By Zhang Huan
Zhang Huan: Altered States, Published by Charta and Asia Society, 2007
A Piece of Nothing
I was born in 1965 just prior to the Cultural Revolution in a small town called Anyang in Henan Province . Anyang was the capital of the Shang dynasty and the center of ancient Yin culture. Seven dynasties had their capital there. I went to live with my grandparents when I was one-year-old. They lived in the real countryside, and when I was there the countryside was very different from what it is now. The earth was yellow, and everybody wore blue-colored Mao suits. I grew up with my grandmother, uncles, and aunts. Together with other children, we cut grass in the field, collected ferments, cleared fallen leaves, and climbed trees. Our main foods were sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, and cabbage. The living conditions were poor.
Most of my childhood memories are associated with death — the death of my grandma and our neighbors — and the burial rituals. My grandma died suddenly. One morning, my uncle knocked on her door to ask her to join us for breakfast. She replied that she did not feel well, so we sent her to the hospital. A week later, she passed away. Her body was placed in our living room for seven days of mourning — a countryside custom. In the evenings, we circled the village in procession, one after another in order of generation and age. I remember that I was only six then. Because my father is the eldest son of the family, on the day of the burial he was responsible for smashing plates — the smaller the pieces they were broken into, the better. I still don’t know the significance of this ritual. I have never met my grandfather. He died young in an odd way. Our field was one or two li from the village. I heard from my relatives that one night when my grandpa was sleeping in the field, he heard some unusual sounds. He woke up and saw two shining eyes. He was nervous and ran back to the village, but the creature ran after him. My grandpa passed away three days later.
I also had experience with ghosts when I was little. Whenever the horse that pulled coal for the village reached the cemetery at the entrance to the village, it would get uneasy and lose control, walking in circles in the same spot for the whole night. It was very weird and happened every time it reached that spot. I was always uneasy when walking in the cornfield. I still feel the same way now.
We always caught fish in ponds and rivers. We could watch TV only once or twice a year, outside of course. In order to watch it, I would climb a tree. I would eat green onions to keep myself awake and to prevent myself from getting drowsy and falling from the tree. When it was hot, children wore nothing at all. This probably had some influence on my future life.
As I recall, I did not learn much in the more than ten years that I spent from elementary school to high school. I did not understand what teachers were saying. I made doodles, slept, or talked with my desk mates, so I would be asked to stand outside the classroom as punishment. I always copied homework from other students. I don’t know how I graduated. I took the college entrance examination several times, but I never passed the general exams, although I passed the subject exams. I really began to study only after high school. When I was in the fifth grade, the art teacher asked us to sketch portraits. The teacher chose the two best sketches from among the forty or fifty students, and one of them was mine. This was the only time I remember being praised in my childhood. Of course I responded enthusiastically when asked if I wanted to join the special art-training class. When I was about fourteen, I started my artistic training in the so-called Su style or Soviet style. I traveled by bus to the art class after school and made sketches of bottles and jars. Gu Xijiu was my first art teacher.
When I was in college, I liked the French artist Millet very much. I also studied Rembrandt, although I learned only a few things because of the limited resources. Wheat I learned in the art department in college was not very different from what I learned at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing . Both schools taught Su-style painting and emphasized the texture and spatial quality of a painted object. Before I went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, teachers there seemed worthy of respect and out of reach. Later, that curious feeling slowly faded. I read new books and saw new things. One book that influenced me a great deal was a small book written by Zhao Wuji, which was based on his lectures at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. At the time, people in art circles all made copies of the book. I learned two things from this book. First, Zhao says that every part of a painting should be different from its other parts. We need to activate every part to let it breathe and to give it life. Second, you don’t paint a thing because you want to paint that particular thing; you paint for your own heart, to express yourself. These two ideas completely changed my understanding of Su-style painting and broadened my thoughts. Before, I painted what a teacher asked me to paint. The teacher would spend two hours arranging lighting and positioning a model, but when the teacher stepped out of the studio, we would ask the model to lie on the floor. Later, I would paint only a hand or a foot as I chose. I even made sketches that looked like nothing at all. When the teachers at the art institute saw my work, they said that I didn’t need model any longer and could go home.
For a long time, I could not feel a connection with two-dimensional materials. I tried different mediums to get the feeling of closeness. Once, I found the bottom half of a plastic mannequin. One of the legs was black and hollowed. I put it on my bike and went home. I put one of my legs in one of the hollow mannequin legs — I had three legs. I suddenly felt I understood something extraordinary. Three legs! I tried to walk with three legs. The feeling was strange yet exciting. I felt that I found a way of walking — of being — that I could not have achieved before. The manner of my body’s participation completely moved me. This may be said to be the first work that I created with my body. The directness of using my own body made me feel grounded, and I told myself that this would be the only way for me. I need nothing more. Nothing else can move me. I don’t want anything. I only want my own body.
The performance of Angels took place in October 1993 in the courtyard of the National Art Museum of China Namoc ( China Art Gallery ). It was the first time I used my body to make a public performance. At that time among my friends in Beijing , I heard the same story almost every week: one of their girlfriends was pregnant. What was there for them to do? The only choice was abortion. The feeling of being frightened about abortion comes from worrying about one’s parents or schools finding out about it, although no one can forget the three-inch long spine and coin-sized hands covered in blood and lying on an iron plate. In the performance of Angels, doll parts replaced the unborn fetus. The background music was the famous The Wall by the rock group Pink Floyd. Artists from Yuanmingyuan and the Beijing East Village were my audience. I put a white sheet on the floor. In my military bag was a large jar full of red paint. Among the broken tiles and dolls I searched for detached bodies and scattered them on the sheet. I raised the jar over my head and splashed it on the white sheet. Then I assembled some of the red parts into a completed doll, held it, and walked toward the museum galleries. On a four-by-six-meter platform I had already prepared a rope. I tied the doll on the rope, and my first public performance was over.
