Sydney

Yang Zhichao: Chinese Bible at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

“Historical experience is written in iron and blood,” said Mao Zedong. In Yang Zhichao’s monumental performance/installation project Chinese Bible at Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, historical experience is written in thousands of humble, mass-produced notebooks once owned by ordinary Chinese people, their worn covers testament to the weathering of time and the vicissitudes of social change. Ai Weiwei says, “Everything is art. Everything is politics,” and Chinese Bible reveals a similar approach to art as a form of social engagement.

Yang Zhichao. Chinese Bible, 2009 (detail) 3,000 found books Dimensions variable Image courtesy: The Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Yang Zhichao. Chinese Bible, 2009 (detail); 3,000 found books; dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney.
Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW.

From 3,000 personal notebooks and diaries amassed by the artist over a period of three years, purchased in Beijing’s Panjiayuan “Dirt Market” (a place where you can buy just about anything, from fake antiquities to genuine Mao memorabilia), Yang Zhichao has created a work that reveals a hidden history. Spanning 1949–1999, these collected diaries, saved for their value as recycled scrap paper, reveal the dramatic transformations that have convulsed China from the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and later the impact of globalization under the Reform and Opening policies following Mao’s death in 1976.

Arranged in rows on a raised platform, the books’ first impression is a sea of revolutionary red. Early books covered in blue or green featuring pictures of traditional architecture, auspicious plum blossoms, or galloping horses give way to triumphant soldiers and peasants, factory chimneys billowing smoke, and Mao haloed by the rising sun. Books from the 1980s have plastic covers in bright pink or pea green with cute cartoon characters. We see only the covers, but pages have been photographed and displayed on iPads; with a slight frisson of voyeurism, we view the self-criticisms, dutifully copied out passages of “Mao Zedong thought,” and notes from meetings and political study sessions. Some contain more personal things—knitting patterns, song lyrics, and shopping lists. Others have keepsakes—photographs or pressed flowers—between their pages. One has a souvenir brochure for a 1979 exhibition of works by Kathe Kollwitz, one of the first international art exhibitions staged in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Part historiography, part sociology, and part anthropology, the work re-presents and reinterprets the quotidian.

Yang Zhichao Chinese Bible 2009 (detail) 3,000 found books Dimensions variable Image courtesy: The Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Yang Zhichao. Chinese Bible, 2009 (detail); 3,000 found books; dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney.
Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW.

Chinese Bible was first shown in November 2009 at Ai Weiwei’s China Art Archives and Warehouse in Beijing, displayed in a massive rectangle “like a patchwork memory quilt.”[1]  The work was then shown at Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, where collector Gene Sherman saw it. Despite the decision she and her husband had made to “draw a line” under their collection, she decided it was too significant to overlook. Chinese Bible combines text and the found object, with a subtext of social justice—a narrative thread in the Shermans’ collection of contemporary art from Asia.[2]

Curator Claire Roberts explains the work’s significance: “There has been a trend for a while for Chinese artists to start looking at their own history, and Yang Zhichao’s work fits into that trend. It’s just so evocative of those amazing decades of the transformation of China. Even just by looking at the patina on the covers of the diaries you can see history unfolding before your eyes… These 3,000 diaries each represent a fragment of the lives of actual people. We can appreciate it as a contemporary artwork, but also as a work that opens up all sorts of insights into how individual lives have intersected with the big historical movements… Yang Zhichao is a performance artist, and this work is a performance installation.”[3]

Yang Zhichao Chinese Bible 2009 (detail - inside page) 3,000 found books Dimensions variable Image courtesy: The Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney

Yang Zhichao. Chinese Bible, 2009 (detail – inside page); 3,000 found books; dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the Gene & Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney.

With other avant-garde artists in Beijing’s “East Village” enclave in the 1990s, Yang Zhichao specialized in the transgressive body art that characterized that era. He had tufts of grass implanted into his back for an exhibition in Shanghai; was literally branded (by Ai Weiwei) with his identity number on his  shoulder; had an unidentified metal object surgically implanted in his leg and vials of earth and ash inserted in his stomach. I asked Yang Zhichao to tell me about the change in his practice, from what Craig Clunas describes as “extreme macho abjection”[4] to more reflective works. “From 1995 to 2005 it was kind of a ‘golden age’ of Chinese performance art,” he said. “It was an art form that put the artist in opposition to a variety of things: the artist’s way of exploring themselves in opposition to society in general, to living conditions, to governmental regulations, and of course to the art world itself. It was such a meaningful practice. In the period from 2005–2015 there has been significant change in China that has contributed to a change in art practice. Looking back over the last ten years, there does continue to be some quite challenging or provocative performance art, but in general it has changed into a less confrontational mode. But also, of course, the artists have aged! The relationship between the artist and society, living environments, and political systems, and the artworld itself—there have been significant shifts and changes in each of those realms which have also contributed to changes in practice.”

Explaining his motivation for collecting, washing, and installing Chinese Bible, Yang Zhichao says, “These diaries represented a forgotten history of ordinary people that is not reflected in the official histories.” He and Ai Weiwei pored over these evocative notebooks, finding connections with the events of their own lives and those of their parents. Ai Weiwei was instrumental in assisting Yang Zhichao with the first installation and presentation of the work in Beijing, when people could directly engage with the books, leafing through their pages. For a western audience who cannot read Chinese, the experience is more distant, with a risk that the objects become merely aestheticized. The title of the work, however, reminds us of the significance of the contents. The term “bible,” deliberately chosen despite its emergence from a secular history, denotes an authoritative text and “bestows on the diaries an air of authority that they would not otherwise have, elevating the collective writings of ordinary people to canonical status.”[5] Like other significant installation works from Chinese artists, the massed notebooks of Chinese Bible reference the tension between the aspirations and dreams of the individual, and the enforced conformity of the collectivist past. That was poignantly brought home when Claire Roberts and Yang Zhichao, en route to lunch in Chinatown, invited their Chinese taxi driver to see the work. He could not possibly do so, he said, as it would bring back such a flood of bad memories that it would make him weep.

Yang Zhichao: Chinese Bible is on view at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation through August 1, 2015. It is running concurrently with Go East, an exhibition of works from the Gene and Brian Sherman collection of contemporary Asian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

[1] Claire Roberts, “Yang Zhichao and Chinese Bible: Performing into the Present,” Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015.

[2] This work, and a major installation by Jitish Kallat, have been gifted to the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

[3] Claire Roberts and Yang Zhichao, interview with the author on May 16, 2015.

[4] Craig Clunas, Art in China, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[5] Claire Roberts, “Yang Zhichao and Chinese Bible: Performing into the Present,” Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015.

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