Coca Cola, tanks and yawns: Chinese conceptual artist He Xiangyu – interview

Art Radar speaks to young Chinese conceptual artist He Xiangyu, who came to prominence with the Cola Project.

He Xiangyu has recently had a continuous string of exhibitions both at home and abroad, and has now returned to Beijing for yet another show, running at White Space Beijing until 6 December 2015. Art Radar talks to the artist to find out what drives his creative flow that has led him to a rapidly successful career.

He Xiangyu, Installation view, '1-1-1603 # 1603, Unit1, Bldg1, Huacai International Apartment, No. 18 Guangshun North Street, Chaoyang Dirstrict, Beijing', 2015, iron reinforcing bar, wood plastic, 211.5 x 116 x 20 cm, in "He Xiangyu Dotted | Line II", at White Space Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘1-1-1603 # 1603, Unit1, Bldg1, Huacai International Apartment, No. 18 Guangshun North Street, Chaoyang Dirstrict, Beijing’, 2015, installation view, iron reinforcing bar, wood plastic, 211.5 x 116 x 20 cm, in “He Xiangyu Dotted | Line II”, at White Space Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu was born in 1986 in Liaoning Province, and graduated from the Oil Painting Department of Shenyang Normal University in 2008. His practice combines a variety of media including installation, video, performance, painting and sculpture. He Xiangyu is part of a new generation of conceptual artists coming out of China, whose often provocative and ambitious work expresses the artist’s cultural and social concerns.

He has exhibited in important institutions and events around the world, including the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2015), 13th Biennale de Lyon, France (2015), Social Factory – 10th Shanghai Biennale (2014), “28 Chinese”, Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2013) and “ON|OFF China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice”, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2013). Among his most recent solo exhibitions are “Dotted Line”, White Space Beijing, Beijing (2014), “He Xiangyu”, White Cube, London (2014) and “CROSSED BELIEFS”, SCAI The Bathhouse, Tokyo (2013).

His work is part of important collections worldwide, including among others the Rubell Family Collection, White Rabbit Collection and the Long Museum in Shanghai. In 2014, he was a finalist for the Future Generation Art Prize at the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, Kiev.

Art Radar spoke to He Xiangyu to find out more about his work and the ideas and concepts that have catapulted him to art ‘stardom’.

Portrait of artist He Xiangyu. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist.

Portrait of artist He Xiangyu. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist.

Congratulations on the success of your recent exhibitions in many venues around the world from Beijing to Berlin, from San Francisco to Miami and recently also at the Lyon Biennale! Yesterday was the opening of your fourth solo show at White Space Beijing, entitled “Dotted Line II” (24 Oct – 6 Dec 2015). Tell us about these new works. I would especially like to hear about the work where you removed your apartment door in Beijing a few days before the opening and installed in on the gallery floor leaving your home without a door.

When you enter the room where the door is placed, you will first see two pictures, one is of my sleep shirt and the other of my quilt, two objects that my body has close physical contact with. Then we see on the floor the entrance door to my house, my living space. Within these two relationships one represents me and the other represents another space, another relationship. In addition I live in that space. These three form a projected relationship.

I want to destroy the feeling of my own personal security. I want to compress everything in that time and space and create an unstable and insecure state. This relationship is not concrete. It probably is a kind of force. Although I now live in Berlin, I wanted to do this work in China. Because this reflects the whole feeling that this country gives me, a feeling of power or energy. It is a relationship that I perceive with this country.

Tell us about your other new works in this show.

The works in the current exhibition follow the ones I did for the UCCA show [“New Directions: He Xiangyu”, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 11 June – 9 August 2015] and reflect a lot of my recent thinking. I basically planned out the whole exhibition. I designed the space as well as a lot of the installation details such as how to lead the audience through the exhibition and how to let them into my thinking process.

All of my work can be divided into several facets. One group of work came out of the project Everything We Create is Not Ourselves where a feeling is transformed into a new vision, a new way. Another group of works is related to visual error, from this perspective I carry on in a practical way. Another aspect is how through visual cues people perceive feelings. This feeling includes body and physiology as well as the body’s physical response.

He Xiangyu, ‘Straight Line 3-1’, 2014, acid free oil-based marker on paper, 31 x 41 cm x 3 pieces, frame: 96.1 x 64.9 cm, in "Dotted Line II", at White Space Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘Straight Line 3-1’, 2014, acid free oil-based marker on paper, 31 x 41 cm x 3 pieces, frame: 96.1 x 64.9 cm, in “Dotted Line II”, at White Space Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

Could you tell us more about another work in the current exhibition titled Straight Line?