The performance was part of a group exhibition for eleven students from my class at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. After my performance, the director of the museum arrived with guards and asked who was responsible for the performance. I said I was. At the time, the museum was also having an opening for an exhibition of artworks created by retired officials. The director asked if I wanted to resolve the issue privately (that is, pay a fine) or publicly (that is, be sent to the police). If I chose the former, the exhibition would be allowed to continue. I chose to borrow 2,000 yuan to pay them in the hope that the exhibition would continue for the other artists, but they tricked me and closed the exhibition anyway. I felt bad about doing this to my fellow classmates and still feel badly about it today.
I moved to Beijing in 1991 and left the city in 1998. In those eight years, I moved thirteen times, because I either could not afford the rent or I was kicked out. I remember that I used to rent a room near Xinqiao at East Sishisan Tiao. It was actually the narrow corridor between two houses that was used to store coal. It was barely big enough for a twin-sized bed. Underneath my bed was the iron cover of a sewer. On rainy days, water from the sewer would flood the room. One night, a cat bumped the window and scared me. There are also exciting memories from that period, including the time I bought at an international book fair in Beijing a foreign book on Matisse that cost 800 yuan.
I wanted to move to a bigger place. A friend introduced me to the area I later called the East Village . I found a place with high ceilings, suitable as a studio, and I rented it for 120 yuan per month. It was there that I created 65 kilograms, a series of installations entitled Angels, and other “poor-artist” works. It was my first studio. At the time, most people in Beijing lived within the second and third rings of the city, and all the garbage from the city was dumped outside the third ring. The city was surrounded by mountains of garbage. My studio was two or three kilometers from the Kunlun Hotel at Liangmaqiao Bridge . There was a big garbage dump between the third and fourth rings, and my East Village was close to it. All my neighbors made their livings by picking up things from the garbage, making tofu, or selling vegetables. Five families lived on my courtyard, which was owned by a farmer who lived outside Beijing . To my left was a family — a couple with two kids — from Jiangxi Province. They lived by making tofu in a kitchen across from my studio. I ate all kinds of fresh tofu when I was there: tofu skin, tofu curd, firm tofu, and soft tofu. I became a tofu man, but soon tired of it. The garbage came from the city, and I found many three-dimensional objects there, such as old comforters, burned plastic things, broken toys, and old sofa, and a dead cat. I took them to my studio and created some of my most direct and honest works from these objects.
After I settled down there, I got to know Zu Zhou, who sold rock-and-roll CDs on the street. He moved to the village, along with Zhang Yang (my friend from the academy), some people from the Central Academy of Performing Arts , and other people introduced to us by Li Xianting. Because the rent there was cheap, more people joined us. Before I moved to the East Village , I had checked out Yuanmingyuan. It had already become famous. Almost all the studio had portraits of Mao Zedong or paintings of red faces with big heads and blue backgrounds. They looked commercial to me. Not living in Yuanmingyuan was seen as a gesture of anti-commercialism, so I decided to live in the East Village . The name “ East Village ” was borrowed from the East Village in New York as an expression of our admiration for the free spirit of New York ’s East Village artists. But our East Village was a village in its true meaning — it was the Dashancun Village of Dongfengxiao County in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. It was located between the third and fourth rings and very different from the Yuanmingyuan West Village , so we called it the East Village . I had also read the book Thoughts on Contemporary Art in America , written by Taiwanese artist Yang Zhihong, and I had heard about the East Village in New York from Ai Weiwei who was just back from America . I felt inspired, and I thought that China needed an East Village .
I created two works in 1994, 12 Square Meters and 65 Kilograms , to directly reflect our lives in the East Village . Twelve square meters is the area of the public toilets that are used every day in China . One day after lunch, I went to the toilet as usual. The sun had just come out following a rainstorm, but there was no place to stand in the toilet for it was flooded. I had to bike to another public toilet in the village. It was relatively cleaner. When I stepped in, thousands of flies swarmed toward me and I still had to squat down. This was my life, and no one could experience it but me. I was determined to make artworks about my life and suddenly came up with the idea of 12 Square Meters . The next day, I experimented with pieces of paper: on one side of the paper I put honey and on the other side fishy-smelling liquid. When I left the coated papers in the courtyard, flies swarmed to them. Several days later, I realized the performance. I invited photographers with still and video cameras to document the piece. I remember a video camera almost fell into the toilet during taping, which was unnerving since we had rented the expensive machine from a TV station. I sat upright and unsupported in the middle of the toilet for an hour. My body was covered with honey and fish juice, and before long, flies were all over my body, even my lips and eyes. It was uncomfortable. Some people walked in accidentally during the course of the performance. When they saw me, they were embarrassed and surprised. They wanted to leave but couldn’t, because they had already begun to pee. They probably never would understand what they saw. In the course of the hour, I tried to forget myself and separate my mind from my flesh, but I was pulled back to reality again and again. Only after the performance did I understand what I experienced. An hour later, I walked out of the toilet and into a nearby pond that was polluted with garbage. I walked until water covered my head and hoards of flies struggled on the water to save their lives.
My inspiration comes from the most common and trivial things in daily life, such as eating, sleeping, and going to the toilet. I try to discover and experience the essence of human nature from ordinary life. In my performances, I try to experience the body and reality — survival. I despise the performing quality of the works.
