For contemporary Chinese artists Zheng Guogu, Chen Zaiyan, and Sun Qinglin—known as the Yangjiang Group—art is about social action and everyday life, including the practice of calligraphy, shopping, football, gambling, drinking, and eating. They believe art and life are entirely connected, resisting the commercialism of the art market and the over-intellectualization of art. Their latest project, Actions for Tomorrow, includes a live event, Tea Office, as a feature of the exhibition, with gallery staff participating in a tea ceremony each day.
“We are not conceptual artists,” Zheng told me very firmly when we spoke (yes, over many cups of fragrant tea) at the gallery. Named after their hometown of Yangjiang, the group formed in 2002 with an anti-authoritarian and inclusive approach to art. Like Joseph Beuys, they believe that anyone is an artist, aiming to challenge the elitism and privilege that attaches to calligraphy in China—and to contemporary art. I asked the artists about their unique approach to calligraphy. Zheng Guogu responded to my questions with the help of a translator, while his two collaborators concentrated on refilling our teacups.
Luise Guest: Traditional Chinese scholars liked to drink and gamble, as well as paint and write poetry. Are you following in the footsteps of the literati, or are you challenging those traditions?
Zheng Guogu: At first we wanted to try to experience that life, like the ancient artists. We found that when we were drunk, the calligraphy we made was very beautiful. We thought it had a special energy, so we adopted this kind of practice. Then we found out that when we were drunk we could forget lots of the rules of calligraphy. We discovered that the ancient scholars also had many rules, and by breaking them they could make their calligraphy more expressive. You need to follow traditions first and then break from those traditions.
LG: You have been described as iconoclastic calligraphers who throw thousands of years of Chinese tradition out the window—are you deliberately challenging China’s cultural heritage?
ZG: Yes, we challenge the old rules because each new generation has radicals who must break with tradition.
LG: Is your mural, which includes the words, “God is Dead, Long Live the RMB!” satirizing art as a commodity of international exchange or the loss of culture and tradition in China in a headlong rush toward ever greater wealth?
ZG: You are not meant to interpret any meaning. You should not use twentieth-century rules to view this exhibition; you should use a new way to see this. It’s not conceptual art; it has nothing to do with the symbols. Last century when you went to a gallery and saw an artwork, you would be guessing the meaning behind it. But now, with this work, it’s about how your body reacts—it’s an immediate response, an instinctive and emotional response.
LG: By choosing to work with calligraphy, you are positioning yourselves in a continuing Chinese cultural tradition. By subverting it, you are critiquing Chinese culture. Are some of your works political statements? Here you have written, “God is Dead, Long Live the RMB,” for example…
ZG: No. It’s not art of the head—it’s art of the body and the heart. When you enter into this social space you feel the energy and increase your spirit. It’s not about the meaning.
LG: Okay, but in Fuck Off the Rules , you appeared to be challenging the very nature and value of art. What do you think is the importance of art in today’s world?
ZG: Lots of artists today are just fake. Real artists should break the traditional rules. Forget what the form is—then you can create real art. Previous generations of artists are not on the opposite side to us, we are one line of artists. We are all like the gods.
LG: There seem to be two things that are very important to you—language and what you call “the spirit.” How is spirituality important in your work? And are these two things connected?
ZG: To write you need spirit—or qi.  You use one breath to write one character, so the spirit is important. Some of the ancient calligraphers also practiced kung fu, so they needed to have great energy. This refers to the spirit and the breath. When you are writing, your brush strokes follow your breath. When you see calligraphy, you see the writer’s ‘qi‘. This has a relationship with the universe, the earth rotating and orbiting the sun—the same as the systems in your body. Writing calligraphy follows these rules.
LG: How did you three meet, and how did the group start?
ZG: Before 2002, I was working in photography, and then I transferred to writing texts…. In ancient times words had some spirit or energy inside, related to their nature, as well as something to do with the symbol and the sounds. So I think that words are not 2-D they are 3-D. They are alive. I changed my own name to ‘Guogu’ so that it would be a unique creation. Then I created my persona, my identity. When somebody calls your name there is some vibration in the air, in the universe. If you have a negative name the vibration will be negative. Although I think that words have very strong vibrations, I am not trained in calligraphy, but Chen Zaiyan is a professionally trained calligrapher, trained in Hangzhou. Sun Qinglin is from Yangjiang. I invited him because I saw his drunk calligraphy and it had a special energy. So we formed this little group.
LG: When people think of Chinese contemporary art, they think of the major art centers of Beijing and Shanghai—perhaps not of Yangjiang! What makes you stay?
ZG: Lots of people ask this! A previous generation needed to go to the art centers like Beijing, escaping from small towns, but the real inspiration for an artist is equally from small places. There is no reason to think there is less inspiration from a small town, or more inspiration from a big city…. In a small town people are living their normal lives, and our work is closer to ordinary people. I find that the most essential thing is to stay in one place and to pay attention. It’s like art meditation. In a big city there are too many distractions and you cannot concentrate. A real artist has to find real life.
LG: The Yangjiang Group has blurred the boundaries between art and life. In the past you have made works documenting gambling, drinking, football, gardening…. Some people might say, “Is that really art? Is that not just life?” What would you tell them?
ZG: The purpose of art is to make people live better. That explains everything we do.
The concluding event of Yangjiang’s Sydney sojourn is the Twilight Garden Party in the Chinese Garden of Friendship on February 14; Actions for Tomorrow is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney through March 7, 2015.
 Yangjiang’s 2014 exhibition at Shanghai’s Minsheng Museum, Fuck Off the Rules, was a not-so-subtle reference to Ai Weiwei’s notorious Fuck Off exhibition and an illustration of their anarchic anti-art approach to the veneration of calligraphy in Chinese culture.
 The literal translation is “air” or “breath.” It is the underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and the practice of martial art forms. It refers to the life force and the flow of energy through the body.