine. I was working high up in an office tower. I remember one coworker pointing out the window at the hazy forest of skyscrapers making up the skyline under construction, and proudly declaring that thirty percent of the largest cranes in China were currently building towers in Shanghai. As a young person with chronic nasal issues who had just moved to Shanghai from Hangzhou, I found even breathing difficult. I spent many years adapting to this place, learning how to slack off amidst the fast, busy pace, and how to find time and space to find peace for my mind.
Let’s Puff! is an installation with two synced video channels facing each other. A good looking woman constantly huffs and puffs, blowing the lively street scene of Nanjing Road further off into the distance. I really like making perfect combinations between videos or things that on the surface seem to have no logical connection to each other. This nonsensical linkage scrambles the surface logic and causes the viewer to make their own causal connections, whether real or imagined.
Sha: Your artwork Exam (video installation, 2012) records two girls in a bedroom reciting classroom political texts, which reminded me of the recurring headlines about the exorbitant prices for real estate in certain school districts in Beijing. Competition for education is of course just as fierce in Shanghai, which is very closely related to Chinese views on education and the state of education in the country. As an artist, what insights or suggestions do you have regarding the current state of education?
Yang: For everyone from my age onto today’s current students, we have had one important class throughout our education: politics class. From middle school to the university entrance exams, and even at university, we are being indoctrinated with roughly the same stuff. This is a tribulation everyone educated in China must endure. If you don’t pass the exam for this, you cannot move up in school. The content is basically the historical and theoretical framework of revolution and proletarian struggle transplanted from Marxism-Leninism to China. There is no need to think; all of the questions have standard answers, and you can pass the exams through sheer rote memory. In the video Exam, two girls in light, casual clothes sit on the bed and play around as they try to memorize their politics textbook.
The people who come out of a brainwashing educational system are not necessarily warped. Many parents who are able will seek a way out for their children, such as studying at a private school, or an international track school, or any of a wide range of schools provided by the education market. It is all quite hopeless. Who knows what the best education model really is?
Sha: As an artist, your educational experience probably differs from that of most people. This year, 65,000 people applied for the China Academy of Art entrance examination. How do you think the art exam differs today from when you took it?
Yang: My education was not really the orthodox artist’s education. I graduated from a very ordinary middle school, and studied design in college because I loved to draw. My college years coincided with the period from the 85 New Wave to the China / Avant-Garde Exhibition of 1989, and I had the fortune of getting to know the artist teachers most closely involved, such as Geng Jianyi and Zhang Peili, and growing quite close to them. In those years, China’s art academies were relatively isolated. For example, students learning painting were rarely encouraged to encounter other techniques. Design training, on the other hand, emphasized an open mindset and creative thinking. Design was not my main interest, but it did help me to avoid getting mired in expressive methods and techniques in my later work as an artist. Since I entered with an “amateur” mindset, I cared little for so called “orthodoxy.” As a result, I could more easily switch between different artistic methods, including simultaneously experimenting in various forms such as photography, video and installation art.
The main difference in the art exam between now and then is of course the expansion of student admissions. The expansion of admissions is a sign of the increasing industrialization and market orientation of art education. What has really grown, however, is perhaps the rate of failure. Very few graduates each year are able to persist in working in their chosen field after they graduate.
Sha: To the masses, the artist has an air of mystery, but you also face the various pressures of social life, just like us. How do artists replace salary work?
Yang: The so called artist is quite blessed to seemingly possess a mysterious surface, and theoretically, they work for no client, which is good in that they do not have to follow anyone’s orders or advice, but where, then, does the motivation to work and the basic judgment of your own work come from? This is a perpetual issue for anyone who has escaped or replaced salaried work.
The installation space is where we are immediately confronted with the ambiguous character of the contemporary notion of freedom that functions in our democracies as a tension between sovereign
and institutional freedom.
The artistic installation is thus a space of unconcealment (in the Heideggerian sense) of the heterotopic, sovereign power that is concealed behind the obscure transparency of the democratic order.
Sha: You have mentioned in various interviews that you are accustomed to working across various mediums, and that this working method can be difficult for your collaborators (such as galleries). What do you think is special about the artist’s working method?
Yang: Multimedia work is certainly an interesting challenge and struggle. I try to cast off habit in my work. This approach to work definitely does cause difficulties for my collaborators (such as galleries), because on the surface, there is no consistency to my work, and it lacks recognizability, making it difficult to describe what I do with any efficiency. But I do believe that consistency is actually something an artist must strive to cast off and expand beyond. No artist has the same working method. It would be strange if it was. That is because the connection between the look of the artist’s works and his working method is perhaps the most direct. For me, it seems as if every time I make a new artwork, I must experience a new working method.