A month later, I created 65 Kilograms . My studio was almost like a garbage dump. The only difference was that there was a twin bed in the corner. One night I was sitting on the bed and listening to Kurt Cobain’s music, as usual. I looked at the shadow of the ceiling beam and had an inauspicious feeling; I was uneasy. I asked myself, “Why do I have to sleep on the bed every day? Why can’t I sleep on the beam?” In response, I planned to make 65 Kilograms, I invited other people to join me, but no one agreed. I had to do it by myself. I made a number of preparations for the performance. I ordered one hundred custom-made white hospital sheets and purchased iron chains, a ladder, a door panel, an electric hot plate, and a tray of the type used for medical instruments. I also went to the Xiehe Hospital to consult with doctors and invited them to help me with the performance. I told them only that I wanted to make a documentary. The doctor who agreed to help was also from Henan Province . He was warm-hearted and said that he would bring his assistants over as well. I learned that in a person who weighs fifty kilograms, only four kilograms are blood and most of the rest is water. I originally wanted my blood to drip onto the hot plate directly, but the doctor said that it was impossible and could be very dangerous. Either my blood would run out quickly or my veins would clog and blood would be unable to flow. He suggested that I drink lots of sweet water before the performance and release 250 cc of blood during the performance. I also made a simple experiment. I hung the door panel with two thick ropes from the beam. Sturdy iron chains were tied to the panel. I lay on my stomach on the panel tied with the iron chains. After I removed the panel, I could tolerate the chains for barely a minute. I learned that a person’s weight is mostly in the upper body, so I changed the distribution of the chains to concentrate them on the parts below my chest. Only in this way could I be hung horizontally for a long time.
On June 11, 1994, I invited my friends from the art circle to my studio. In order to help them find the place, I put a sign at the entrance of the village with the words “ East Village ” in both Chinese and English. I wore a dark blue Mao suit and black shoes and had a punk-like bald head. It was a little like how one would appear before a death sentence. The environment was serious, and villagers crowded around the windows while others filled the room. I walked into the room from the courtyard and climbed up a ladder. I lay on the door panel and assistants secured the iron chains on the beam. The doctor started to take blood out of me. I felt more and more uncomfortable, as if the chains were sticking into my body. My fingers became numb and I almost passed out. An hour later, the assistants took me down. I wanted to bring the senses of smell and touch to the work. When an audience member entered my studio, he would immediately step into my work, because the floor was covered with a white sheet. I forced the audience to accept this reality — they could choose either to escape it or face it. After finishing the work, I felt relieved. I got rid of another big burden.
The day after I completed the performance 65 Kilograms , our entire village came apart. Some people were caught by the police and others fled the village. I heard that my studio was closed by the police, so I took a train to Shuangyashan City in the Northeast to hide at a friend’s place. I was there for more than a month until I heard that things had gotten slightly better in Beijing . I returned to Beijing and rented a room outside the East Village . One day I went back to my police-closed studio and found it had completely changed. My favorite series of books Collection of World Art — was gone, and only the dog Laohe was still there. That was the most difficult period in my life. Life was about feeding my stomach, and I had neither the interest nor the money to make art. I had already borrowed money from all my friends, and nobody was willing to lend me any more.
For the work Original Sound , I invited more than ten artists to an empty space under the highway at Dongbianmen Gate in Beijing . At midnight, each of us expressed our understanding of primordial sound. It was cold that day, and I was shivering the whole night. I found hundreds of worms and put them in my mouth. I lay on the ground on my back. The worms crawled out of my mouth and moved to my eyes, ears and body. This is my understanding of primordial sound. People come from the earth and go back to the earth. Dirt fills the inside of a worm, because it lives inside dirt. The sound that comes from the dirt of the earth is my primordial sound. It was January 23, 1995. I turned thirty that day.
In March 1995, I made 25 mm Threading Steel in the basement of a construction site in Beijing . There was no audience, only assistants. I hired a worker who cut metals for a living. I asked him to cut a screw every minute for sixty minutes. I had to provide him with a statement that if anything happened during the hour, he would not be responsible. Otherwise, he would refuse to do it. I lay on the concrete floor about one meter from the cutting machine. I could hear the workers singing while they worked in the next room. The basement was dark with only one light bulb. Every minute, the sparks from the machine cutting the metal screws would fly on to my body, and I could smell my eyebrows and hair burning. Every spark felt like a needle sticking into my body. Soon a terrible feeling of fear rose inside me. Whenever I heard the machine running, my muscles became tight. However, I endured the long sixty minutes. At the time I had to make the piece. It was my only choice. It was the only way that my body could feel something and my mind could feel peaceful. I felt as if I was facing a giant thing and wanted to push it to the ground, although it was impossible.
Soon, I had very bad luck. One summer day after midnight, I went to the War Wash bar with some friends. The bar was full, and only a few seats were empty. Right after we sat down, a guy came over and shouted, “Get out!” Before I knew it, he struck me with a beer bottle. Another person smashed a glass on my head. I was covered in blood and sent to a nearby hospital. I was bleeding badly, but the doctors didn’t care because we didn’t have any money with us. We had to make phone calls to borrow money. A friend finally came with some money, and it was only then that a doctor stitched up my head. I heard that the people who were responsible were police men. I didn’t know. I didn’t know where they were from or why they beat me. If I had a gun at the time, I would have shot down that bar. I was bothered by the violence. I was very depressed at the time. I wanted to kill myself but was not able to do so.
I was also preparing for a twenty-four-hour performance to challenge the limit of my endurance and meditation. I planned to make an iron box and put it at the top of a beautiful mountain outside Beijing . Starting from six O’clock in the morning and lasting until six O’clock the next day, it would be twenty-four hours long. Kong Bu and I went through the mountainous areas outside Beijing and finally decided on Miaofengshan Mountain . I ordered an iron box of eighty-by-eighty centimeters.
