Li Yongzheng on flying underthe political radar

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Text: Michael Young

Whether Chinese conceptual artist Li Yongzheng (b1971) sees himself as a political artist is an interesting ifsomewhat moot point. ln his work which ranges from performance to installation to video and open-ended participatory projects he adopts a definite political standpoint predicated on a belief in human rights, personal freedoms and_. bottes timberland pas cher But at the same time he does not express any obvious disillusionment with the Chinese government and certainly there is no radical and critical outpouring as such, no hysterical proclamatory barbs. He is far too subtle an artist for that. Nor is there any nostalgiclooking back to post Cultural Revolution times which so many artists seem to want to do these days as a vehicle for their angst ridden art. Yet Yongzheng’s work remains rife with political allusions as he continues to examine – albeit covertly- several of the China’s most critical and thorny issues, human rights and personal freedom included, tropes that are neverfarfrom his thinking and which form the core of his practice. However his way of tackling these issues through oblique allusion rather than through head-on confrontation has allowed him to fly under the radar of the authorities. They simplyleave him alone even though the nature of his work deals with these controversial themes.For example in October2015 Yongzheng set off from his home in Chengdu incentral Sichuan on a7000 kilometer round trip thatwould take him north to Xinjiang’s Lop Nor a hostile place close to the myriad silk roads thatfor centurieslinked Asia with the Mediterranean. Lop Nor had once been a vast inland sea. Today it islittle more than marsh and salt plains pressed hard against the shifting sand dunes of the unforgiving Taklamakan desert. By any standard Lop Nor is remote, barren and inhospitable, with infinite skies that dazzle the eyes and deceives the senses. Blisteringly hot temperatures by day and subzero ones by night make Lop Nor a death trap for the unwary traveler. Notfor nothing is it known colloquially as the Sea of Death.   Between1964 and1996 Lop Norwas also the centre of the People’s Republic of China nuclear and hydrogen testing program where64 nuclear devices were tested that drenched thelandscape in alingering shroud of potentiallylethal radiation. Today near its epicenter is a disused military facility slowly crumbling into the sands. Overlooking the ruins is a two meter high Mandarin character sign constructed from soft clay bricks that spells out the declamatory and xenophobic statementfrom the1960s,’Defend Our Nation’. This was Yongzheng’s ultimate destination and once there he set about removing forty of the crumbling bricks, carefully numbering them and replacing them with new ones he had broughtwith him.“For me itwas just about exchange in a totally desolate and differentworld,” Yongzheng said.   The art work that emerged from Lop Nor was Defend Our Nation, an installation,,performance piece and four-channel video that runs for tem minutes and that resonates with all the concerns that the artist has carried with him during a career that has followed a quiet yet determined trajectory since its inGeption in 2008; self determination, the conflict between personal empowerment and the common good, the role of the individual within society, and how to conflate the art making process and content without undermining the conceptual premise of the work. doudoune canada goose ln a conversation earlierthis yearYongzheng outlined his rationale behind Defend Our Nation.“l worry about a political system in which the state has substantial centralized control over social and economic affairs. The government is whipping up a feeling of xenophobia among the Chinese people with its island building in the South China Sea. ln mainland China people can freely talk about this but the press can’t.All the press does is tell us that we must become a powerful and strong nation,” he said.   Defend Our Nation with its oblique reference to political hegemony and nationalism also perfectly exemplifies Yongzheng’s concern for words and actions a concept central to his practice. The work is he believes his most successful piece to date and certainly his favourite.   Yongzheng was born in1971 in a remote village notfarfrom Ba Zhong a small city ten hours by bus from Chengdu. Even though most of rural China was poor his family never really suffered because his father worked in the office thatlooked after the distribution of local rice production so there was always plenty of rice. This was during the closing years of the Cultural Revolution. When he was7 the family moved to Ba Zhong, so he could attend primary school.   Yonzheng could well have ended up a writer or a philosopherjudging by his interests through puberty and the dramatic growth of his cultural interests at the time which embraced literature, philosophy and the writings of Sigmund Freud the Austrian neurologistwho went on to become the father of psychoanalysis. “l looked everywhere fortranslations of his books and bought everythingl could by him,” he said.Atthe same time Yongzheng came underthe influenced of the poet Bei Dao, leadinglight of the so- called Misty Poets, a nebulous group a generation olderthan Yongzheng that included Gu Cheng, Shu Ting, He Dong and Yang Lian.   He admired the way they were prepared to criticize the restrictions placed on art during the Cultural Revolution but in a way that was oblique and elusive rather than confrontational. Chairman Mao’s prevailing view of art was that it should serve the people rather than be concerned with the individual. The Misty Poets took a diametrically opposite view with poems that dealt with individual freedom and an artist’s commitment to society, concems that repeatedly surface in Yongzhengs work today. “What appealed to me at that time was that few people were prepared to criticize the government but these poets did so by using metaphor,” Yongzheng said.   