Imagine you’re in an art gallery. You’ve been invited to an exclusive performance only you and 24 other people will have the privilege to witness. You don’t know what it will be about. You only heard the artist wanted the setting to be as intimate and private as possible. When you arrive at the space, you notice everyone is just as confused as you are. Why is there a surgical table and a ballot box in the middle of the room? Why are there some cameramen waiting silently as you and the rest of the guests arrive? The last person to arrive is the artist. He wears a hospital gown and is accompanied by a man dressed in a white coat. You think everything is part of the performance, so you remain silent. However, the artist speaks and asks you a question: “Do you want to see the performance?” Of course, that’s why you’re here. After the unanimous decision, the artist speaks again, “One last question. Let’s vote. Should I get a one-meter-long cut from my clavicle to my knee without anesthetics? Who says yes and who says no?”
You can’t believe what you’ve just heard. “He must be kidding,” you think. The artist asks the same question again. He hands you a piece of paper to write your vote and put it in the ballot box. After counting the votes, most of you vote no. You don’t want to see him doing that, even if that’s the performance. Only five people say yes. They might think he’s joking; they might be curious about what he would do if they say yes, or they actually have the morbid desire of seeing him bleed. But then the artist asks you to repeat the process and vote again. “Let’s vote. Should I cut myself?” You keep voting no, but the artist insists and insists. Eventually the five people who said yes become seven, then nine, then eleven… Maybe with one last try the majority will end up saying yes. Even you’re starting to hesitate…
The situation I just described took place in 2010 at the performance One Meter of Democracy by the Chinese artist He Yunchang, also known as A Chang. As you may have guessed, when the artist finally made a majority say yes, he let a surgeon make the cut while his audience looked at the procedure, which was also recorded on camera. When it ended, the moment was immortalized in a picture of the artist and the witnesses of his bone-chilling performance.
You might be asking what the point of this performance was. As the artist has stated, it is a reflection on democracy that represents the “tension between the individual and the state.” He used his body, and more importantly, his pain, as his canvas. Most of He Yunchang’s performances use self-torture and physical endurance to convey a message.
“Artistic performance can be distinguished from everyday life only when it is given a certain intensity… I want my work to move people.”
The shock value of He Yunchang’s works isn’t just to impress or gross people out. Despite recurring to a contemporary form of art, he roots his work in ancient Taoist philosophy, especially in the works of Zhuangzi, who set the principles for “real painters” in Chinese tradition: their art must be as unconventional as the artists themselves. That’s why many followers of this tradition would paint naked or half-naked, as a means to get rid of social conventions. He Yunchang takes this principle even further by submitting his body to extreme conditions and using it to express what, he believes, can’t be expressed with only paint and a canvas.
For instance, he expressed the futility of struggling against nature in one of his most extreme performances: Dialogue with Water. For this particular work, he was hanged upside down over a river, cut by a surgeon, and tried to cut the water with a knife. Also, in his famous One Rib, he removed his eighth rib and turned it into a necklace which his mother and other female friends would wear, alluding to the tradition of Eve coming from Adam’s rib. Despite the suffering and the pain that comes with these performances the artist finds freedom in using his body in the name of art.
“Fish swim in the water, birds fly in the sky, and plants grow in the wind; they are expressing with their bodies.”
Performance art’s ultimate goal is to generate discussion, and He Yunchang’s works have undoubtedly achieved their purpose. You can’t help but squirm when looking at his performances or hearing about them. So, could we say his works are just a pointless attempt to shock audiences? Not really, it's all a matter of perspective. Perhaps, when we first look at them, these works might not convey exactly what the artist had in mind, but doesn’t that happen with most works of art? However, at least in my case, these works do invite you to reflect, and make you wonder, to what extent should the artist sacrifice their physical integrity for the sake of their art? Isn’t there any other way to convey the same message through other means? If we consider again He Yunchang’s philosophical views, perhaps the key lies in the convictions that move each person. Maybe what you see as the destruction of the body and the selling of pain is seen by someone else as a path to something more sublime.
Are you interested in this controversial form of art? Check out more astonishing performances:
Meiqin Wang, "The Primitive and Unproductive Body: He Yunchang and his Performance"