Surprising new direction taken by cadaver artists and Saatchi stars: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – interview

HONG KONG CHINESE PHOTOGRAPHY ART

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, born in the early 1970s and both alumni of the prominent Beijing Central Academy of Art, have a long-established  reputation in Asia for their controversial collaborative installations featuring animals, human tissue and baby cadaver specimens.

In the west they made a big splash in 2008 at the record crowd-drawing Saatchi exhibition of new Chinese art, The Revolution Continues with a satirical work called Old People’s Home (click for video). Both popular and critically-acclaimed, this life-sized 2007 work featured sculptures of decrepit old people “looking suspiciously like world leaders… now long impotent”‘ rolling slowly in wheelchairs around the gallery and occasionally crashing into one another.

Taking a surprising new direction, their exhibition Hong Kong Intervention (Aug 22 – Oct 10) at Osage Gallery delves into the working environments of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong.

Each of the 100 Filipino participants took a photograph of a toy grenade placed in his or her employer’s home. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu talk with Wendy Ma about whether or not this experiment in spatial intrusion by Filipino maids creates tensions.

Toy grenade placed in the center of a dining room and the back of the Filipino maid. Image courtesy to Erin Wooters.

Toy grenade placed in the center of a dining room and the back of the Filipino maid. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

AR: What inspired you to make photos with Filipino domestic staff?

Two years ago at a square in Central I observed the mass congregation of Filipino girls. I thought it was a very interesting situation since each one is connected to a family in Hong Kong. I started chatting with them and obtained their agreement to volunteer to do the photo shoots. Through them I could intervene in an relationship.

AR: Why do the photographs include the image of a toy grenade?

To intervene, I wanted to use a toy specifically bought in Hong Kong. It was up to them to place it anywhere inside their owner’s house, e.g. inside a garden, on the bed, blending it with the environment. Then they take a photograph of the scene. The toy is a legal product. When your kid plays with a toy grenade, you might find it cute, not dangerous. It was a chance for the participants to exercise their creativity. We wanted to use a very simple object to show how it can open up possibilities.

AR: Is it just a game or does it carry other implications?

It is a game because there are no real consequences. An example of something that is not a game would be the recent incident when a reporter threw a shoe at George Bush. However, it would’ve been a game had he said, “I’m going to throw it at you, first at your head then at your chest.” By not carrying it out, it would have remained just a concept. If something happens in reality, it changes the environment. But right now our work is only a photograph.

The proposition of the game is neutral. It doesn’t carry implications of danger. Last night someone told me that they treat their Filipino maids like guests.

Hidden toy grenade on the book shelve and the male domestic worker. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

Hidden toy grenade on the book shelve and the male domestic worker. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

AR: Why is the photograph of the back of the worker juxtaposed next to the surroundings?

Actually, neither the person nor the environment is significant. They are entities with no individual characteristics. Instead of specifying a particular being, I just want to describe a phenomenon.

AR: What have you found out about their lives and about contemporary Hong Kong society?

One third of the Filipino population live outside their country. They are a special group in Hong Kong. During the week they enter into the homes of different families. On Sundays, they bond and return to their own world. When they work, they disappear into the families of Hong Kong. They play different roles in their working and living environment. They use their culture to communicate. As for us, we work outside the family and we bond when we return to our home. For them, they enter our families to work. It’s the reverse.

Bedroom and Filipino maid. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

Bedroom and Filipino maid. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

AR: Why is the exhibition called Hong Kong Intervention?

Intervention in Chinese can be small (eating a crab) or large-scale (invading a country). It can be magnified in the imagination of readers. You can imagine the explosive possibilities of the toy grenade, despite the fact  that in reality it cannot explode. How the viewer perceives ‘intervention’ is beyond my control.

Intervention can be a strategy to communicate ideas. Ours is the study of a social phenomenon. It does not necessarily mean invasion or changing a situation as it does in the English expression “tossing a grenade”.

Words acquire different meanings in different situations. They cannot be precise. Words cannot express what you actually feel. So art is not expressed through words or titles but through a different means to pull you closer to the underlying meaning.

AR: Are you concerned that the proprietor might feel violated if he saw the photograph of his home on display?

We had no intention to expose individuals. Like I said, the photos of the maids and the homes are not meant to be specifically meaningful; they only a representation and a portrayal of the mass.

Bedroom of a Hong Kong owner and the Filipino maid. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

Bedroom of a Hong Kong owner and the Filipino maid. Photography by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. Image Courtesy to Erin Wooters.

AR: What is the role/identity of Filipinos in your work? Creators, participants, or assistants?

I consider all the participants as collaborators: not just Filipinos, but also the audience involved in the discussions. They are common authors of the work. As part of the contract, we don’t have to give credit to them by listing their names as they transferred the copyright to us.

Contributed by Wendy Ma

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Editor’s note: This post is interesting to contrast with a recent exhibition at Para/Site in Hong Kong in which Filipino domestic helpers were invited to receive manicures given by the Australian artist collective Baba International.  Whereas Baba International sought to nurture and engage with their subject physically, the “‘Intervention”‘ exhibition carries intriguing tones of depersonalisation and violence. Baba was keen to explain the intentions behind their work whereas Sun Yuan and Peng Yu step away and allow the viewer to explore and fully shoulder the responsibility for interpretation.

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