On one side of the box was an opening of fifteen-by-two centimeters. The day before the performance, I wanted to try to fit into the box by sitting in the position of Buddhist mediation. Once I got in, I realized that something was wrong. The hook on the lid had fallen into place by accident, and I was locked in the box. I told myself not to panic and tried to find ways to get out. I attempted to stretch my arm out of the box through the opening to unlock the hook. It was impossible, because I could not squeeze my arm out of the opening. I tried to push my head and back against the top of the box to force it open. I used all my energy to shake the box in the hope that the hook would slip out of the lock if the box fell. All my attempts were in vain. It was very stuffy inside the box, and I became nervous. I felt that my hair was standing up. And a sense of danger rushed through me. I instinctively yelled, “Help! Help!” After a while, I felt hopeless. Suddenly a voice that seemed to come from as far as heaven asked. “Where are you?” I told her and asked her to look for help. A cleaning lady came. She opened the door but was afraid to walk into the room. “Where are you exactly?” She asked. “Hurry up! I am inside the box,” I said, “Help me out.” Once I was freed from the box, I ran all the way out of the building and took a deep breath. Fortunately, the windows of the apartment were not completely closed, otherwise, a month later when my friend came back from his trip, he would have encountered a strong smell and found me dead in the iron box. After the accident, I had a deeper understanding of life. I could live without much to eat and without money. However, I could not live without freedom. Being alive is the most important. Life is the priority.
After 65 Kilograms and 12 Square Meters , I planned to make some pieces directly related to nature. I wanted to sit on top of a mountain to experience the sunrise, sunset, and sunrise again. Because the previous performances took place in ordinary interiors, I wanted to break this limit and go beyond myself. But I completely gave up the thought of using the iron box. I never wanted to see that box again — it scared me. Later, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain was performed on the same mountain that I had chosen for the iron box piece.
In May 1995, after I made plans for the performance, including its requirements and name, I started to call my artist friends in Beijing . I told them of my plan, but some artists, such as Zhu Fadong, refused to participate. I asked him for an explanation. He replied that he did not want to be a participant because the performance was ultimately my idea and my artwork. This work is different from Original Sound where each artist had his own idea. In the end, most of the participants were East Village artists who expressed great interest in the work. We rehearsed several times based on my sketches and made some decisions, such as the one who weighs the most should lie at the bottom, and the lightest should be on the top. For the performance, we invited a professional to measure the height of our layered bodies — one meter exactly. Through this work, I wanted to demonstrate the traditional Chinese idiom “there are always higher mountains behind a high mountain and there are always more capable people beyond a capable person.” When we left the mountain, it was still the same mountain without any change. Life is full of limitations and failed attempts. We tried to make the mountain higher, but our attempt was futile. Thus, I named the piece T o Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain .
Later some disputes emerged about the copyright of the performance. Some participating artists believed that it was a group piece made by the East Village . Until recently, I did not deny that the piece was completed by a group of artists from the East Village , but I would insist that it was based on and named by my ideas and thoughts. Some artists think that I am only an organizer, which I believe is unfair. In my more than ten years of creating art after that performance, I have continued to use the language of lying on my stomach, as in the pieces Pilgrimage — Wind and Water in New York, Peace, and Dream of the Dragon . I also never stopped experimenting with the idea of group performance, as demonstrated by My America (Hard to Acclimatize), My Australia , My Japan , My Rome , and so on. At the time I was simple and naïve; My only goal was to realize the performance. I did not have contracts with any of the participating artists or photographers who documented the performance, which led to later disputes. In China in 1995, artists did not know anything about artworks entering the market. I moved to New York in 1998. Afterwards, I signed contracts with photographers and videographers for every performance piece. Each contract clearly states the copyright, and no similar problems have emerged. But I believe that my experience is a good example for my colleagues and younger artists to be more professional.
On the same day and at the same mountain, I also created Nine Holes , a performance of nine people making love to the mountain. I decided on the rules of the performance, including each person’s position and behavior. Each of the seven male artists dug a hole, then lay on his stomach and put his sexual organ into the hole. The two female artists also lay on their stomachs with their vaginal openings placed over protruding mounds. We stayed in position for ten minutes. I was hoping that nine months later new lives would emerge from the mountain. These two performances marked the first time that my body came into direct contact with nature. At the time, performances such as these could only be realized outdoors, in nature.
In 1996, I was invited to perform at the China Art Festival in Munich . It was the first time that I was invited to perform outside China . I created a small script entitled Beijing Duck based on the theme of Beijing duck. I combined several ideas from previous performances and planned to realize the new work on a stage. After I finished writing the script and shipping all the equipment and sets, some political disputes unexpectedly happened between China and Germany . The art festival was cancelled, but artists were still invited to Germany for a visit. I went to Europe for the first time. I remember that the weather was overcast on the day I arrived in Munich . I could not see many people and wanted to find out where they were. It was too quiet. I saw only one person standing at an intersection, waiting for the green light. There were no cars and no one other than the two of us, but he was still waiting — it was completely different from China. The curator in Munich brought me to a rock-and-roll concert. During the concert, I went on stage and danced with the singer. Everything was new. I was a punk. I then went to Paris , and for the first time in my life saw masterpieces of art with my own eyes. I saw paintings by Millet, van Gogh, and Courbet. They looked very different from the reproductions I saw in books. The original paintings are simple, relaxed, and down-to-earth. I was surprised to learn that works I thought were very large in fact are very small. I traveled for several days before returning to Beijing . I felt that I did not do any art in the year of 1996. My art life was a mess. I was like a Beijing duck, or even a eunuch.
