Collaboration as Struggle and Non-Cooperation

A CONVERSATION WITH SUN YUAN AND PENG YU

The Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu first came to international prominence at the end of the 1990s through the exhibiting of a number of artworks, made by them as individuals and in collaboration with one another, involving spectacular acts of violence against living animals as well as the bodies of dead animals and babies. These works, including Curtain (1999) and Link of the Body (2000) (photographic images of which were disseminated in the catalogue to the now notorious ‘Fuck Off – Uncooperative Stance’ exhibition held at the Eastlink Gallery in Shanghai in 2000), can be interpreted as neo avant-garde attempts both to transgress and to question the legitimacy of established moral boundaries. While more recent works produced by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu no longer involve actual acts of violence against animal and human bodies, they nevertheless continue to challenge viewers by engendering highly unsettling sensations of conflict, tension and precarity. In this conversation, which is an edited version of one recorded at the artists’ studio in Beijing’s 798 art district, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu address the question of the relationship between their work and conventional morality. They also make use of traditional Chinese cultural thinking as an intellectual framework for the interpretation of their work. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s assertion during the conversation that conflict and non-cooperation are forms of collaboration and that discord and harmony are both integral parts of life can be seen as an implicit critique of the Chinese Government’s recent, ideologically driven attempt to gloss over the highly unsettling effects of China’s precipitous modernisation of the last three decades by promoting a return to a traditional Chinese Confucian belief in social harmony and deference to authority.

Paul Gladston: During the late 1990s you made a number of artworks, both as individuals and in collaboration with one another, involving spectacular acts of violence against animals. Among these was a work entitled Curtain which consisted of a large number of living animals [lobsters, bullfrogs, snakes and eels] impaled on hooks attached to a row of wires suspended curtain-like from the ceiling of an exhibition space, and another known as Aquatic Wall (1998) in which living fish and crustaceans were embedded within niches carved out of a specially constructed partition wall where they would appear to have been left to suffocate. What were your intentions in making those artworks? And what sort of influence have those works had on other Chinese artists?

Sun Yuan: We began to make artworks in 1998, so there are very few works from the 1990s period. With regards to interpreting the work, I didn’t give any thought to audience response while I was making it. And I am not quite sure what influence the work has had on other Chinese artists.

Peng Yu: We were positioned at the transition between the late 1990s and the beginning of the twenty first century. Our first three exhibitions were typical of the confrontational attitudes within the Chinese artworld of that time. For example, in 1999 one of the exhibitions we participated in, ‘Post-Sense Sensibility – Alien Bodies and Delusion’, was closed down by the Chinese authorities.

Paul Gladston: In the West, your artworks involving violence against animals have been interpreted as an attempt both to transgress and to question the legitimacy of established moral boundaries. Do you agree with this interpretation of your work? And, if so, does that sense of transgression and questioning relate equally to Chinese and non-Chinese cultural contexts?

Sun Yuan: It’s better to leave that for others to analyse. As artists, we are more interested in our own motivations and the choosing of our own positions. I don’t hold any views on the ways in which our work has been interpreted. I think once the work is completed, the comments or influences it procures are out of our control. The work itself is dynamic. The context within which the work is presented is also beyond our control.

Paul Gladston: Given the extremely violent nature of the works in question, I find it hard to believe that in producing them you didn’t set out to deliberately provoke some sort of moral outrage or scandal.

Peng Yu: In fact, during the late 1990s and early years of the new century we were often accused of this by foreign critics. We don’t read English, so some of our friends who do would tell us about the criticism. There are lots of similar comments that we don’t really pay attention to.

Sun Yuan: Since we don’t read Western critics, we don’t really know how they have interpreted our work.

Paul Gladston: So, how would you suggest we interpret your work involving violence against animals? For example, how might we interpret the work Soul Killing (2000), which involves the presentation of a flayed dog carcass pierced by burning incense sticks?

