The Cost of Democracy

Currently showing at White Rabbit, Reformation showcases the inventive breadth of visual language in post-reform Chinese contemporary art. According to founder Judith Nielsen, it is the gallery’s most challenging show, “The collection has always been about works that move you and make you think. [This exhibition] sums up the energy and edginess we’re seeing right now.” Contemporary Yunnanese artist He Yunchang, for example, displays a brand of abject shock art that reflects the significant developments in Chinese visual art since the late 1970s. His work One Meter of Democracy is the most nerve-wracking and compelling of the exhibition.

He Yunchang, “One Metre of Democracy”, 2010, photographs and video of performance, 32 x 46 cm, 12 min 7 sec Images courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

He Yunchang, “One Metre of Democracy”, 2010, photographs and video of performance, 32 x 46 cm, 12 min 7 sec. Images courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

After the Cultural Revolution 1965-68, an open-door series of ‘cultural reforms’ were ushered in, giving rise to the accessibility of Western art theories and ideas. Taking cues from artists including Beuys and Abramovic, new aesthetics were developed that challenged and broke away from former accepted artistic practices. It is from this context that the use of abject and corporeal materials emerged in China as a powerful medium to address contemporary concern. Flesh, blood and the body are used to bear witness to and interrupt societal codes. 

Yunchang’s confronting video and photographic work is housed in a blood-red room off Reformation’s main exhibition space. It is the graphic documentation of a 2010 performance in which the artist cuts a wound from his clavicle to knee: an incision 1m long and 1cm deep. Although performed by a medical surgeon, Yunchang endured this surgery without anaesthesia in a violent and gruelling process. Before the operation the artist staged a farcical “Chinese democracy” style vote. In a process reminiscent of Abramovic’s Rhythm O, twenty participants were asked to decide whether Yunchang should carry out the procedure or not. 12 voted for, 10 against and 3 abstained. As a result, the performance went ahead.

2010, photographs and video of performance, 32 x 46 cm, 12 min 7 sec Images courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

He Yunchang, “One Meter of Democracy”, 2010, photographs and video of performance, 32 x 46 cm, 12 min 7 sec. Images courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

The film shows Yunchang lying naked on a white hospital bed in a bare room, the voters looking on. His vulnerability is palpable. Yunchang moans in agony as the scalpel makes its cut and his blood lets. Augmenting the film, the room contains photographs of the voters posed with the artist before and after the procedure. The psychological impact of the performance on each participant is evident in their faces. This is the cost of democracy.

2010, photographs and video of performance, 32 x 46 cm, 12 min 7 sec Images courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

He Yunchang, “One Meter of Democracy”, 2010, photographs and video of performance, 32 x 46 cm, 12 min 7 sec. Images courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery

Since the 1980s Chinese performance art has ‘acted out’, often in opposition to the codes governing correct behaviour. These performances are direct reflections and reactions to sociopolitical events that are occurring. In the case of Yunchang, the artist employs the shock of violence to strongly pull into question the logic of choice and values of democracy, an issue particularly resonant in a Chinese political context. As the artist writes, “it’s a luxury to talk about democracy and art in this country, because we lack a fair and reasonable environment.”

Provoking debate on collective issues and national ideas, Yunchang’s work connotes a highly personal exploration of the human experience. Pushing the physical limits of his body through self-harm effectively asserts individual freedom and control. Moreover his body becomes a site for identification, sacrifice and liberation. Reformation is described as the act or process of improving something or someone, by removing or correcting faults, problems. Through his extreme performance Yunchang transforms the ‘abuse’ from social reality into self-abuse carried out by the victim, and thereby achieves a release for the suffering within this environment of existence.

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