I drew a line in the centre of the paper. The way I try to find the central line is based on my own feeling without measuring it out with a ruler. The paper that I chose is special in that it has a black borderline. When I try to find the centreline I use gravity to draw a straight line through the centre. You will see some movement around the paper. This movement in turn creates vibrations.

This misaligned relationship forms a relationship of vibrations. In addition there is relative relationship, for example, the line is correct but because of the relative relationship between the upper and lower it is in a precarious state. Therefore, I think this kind of feeling exists not only in the work of art, but also it touches upon our relationship as humans.

He Xiangyu, ‘Cola Project’ 2009-2012. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘Cola Project’, 2009-2012. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

You are well known for your 2008 work Cola Project where you hired workers to boil down 127 tonnes of Coca Cola over a period of one year. You used a well-known western consumer product, which is also ubiquitous in China, as a commentary on the West’s influence and its introduction of a consumer society to China. Since its completion, works related to this project have been shown and continue to be shown without abated interest in many iterations around the world, most recently at White Cube in London in 2014 and at the 13th Lyon Biennale in 2015. The Cola Project has defined your career and set it on a trajectory of success. Why did you create this work?

When I was at university, I studied oil painting. After graduation I was in very good spirits and I was looking for a project that would totally drive and absorb me… When I was at art school I read a lot of [art] books and saw that many artists had used Coke in their art. Later I realised that none of them however had used Coke in their art from the perspective of something that has direct contact with your body. In those days I used to drink Coke everyday. So the most important thing, the thing that I often missed, was that moment when the bubbles would enter my body.

I wanted to be like a magician who could change the feeling of drinking a liquid into a solid. This is similar to what we would see as children in Chinese movies or TV series, where perhaps one person would say some magic words and another person would suddenly freeze. I was just trying to create that magical feeling. But in fact it is a very long and time-consuming process.

He Xiangyu, Installation view, ‘Cola Project- Extraction’, 2009-2010, Coca-Cola Resin, 35 x 27 x 23.5 cm. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘Cola Project-Extraction’, 2009-2010, installation view, Coca-Cola resin, 35 x 27 x 23.5 cm. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

It is a very ambitious project, especially considering that it was one of your earliest projects after finishing art school at Shenyang Normal University. Were the works you were creating very different from your peers at art school? What did your peers all think of Cola Project when they saw it?

At art school my professor asked me to draw portraits, but they did not look much like the sitter. So my professor asked me to paint abstract art instead. And I did a few abstract oil paintings. [My fellow students] did not consider it [the Cola Project] as art. They did not appreciate it very much.

He Xiangyu, Installation view ‘Tank Project’, 2011-2014, leather,  890 x 600 x 150 cm, in “Fire and Forget: On Violence”, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Roman März. Image courtesy the artist.

He Xiangyu, ‘Tank Project’, 2011-2014, installation view, leather, 890 x 600 x 150 cm, in “Fire and Forget: On Violence”, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Roman März. Image courtesy the artist.

Another work that has been widely exhibited both at home and abroad involving much time and many resources is Tank Project (2011-2013), a life-size replica of a Soviet-style tank that was hand sewn by a large group of female factory workers over a period of two years, using over 400 pieces of fine imported Italian leather. The end result is a soft, deflated tank not fit for warfare. Shown first at the UCCA in Beijing (2013), then at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, and most recently at the 13th Lyon Biennale 2015. Could you tell us the story of how Tank Project came about and what you wanted to convey with this work?

The Tank Project is a very complex piece of work. It is multi-faceted and unlike the Cola Project it is difficult to explain it in a straightforward way. It is because the Tank Project involves many steps as well as reflects some information I got when I lived in this country. It is not simply a concept or the paraphrasing of some ideas.

For example, whatever city I visit, there is always a statue of Mao Zedong that you have to drive around to get to your destination. For me, this image or sculpture [always] stays with me. It is not only what I see, but the fact that you have to drive physically around the statue, including the tank, gives me a lasting memory, an impression. It is as if it is part of my DNA or gene code.

During the planning phase of the Tank Project we faced many difficulties and problems. For example, the tools that are required for measuring a tank are not readily available to ordinary people like us. Therefore we produced the measurement tools ourselves to help us measure the tank.

All the effort that went into making this tank is very, very important because it is an integral part of the project. When we finished the project I thought we had only made the outer form or appearance of a tank but in fact, with the effort and work that went into this project, an actual tank could have been built.