In the spring of 1997 I received my second invitation to perform outside China ; the occasion was the opening of a small group exhibition of Chinese artists at a museum in Tokyo , Japan . My piece was 3006 Cubic Meter/65 Kilograms. Three thousand six cubic meters was the size of the museum and 65 kilograms was my weight. I used an old Chinese horse carriage, medical tubes thousands of meters long, and more than one hundred bells. In order to avoid any restrictions from the transportation department, the museum arranged for the performance to take place at seven O’clock in the morning. Together with the museum staff, it took three days to prepare for the performance: we tied the tubes to the tops of the museum’s windows and stretched them to wheels placed on top of the building across from the museum, (In the 1970s, the museum invited an artist to paint a large mural in this building.) A busy avenue separates the two buildings. It was drizzling when I started the performance. Starting from the museum, I walked across the avenue and climbed up a tree to the top of the building. I sat on the wooden axle connecting the two wheels and tied many tubes to my body as well. With my feet firmly planted on the rooftop, I used all my strength to pull the museum in my direction with the hope of dragging it down. However, the museum, a gigantic building, always pulled me in the opposite direction. The floor was slippery, and several times I was on the verge of falling from the top of the building. Museums represent culture and authority. For my entire life, I have wanted to pull them down, although maybe I would eventually be pulled into them. Japan impressed me with its hard-working people who paid attention to small details instead of taking rain checks. This attitude set a good example for me and influenced my later works.
In the same year, I made a series of black-and-white photographs related to skin. I was thinking, “is it possible to make a piece without spending any money?” When I was brushing my teeth one morning, I saw an expression of insecurity on my face. I showed such insecurity in Skin . When I was a sophomore in college, I had a fight with my PE teacher. He punched me in the face and broke my nose. When I would look at myself in the mirror, I would always want to correct my nose. Unconsciously, I discovered the potential of skin, with its traces of relaxation and aging.
In the summer of 1997, I also created To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond . I invited more than forty immigrant workers in Beijing to participate. They came from all over the countryside and ranged in age from twenty to sixty. Some worked in moving companies and construction while others sold fish. I went to many shabby tents (their homes) in order to find them. At the time, I lived within walking distance from a fishpond. The immigrant workers didn’t understand what I was doing but simply followed my instructions. When I saw them, they reminded me of my uncles and brothers from my childhood. The piece has three parts. First, we circled the pond with five to six meters between each person and faced the pond in silence. Next, we raised the water level of the pond. For the final part, we stood as a human wall to divide the fishpond in two. The boy on my back was the son of the fishpond owner and only five years old. Surprisingly, he did very well that day. I had created pieces related to mountains, so I wanted to make some related to water; this work fulfilled that desire. To my knowledge, it was the first time that an artist collaborated with immigrant workers. In the following year, the piece was exhibited in New York and received great attention.
In the first half of 1998, I made 1/2 and Foam . Every morning in the market where I had breakfast, I could see rows and rows of ribs on sale at different stalls. When I saw the ribs, I saw myself. I imagined what the pigs looked like when they were alive. It was very pitiful. I was pitiful too. Half of a person is his body and the other half is his soul. This experience inspired a performance in which members of the audience were invited to write characters on my face and body. I asked them to write whatever they wanted. Some of the characters were about concepts, Buddhism, tolerance, and so on.
For Foam , I held photographs of my family members and myself in my mouth. Every family has its difficulties. There is an old Chinese idiom that every family goes through sadness and happiness, separation and reunion. When I would look at these yellowed photographs of my childhood and of the older people in my family, I would always ask myself, “why was I born into this family? Is it true that my fate had already been determined five hundred years ago?” Life is like a dream. It is transient. Just like foam, it sparkles and dies out in less than a second. I love this family and I hate this family. I wanted to eat them. I wanted to eat myself.
I went to New York on September 8, 1998. Gao Minglu was the curator of the exhibition “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” at Asia Society and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York . I was invited to make a performance piece at the opening at P.S.1, so I moved to New York . I had to face an entirely different culture and social system. New York has a rich and unique culture because of the commingling of people from different ethnic backgrounds. Living in this melting pot, I firmly believe that I cannot lose what I have. But I also need to face reality, the reality of New York . I should make a great effort to become part of this society, but I cannot lose myself in it. “Being too extreme only brings the opposite.” If I am too close to it, it will devour me. But if I am too far away from it, I will not understand its principles. This is a very subtle distinction. My goal is to continue observing society. “Coming from life and returning to life.” When I was in Beijing , I worked almost exclusively underground; I didn’t have any freedom in my creations. When I moved to New York , nonprofit public organizations began sponsoring my performances. It is the contrast between heaven and hell. Contemporary art is an important part of the main stream. As a contemporary artist, I should have felt like a fish swimming in water with ease and comfort. However, this was not so. Too much “freedom” makes a person “nervous.”
Every place has its advantages. Problems and pressures in China are concrete. They are a visible reality. The East Village I used to live in was dirty and messy. Nobody cleaned the public toilet and thousands of flies lived there. Only there could I have created 12 Square Meters . New York can be described as an indescribable cruelty. Every second one can feel that society has advanced to such a degree that it only creates worry and fear in people. Everyone is extremely skeptical. Homeless people and insane people are everywhere on New York streets. White-collar works and powerful people look like mannequins. We live in a sick time. Everyone is “sick,” but at the same time we realize that we are also “patients.” Ironically, the relationship between people and dogs is more natural and close. Only here could I have created Pilgrimage — Wind and Water in New York .
I live here as a Henanese in New York , with my own culture and personality. Identification is an issue that no one can avoid. When Westerners discuss contemporary art in China , they talk about “ China ” first and “art” later. This, to some degree, may say something about the status of contemporary Chinese art in the world. Besides keeping a distinctive style, artists are also representatives of a culture. I bring my body to art because I realize that the body is the most direct way of interacting with society. The body is the evidence of identification, and the solid self is the most essential part of a work of art. My mind determines the state of my body and its meaning. My body is the medium of my art.
