Li Xianting¡¯s Dialogue with Sun Yuan and Peng Yu
April 7, 2004
Li: When I first saw the aquatic walls (you made), it felt a little bit overwhelming. The animals (on the walls) were moving. Usually when people have aquatic animals for food, they are taken from an aquarium. Now these animals were placed in a different environment ¨C on walls and out of water. They were on both sides of a corridor where people had to walk through. The audience was forced to take in this work. It was very provocative.
Sun: It felt like that. Basically it looked like that too. I thought it was quite interesting.
Li: It was a new environment for the animals.
Sun: Yes, there was a shift of environment. In the meantime, it had a certain visual appeal: the shapes of the animals were outlandish and they kept moving about on the walls; some with sharp-pointed body parts sticking out from the walls. It was like a live adornment.
Li: But what people saw were animals inlaid in the walls. The fact that the animals were taken from their usual environment was rather cruel. I remember that I had once written a few lines about when people had (seafood), they didn¡¯t know about the brutal process of turning live animals into food. What you did was to reveal this cruel practice. ¡°Fresh and lively seafood¡± is what everyone likes. Some restaurants in their peak time like to add ¡°fresh and lively¡± in front of their dish names.
Sun: Eating means consuming this thing (seafood). The process of eating is already detached from the actual cruelty, which has been transformed. There is another transformation taking place as it¡¯s being eaten. That¡¯s when the diners taste and evaluate this food item beyond itself.
Li: When we talk about the ice bed, I remember you said that they were very intimate. The name was ¡°honey¡± too but the mood was very frosty. The room was ice cold, emitting cold air, which created a contrast to its title.
Sun: Yes. In fact, the sense of the material itself was in concert with ice and the room temperature. The low temperature and coldness at the time was arranged to contrast the sense of intimacy. Another visual aspect about this work is rather warm and calm. I tried to avoid the sense of the material and let it appear different on photos from the actual object, material and reality.
Li: But when the viewers looked at it then, no one could quietly and positively observe a cadaver because it was dead and the color of the body was not lively.
Sun: If I wanted purely to generate a provocative effect, the cadaver itself was sufficient. But I didn¡¯t plan on using this material itself to shock or to frighten the viewers. I hoped that it could convey another message and the discrepancy between this message and the material was probably what I liked more about this work. This little difference might just be what art is about.
Li: But it was after all the first time that you used this material and the first time people got to see such material. What made you want to use this material?
Sun: For many reasons¡
Li: You mentioned one day that you saw an anatomy when you were a student. Even when we went to school, it was not very formal but we still had to see anatomies, to touch cadavers and to feel the structure. It was treated as an object for scientific study. The cadaver was devoid of human relationship and was meant to educate you and to give you exposure.
Sun: There are many chances to come in contact with this kind of material. For example, when a relative passes away, you can see something special on his body. Because the person you saw when he was alive was dissimilar to the one that was lying there. After a person passes away, his relatives who mourn and express their feelings towards the body miss the point that this body no longer exists. Life has left the body. Life is something immaterial. Once it¡¯s separated from its carrier, it no longer exists. Then any kind of emotion is abandoned. Or otherwise people find it difficult to confront the truth and still treat the dead body as a relative. But if you look at it objective, you would know that what¡¯s lying there is no longer the person you know. He¡¯s been separated from the body already.
Li: You meant the difference between the specimen or the so-called ¡°cadaver specimen¡± and that person, right?
Sun: Yes, that¡¯s the state that my work tried to present, because the cadaver appeared to be in deep sleep, very intimate. This is what the entire setting and bed tried to convey.
Li: This work is about a contrast.
Sun: Could be, I think. Because when you mingle every aspect together, it became one result that has two contradictory sides.
Peng: We fabricated a very emotional set so that the audience would freeze in the kind of icy feeling upon arriving at the scene. Then he would realize that it was a cadaver, something unacceptable.
Sun: There was a similar scene in ¡°Shepherd¡±. It was related to religion.
Li: Where did the subject matter come from?