Peng Yu: Perhaps there is some misunderstanding about the chronology of this work. When I bought the dog, it was already dead. I bought it in a supermarket. If we assume the dog had a soul, then our intention was to end it completely without it ever having reached God.

Sun Yuan: In the case of this particular work we didn’t break any moral boundaries. We didn’t use violence to kill the animal, since the animal was already dead to begin with. We only staged a soul killing process, which, in practice, didn’t entail any violent component. The process of killing the dog’s soul was fictional. It didn’t involve any actual physical violence. It was a formless process, which differentiates it from the physical violence against animals exercised by some Western artists. If certain viewers consider such a process violent or inappropriate, then we are curious as to what causes such discomfort. Is it the specificity of cultural norms and limitations? In my view, we haven’t done anything. I think, in the end, neither body nor soul exists. We only offered a simulated sensation, which seems more meaningful than the actual act of killing the animal. In China we have a saying: ‘there was nothing at first, how would one tamper with dust?’ Seen from this particular perspective there is nothing to object to in our work.

Paul Gladston: The work Soul Killing nevertheless suggests a ritualized act of sacrifice. During Chinese antiquity, dogs were often sacrificed as an offering to the God of heaven. Later on, straw dogs were used as a focus for symbolic sacrifice in China. Did you set out to explore the possible significance of ritual sacrifice in a contemporary context?

Sun Yuan: The approach we took in the case of Soul Killing was not to stage an act of ritualized worship or commemoration. If the soul exists, then we have only wished to find another exit for the soul. I think what’s more important here is knowing what the audience is sensitive to. Does the disregarding of sensitive issues annihilate their existence? Humans are confined within intangible boundaries. Such boundaries are often beyond our consciousness. Human beings feel secure within certain limitations. Once we touch on these limitations, we begin to feel insecure. We are often protected by these limitations without our awareness. The point we were referring to in relation to Soul Killing is the existence of these shapeless boundaries.

Paul Gladston: Do you think the response of Chinese audiences to your work is different from that of Western audiences? During the period of modernity in the West there has been an increasingly strong repudiation of public acts of violence against animals. In China there is still, to some degree at least, an open tolerance of such acts; for example, in public markets.

Sun Yuan: As to an understanding of the underlying significance of our work, I don’t think there should be a difference between East and West. Regardless of whether the work is seen in China or elsewhere, there will always be moralists who stand up and criticize the work. Their criticism is often offered from an assumed position of certainty. I am not concerned with the different views of Chinese and Western audiences, rather, with their similarities. I am concerned with whether the viewer is able to break their existing moral boundaries when looking at our work. What is the function of morality? In society perhaps it allows people not to over-analyze the consequences of their actions, not to be over-burdened by responsibilities. It’s safe as long as one follows the rules. For us, we don’t need to rely on such moral standards.

Peng Yu: Let me give you an example. Perhaps, temples are where laymen seek the truth, but Buddha, may be indifferent to that.

Paul Gladston: There are similarities here to Nietzsche’s view of morality; the notion that there are, in actuality, no fixed moral boundaries, and that one has to weigh the consequences of one’s actions outside the reassuring framework of conventional morality.

Sun Yuan: It’s related to the goal you want to achieve. Once you break one regulation, your goal is not simply to break others, but to explore and to question. This time the regulations and boundaries will not be a hindrance.

Paul Gladston: During the last decade you have continued to incorporate animals into your work but without the use of violence.