After more than a half century of artistic innovation, contemporary art in the West is reaching a dead end. It is time that Westerners face their own culture and the multiplicity of culture. Westerners develop their own mainstream culture while absorbing minority cultures to enrich their own. Chinese artists and other ethnic artists lie at the edge of this self-centered western art. When western media report on contemporary Chinese culture, they always relate it to China ’s politics and its societal problems, or how the West has influenced China and how China has learned from the West. They do not talk about art as art. These were some of my thoughts after settling in the United States .
Pilgrimage — Wind and Water in New York was a performance realized on October 23, 1998. I used a Ming-style luohan daybed, on top of which was placed an ice cube fifteen centimeters thick. I invited more than ten New Yorkers and their dogs to participate. I used Tibetan music as background. First, the dogs led their owners into the courtyard, and the owners tied their dogs around the daybed and left. I then entered the courtyard in the way that Tibetan pilgrims walked to Putara Temple — after walking several steps, I lay down on my stomach with my head kowtowed to the ground. I walked around the courtyard and then lay on the ice bed face down. Ten minutes later, I rose from the bed and stood facing the audience. More than three thousand people were present at the performance. The barking of the dogs was a little scary. In fact, at first I did not plan to include dogs in the performance. However, after living in New York for slightly over a month, I was deeply impressed with the relationship between a dog and its owner. They are lifelong friends and family members. Chic young ladies would hold plastic bags, ready to pick up dog droppings anytime. People would also talk to dogs. Dogs in New York chew on manmade bones. Dogs in New York also dress well. Certain species of dogs in New York are as rich as the people who live there. All this was completely different from the dogs I saw in China . In China , dogs eat what is leftover by people, such as chicken bones and the like. Our relationship with dogs is that a dog is always a dog; it will never become a human being. Perhaps the intimate relationship between a pet and its owner is a characteristic of developed countries. The more developed, the lonelier people are. People are more and more remote and indifferent to each other. They need dogs to fill the position of their friends and lovers.
I attempted to use my body to melt the ice block and to touch the luohan bed that represents my ancestors. But after several minutes, my body temperature dropped to that of the ice cube. My body was as cold as ice. I could not meet this ancient icy earth. When you try to change something, perhaps you change yourself.
I made two performances in 1999: Dream of the Dragon and My America (Hard to Acclimatize). Dream of the Dagon was completed at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in April 1999. I used dogs again. To assist my performance, the museum found an old pine tree in Golden Gate Park and removed it from the ground with its roots intact. In order to protect the artworks in the museum from insects, the tree was specially treated by professionals several days before the performance. I lay on the tree trunk, holding its roots. The museum staff carried me from the park to the museum and put me in the middle of the main hall where a circle was made using more than ten tree trunks. An assistant started to paint a mixture of dog food and flour on my body. I looked like a marble sculpture. Then eight or nine dogs surrounded me and started to lick the food off my body. Two dogs began to fight for food and one of them bit me on my buttock. He thought I was his food. Another one ate the food and tentatively used his teeth to check if my body could be eaten as well. Even birds fight for food until death. Dogs are like all other animals and humans; they will fight anything for food. This piece indicates my life in New York — beaten by dogs from all directions. Usually, after I complete these performances, I feel empty. Why did I want to do it this way? I feel unspeakable sadness. Dream of the Dragon is also my dream, my American dream at that moment.
It looks like everything is determined by fate. What is important for artists is to make choices based on their own standards, to make interesting and familiar things according to their own surroundings, to discover the seemingly meaningless in ordinary life, and to walk into art in their own way.
In October 1999, the Seattle Art Museum invited me to make a performance, and I realized My America (Hard to Acclimatize) . The original title of the work in translation was Difficulty in Getting Used to the New Environment , and I decided to call it My American (Hard to Acclimatize) . When I was discussing my solo exhibition with Jeffrey Deitch at his gallery, Deitch Projects, he felt that the English name would be too long to remember. He asked me what I wanted to express in the exhibition. I explained that I had not adapted to life in New York . I told him that this is America . Later, we decided on My America (Hard to Acclimatize) as the name of the exhibition and performance. With the help of the museum and local universities, we found sixty volunteers to participate in the performance. They included collectors, professors, artists, yoga instructors, disabled people, and pregnant women. Their participation was perfect, and it was one of my biggest projects. In the main hall of the museum, we erected a U-shaped structure. The performance took place in different parts. In the main part, I sat in the middle facing the audience. The volunteers stood on the two levels of the structure. Suddenly, they started to throw bread at me. In several minutes, hundreds of pieces of bread hit me. The ground was covered with bread.
The idea came from one night at Madison Square Garden in New York City . I was looking for food for my pregnant wife. Two people walked towards me with bread in their hands. They asked, “Are you hungry?” My feeling was complex. I could not speak. I felt emotional and wanted to cry. I accepted the bread and walked away. It made me think of my life in China . In China no matter how hungry I was, I was an artist. Nobody would think of me as a beggar. Later, friends told me these people were city employees or religious workers who distribute food every day at certain places. I brought the bread home and used it in my performance. Because of difficulties in culture and language, I could not adapt to life in America . I was like an idiot. This is my America .
I made Sunshine when I was living in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn , New York . It was the first room I rented in New York , less than twenty square meters in size. We shared a kitchen and bathroom with our neighbors. I was not happy then. When I found other people’s droppings floating in the toilet or when I smelled fried eggs late at night, I wanted to argue with the neighbors. From the southernmost section of Brooklyn , one can see the Statue of Liberty. This place was only a ten-minute walk from where we lived. The piece was realized in a park near the ocean. It was right after a snowstorm. I found some used dolls from a second-hand store. When I saw them, I thought of the Angel series I made in Beijing . I have a special attachment to children’s discarded toys. The two dolls lying in the snow — as if suddenly thrown into a big ocean — are very similar to me. We knew nothing of this new world, and we could not really step into it.