Sun: It came from the Bible. The relation between Jesus Christ and human being as well as the relation between the shepherd and the goatherd was fascinating to me. A paragraph in Matthew talks about the catastrophe that comes before the doomsday and the omens for the catastrophe. Some phony prophets would make up false appearances. For example, some people would pretend to be Jesus Christ; some would say that they have seen Jesus Christ in the wilderness or indoor. They would tell people where Jesus Christ was but everything was not true. Based on this knowledge, I set up such a scene where there was a shepherd but he was completely wrapped up so that no one could see him clearly and there were some sheep spines in the snow. The scene appeared to be like¡
Li: Very pretty.
Sun: There was indeed a wired feeling. I couldn¡¯t quite place it. A group of objects were moving about. It was indeed about the relation between the shepherd and the goatherd but it was all recast. It conformed to the paragraph about lies. At that time, I had a very powerful impulse to make up such deception, the omens signaling the arrival of catastrophe. But according to the Bible, these talks are not to be trusted. They are deceptions. However when these omens turn up, as long as they show up, there will be some catastrophe. No matter whether it¡¯s real or not, even when it¡¯s not real, it is still an omen. At that time, I was very attracted to this subject, to religion. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out their correlations.
Li: Is there any metaphor for the reality in this work?
Sun: I am not sure. The truth is that there are always metaphors but not exactly. Its association with the reality is something that I can¡¯t articulate precisely. According to my analysis of the Matthew, no matter whether a phenomenon is real or not, it invariably indicates the arrival of disasters. In another word, even if a phenomenon is made up, it still means that there will be disasters. Even though I say this is not true and in fact, it¡¯s not true ¨C it¡¯s a piece of artwork, it still conforms to the metaphors for disasters described in the Bible.
Li: Then you collaborated on ¡°Hunting the Soul¡±.
Sun: That¡¯s right. That was based on an optical theory.
Li: We all played with it when we were young. We would burn a piece of paper or grass with a magnifier.
Sun: This is what I was drawn by, to bake a dog¡¯s head with light. I think the internal connection was that I prevented the part of the dog that was beyond death from appearing again and I let everything stop at death, end at death. My reasoning is that everyone has his understanding about death: Most don¡¯t admit it but deep down they believe that death is just a condition and there is something else after death. Every religious person knows about it. Religions offer explanation for the postmortem period. Even those who are not religious think alike.
Li: We all have doubts but no one can prove one way or the other. However in reality, consciousness can be a kind of psychic state at times. Quite often we are actually manipulated by the dead. Culture and a certain teaching are both ghosts. Have you thought about that?
Peng: This could be one explanation.
Li: When we look at this work, there is so much we are reminded of. We¡¯ve lived for so long, but most of the time, we have been manipulated by the dead. The bygone ghost takes the form of some valuation or cultural conception or even artistic conception and takes charge of us.
Peng: Too many people have tried in vain to run away from that shadow. When we did the dog piece, we were possessed by a strong feeling to empower people with a special way to eradicate the ghosts. The means was not a theory of ours or any kind of sword. It had to be something unique ¨C light, an unusual substance. What it came down to be was to exterminate something intangible with something intangible.
Li: When I saw the piece, I was intrigued. We¡¯ve all played the same game when we were small. You must have played it before and that was how it came to you. This kind of material is always an experience. But we used sunshine more when we played.
Sun: Right. Normally sunshine should be better but lamplight was fine too. The sun was only an illuminant body. All I needed was light.
Li: When I first saw the cadaver, what provoked me the most was the fat. I saw a very fat old lady. After her cuticle was removed, there was a thick layer of fat, yellow and shiny. I was very stimulated by that but I¡¯d never thought about processing it into oil.
Peng: Yes, I just thought that this material (fat) was meticulous. When we saw the cadaver, it felt so dead. It was kind of dreary and totally devoid of life. However, the fat felt especially lively. It was flowing and shining. That material itself felt especially alive.
Li: Not a plank. It is in lumps. It is like a kind of inflated foam plastic. Those tissues were pressed against each other.
