A clear and joyful light floods the inner gallery of Ink Studio in Beijing, where He Yunchang performed a series of three grueling new works in his exhibition Water Forming Stone. Light dances through candy-colored drinking glasses that are suspended in midair over a pedestal of simulated crystals and jade. It radiates off of the warm white walls cleverly composed of cardboard shipping boxes and onto a tree made of rubber tires, which sits on a polished black floor. In this enchanting environment, everyday objects evoke nature and beauty, stillness and movement, growth and peace.
In contrast to his beautiful installation, He’s new performances are tedious, taxing his own endurance and the audience’s in equal measure. In The Expanse of Tranquility (2015), the first of the three pieces, He punctures a sack of ink that is suspended over a glass pane. For several hours, drops of ink fall onto the glass, and He uses sheets of calligraphy paper to wipe the drips off. In Cloud Shadows at the Heart of the Mirror (2015), He sets in motion a crystal cube that swings like a pendulum over a glass pane. After waiting over two hours for the swinging to stop, He cuts the rope, sending the crystal cube shattering onto the glass pane. In The Embrace of Wind and Dew (2015), He uses a calligraphy brush to dot water droplets onto a glass pane, only to wait for hours for the water to evaporate. In each of these performances, He is naked except for a thin white shroud, and is flanked by a row of similarly dressed women.
Water Forming Stone is part performance series, part career retrospective. The rest of the gallery is filled with documentation of the somber, body-breaking performances which He built his career on. These include Wrestling: One and One Hundred (2001), in which He consecutively wrestled 100 migrant workers; Keeping Promises (2003), in which He kept his hand in a block of hardening cement for twenty-four hours; and The Rock Tours Around Great Britain (2006–2007), in which He carried a rock around the perimeter of England on foot.
He’s early performances can be understood to carry on a Song dynasty tradition in which art academy students are tested by translating poetry into painting—only in He’s case, myths are translated into the contemporary medium of performance art. Keeping Promises is He’s interpretation of a Chinese myth of a man that waits for his beloved under a bridge where they had agreed to meet. As the water level rises, the man chooses to drown rather than break his promise. Likewise, the myths of men who move mountains or wage war with the sea likely inspired works such as Dialogue with Water (1999), in which He stabbed the ocean with a knife for ninety minutes, and Moving a Mountain (1999), in which He attempted to pull a mountain for thirty minutes.
He’s later performances can be understood through his essay “Fairytales for Adults” (2002). He claims that his actions are meant to inspire myths for future generations. Wresting a hundred men or carrying a rock around Great Britain may seem pointless for now, but He suggests that over time, these actions will become myths that inspire one to endure. While his earlier performances evoked physical endurance, in Water Forming Stone He turns inward demonstrating a meditative stillness of mind.
The exhibition’s most moving image is a photograph from He’s One Rib (2008) series. The artist sits with his mother, who wears a necklace made from one of his ribs. The piece combines an uncharacteristic warmth of emotion with He’s signature willingness to endure suffering. In contrast, the graphic photographs from One Meter of Democracy (2010), in which viewers voted on whether or not He should make a meter-long incision down the length of his body without anesthetics—unsurprisingly, they voted yes—seem gratuitous, even pandering.
Curator Nataline Colonnello claims that He’s work, “as excessive or incomprehensible as it may appear to the public, reflects, on the one hand, the existential reassertion of the artist’s will and his intellectual independence; on the other, a reaction against any form of power.” But for all his strength as a performance artist, is He really resisting power when he stages an election that assures his injury? Is he asserting intellectual independence with his clichéd use of nudity and passivity? Who are his performances really for? Certainly not the audience, which was bored out of its collective mind, or the public—the purported benefactors of his “fairy tales”—which, when invited, would rather walk on by.
He Yunchang: Water Forming Stone is on view at Ink Studio in Beijing through February 6, 2016.