Sun Yuan: This shift was a subjective choice, rather than the consequence of any outside influence or impact. As time progressed and as issues developed, it became necessary for us to change and deepen the approach that we took towards our work. In the case of Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003) we made an artwork using fighting dogs; the type of dog that would fight to the death when encountering other dogs. We designed a treadmill and set two dogs on it facing each other separated by a piece of wood. Once we lifted the piece of wood, the dogs would run towards each other. However, since the treadmill was running, they would never reach each other. All they could do is to stare at each other fiercely. This raises an interesting question. Where is the soft spot in all of this? Were the dogs being abused? The answer should be no. These dogs are naturally pugnacious. We only separated them and let them run on the treadmill, which became a sport for the dogs. For those who consider this animal abuse, I don’t understand what they are protesting about. In fact, human nature and animal nature are the same. China hosted the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. What is the goal of this type of sporting event? Actually, it is a conversion of actual fighting into regulated competition. It’s agreeable to most people because most people are supportive of the convention of the Olympic Games.

Paul Gladston: There are obvious similarities between Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other and a work that you exhibited more recently entitled Old Persons Home (2007). The latter is an installation consisting of life-size mannequins representing old people of high social status from differing national and cultural backgrounds sitting in remotely controlled electric wheelchairs. The wheelchairs move constantly, almost but never quite colliding with one another. There is a continual suggestion of struggle and conflict, but conflict and struggle that is never fully realised. How might we interpret this work? Did you intend it to act as a metaphor for the indirectness of contemporary political and cultural conflict as part of the integrative process of globalisation?

Sun Yuan: Actually, I haven’t given much thought to the metaphorical significance of our work and its relationship to actual society. I am mimicking a type of relationship. It is not simply about clash or avoidance. The people in the wheelchairs seem ready to fight, but they can also evade and escape. It’s like Taichi. Attack and defence go hand in hand naturally—everything is dynamic. As to what it reflects and projects from social reality, I am not concerned. Like all worldly relationships, none are simple. Among them the political ones are the most poignant.

Paul Gladston: That suggests that you intended to make a generalised philosophical proposition rather than a specific form of social commentary; one that, it seems to me, has a relationship to the traditional Chinese philosophical notion of a dynamic interactive relationship between otherwise opposing forces as signified by the well known Daoist Yin-Yang symbol.

Sun Yuan: You can interpret it that way if you like. I realised that there are many types of collaboration, among them the highest form of collaboration is to struggle. Perhaps when people talk about struggle they have not considered it as a type of collaboration.

Peng Yu: Not to collaborate is another approach to collaboration.

Sun Yuan: It’s hard for me to distinguish the boundary between reality and fiction, just as it’s difficult for me to distinguish between natural and artificial. Therefore, I cannot split myself into two personalities, which seems rather schizophrenic. Perhaps harmony and discord are both necessary in life, as long as we treat them as common phenomenon.

Paul Gladston: Other works made by you are also open to interpretation in this way. In the case of Curtain, for example, the animals were suspended together in such a way that they were made to struggle visibly against one another while making up a larger collective entity. In the case of a more recent work entitled Barbarossa (2008), the viewer was placed in a somewhat precarious interactive relationship with a large garbage bin on wheels, which moved constantly and somewhat unpredictably within the limits of a confined gallery space.

Sun Yuan: We don’t have an answer for this. Everyone’s understanding is different. 

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Old Persons Home, 2007. Installation, life-size sculptures, electric wheelchairs, fiberglass, silica gel. Courtesy the artists. 

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, The world is a fine place for you to fight for, 2011. Performance, 15 taxidermy animals, stainless steel objects, curtains, 20 bodyguards, 1 major actor, 1 video maker, 2 railways, 1 projection and mixed media. Courtesy the artists. 

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2009. Concept: Each person thinks of one thing, when putting them together an expressive relationship will be built in between the two. UCCA, Beijing, China. 

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Curtain, 1999. Courtesy the artists. 

notes: 

Transcribed by Xu Sujing. Translated by Fiona He.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are based in Beijing. They have exhibited widely in China and internationally, were among the five artists to represent China in the inaugural Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2005, and were included in the Sydney Biennale, 2010.

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor in Culture, Film and Media at The University of Nottingham. For a number of years he was head of the division of International Communications and Director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham Ningbo, China.