Sun Yuan – interview

by Liang Shuhan 梁舒涵
translated by Daniel Szehin Ho 何思衍

There is one type of artists who simply cannot be defined, since any definition would take away from their originality. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu belong to this category. Human lipids, baby or animal samples, high-pressure hose — there is nothing that they cannot bring into their practice. But as Sun Yuan says, if experiments themselves are not experimental, is creation even necessary?

Liang Shuhan: What works have you two been doing lately?

Sun Yuan: Recently we’ve been taking a break.

孙原&彭禹,《世界是个好地方,值得你们去奋斗》,动物标本、货物、摄像机、演员,装置,2011. Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, “The World is a Good Place, Worth Struggling,” animal samples, video, actors, installation, 2011.

LSH: In your works, there very often are some violent elements, elements that are almost intolerable — like human fat taken from liposuction surgery. Do you consider this as a medium, or rather is there a message to be sent?

SY: This issue can’t be completely settled. Within this is a fundamental question: what is the position of art? Or perhaps we can say, what is art connected to? Is art about reality or is it about itself? Should it be more metaphysical or physical? This position is in fact very uncertain and is constantly in flux. Within contemporary art, there is even the possibility that art is not the stance put forth by the artist?

LSH: So this stance — who do you think masters and clarifies it?

SY: I don’t think anyone could master this. Artists, or perhaps rather people who work in art, always attempt to “seize” art through various methods — from the threads of artworks, theory, and art history. But the distinctiveness of art lies in its constant flight from such capture. It is very hard to establish who determines the positionality of art. You can care about art from different perspectives, but it is difficult to come up with a definitive statement. To offer a definitive statement or idea usually only happens when you need an exchange of benefits — for instance when someone needs to offer an idea, to manifest a certain stance, and attempts to establish a certain position within the contemporary art world — this is a certain exchange of benefits. Yet I feel objectively and globally speaking, there is no way to be definitive about art.

LSH: But since “contemporary art” is already established as such, there must be a certain concept being extended. In your opinion, what standard should contemporary art have in order to point to?

SY: One very clear standard: contemporary art is about knowledge. You must grasp the background of knowledge underlying the current position in order to participate in contemporary artistic production, and this is equally that which you must pay attention to. If you are concerned neither with the questions of the contemporary world nor with the contemporary issues of art, then there really isn’t any “contemporary” element.

LSH: I feel that contemporary art has in the past few years been shifting towards conservative and traditional art. At least in contrast to art in the 90s, art now is a lot more orderly. How do you see this?

SY:  I don’t have this feeling. For example, performance art does not equal experimentation. Your question has two levels. On one level, the intervention of commerce will be involved in the establishment of rules, and artists need to reference rules when producing — they need to consider the degree to which they challenge the rules. Yet this question basically did not exist in the 90s; only a small minority of people involved in painting on easels had the chance to be in touch with commerce. At that time, the vast majority were non-professional rather than professional artists. They put back the money they earned from other fields into art, so artists then weren’t so rich. Another level is that the development of art itself had come into difficulty and entered into a bottleneck. With what methods were we to push it forward? Within art, much had been digested; even experiments didn’t seem experimental. Art at this point entered into a period of hesitation. Of course, this emerged a bit earlier in the West; it was also about a decade earlier in Japan. Art within an age of hesitation is not necessarily passive or profit-driven.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, “I didn’t pay attention to what I was doing,” plexiglass sculpture, insect samples, mixed media, video, 2012.

LSH: And you believe that this hesitation is caused by what exactly?

SY: With the form of artistic language having reached a degree of sophistication, two requirements emerged: one is how to innovate; the other is how to affirm itself. This is not merely a question in China; it has also emerged in the West. These two points are questions that artists must think about.

LSH: Can you talk about your thought processes along with your works?

SY: For instance, the piece with the hose (“Freedom”) is a rather metaphysical piece for me; it’s very independent, unconnected to any reality and unreflective of any cultural phenomena. Yet within the reality in China it is indeed rooted; like the title, there are two directions — “Freedom” is a basic term. With a title like that on a work, the audience would feel that this is about China’s contemporary reality. Before I created it, I had considered these elements. The work with the police cars, “Tonight I won’t sleep,” is exactly the opposite of “Freedom”: it intervenes directly in reality. It’s not in the exhibition hall and I don’t really care if it’s art or not — it’s just a thing that happens in reality. But of course it is related to politics and culture — it doesn’t have a very clear direction; it differs from Ai Weiwei’s style (resistance against the government). It also differs from the performance art from the past, because performance art manifests another kind of form. Just as Brother Xi [Xi Jinping] says, “China isn’t exporting revolution, and it’s not exporting poverty” — one is exporting revolution, the other is exporting poverty. Well, aside from these points, what else is there? I hope to find the thing that is independent in a work, in a piece. It has to have the power of reality, but this performance also needs to have its own independence — without a clear target in reality but a metaphysical, non-tangible target.

孙原&彭禹,《自由》,金属钢板、高压水泵、水带、水龙头、电子控制系统,2009. Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, “Freedom,” metal plates, high-pressure water pump, hose, electronic control system, 2009.

LSH: So what value does the independence of the artwork itself have? Since it’s a pure, metaphysical problem. Whether in history or in the present, independence and freedom are in fact in relation with non-independence and non-freedom. So you think that the consciousness set forth by and called upon by independence and freedom is a part of your works?

SY: It should be, but in fact I haven’t linked it up closely to our reality, actually. The most important thing for artists is to transcend the reliance on a subject, whether your art relies on reality or on concepts. Contemporary art is about the problems of today, so this is a certain object. “Transcending” is only an ultimate ideal, because true transcendence means you won’t be doing art. But there must be an ideal, like a lamp in the distance.

LSH: The problem now is that, transcending here and there, art will in the end have a certain “home” — like museums, collecting organizations, but these organizations have a selectivity and limitedness. What do you think are the meaning of these systems / organizations in relation to the free development of contemporary art?

SY: The system is especially strong and the freedom you can imagine is made systematic and formulaic, to be erased under the greatest restrictions. For instance, if a work cannot be exhibited normally in a museum, then the museum will regulate a time, say, from a certain time to another on a Saturday afternoon. It gives you a certain model, making any of your resistance ineffective. It’s likewise in the West — when this system grows to a certain point, it will enter a period of hesitation. At this point, art seems to have trouble moving even a tiny bit forward.

孙原&彭禹,《今夜我不睡》,视频记录16分57秒,2010. Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, “Tonight I won’t Sleep,” video, 16’57”, 2010.

LSH: So if artists don’t enter this exhibition system, can they enter shopping malls or not? Or within another system?

SY: Actually, art has long ago entered shopping malls, or else within all kinds of replacement spaces. As long as there is a term to designate a certain art within the art world, in actual fact the resistance of this art has already failed. But something completely becoming another thing isn’t right either — this is tantamount to entering another field, under the constraints of other rules.

LSH: Or this is to say that art has already entered a stage with a high degree of professionalism?

SY: This is neither good or bad. Art has already entered this stage. There are two aspects to this high level of professionalism: on the positive side, this can allow art to develop more systematically; on the negative, the “system of art” is especially strong. This is like Hollywood — without Hollywood, our movies today won’t be that good, and yet with Hollywood, a lot of good cinema is about to run out of options.

LSH: As a grouping, what kind of state do you think professional artists in China are in?

SY: They live on their art.

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