In 2010, Yan Xing made an explosive impact on the Beijing art scene with his performance work, DADDY. Yan stood facing a white wall, delivering a very personal monologue on the absence of a father figure in his life—and the role that void played in his maturation—as well as the wrenching forms of abuse he suffered while growing up. In a culture in which the airing of one’s private grievances and struggles in public is frowned upon, Yan’s piece effectively registered a new approach in the artistic index.
In his latest exhibition, Yan presented another performance-based work, REALISM, which featured himself and seven actors reciting and discussing quotes from Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto while pondering a replica of Michelangelo’s David, as well as They Are Not Here, a filmed experiment in which Yan placed seven men in a cramped hotel room for a single afternoon and refused to allow them to communicate with each other throughout the duration.
As one of China’s few openly gay artists, Yan Xing’s work—and, arguably, his very presence, which is so often tied up with it—continues to ruffle feathers in a country where cultural norms are only slowly being broken down.
TRAVIS JEPPESEN: Your educational background is in oil painting. What made you decide to switch to performance?
YAN XING: First of all, the medium itself is very important for me. The medium has its own logic and system, which does not happen by accident. What I really want to stress here is that I have never been away from or given up painting—even while indulging in performance. In addition, I never avoid classical art; to some extent, the fear of art makes me feel that what I am doing is far from what I expect. However, maybe this is not art at all, just experiences. China’s art education follows the Soviet Union’s approach; therefore, students have to choose their department according to the medium when they enter university. Ultimately, graduating from the oil painting department in the art academy has nothing to do with my art practice, as I am neither a good student nor a good example.
JEPPESEN: Can you talk about your current performance installation at Galerie Urs Meile?
XING: This is my first solo exhibition, which features two projects. One is a work I finished last year, They Are Not Here, and the other one is called REALISM. REALISM is actually not a work about the performance, or about the sculpture, video, print and installation. In the scenario that I constructed, there is a huge sculpture, which reflects my internal desire. On the opening day, seven actors and myself did a two hour-long performance. The whole practice—including operations, descriptions, rehearsals, occupations, negotiations, handwriting—could be defined as the plea or defense for an “imagined reality.” I want to spark a thorough discussion about the generation of mechanisms of art history. This attitude reflects my persistent sincerity towards “the creation of a reality without any difference,” or, better, my insane stubbornness aimed at “the full accomplishment of the unavoidable mistake.”
JEPPESEN: Perhaps your best-known work to date is the DADDY project. Can you tell me about that?
XING: This is a performance that I dedicate to my DADDY. I spent more than one hour facing a wall talking about my special personal experiences. When I look back at this piece afterwards, it at least demonstrated that I am a good narrator. Narration bears endless charms.
JEPPESEN: You are a founding member of the artist group COMPANY. What is the history of this group? What have been its aims and projects? How does this project differ from your solo works?
XING: COMPANY is a continuous project. It is not an organization, nor a team. Since last year, we have done four projects. As I wrote in the statement in 2008:
COMPANY is a company without an employer, employees, or salaries. The concept of COMPANY is as vague as its infrastructure. COMPANY has no set principles or precise characteristics. The artists of COMPANY rarely communicate with each other. They work independently with no prescribed aims or obligations towards any goal. COMPANY was named and founded with this intent collectively by the founding artist members.
COMPANY does not accept new members, it does not encourage communication between members, or interfere with members’ decisions. COMPANY is a project in progress and can change course at any time. COMPANY is just COMPANY. It does not aim at producing a brand or becoming a style. Everything in the world is named after something that already exists; however, COMPANY does not want to be defined this way, even though one day it inevitably will be. For this reason, the members declined to define COMPANY. It has already been stated that COMPANY is a company. It is not an art group or an organization, but possibly could be. Please trust COMPANY. Words are the only way to preserve the evolution of humanity. What has been stated here is not actually everything COMPANY believes in.
JEPPESEN: You have a blog in China that has been very controversial. Would you consider blogging to be an important part of your art practice? What role does blogging play for you as an artist?
XING: The reason why it is controversial is because I have never linked up my art creation with blogging. If this is simply an artist’s blog, I don’t think it would be attractive. Maybe also because I often express my thoughts, via the blog, about politics, history, and the media, which is very different from topics other gay people are concerned with, such as fashion and lifestyle. Plus, my extravagant wording and accounting, the “fancy” life I live, this attracts even more people’s eyeballs. Though this is just my daily life. However, I believe this all will be gone finally, as blogging no way bears anything serious and deep. I never expected the output from blogging would deliver deeper values. The relationship between blogging and me and my art practice is similar to the one between my life and art. All the web tools, including my Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter - ED.], are all becoming an individual medium that can quickly be consumed. I believe all the time that I am not a good example. Therefore, I never investigate why I am controversial.
Thanks to Mengzhuo Zhao for her assistance with translations.
"REALISM" 2011, Yan Xing, edition of 3 b/w digital print, 210 x 140 cm
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author