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11/30/07 09:36:47 am
Interview between He Yun Chang and Rachel Lois Clapham, New York 14 November


Mahjong 2007 (Detail)


He Yunchang, Majong, Courtesy of the artist and PERFORMA Photo: Paula Court

Beijing-based artist He Yun Chang is arguably the leading performance artist presently working in China. Over the last eleven years, he has created a series of unique and discrete solo performances in which he has placed exceptional physical demands upon himself both in terms of his strength and endurance. For PERFORMA07, He Yun Chang devised a unique version of Mahjong, based on the ancient but popular Chinese game, but using over 100 mahjong ???tiles?? made from large cement bricks. The artist played this game in New York's Washington
Square Park for four hours with various audience members.

Rachel Lois Clapham (RLC) How did Mahjong 2007 come about?

He Yun Chang (HYC) I thought of the idea 2-3 years ago but my gallery, Chambers Fine Art, set it up with Performa for 2007. People usually play Mahjong recreationally but I wanted to subvert it, turn it into something else and make it physically oppressive. My version of the game is quite cruel, that's what the heavy bricks are about. Also I like the idea of playing it for a long time in the hot sun or in middle of winter, like here in New York. Someone told me that Korean soldiers are made to play a similar model of the game, with very large bricks as part of their torture in prison but that's not necessarily the most important thing in Mahjong 2007. What's important is playing the game with the audience, rather than the game itself. Previous performances have been dangerous, solitary or censored, whereas in Mahjong it was important that I was able to have the audience in the space with me in, and interact with them. My relationship with the audience in Mahjong is also quite friendly - unlike the wrestling game I played in 'One and One Hundred, 2001' where the relationship with the audience was definitely tense, antagonistic. People really wanted to hurt me and to win! In Mahjong the process of playing, the time we spend playing it, is much more important than winning the game.

RLC Why do Mahjong in Washington Square?

HYC Because it's a public space; some people go ice skating, some people eat a meal there, I chose to play my version of Mahjong. It could have been anywhere public really. I was ideally looking for somewhere a bit warmer!

RLC You wanted to be warmer. You also ended the performance 45 minutes early (at 6.15). Does this mean perseverance or physical endurance are less important to you in Mahjong than in other previous works?

HYC Physical endurance is still a factor, its' just that there were logistical problems with Mahjong. I ended the work early because it was cold and raining but more so because several of the people could not play the game properly, which really affected the piece. The police also came part way through Mahjong and made me put my clothes on, which also interrupted the performance. The nakedness was important. I have always performed naked so I was naked whilst playing Mahjong- for continuity- but I also think nudity makes the performance more pure, with less distractions. Being exposed to the elements when naked was also a way of increasing the magnitude of what was happening in Mahjong, it made the game a starker contrast to the wet and the cold.

RLC Do you consider Mahjong a success, even though you were interrupted by the police and stopped early because it was cold and raining?

HYC Yes. It is a success because I completed the performance. I carried it out. It is out of my control whether the police stop the work; they have guns and I don't! Carrying out my work in the face of those elements does have a connected interaction with those chance elements. But they are also forces that are out of my control and so not central to the work's success.

RLC Is Mahjong a new side to your work, a softer side, in which you testing your physical and mental limits is less important?

HYC It's true that I often pitch my body and my individual will in contrast to external forces ( harsh weather, strong water, poured concrete) or chance elements, like being interrupted by the police, that is important in my work. But in some pieces I vary the concept and lessen that element. Often, like in Mahjong, the process itself is as important as fighting against those forces, whether they are outside (natural, instigated by others ) or from within myself (my own endurance against my own body or will). In that way, the process and act of completion, following through with the act of performance, expressing it physically with the audience is key, in spite of any logistical, natural or chance factors that may stop or hinder the work in some way.

RLC How would you feel if a someone walked through the park, saw the game, and didn't realise Mahjong 2007 was a performance or something original?

HYC I wouldn't mind at all, that would be wonderful! My work is very ordinary looking. I always use the simplest materials in order to create the largest imaginary space. Even with simple, everyday gestures and materials you can make work of a great magnitude and get the essence of something important. Also, it wouldn't matter to me if some people thought what I was doing wasn't art, or was pointless. In my 9 month tour of the UK in 2006, 'Touring Great Britain with Rock,' I often had only two or three people watching me and sometimes in China I don't have any audience at all, so I don't necessarily think about who will witness or understand the work. My feeling is that if some people pass by Mahjong and don't understand what they see, give them 100 days and they can have a think about it.

RLC Is it true that your work gets more interrupted here in the US, than in China?

HYC I have never actually been 'caught' doing a performance in China, but have been arrested in the US a few times. My work is under the radar of the authorities in China because of the locations and spaces I perform in; often in private enclosed gallery spaces or outside in the remote countryside. But there are big differences too: my performance work is not so easy to do in China because nudity is not allowed, that's why I waited to do Mahjong here in New York. Chinese audiences don't have the general level of understanding about art, or the same generosity or openness to understand or interact with different things as art. For instance, a lot of people in China still don't consider what I do art. On the other hand, there is more financial support and artistic, institutional, frameworks outside China for artists doing performance. That doesn't mean performance doesn't happen in China. There are spaces in which you can perform, and perform nude, but for big projects like 'Touring Great Britain with Rock' 2006, it is much more conceivable outside China.

RLC Pitching your individual will or mental limits against that of your own physical body- do you see that separation of those two elements, a separation of self, as political in your work?

HYC For most people intellect and body operate in tandem, but sometimes the intellect is superior. Under normal conditions we are used to what the body and intellect can do together, but under extreme situations sometimes the body takes over to do amazing things as well. I feel that China is a very complex society, one in which it is important to use your body and your intellect so you can stop and face its reality. Highlighting the body in this way, as separate, is also important because, historically, Chinese people have not endowed the physical body with value, rather they have valued the spirit of the Chinese people, as a collective. Contemporary China is much more individual in its thinking, so it's a pull between the two. By putting pressure on an idea about myself (my intellect) and my own body I can make it into something much larger.

RLC Do you foresee a time when political, body-based or nude performances will be shown alongside other contemporary visual art forms in china?

HYC Not in the short term, no.

RLC What has been the most lasting effect of your performance work to date-mentally, physically or emotionally?

HYC It is my health that has suffered the most because my body has been in danger so many times. In Buffalo 2005, as part of the exhibition 'The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art,' I did a performance where I stood in the Niagara waterfall and the police came, they were worried and took me straight to hospital. The doctor told me my kidneys had failed because my body was so cold from being submerged in the freezing water. In general I am also getting increasingly grumpy and short tempered. Despite all this I think the most valuable contribution I can make is to use my body to express ideas and give other people imagination. That is more important than my health. I have also derived much pleasure and enjoyment from my performances over the years.

RLC What project are you planning next?

HYC I'm planning to do something for 2008 in China that involves my mother and will be three months long. It's going to be great. I can't do it in the UK or the US as the insurance costs will be too high. I can't say anymore about it, all will be revealed in due course.

RLC Is there anything you want to ask me?

HYC Can you please ask if Performa can happen earlier in the year for next time, so it's not so cold? October and November are too cold in New York.

RLC I'll do my best.


Rachel Lois Clapham

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