Peng: They were like foams. They were tissue cells. The fatter you are, the bigger your adipose cells are and vice versa. The number of aliphatic cells in one¡¯s body is rather stable. Liposuction reduces the number of adipose cells in one¡¯s body. But after that, there is the very practical technical issue of how to abstract the oil from the human fat. Normally speaking, there should be a more miraculous way. It seems that human being should be more advanced than animals in all aspects. If the way of handling human bodies were the same as that of animals, then it would appear downgrading for human being. But eventually we had to adopt the very traditional and always the only way of extracting oil from fat, which was to heat it like extracting oil from pig fat. The other way of looking at it is that heating is the common practice in chemical experiments. Thus I adopted such a chemical approach to process human fat. It sounds ok.
Li: How did you come up with the idea to dump the oil into the canal?
Peng: We had made a few works using cadavers and subsequently we encountered the issue of how to dispose the material. To dispense it into the canal was the solution. It showed our attitude towards this material. We couldn¡¯t just dump it anywhere so I poured it into a canal in Beijing. The canal outside the third ring road was polluted. All the garbage and industrial waste are dumped into this canal. Once I biked along the canal for hours. It came to an end by the fifth ring road. There was no fifth ring road back then. The canal turned into very narrow streams at the end and both sides were piled high with rubbish. When we have a tea and pour the remaining into a pool, the path that it disappears in the pool is an extension of our life. In this sense, the thing (oil) continued in the extension of our life. Then I photographed the reflections of the city in the oil that floated on the dirty canal. It went on drifting for a while before it scattered into blotches and gradually dissolved into the dirty water. What a loss! For me, living through life feels like the fat crossing through the soiled canal.
Li: This is a brilliant saying, very incisive. For you, it was a process evolving from witnessing the oil as a life to its closure.
Peng: I felt that there was an emotional shift in the handling of this material.
Li: The photograph I took of you ¡°feeding oil¡± suddenly looks like a classic, very solemn and tranquil.
Peng: There was an intention to transform a certain sentiment but I didn¡¯t know where it came from. It could be us contemplating about, looking after or meeting the dead. Actually I felt that if I were dead, I could become something like that, which I keep reminding myself of.
Li: ¡°Civilization Pillar¡± was a brilliant handling of the material. It involved a lot of scientific research. You played the scientists.
Peng: The only difference was that the fat was obtained from those alive. We began to really pay attention to those alive.
Li: There was a very distinct social motivation involved.
Peng: We erected a monument based on redundant fat from human being, wealth surplus and civilization. It was very appropriate to erect this golden, sticky and towering pillar in an art museum.
Li: ¡°Headstand¡± was a fun piece too.
Peng: ¡°Handstand¡± was an extremely light-hearted piece. It was an exploration of the same thing from a different perspective. I was shooting the video with my back lying on the ground. The audience saw someone did a handstand out of the blue and all of a sudden his hands were away from the ground. There was someone sitting next to him who kept rocking back and forth. Then suddenly a dog ran down from the wall. In the beginning, the viewers assumed that it was computer-manipulated or something high-tech. Then on second thoughts, they were certain that the dog couldn¡¯t have run down from the wall. After the dog had repeated his act for a few times, we stood up from the floor, turned off the light and left. At that time, the audience clearly felt that they had been deceived. At the time of the exhibition, those who came said to me, ¡°how come I felt so irritated after seeing your work?¡±
Li: It was based on delusion.
Peng: At that time, we wanted to use the computer. We had rarely done any video work before and we wanted to make fun of high-tech. The exhibition was a video exhibition so I made a video piece.
Li: You used dogs in your work once again in 2003.
Sun: The dogs we used were dogs especially trained to fight. They are called Pitbull. This species was cultivated in the West and brought to China. It¡¯s in its character that it wants to fight with the same species and to fight fiercely. If they are not separated from each other, they will continue fighting till they die. It¡¯s in their blood. We designed a group of jogging machines without dynamics and placed one dog on each of them. When a dog started to run, the jogging machine rotated. We placed two machines across from each other, each with a dog. The two dogs were face to face with each other, very close but they couldn¡¯t touch each other. Thus it kept running towards each other but could never reach. So they kept barking and running towards each other.
Li: Everyone is belligerent in nature.
Sun: The antagonistic relationship is a very important one among human being. This relationship can be transformed through many channels but it¡¯s never gone. This work is our way of altering this relationship. It¡¯s similar to turning battles into sports games.