Mr. and Mrs. Rubell invited me to Miami in 1999. I saw their art collection and stayed in their hotel. The hotel had a beautiful swimming pool. It was the first time in my life that I swam in water so blue. Miami is completely different from New York . When it is winter in New York , it is summer in Miami . I came up with the idea for Breath where I would wear my old winter clothes from China and breath deeply in water, again and again. I wanted to experience the feeling of wandering and of having no roots. I know the name Miami from the film The Doors . The protagonist Jim Morrison sang crazily in Miami . I feel as absorbed as he was.
In June 2000 I completed My Australia at the National Gallery of Australia . It took me more than thirty hours to fly from New York to Australia , and I changed flights four times. My original plan was to collaborate with the Australian army. However, it was politically sensitive, so I had to give up the plan. I moved the performance to the sculpture garden at the museum, where statues by Rodin stand. I invited thirty to forty volunteers and used one hundred goats to transform the garden into an outdoor theater. I gave life to the statues through the combination of people and the environment. Rodin’s sculpture was the center of the performance, and I hung an Australian flag between the hands of the sculpture. The performance was divided into eight sections. In the most important section, I knelt at one side of the flag, and participants, one by one, knelt at the other side. We could not see each other. Everybody spoke to me about him or herself and their families. It was very moving and many people shed tears. Every country has an unpleasant history. One persistent issue in Australia is the dispute between immigrants and Aborigines. When I was sitting in the plane leaving Australia , I saw the word “sorry” in the sky. If everybody learns to say the word sorry, our world today would not be a place where danger hides in every corner.
I made Rubens in the same year for an exhibition commissioned by S.M.A.K., the City Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent , Belgium . The exhibition was held at a church. The idea came from Rubens’s famous painting The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus . It was a literary and theatrical performance, and I consulted the background of Rubens’s life and the story in the painting. The performance had three parts. In the first part, I made exact sculptures of the hands of the priest of the church, the curator, and a Belgian collector. The second part reenacts the rape. The third part demonstrates the conflict between the lovers and models of Rubens. I played the part of Rubens. The performance lasted for eighty minutes, and all the actors wore period dress. I also hired twelve professional chevaliers and horses. In total more than fifty people participated in the performance, and they acted as the wife of Rubens, his assistants, the king’s daughters, the deity’s sons, and so on. At the end of the story, Rubens’s models and lovers tear off all his clothes, bury him with wheat, and make a pyramid. The piece focuses on invasion and violence, and people’s desire for possession and power. I tried to explore the meaning of antagonist. Museums and collectors may sometimes propel the artist forward; at the same time they are also killers.
Later, I concretized the performance and created a sculpture with the same name. Using my body as a model, I make a life-sized standing sculpture based on the gesture of terra-cotta soldiers. More than twenty hands touch my head and body. Each hand is doing something different — for example, a banker’s hand counts money and another hand makes the “fuck you” sign. Each hand is unique. This was my first sculpture, so it was an important experiment and marked a new beginning.
Flowers was also , different from my original plan because of a sudden accident. The performance took p, la, ce at a seven-hundred-year-old imperial castle in Helsingborg , Sweden . The day before the performance, a local young man of twenty-six committed suicide by jumping from the castle. When I went to see the castle the day before the performance, his girlfriend was there crying. That same day, my colleague from New York called me and told me that she had a terrible dream in which I fell from the castle during the performance and died. When I heard it, I was so scared that my hair stood up. I told her what had happened at the castle that day. In the original plan, I arranged to have a helicopter drop me on top of the castle, and the corner I chose to use for the performance was exactly the one from which the local man jumped. There were too many coincidences to ignore. Maybe fate was telling me that I should not realize this plan. I don’t know why I always experience death and tragedy in my life. Years ago, I dreamt that I was sentenced to death more than once. The piece Flowers was conceived to memorialize the death of this young man. I invited students from a local high school to participate and bought sunflowers. We lay on our backs on the grass. Sunflowers grew from our mouths. I put grass in my mouth in search of something. I lit candles in the castle and knelt in a niche. Why did he give up his life?
I made Family Tree in Amherst , New York . I invited three calligraphers to write on my face from morning to night. I told them what to write and asked them to be serious and careful even after my face turned black. When the sky became dark, my face turned black. My appearance disappeared as well. Nobody knew the color of my skin, and it was as if my identification no longer existed. I disappeared. The piece told the story of a family and its spirit. On my forehead was the story Moving a Mountain . Everybody in China knows the story, whose moral is that as long as you have determination, nothing is beyond reach. Your dreams will come true. Other words predict the future of a person, for example, the meanings of different shaped cheekbones. People’s fate cannot be understood. It is controlled by something mysterious.
Chickenpox expressed the fear of being covered and thus ignored. Rembrandt’s late self-portraits are filled with the fear of death. Chickenpox is a realistic presentation of life and death. In today’s society, a person is busy every second. Everybody is fatigued. The so-called hi-tech would has transformed people into post-humans, removed from nature and closer to machines. I want to have a more relaxed life.
I created Pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain in 2001. It is a religious city, and for me, it is the Tibet of Europe. The city has more than forty churches, and pilgrims from all over the world travel there to worship. Carrying bones with them, they walk for months, and when they reach their destination, they burn all their belongings and pray for a new start — just like a baptism. In the churches, incense smoke wafts from large incense burners and permeates the city making it very sacred. In this performance, I borrowed these religious elements and combined them with my own. I wore the garment of a priest and walked from the museum, through the city streets, to the largest square in the city. I entered a pre-constructed iron ball that was more than two meters in diameter and which contained incense and bones. The incense at the bottom of the ball was lit and a machine lifted both the iron ball and me. The ball began to swing in wide arcs through the air. The smoke and smell filled the square. Because the fire also lit the bones inside the ball, the iron ball became too hot for me to stand. I looked like the famous da Vinci sketch.
