MEET THE ARTISTS CHINA CAN'T KEEP CONTAINED
Artists Sun Yuan & Peng Yu display dead babies & live animals at Guggenheim Museum Exhibition
by Peter Yeung
Images of a golden-haired angel, crumpled and wings akimbo, went viral across the internet in 2015. The heavenly creature, with its intricate wrinkles and sunspots, seemed as if it had flown too close to the sun – a modern day Daedalus – and come crashing down to earth. But, as it turned out, the angel was made by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, a pair of Chinese artists that have been expertly pin-pricking society’s fears and discomforts since the 1990s.
Angel, which was previously exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, caused a particularly big stir after it was installed in Beijing last year. One sensational headline in response read: “BREAKING NEWS! A Fallen Angel With No Feathers Discovered”. It was hyperbole to fit with a hugely provocative artwork, perhaps, but Yuan and Yu aren’t just about shock value – though there’s plenty of that. In a statement on their website, they explained: “The angel, a transcendent being, has become powerless, unable to carry out God's will, or to help those who believe in its existence.” The duo from Beijing are here to question our values.
Yuan and Yu both studied oil painting at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, and went to the same high school even before that. An early stamp of approval came from a one Ai Wei Wei, who invited them to take part in his landmark 2000 exhibition called Fuck Off! in Shanghai. Since then, they’ve shown everywhere from Korea to England, France and the USA, and the Venice Biennale. Now 42 and 44 respectively, Yuan and Yu are maturing to the peak of their powers.
They deal with global issues, escaping beyond the borders of China and its sanitising practices. In Body Link (2000), they explored our attitudes to life and death by injecting 100cc of their own blood into the corpse of Siamese twin babies – it was just after the pair decided to get married. Civilization Pillar (2001), a tall column of liposuctioned human fat, took a swipe at the contemporary plastic surgery culture. For Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003) they put canines such as Pit Bulls and Rottweilers on moving treadmills facing each other – the bloodcurdling barks that ensued reflected on China’s dog fighting culture. More recently, with I Am Here (2006), Old Person’s Home (2007), Freedom (2009), Yuan and Yu have tackled the “war on terror”, bureaucracy within the UN and the Chinese government’s actions in the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The last example shows just how much more radical these Chinese artists are than some of their Western counterparts. Instead of cocktail parties, formaldehyde sharks and unkempt beds – as their socialite British counterparts, the YBAs, came to be known for – Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s reputation is purely about the art that they create. They channel this era’s great inequality and wrongdoing in such a compelling way that others are put to shame, seemingly light on inspiration.
But they are keenly aware of the risks of the spotlight. “You also witness the price of Chinese contemporary art skyrocketing on the international market, I have the feeling that many artists have lost themselves,” said Yu. “They have become less pure than in the old days, underground is underground, the artists make art, and that’s it. Take our studio in [Beijing’s art district] 798 for example, this place is so touristy now, it’s hard to position yourself. Nowadays everyone collaborates with everyone, and you participate in their game more frequently, the game is getting more and more complex.”
It’s undeniable that Ai Wei Wei is the most renowned Chinese artist in the world, but with their relative anonymity, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have kept their art radical. Artists such as Wang Qingsong, whose photography questions the consumerism of post-Mao China, and Ji Weiyu and Song Tao aka Birdhead, whose multimedia work takes a global, urban perspective, have taken note and inspiration. Yuan and Yu have gathered momentum with their purposeful art making, potent in both concept and execution. It’s up to the rest of the world to catch up.