Peng: The Olympics is a classic example of transforming wars into something else. A friend from Europe has seen this work and told us excitedly that we should give Bush and Saddam each a running machine of ours. Every viewer can read a lot into this work and they all agreed that they ¡°understood¡± it. What I liked the most is the incredible scene where all the dogs were running all at the same time. The sensation was unexpectedly animated.
Sun: From there, we began to specifically desire the appearance of a dynamic connection in our works. We had presented connections in our previously works but from this one, the connection came into life. Without the ¡°connection¡±, the work didn¡¯t exist.
Li: The tiger was moving in this kind of connection as well?
Peng: We made a passage with iron cages around the exhibition hall and placed the tiger in the passage. As the audience entered the exhibition hall, they first had to go through this passage with the tiger in it. Works by the other artists and the audience were contained within this huge cage. The entering and exit of each person was based on the location of the tiger. The tiger was guarding and surrounding these people.
Li: It was all run by the observers?
Peng: There were four corners in the exhibition hall. Each corner was assigned an observer. There were two entrances, each guarded by three people.
Li: Only when the doors were closed could the corridor for the audience be opened?
Sun: The path of each person was determined by the location of the tiger. First of all, the tiger was left to move at will. The tiger is used to pacing up and down incessantly when placed in an unfamiliar surrounding. It would wander about in a cage. Because the cage was a circle, the tiger would keep going around in one direction for two or three hours. Such a habit settled the opportunities for people to walk out or go in. In another word, the tiger kept a rule in this environment so that the actions of human were determined by the moves of the tiger. Sometimes, the tiger stayed at the door for a very long time.
Li: So that people couldn¡¯t come out.
Sun: The audience could only wait there. When the director of the Antwerp Art Museum asked me for my opinion of our work, I explained to him that the position of the tiger was our understanding of art. Beyond the area that was circled by the tiger, it was something else but not art. What was within the sphere was what was inside the art museum or inside the art system, something established. But there was a belt in between the inner sphere and the outer one. This belt is like the area where the tiger was confined. It didn¡¯t belong to the inside or the outside but it was verging on the edge. This was what I thought art should be.
Sun: Next is the boxing piece, among three people. All of the wrestling games involve two persons but we added the third party. The technique each athlete had learned had to be adapted to this change, because previously the other boxer was opposite him. All his energy, assaulting and defensive mechanism was directed to the opponent. Now there was the third opponent from another direction. In this case he needed to examine his situation at any moment. He couldn¡¯t launch any attack pertly or otherwise he risked being assaulted from an additional party. He had to calculate his position and form his strategy accordingly. In addition, we sanctioned two parties to attack the third one so that during the course of the game, they could choose to form ally with one or the other. As a result, there would be an imbalance of strength and the strong ones could quickly beat down the weak one.
Li: For me, this seems to be closer to human society. Sports simplify the competitions in human society into a one-to-one confrontation while in fact, the conflicts people are involved in include warfare, street fights, group fights, plotting against each other etc. All kinds of relations are actually mixed up together
Sun: In order to further complicate a simple game, we chose three boxers of various levels, a high level, a middle one and a low one. They were forced to make actual choices. The low level boxer had to partner with either the middle level or the high level one in order to survive. The high level contestant could risk being defeated had he not had a partner. What happened eventually was that the two higher-level boxers would eliminate the low one in the fourth game. By the fourth bout, the 70-kilo player would have lost all his physical strength after having received continuous attack. He couldn¡¯t go on further with the match and was carried out of the ring. The 75-kilo player and the 80-kilo player would continue with the match and eventually the winner was the 75-kilo player. In boxing, the result is based on scores instead of a player¡¯s actual strength. Although the 80-kilo player was the strongest, in the previous matches, the 75-kilo boxer had accumulated the most scores. Therefore he won.
Li: I don¡¯t know whether you had planned it or not but this match is so similar to that of human society. In the human society, the winner is usually not the strongest while the weakest is usually the first one to be kicked out. In market competitions, it¡¯s always the weak one who is left out. The one with the most real power is the middle one. Isn¡¯t there a Chinese idiom that says, ¡°The third party benefits from the tussle¡±?
Peng: ¡°History always repeats itself.¡±
Li: Did you predict the outcome?