Bei Dao and fellow poet Mang Ke along with the activist and socially ooncerned Beijing based artist Huang Rui co-founded the short-lived underground literary magazine’Jintian’ (Today) in December1978. The magazine was banned in1980 and several of the founders of the Misty Poets including Bei Dao were eventually exiled after the1989 Tiananmen Square protests.   “l was very influenced by these poets. l started to write poetry at this time because itwas fashionable to doso to give expression to artistic sensibility.”   ln1988 Yongzheng startedlearning traditional calligraphy and sketching and the following yearenrolled at oil painting classes at the Sichuan FineArtslnstitute. This was the first time that the idea of becoming a full time artist entered Yongzheng’s mind. His parents were always supportive of the idea and never said anything negative. He graduated in1994 but choose not to become a full time artist. After a brief stay in Shanghai he returned to Chengdu where he opened an advertising agencywith friends and became increasingly interested in westem philosophy, reading Heidegger and exploring the philosophers’ ideas on personal freedom, life and death.     Business success made him financially independent and in1994 he was able to enroll at Sichuan Universitywhere he studied sociology forfuryears. lt was atthis time that he started painting in oils again producing a body of 80 works over a ten year period 1998-2008thatwere neverexhibited.   “Painting was my personal secretwhichl could only do in the evenings,· he said.   Simultaneously Yongzheng was also building a number of successful businesses that leftlittle spare time forthe world of art which he deliberately kept at a distance.   While painting was a private and personal activity what was developing within him was the idee fixe that manifested itself in2009 when he bought5 tons of salt and constructed the sculptural installation Salt at GanrenBoqi Mountain 2009 that referenced the sacred Tibetan mountain with its as yet unclimbed summit and which for centuries has been at the centre of Hindus and Buddhists creation myths alike as well as a place of pilgrimage. These ancient belief structures see GanrenBoqi as the axis mundi of creation, thelink between heaven and earth and the centre ofthe universe.   What was so striking about Salt at GanrenBoqi Mountain2009 was its profound simplicity of form. Having been sprayed with water the salt had set firm even so the gentlest of human interventions would have brought the whole edifice crashing to the ground. lt was a wry commentary on the threat to Tibetan beliefstructures continually confronted by an authoritarian regime. Virtually overnight Yongzheng had emerged as a mature artist one capable of conveying complex ideas through simple forms. Salt at GanrenBoqi Mountain was a sophisticated and elegiac contemplation on personal freedoms that asks covertly, can mankind ever be a vehicle offree will while underthe yoke ofa totalitarian state?   Five yearslater in2014 Yongzheng made a further iteration of the GanrenBoqi Mountain piece this time adding a further aesthetic dimension to what was already a multi-layered work.“The first2009 work was5 tons of normal salt andl created a mountain. A machine made it all very wet and it set hard. asics sneakers ln2014 l continued this project. Tibet people say that2014 was a special anniversary year for the mountain. l ordered2000 salt bricks from the Pakistan Himalayas. This salt has so many natural and beautiful colors from pure white to amber andl stacked the bricks in the shape of the mountain.As the exhibition proceededl sold each brick for100 yuan and this was just enough to cover the cost of the bricks,” he said. new balance 2018 Gradually the mountain began to disappearas the bricks were sold especially so when the Tinjian Teda Museum bought 300bricksinonego.   Consumed Salt and Gangren Boqie Mountain is a simple aesthetic metaphorfor the fact that while people can barelylive without salt the Tibetan people cannotlive without GanrenBoqi Mountain or for that matter their culture which continues to be under threat. Yongzheng offers no answers to this problem and simply sees an artist’s role as highlighting such problems and creating a forum that encourages the audience to participate in an active pursuit of answers, an altogether altruistic rationale in a country where much of the population is excluded from participating in any form of debate critical of the government’s actions.   Yongzheng continued his examination of such controversial issues. With Send For You he printed several facsimile editions of the Xinhua Daily newspaper from1938 to 1947 the period when it was the official mouthpiece of the communist party in Kuomingtang areas. His intention was to address the party’s historiography with the deliberate intention of provoking a reaction from the exhibition audience to whom he gave copies ofthe newspaper.   But Yongzheng’s oeuvre is not only about raising eyebrows. Overtime his palette became pared down and minimalist as salt, earth, stone, water, and fire freed from their representational associations increasingly added an air of contemplative Buddhist silence to his practice. Works such as Look, Look2013 and Moist Stele2013seemed to resonate with silence, stillness and a benign spirituality that added a raw edge to our contemplation of human temporality.   Look, Look2013 is a half meter square stainless steel open-topped cube filled with waterthat has a translucent drum tight meniscus that stretches from edge to edge and which is only disturbed when an air bubble rises to the surface. The precise rectilinear form of Look, Look is shared with Moist Stele2013, a great upright slab of moist yellow sandstone from Sichuan which is either a milestone or a memento mori, depending on the viewer’s frame of mind at any given time. Both artworks riff on the temporality of human existence and convey true existential angst dressed up in unashamed aestheticism.   