He Xiangyu, installation view ‘Turtle, Lion, Bear’, 2015, 25-screen video installed in 21 vitrines, screen dimensions: (48 1/10 x 27 1/5 x 4 7/10) inches x 18/(40 1/2 x 22 9/10 x 4 1/10) inches x 7, vitrine dimensions: (59 1/20 x 27 3/5 x 78 7/10) inches x 12/(52 2/5 x 26 4/5 x 78 7/10) inches x 6/(82 7/10 x 35 2/5 x 78 7/10) inches x 3, in 13th Lyon Biennale 2015. Photo: Blaise Adilon. Image courtesy the artist and White Cube London.

He Xiangyu, ‘Turtle, Lion, Bear’, 2015, installation view, 25-screen video installed in 21 vitrines, dimensions variable, in 13th Lyon Biennale 2015. Photo: Blaise Adilon. Image courtesy the artist and White Cube London.

A work that you specifically produced for the 13th Lyon Biennale is Turtle, Lion, Bear (2009-2015) – a 25-screen video installation shot with high-speed photography, which documents the yawns of 21 adults, including yourself, and three species of animals. Could you tell us what you intend to convey with this work?

The title of this work shows that I wanted to use animals instead of humans, but in the end we used more humans, and when the animals yawn it is only for about 2-3 second. From Everything We Create is Not Ourselves I learnt, that through images we can influence or manipulate our senses/feelings. To control or manage your body in order to bring about physical reactions. For example, yawning, I can control your yawn. Through such control I want to get rid of the pressure of human civilities. For instance, the people that yawn [in the video] do not cover their mouth, just like animals do not cover their mouths when they yawn. So it is a very direct response to this stimulation. It is just part of the normal process. I think our civilisation constrains us in some ways.

The 25 videos are displayed in glass vitrines. Through this method of display I hope that it will enlarge our senses and give us a kind of a penetrating feeling. The glass vitrines become like a storage of senses, a kind of tool. Constantly refracting, forming an endless space. Some of the screens reflections are false but you can penetrate it. This division in relationships is in fact very similar to our civilisation in its form. Many of the screens overlap, which makes you think that two people’s yawns merge into one.

He Xiangyu, ‘200g Gold, 62g Protein’, 2012, copper, gold, egg, 37.7 x 39 x 3.7 cm. Photo courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘200g Gold, 62g Protein’, 2012, copper, gold, egg, 37.7 x 39 x 3.7 cm. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

With the Cola Project and the Tank Project you draw attention to Western style consumerism and materialism in China. With 200g Gold, 62 g protein (2012), consisting of a solid gold egg carton containing one ordinary egg, you raise among other things the issue of the one-child policy in China. How have these societal pressures and the one-child policy that are so common to your generation, affected your attitude towards life? How has it affected your art making?

In fact, when I first started this work I was thinking of the one-child policy. But my way of working is to first do a sketch with a concept. After doing a sample I felt that it did not symbolise what I was hoping for. By the second phase of the work, I decided to drop the concept of the one-child policy entirely. The work is also not related to consumerism. It is about humans and how we assign values to material goods, how we judge them. As well as the relative attribute of the actual good.

I think this process has not had much effect on me. The greatest impact of the one-child policy is its effect on the parents. I think there are some differences between China and the West. The family ties in Chinese families are particularly strong. This close-knit relationship is in jeopardy now that we have entered a highly developed state, because many children go abroad or go to Beijing and Shanghai to work. Detached or removed from this close relationship, it has changed and has become very unstable.

He Xiangyu, ‘Sorry’, 2011, bakelite, lacquer, wire, lamp, 190 x 70 x 5 cm, in “HE XIANGYU”, at White Space Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘Sorry’, 2011, bakelite, lacquer, wire, lamp, 190 x 70 x 5 cm, in “HE XIANGYU”, at White Space Beijing. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

You left Beijing for the United States several times between 2012 and 2014, and more recently you have been spending more time in Berlin. I’d like to ask you about how these travels and life outside of China have influenced your work. For example, many of your works that you made after having lived abroad seem to deal with the emotions you sensed and situations you went through as a foreigner with little language abilities in an unfamiliar country. I am thinking of Sorry (2011), which is a door with a lit up doorknob or Everything We Create is Not Ourselves (2012-2013), where you used your tongue to touch and sense your palate and translated the felt texture and detected space onto a flat plane of a painting or the three-dimensional physicality of a copper sculpture. You have also stated that during this process you have tried “to allow different psychological states and physical conditions, as well as remnants of feelings from daily life to permeate into the work”. Can you speak about this?