Sun: I had anticipated the results for all three parties. As to how each of them would fight the match, it was rather haphazard. But when you come to think about it, how it happened was inevitable too. The low level boxer was very flexible and fast while the high level one had to resort to heavy bangs, so the middle one needed to negotiate all kinds of relations.
Li: He was in a better position since he could observe the fight between the strongest and the weakest and look for the best approach for himself.
Sun: There is always equilibrium. By the fifth game, the physical strength of the high level player had declined dramatically. Normally the higher-level players would become so exhausted by the fifth bout that they would cling to each other, while the middle level one still had some physical strength left and was still moving about.
Li: The whole world agrees that the relations among Chinese people are the most complicated ones. Since 1990s, the word ¡°guanxi¡±(relation) has become a universal term, which implies tricky relations, not only relations between you and me or him and me. In fact, it contains both the describable and the indescribable relations. In the earliest Chinese literary documents compiled during the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period for example, there were schemes recorded. We have 36 strategies in China. After Song Dynasty, people were schooled in the Four Books, the Analects of Confucius, the Book of Mencius, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Golden Mean. The Doctrine of the Golden Mean taught people simply not to do anything at all. Being the golden mean suggests that you could just find the right equilibrium. This idea is fascinating. Chinese people have a system of handling human relations that the West do not have.
Sun: Eventually the fact was more convincing than any rhetoric. But the outcome was beyond our control too.
Li: It was more dramatic or in another word, more real. Eventually this work was a bit like what you¡¯ve talked about, your relation with a piece of work. That is ¡°you relating to it¡±, right?
Sun: ¡°Relation¡± is a term that we learned when we began to study painting. The teacher used to say ¡°relation¡± was what an artist would study for a lifetime. Back then I didn¡¯t understand what he said. I thought relation was very simple. Why should it take a lifetime to understand?
Li: The relation between the bright and the dark, compositional relation and proportional relation¡The latter semester of my freshman year in university, I came up with six conclusive characters: ¡°observe the whole, paint the relations¡±. Haha. One¡¯s whole life is about handling all kinds of relations too: human relations, the relation between people and the society, the relation between the husband and the wife, family relations, the relations between adults and children, the relation between money and art. There are too many relations to take care of.
Sun: That¡¯s right. Relationships enrich our lives. If we were to single out the issues of life or death and discuss them respectively, they would boil down to rather simple concepts. However the relations among them can¡¯t be summed up as simply.
Sun: ¡°One or all¡± is a work made of bone ash. It was created this year. The plan was drawn up after we did the civilization pillar. We didn¡¯t have any chance to execute this plan back then, so we waited till this year to realize a plan we made in 2002: to make a huge chalk from bone ash. The original idea was to scrawl on walls with the chalk. I wanted to draw a cross but didn¡¯t think that it would be right. Eventually I propped it up against the wall and didn¡¯t make any drawings with it. I felt that any content that it wrote would seem redundant. Even the intension to do any scribble would seem redundant. It would seem too eager to clarify something. The truth is that nothing extra was needed. It was already the best.
Peng: It was already a chalk, and it could bear the weight of many things that it could have written. But we kept it silent. It leant quietly against the wall in the hollow hall at the museum.
Sun: It was a possibility. Any history is not expressed or decided by those involved in it. It¡¯s always been recorded and commented by the successors. So we leave the possibility for later. I wouldn¡¯t touch it anymore.
Li: There were two elements in this work that moved the viewers: one is bone ash as material and the other one is being a chalk.
Peng: We were looking at a photograph today. It was taken of a couple from Belgium. They stood on each side of the ¡°chalk¡±, like carrying a pillar. They both wore bright and healthy smiles. Years later, when people set eyes on this very picture again, it would convey something indescribable, something more profound.
Sun: I like this picture very much. This couple learned about the plan previously and had liked it back then. He said that he could understand what I tried to express with this work. He then told his wife about it and they had a picture together beside our work. They laughed candidly, as innocently as children and in the meantime they seemed very intimate. Suddenly I saw something else: they both carry those inevitable things, responsibilities in life. It could appear to be a rather simple commemorative photo but maybe a few years later, it would mean differently.
Translation by Carol Lu