Walking past the many shop fronts on St Clement’s Street in Oxford, it’s hard to miss the Office of Chinese Contemporary Art (OCCA). Brightly coloured Chinese characters are painted on the window, and behind the glass, instead of shop wares, there are just two chairs and a table. When you look closer, you will see that the space is strewn with half-finished works of art on the walls and floor.
You will be greeted by Cai Yuan and Yingmei Duan, two influential artists on the Chinese contemporary art scene, and the creators of this exciting project entitled ‘Optimism’. Inside, there is a table laden with art supplies with a sign above, requesting the visitor to add to the art on display. The exhibition is a work in progress – not to be completed until its end date, 28 February 2014.
The OCCA is an art consultancy, concerned with promoting the work of Chinese artists in the UK. The space in Oxford is a new acquisition and offers part-office base, part-gallery. The artists wanted to create a space that was distinct from a formal, conventional gallery. One of the principal aims of the exhibition is to interact with members of the community and “introduce themselves”. “There is no selection process”, Cai stresses. Everyone is invited to get involved and create something. The space offers the visitor complete freedom – children have drawn on the walls, illustrated the light switch, made bright red hand prints, and ‘post-it’ notes with doodles are stuck on the wall. The artists impose no limitations on their visitors. A particularly eye-catching creation is a work of art made out of a row of glass bottles lined up against the wall with wires coming out of each bottle and reaching up to the ceiling.
In addition to inviting the public to create art, the two artists are working on their own projects during the exhibition. Their work is concerned with uniting their performance work with writing and drawing. They intend to show how traditional mediums like drawing and painting can communicate in a very contemporary way.
The exhibition is the first collaboration between Cai and Yingmei. The work of these two artists is very different. Cai’s work is focussed on reality and situation, politics and philosophy, whilst Yingmei is interested in dream and memory.
Cai gained renown in the UK for his work with ‘JJ’, the performance artist Juan Jun Xi. They first became famous for their performance art piece, ‘Two Artists Jump on Tracy Emin’s Bed’. He is interested in the conceptual ideas behind art – for instance, can jumping on a bed be art, or is it vandalism?
Yingmei was part of the group of artists in Beijing’s East Village in the 1990s. This was where she first became involved in performance art, taking part in the famous performance piece ‘To add one meter to an anonymous mountain’. In 2000, she moved to study art in Germany at the HBK Braunschweig and, under the guidance of Marina Abramovic, made performance art her focus. She was one of the nine Chinese artists exhibited at The Hayward Gallery in London in the recent ‘Art of Change’ exhibition.
For the 28 days of the exhibition, Cai and Yingmei are making the gallery space their studio. Yingmei is working on drawings from her memories. She has travelled in more than 40 countries and has had many life experiences – if she didn’t draw her memories then she says she would be worried she would forget them. Her plan is to work from the past and go forwards – she is visually plotting this movement by positioning her drawings in a long curve, which she hopes to span the walls and to interact with the work of Cai Yuan and the work of visitors. She says 28 days is too short; she could spend a year doing this. Smilingly, she compares her construction to the spray from a champagne bottle. Her first memory is written on the wall in English: two dreams, become artist, go abroad.
Sometimes the memories are visibly hazy, as though she is struggling to visualise them, surrounded by circular scribbles and faint on the page. She has drawn memories from her childhood: big crabs which came to the door of her family home, the chickens that they kept. On the opposite wall are drawings of scorpions and trees from time she spent in North Africa.
Cai’s work uses text rather than figurative form. He says this is because he used to do a lot of figurative work and has now become uncomfortable with the art form. His work in the exhibition is based around two main ideas. The first is focussed upon the three years that he spent in prison as a result of rebelling against the Cultural Revolution. On the wall he has stuck up a word document ‘confession’, a hand-written account of his memories in prison and a certificate of his sentence. The account in particular is powerful to read. He has visually recreated the experience by writing in pencil the numbers 1-1095 (the number of days he spent in prison) in a line on the wall almost completely spanning the length of the space. The numbers are written close together, so that from a distance they simply resemble a faint line.
The second work is based around his interest in ‘-isms’. He has typed on two separate pieces of paper all the ‘-isms’, first in English, the second in Chinese. He has then transferred these to the window and painted them on in Chinese characters. Instead of using a brush to paint, he used his middle finger. For Cai, the method is as important to the work as the finished piece.
The result is eye-catching, inside and outside. He has made some good photos he tells me of people looking in through the window through the Chinese words, ‘the -isms’ – ‘my frame’, he calls it.
He is now working on something else related to a project which he did last year with Juan Jun Xi where they enacted Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and in the British and German Pavilions at the Venice Biennale. He is painting ink ‘scream faces’ varying the formation of the faces. He is also preparing a coloured list of instructions to go on the wall of how to ‘scream’, which are as follows:
- Bring friends and go to a gallery/museum, field, or open space
- Stand in the middle of the space, eyes facing straight forward
- Scream loudly for five minutes to release your chi.
Is it Chinese art? Both Cai and Yingmei rejected traditional Chinese art forms of brush work, wood cuts and illustrating – preferring to study Western oil painting. They became excited by contemporary Western art, which has inspired their performance artwork. Today, Yingmei is 80% Chinese and 20% Western, she tells me. But, her art? This is not about where you come from, she says, it’s not about thinking, it’s just something you do.
This is perhaps reflective of the intuitive, pure nature of Yingmei’s work. Unlike many of her contemporaries, her work does not retain clear symbols or conventions from traditional Chinese art. The link between writing and performing, however, is clearly related to Chinese art. Chinese writing is traditionally a performance – concerned with passing one’s inner energy and spirit onto the paper. Cai’s work is more clearly informed by his specific experiences in China, which seem to trigger the rebellious attitude which is so distinctive of his work.
I am very excited to return for the exhibition’s finale this week on 28 February. Part two to follow…