The reason I left China was to get married. For me leaving the country, going elsewhere was not that important. I am very happy, because I can from a distance look at my country. That feeling is not the same as when I am in the country. My feelings then are much deeper. When I am outside China I have more time to think about certain issues, research some new direction that I want to study. Probably my language skills are not very strong. There is no easy way.

He Xiangyu, ‘Everything We Create is Not Ourselves 68-1’, 2013-2014, watercolor on paper, ink, pencil, mixed media, inkjet print. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

He Xiangyu, ‘Everything We Create is Not Ourselves 68-1’, 2013-2014, watercolour on paper, ink, pencil, mixed media, inkjet print. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Space Beijing.

Many have commented on the shift in your work from dealing with more broader or outward looking questions such as consumerism with regards to the Cola and the Tank Projects to more introspective ones, creating very personal works such as mentioned above. This is evident also in the Palate Project (an ongoing project for the past 6 years) where you exhibited 365 paintings in your first institutional solo show at UCCA in 2015 with a similar approach to Everything We Create is Not Ourselves but this time focusing on the sensations when a foreign language rolls off your tongue. What caused this shift to a more inward looking focus?

I think it is because everybody looks at these works and sees very ambitious projects. It has a large physical presence. For example, the Coke Project dealt with a large volume, or the Tank Project is very large sized. But I think that in fact Everything We Create is Not Ourselves is even larger and more ambitious than the other two projects. Because now I use a number of experts such as psychologists and neuroscientists. We work together and use some medical methods to carry out studies for the Palate Project [the informal name given to Everything We Create is Not Ourselves]. I feel that this work is much larger than the two previous projects. Perhaps ultimately the work will visually not be very big.

Probably in the end this work will be transformed into text or some simple sketches. But our plan is not to do this work in order to come out with a big piece of art. The most important thing is to let this project influence me or other people as much as possible. In Switzerland, Germany and particularly Berlin we are looking for such experts, because in China it is hard to find such people to cooperate with.

I have now arrived at the second stage of the project. The first stage was to gather a large number of documents directly relevant to the project or on subjects related to the project. We had to see whether this project is in fact something that has never been done before and whether is of value. The project is based on professional medical and psychological standards. Before launching this project we had to be sure that it is valid and valuable. The second phase of the project would be implementation. We have now entered the second phase, indicating that this project is brand new and has never been attempted before.

I want the Palate Project to transform into a practical project. To give a simple example, if people were able to change some aspect of their body through meditation, then I believe the Palate Project can also achieve similar results.

He Xiangyu, ‘Everything We Create is Not Ourselves’, 2012-2013, copper, dimensions variable. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Photo courtesy the artist and White Cube London.

He Xiangyu, ‘Everything We Create is Not Ourselves’, 2012-2013, copper, dimensions variable. Photo: Yang Chao Photography Studio. Image courtesy the artist and White Cube London.

You’re a young artist, born in 1986. What kind of support do you think is most crucial and effective for a young artist? What has been so far the most effective kind of support or exposure of your work? Media exposure, local exhibitions, international art fairs and exhibitions, purchase from collectors?

I think for me, I do not agree with the concept of the young artist. Although I am a young artist, the work that I do is judged by a particular standard. No concessions are made because I am a young artist, the standard is the same regardless. So the issue of being young or not being young does not exist, that is the first point. And the second is that the greatest support for an artist is the artist himself, because the media or the various exhibitions relate to the artist. If your work is not good, if you do not produce something of value, there will be no exhibition, there will be no media. So I believe that the greatest support is you, yourself, you have to make sure you create good work.

Does the attention your work has received put pressure on you for future art projects? What are your plans for the future? What new projects do you have in mind?

I think that there is no pressure. If I do not feel like making art, I just don’t make it. Just prioritise your work and do work you want to do. I do not compromise and produce work that I do not believe in. So in this regard I am very unyielding.

I am in the process of preparing an exhibition planned for 2017 in London related to the Palate Project. The prep work is all done and we will start the laboratory phase next year. We will use a number of volunteers, including myself, to forward the Palate Project using some medical equipment for monitoring.

Nooshfar Afnan

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Translation during interview Pan Yanlin (He Xiangyu’s assistant). Transcribing of interview Qi Meiling. Translation of interview Nooshfar Afnan.

Related Topics: Chinese artists, interviews, conceptual art, installation, gallery shows, events in Beijing

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