My Japan is a piece created for the Yokohama Triennale. It is my reaction to the history of the Sino-Japanese War. I invited Japanese high school students to participate. We wore white clothes and covered our mouths. Imitating disabled people, we dragged our feet into the performance room where a sculpture of a person hung upside down, its eighty-centimeter-long hair falling straight in the shape of a giant brush. His two ears, nostrils, eyes, and mouth were filled with blue liquid. The liquid spilled onto the floor and our white clothes. I had a goldfish in my mouth, and it swung its tail in an attempt to escape. The goldfish lay on the floor dying. This was a miniature re-enactment of war.
I shot the series of photographs Pear Blossom Grove in the mountains of Shandong province. During a certain time every year, pear flowers bloom everywhere and make the mountains white. People there make their livings by selling pears. Other times, the place is bare with no leaves on the trees. There are also factories that process dog meat. Every year, thousands of dogs are killed. I saw their advertisements everywhere. This landscape of pear flowers and dog meat creates a vivid contrast that is shocking but not without meaning. I visited the factory to study the entire processing procedure, from feeding, electric shock, burning, plucking hair, and tearing skin to cutting meat. Some are made into canned food and some are sold as raw meat. In the piece, I gave some human personalities to the dogs. I wanted them to drink water from a stream, to talk with birds, to have a new life.
Shanghai Family Tree is a demonstration of families in today’s Shanghai . It also reflects the city’s complex society with its combination of new and old, Chinese and Western, yours and mine, animals and people, urban and village, and poor and rich.
My New York was realized at the Whitney Biennial in 2002. It is my first performance after 9/11. Many things looked strong but were extremely fragile. In New York , I saw men exercise beyond what their hearts could handle and take all kinds of vitamins and supplements to pump up their bodies. In this performance, I invited immigrants to participate and used doves. In traditional Buddhism, releasing doves is an act of mercy. My consultant designed an outfit of beef for me. It took five tailors one day and one night to stitch all the beef onto a diving suit. The beef costume was very heavy — maybe about fifty kilograms — and hard to walk in. What would take a bodybuilder more than ten years to achieve only took me one night.
Seeds of Hamburg was commissioned by the Hamburg Art Association. They invited me for a solo exhibition, and I completed the performance at the opening of the exhibition. I made a large birdcage about four meters high. Inside the cage were forty to fifty large pigeons. They had beautiful bodies and big mouths. I was covered in sunflower seeds from head to feet. I lay inside the cage. The birds picked the seeds off my body. Most pigeons stood on my body, but some also rested on my lips and eyes. It was a feeling that I never had before. Although the pigeons didn’t know they were standing on a real person, they were uneasy and afraid of being too close to me. After the performance, I brought one to the outside of the museum. People told me that the bird would find its master and home. What exactly are the seeds of Hamburg ? Perhaps I represented a Tibetan ritual in a different form.
I returned to Shandong Province again in 2002 and created Sunrise there. Shandong is close to my hometown Henan . I feel comfortable with its culture and tradition. Most of the peasants in Shandong had never left the mountain where they lived. I could feel the realness on their faces and in their eyes, a look that I can’t find in urban dwellers. It is their fate to live there peacefully for their entire lives. When they heard that I came from United States , they asked if I could bring them there. I really wanted to tell them that their lives in the mountains are much more enjoyable than those in America . So we rode on a truck — we all wanted to leave home. When I was just over twenty years old, I dreamt of leaving home and going to New York . But eventually I found out that I didn’t belong there. If I could wake up every morning on top of a mountain, waiting for sunrise, I would wait for it every day.
I realized 18 Years Old in 2003 at my solo exhibition in Denmark . My inspiration came from the real life of the actor Christopher Reeve who played Superman. He had two completely different lives. It was unfortunate. It was difficult to watch his last years — he was a robot acting like a hero. I wish I could start again from eighteen years old.
Peace was commissioned by the New York nonprofit organization Creative Time. I created the bell of peace at a park and made a performance. I contacted the Shaolin Temple organization in New York . Their leader was the master Guolin from Henan . He is a master of martial arts. I’ve seen reports of him on TV and in The New York Times. They agreed to collaborate with me. At the beginning of the performance, Shaolin monks performed some Shaolin martial arts, including various types of boxing, as well as martial arts that use wooden or metal weaponry. Disguised with a long green skirt and high walking sticks, I looked like a giant. Hung on my chest were jars of traditional Chinese medicine. I also released one hundred doves that day. I brought Shaolin martial arts to contemporary art and reinterpreted Buddhism in the current society. I hoped to bring peace, tolerance, and love to every person in the audience.
Fifty Stars was a performance at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati to celebrate the completion of the center’s building, which was designed by a famous architect. Many visitors came that day. I was dressed in a U.S. police uniform and lay down on a specially made American flag. A police dog came and sniffed me to try to find unusual things on me. I then led him through the entire building to check for dangerous objects. This is a familiar process in New York , and we are so used to it. The second day, the local paper reported the performance on its first page. More than six protesting letters poured into the newspaper office. They accused me of defaming the country — how could I stand on an American flag?
Buddhist Relics was an indoor performance created when SARS broke out in China , so I added some medicinal details to the already-planned pagodas and sculptures. Pagodas are traditionally used to house the relics of monks after cremation; only the relics of enlightened monks who have gone through strict Buddhist practices are allowed in pagodas.
My Sydney was performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 2004. I invited Shaolin members living in Australia to participate and combined Shaolin kung fu with the act of shaving lambs. I had a mouthful of burning incense and wore a specially made wool jacket. Sydney is a beautiful place. My son followed a butterfly and got lost. We broke up into several teams and set out in different directions to look for him — like in the movies. I finally found him. Today I still feel fear when think of it.
Window is my favorite work. It activates my mind and heart. Life is like my relationship with a donkey.