Both works possess a Buddhist dimension- Look, Look especially with its title drawn from a Buddhist’s texts- and Yongzheng will freely admit to appropriating certain Buddhist precepts while preferring to keep the Buddhist belief structure itself at a distance. “l am interested in Buddhisttext and philosophy as indeedl am interested in many things,” he said.   For any socially minded or political aware artist working in China today it is inevitable that the twin bedfellows of free will and democracy will raise their heads as they did in September2011 in the southern Chinese village of Wukan when hundreds of locals demonstrated against the sale by village officials of land for real-estate development without prior consultation or proper compensation being offered. Overthe period of a few days protests developed into riots which culminated towards the end of the yearwith the death in police custodyof a villagerand the village being placed under siege. While global media reported what was going on the Chinese population could only glean a certain amount of information on what was happening through the Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo.   ln response to the tense situation in Wukan Yongzheng made Brick Relay(2012 -ongoing) the first of his works that was to elevate the process of making the art into the work of art itself.   Using clay from Wukan Yongzheng made two bricks, one of which he gave to a Wukanlibrary, and the other he mailed to volunteers on the proviso theyforwarded it to friends. Participants made comments through social media and these comments Yongzheng documented as partthe artwork which remains an open ended project. He estimates that overone million people have so far been touched by the brick’s journey which has reached most parts of China.   “Everyday alot of sad things happen and people talk on WeChat so fast without having time to absorb the tragedy. l didn’t think that Wukan was the beginning of democracy in China butl do believe that it will help people pay attention to what is happened to ordinary people and their attempt to govern themselves. Brick Relay attempts to prolong the time that people can absorb this information,” Yongzhegn said.   The earth brick is still slowly travelling through China and has already been through over100 people’s hands, thelatest being the Gao Brothers Beijing artists who themselves continue to challenge authority in theirwork. lt is Yongzheng’s intention that every time someone receives the brick they become an artist in dialogue with the work. “Everyone is an artist and everyone is part of an inclusive democratic process with a say in the work’s eventual outcome. l believe the brick has its own destiny and myjob is to record its path through theworld and relaythe information,” he said.   The brick has already been exhibited in several places along the way; in2013 at a fringe event at the55th Venice Biennial, and in a group show at Beijing’s UCCA.   Yongzheng’s adherence to the idea of an artwork’s process being as important as its outcome he also explored in Trading Secrets2014 a work that witnessed him cut each of the eighty oil paintings produced during the1998 – 2008 period into9 pieces. Wearing his Freudian psychoanalytical hat he post on Sina Weibo and WeChat the following statement, ‘Anyone who sends me an email to tell a story of his own experience, in300 words, even anonymously, will get a framed piece ofwork from me.”Within one month he received231 emails and many secrets from various people around the world and had posted out in return the equivalent number of painting fragments. ·l always kept one piece from each painting for myselfso if all the paintings were brought backtogether there would always be one piece missing, the piecel have. The work- somehow the equivalent of the psychoanalyst’s couch- stoppedlast year because of lack of time on Yongzheng’s part, is a platform for people to open up to talk about real things hiding inside.“Weibo blog is a huge social media site butl feel like it is very hard to get deep communication with anybody on it. Sometimes as we grow we prefer to forget things or keep them in our heart. By anonymous communication with somebody you can discover real internal truth,” he said.   ForYongzheng the artist’s role is notto provide answers to these conundrums but to frame questions addressing the problems using whatever material best elucidate their conceptual premise which in Yongzheng’s case are the fundamental elements of life, earth, air, fire and waterallofwhich feature in his projects.   To this quartet of elemental properties create works that seductively infiltraterather than bludgeon the viewer’s sensibilities, one could add a litany of otherproperties such as stillness and tranquility. Both occupy the core of every art work by   Younzheng held in perfect equilibrium creating a sense of pause, a moment when reality becomes suspended.   Philosophical conceits may be rife in his work but they are held in check by Yongzhen’s intelligent use of a strong formal visual language and his humanistic concerns allowing his to produce profoundly beautifully work. His social concerns and his passion for human rights add an inevitable provocative dimension to work that continues to fly under the under the radar of government scrutinywhich of course is no bad thing. To be physically engaged with works byYongzheng is to be transported by their deceptive simplicity to a world of stillness and silent contemplation, one where art is conflated with pure human expression.“l believe we come to the world with nothing and leave with nothing. Buddhism teaches you not to fear any difficult you are confronted by and to be passionately involved withlife,” he said.   ln his career so farYongzheng has arrived at a moment of inner peace.“An artist should have free will and exhibit no fear in using art to express his personal views,” he said.

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