Yang Zhichao

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Yang Zhichao
Yang Zhichao. Courtesy of the artist

Article

Transitional phase: pain

Yang Zhichao, born in Gansu province, China, is a performance artist achieving his insights through the personal experience of pain.
“Learning through pain,” is an expression coined by Aischylos at the heart of one of his dramas, whereas folk nowadays prefer to ignore pain. By focussing on pain in his performances begun in 2000, the Chinese artist Yang Zhichao is being critical towards culture: “I’m not concerned with pain as such but with the willpower needed to put up with it.”

What causes an artist to paint portraits of exhibition visitors with a mixture of his blood and red paint or to have the number of his passport branded on his back? “To me, art has plainly a religious aspect. I think for instance of Buddhist monks who in China face the difficult task of being faithful to their beliefs in the face of harsh repression. By putting their lives at the service of peaceful coexistence and in being willing to die for it if necessary, they lend us the power to be faithful to our own ideals. What happens behind the walls of monasteries can be brought by artists to public attention.”

Yang was shocked by the mega-city Peking on arriving there in 1998. A greater contrast to life in his home province Gansu on the Tibetan roof of the world can hardly be imagined. His performance “Iron” expresses the clash of these worlds. To a person whose childhood experience is embedded in a mystical love of nature, a city like Peking, whose rate of modernisation is extraordinary by international standards, can be deeply vexing or even threatening. By having the number of his passport burned into his back, Yang is presenting in visual form the confrontation of the public and the private, of industrial modernity and rural tradition. The pain suffered in facing this challenge or threat to one’s personal identity is here made openly visible.

The performance “China Red” (2004) is full of associations, like the title itself. The hue red is to be seen everywhere in China – on paper lanterns, lucky talismans, wedding dresses, doors and walls of traditional buildings and even the national flag. Yang’s performance which is named after this hue - in which he slits one of his fingers, mixes the blood with red Chinese ink, then paints portraits of strangers with it – refers to the wholly elementary and physical symbolism of the hue red. “Red is the hue of blood, and blood is the essence of human life. If blood is mixed with ink and pigments, art and life symbolically mingle. This performance induces a whole palette of reactions among observers. It is disturbing like an uneven floor, and it brings the persons portrayed closer to the portrayer and thus to art. Since ink and silk are traditional Chinese materials, outside China ´China Red´ also becomes something of a dialogue between cultures.”

Yang’s home province Gansu lies by the Yellow River. In his performance “Earth” (2004) he lets a doctor implant earth in the roof of his stomach. “I know that this longing to bridge the gap between Man and the universe will never wholly succeed. We don’t even manage to live harmoniously with nature. It is this discrepancy between the ideal and reality which is reflected in ´Earth´. Even if I accept the pain, my body rejects the earth. Yet it is only human to long to bridge the gap.”

For some folk Yang’s reasoning may seem to be rather arbitrary. Cannot these “humanistic messages”, as he calls them, be interpreted on a more abstract level? The artist denies this, smiling but emphatic: “Only the personal experience of pain lets me achieve insights which cannot be reached on the level of abstraction. Pain is a way to reach another feeling of life. By removing the taboo from the theme ‘pain’ and by presenting pain to the public, I hope for an international dialogue. The basic experience of mental and physical anguish knows no national borders.”
Author: Ulrike Münter

Works

Earth

Production / Performance,
2004

Chinese Red

Production / Performance,
2004

Take Out

Production / Performance,
2004

Ba

Production / Performance,
2003

Tail

Production / Performance,
2003

Hide

Production / Performance,
2002

Planting Grass

Production / Performance,
2000

Iron

Production / Performance,
2000

Inside the Fourth Ring Road

Production / Performance,
1999

Jiayu Pass

Production / Performance,
1999

Love story

Production / Performance,
1996

Professional Babysitter

Production / Performance,
1995

Gender Culture

Production / Performance,
1994

Preaching

Production / Performance,
1989

Rolling Canvas

Production / Performance,
1987

Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Production / Performance
2006 “China – Between Past and Future“, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany 2005 “China Live“, Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, Great Britain “China Live“, Greenroom, Manchester, Great Britain “China Live“,Chapter, Cardiff, Great Britain “China Live“, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Great Britain “China Live“, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, Great Britain “China Live“, Bluecoat Arts Centre, Liverpool, Great Britain “China Live“, Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester, Great Britain “China Live“, Arnolfini, Bristol, Great Britain “China Live“, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Great Britain 2004 “DaDao Live Art Festival”, DaDao Live Art Festival, Beijing, China 2003 “Distance”, Guangdong Museum of Art Contemporary Art, Gouangzhou, China “Live Art Festival", Live Art Festival, Beijing, China 2002 “Cut in”, China Art Archives & Warehouse (CAAW), Beijing, China 2001 "Individual Expression", BASH, Beijing, China 2000 “Fuck off ", Eastlink Gallery, Shanghai, China

Projects

This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Postcard Project

(01 March 07 - 31 December 08)

China - Between Past and Future

A project on contemporary art in China

(24 March 06 - 14 May 06)