Sha: In the process of collaborating with organizations, foundations and galleries, what experiences have left the deepest impression?
Yang: Generally my collaborations with organizations and foundations are temporary, one-time projects. This of course includes two approaches: project production and project exhibition. For instance, Spring Story and Disguise were collaborations with the art foundations of commercial corporations, and the entire progression from confirming the proposal to execution and presentation entailed long processes of negotiation, research and accommodation. Fortunately, despite the friction, these projects generally unfolded according to my wishes, thanks in large part to the open attitude, or need to convey an open attitude, of these art organizations. There have been quite a few situations like this. For example, for the video artwork that emerged from the Disguise project, the corporation wanted to hold a release event at their flagship store. I requested that they wrap all their products in cling wrap to turn them into illusory sculptures, which clearly went against their promotional goal of presenting their products together with the artwork. But after much negotiation and arguing, they eventually agreed.
Then there was the artwork I Will Die!, which carried on for over a decade. Each time I filmed in a different country, I worked together with a different organization. I would never have been able to achieve what I did without the personnel and financial support of these art organizations. In 2016, this artwork was presented in its complete form in the plaza at the Art021 art fair, and the online open call was made. These could not have been done without close collaboration with David Chau and his Cc Foundation.
Aside from my own personal artworks and projects, I have also collaborated with many artists, such as Xu Zhen, and many organizations, such as BizArt Art Center and Imagination Laboratory in Hangzhou, on various self-organized exhibitions and events since the 1990s, mainly consisting of like-minded friends supporting each other, which has over the years grown into many things.
My collaborations with galleries have been more long-term and comprehensive. As an important actor in the art market, the gallery not only supports and promotes the work of the artist, and runs around the various art fairs, it also builds bridges between various organizations, collectors and artists.
But none of this is unchanging. I’ve recently been wondering a lot, is this all a misconception? Is the artist a bystander rather than an active participant? Does the artist not have the right to step away, to avoid throwing himself out there, and to just live his own life hiding in the studio? Is this not why galleries and art organizations exist in the first place? Is that naive or wishful thinking? Should the artist throw himself out there like an Internet celebrity? How and how much? Could it be connected to the extent of the artist’s desires? It may not be for everyone.
As if I had two bodies at the same time: a narcissistic body which gazes, lost, into the engulfing mirror, and a perverse body, ready to fetishize not the image but precisely what exceeds it:
the texture of the sound, the hall, the darkness, the obscure mass of the other bodies, the rays of light, entering the theater, leaving the hall;
in short, in order to distance, in order to take off, I complete a relation by a situation.
Sha: In his interview of you, Wu Liang mentions that your studio “is not like your image of a painter’s studio, but more like an animation or design company, or a secret place for pirating something.” This sounds really special. Could you share a bit about your experiences managing your studio and developing collaborative projects?
Yang: There are different phases to this. Sometimes, in the studio, I’ll be dealing with multiple completely different technical problems, and working together with people of completely different technical backgrounds, shooting or editing a video while also painting, sculpting, or going over plans with a carpenter, while also calling around everywhere looking for a skilled programmer to discuss an interactive program… It can be really chaotic and vexing, but also very interesting. There’s not really anything in terms of sharable experience. What I can share is this: I also have times when I don’t want to do anything at all, and my studio will sit idle until I start to feel bad about it and I’ve run out of excuses for being lazy, and then I’ll muster up my spirits once again from nothing, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have a new direction to muddle through. I’m against allowing myself to settle into a habitual working method. It is very easy to fall into a bottleneck at one phase or another. It’s like you have to spend your whole life learning over and over again how to extricate yourself from a sense of powerlessness, and how to continue to work.
Sha: You were once invited to serve as the honorary jury chairman of the AVIFF Film Festival in Cannes, and you won an Honor Award there. Seven of your video works were screened as a special program. As a contemporary artist, has your success in the film world opened up many new possibilities?
Yang: Compared to Hollywood, many of these European artistic film festivals are quite experimental. These experiments, however, are still rooted in cinematic narrative traditions. They are inextricably linked to literature and theater. They are quite different from the video experiments that I do, which are rooted in visual art traditions and more suited to exhibition halls. For video artworks or video installations presented in museum, gallery or exhibition spaces, the audience is free to enter or exit as they please. There is no demand that they sit through the whole thing. As a result, when I was invited to screen at AVIFF, I was wondering if the organizers had lost their minds, or if they really wanted to break through the conventional model and find a sense of freshness. In the theater, with the lights out, the audience was forced to sit there and watch seven video works with no story. It was a real test of patience. For me, it was like dropping in on a neighbor, or to put it in politer terms, crossing into a new field. My impression was that it was a more mature market, one with more complexity and absurdity, where all kinds of people are mixing together looking for opportunity and adventure.