Artist Yang Zhichao Moves from Extreme Pain to Memories

In his piece 'Chinese Bible,' the infamous artist inverts his focus away from violence to quiet introspection.

Jun 18 2015, 4:39am

Provided by Gallery of NSW

Yang Zhichao is popularly known as one of China's most extreme performance artists. In recent decades, a vein has emerged in the country's art scene that celebrates and explores the intersection between physical pain, disgust, violence, taste, and art. The movement was so impactful that in 2001 the government even stepped in, declaring that the trend threatened to "upset social orders and damage people's mental and physical health."

But despite subsequent arrests, the movement continued. And the resulting generation of artists included the likes of Zhu Yu, Zhang Huan, Sun Yuan, and Peng Yu—who all continued to push their audience. Their work asked the audience to question not just what they liked but what they could stand. Even among these names, Yang Zhichao's work stood apart for its intensity.

Over the past 20 years he gained infamy for his willingness to punish his body. Previous works included branding, metal surgical implants, and having grass planted into his skin. But in his piece Chinese Bible, the artist appears to completely invert his focus away from violence to quiet introspection.

For three years Yang collected diaries, journals, and notebooks from markets around China. His collection of more than 3,000 books spans 50 years and unconsciously narrate China's recent history through the voices of regular people. For the show, the diaries are presented as a massive unit, unfolded like a patchwork quilt.

Chinese Bible is currently on display at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) as part of the Go East exhibition presented at both SCAF and the Gallery of NSW. We spoke to Yang about his making such an extreme thematic shift.

VICE: What drew you to diaries as a subject?
Yang Zhichao: Diarizing is often a very intimate thing. These diaries however exist as the history of collective memory due to historical reasons, which in itself is worth thinking about. We may not feel a strong sense from one or two diaries, but we are surely able to see the reflection of that special historical period from so many diaries of that era. They are historical records.

Have you ever kept a diary?
Yes, I have been keeping a diary.

Diaries from the exhibition

Before this project, much of your work has centered on pain and endurance. Why push your body in such an extreme way?
Pain is an eternal theme of humanity; no one can escape or stay away from pain. Compared to frivolous expression, I prefer to focus on real pain, which is so close to us. Once you look at what happens to any one of us in every day, this subject is easy to understand.

The notebook project would have been so laborious, is it another form of endurance and torture?
I did not feel that way; hard work can be enjoyable when you concentrate on your passion. Of course, an ability to complete a single, boring work reflects one's endurance. From this perspective, it is indeed a kind of practice.

Did it feel like a big shift for you to go from something violent to something methodical?
It is far from being a big shift; I only changed my perspective. The real shift is, instead of the body, the object itself becomes my subject.

Behind the scenes of 'Chinese Bible'

Are there interlinking themes between the diary project and your more physical performances?
Performance art is the art of the process, so is the diary. What I presented to audiences is not only the finished work, but extended to include the process of collecting and organizing the materials that constitute the work. The intrinsic link between them is a particular factor—time. I expressed the theme of time in some of my performance art, and the diary is also a summary and record of time.

When people—myself included—talk about your work there is a focus on violence. Does that ever feel reductive to the larger practice?
I am reducing this kind of work, not because of audiences' feelings and comments, but because I become more lenient with age. My youthful anger and internal struggle are gradually replaced by compassion and peace.

So past the diary project, you're moving away from physical extremes as art? For myself, any subject matter has a lifetime, either long or short. I conceive pain as a journey rather than a destination and believe this subject matter will continue in others.

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Chinese Bible is currently showing at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) as part of the Go East exhibition presented at both SCAF and the Gallery of NSW.

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