Follow your heart
Chen Yanyin's artistic life
One of the most memorable experiences I had in China during the early Nineties, was when visiting artists' studios and having discussions which lasted all day. It would have been in October 1994, when I went to see my woman friend Chen Yanyin's solo show in Shanghai, although I cannot remember the exact location. The main space had been transformed into a huge installation [Box 8, Starting point (wood, video, sound, red light and brass tubes, 1994)], that guided the viewer along a fixed itinerary. The walls were covered with wooden spikes and the passageway was arranged so as to oblige the viewer to go through a corridor that turned at least twice. A background sound, similar to a heartbeat, accompanied our slow progression until we arrived in an inner room housing a horizontal TV screen that could be viewed from above and was installed in a wooden box. The video displayed what seemed to be a human body organ contracting and releasing, and, misled by the background sound, I initially thought it was a heart. But it looked like a hole, and I realised it could not be a heart. Then I suddenly understood, and I was at the same time struck by Chen Yanyin's courage and embarrassed as I was accompanied by a male Chinese artist and I did not know how he would react. When I finally managed, through allusions and suggestions, to make him understand that that 'contracting hole' we were looking at was the inside of a uterus, I remember that the guy, initially somehow amused and mischievous, became shocked and even disgusted. At that time in China, such a direct and 'indecent' way of expressing oneself, especially for a woman, was unprecedented. His reaction compelled me to express my support for Chen Yanyin, and argue against the commonly held male view that the most admirable characteristic for a woman should be her aesthetic appearance, chastity and naiveté. This was especially true in China, in the post-Mao era when most people still shared the opinion that sex should be the exclusive domain of married couples and kept from view. Men of course could talk and joke about the subject, but women - especially young women - were not expected to do so, for fear of appearing vulgar and losing their evanescent charm. Chen Yanyin was an exception: she was brave, she was not very feminine from a Chinese perspective, she had short hair and she used to laugh whole heartedly (another habit Chinese girls were not supposed to have) and she treated her male friends with comradely familiarity. I seem to remember that after the opening we went dancing (banquets were not in fashion, because there were no art galleries at that time and subsequently no gallery owners paying for the feast), and Yanyin was cheerfully unrestrained without coquetry. That exhibition, that installation was, together with a work by Zhuang Hui in the year 2003 (Steel workshop) the strongest I have seen in China.
Discrepancy between one idea
Two years later, while working as a curator in the Singapore Art Museum, I insisted on being sent to visit the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia. I had not imagined that I would find my friend there, with another powerful installation work. She had built a bed made of a thousand red roses, each connected to a bottle with plastic intravenous drip tubes (plastic bags, intravenous drips, red roses, water, medical implements, sound, fish line, table, 1995), and the title was "Discrepancy between one idea". I still have a photo of her, standing near the work, wearing a very 'serious' skirt and jacket, flat shoes, and a big smile. She then invited me to move into her hotel room, and in the following evenings we talked freely. I learned that she was in great distress, as her marriage was breaking up. During the Triennial she was invited to deliver a speech, and she talked about expressing one's emotion through art, in such a sincere and moving way that the audience was easily won over. She returned to the subject a few years later in the dissertation she presented to the Sidney College of the Arts for her master degree.
In those years Yanyin was in her late thirties and she had had trouble with love relationships. She was starting to realize how difficult it is to make love last, she was experiencing the fact that trivialities can degrade a pure sentiment, or bring it down to earth. She was confronted with the 'discrepancy' that two people (who originally thought they had become one) start to feel when facing the extremely vague yet strong emotion that is love between a woman and a man. She was sincere in her despair, questioning herself and her needs, and was critical towards her partner; in short, she was lacerated simultaneously by love and disillusion. In a way, I felt more mature than her, because I had realised the existence of that 'discrepancy' much earlier than she had, having long since abandoned too high expectations within relationships. I tried to comfort her by putting on an air of cynicism, but deep inside I envied the integrity of her approach.
Yanyin created another large installation earlier in 1995 that I was unfortunately unable to see in person. 'Membrane' (plastics, membrane, tables, silk), is described in her dissertation as follows: "the work 'membrane' is born of a meeting of tradition and modern moral concepts. In China we have a tradition aimed at demonstrating the morality of a young girl. On the wedding night the groom’s parents give the couple a pure white handkerchief, on the morning of the following day the couple must show the parents the handkerchief and the necessary trace of blood indicating the loss of virginity. The handkerchiefs are like a measure for all young girls. This tradition has been wiped out by new cultural thoughts. Yet, despite the fact that young people are lured by all kinds of new lifestyles, traces of this tradition still remain in the recesses of the hearts of girls, as measurements of 'good' or 'bad' conduct."
The white colour predominates in this work, the quality of the material (silk, plastic) reflects a requirement to be evocative, sensuous, soft and ethereal, to fluctuate as the viewers approach (Yanyin intends the silk handkerchiefs to represent the hearts of young girls trembling at the passage of the 'others', be it their lovers, parents or society's judgment) and demonstrates the extreme artistic sensitivity that Yanyin possessed from the beginning of her production. It is important to keep in mind that in those years students in art academies would be trained in traditional media - in the case of sculptors, the mastery of clay and bronze, chalk and eventually wood and stone - and the whole realm of 'contemporary art' started to be known and practiced in China by a few isolated people in the late Eighties, who would look at the West and actively 'adopt' new ways of expression. As Yanyin's good friend and schoolmate, sculptor Song Haidong once stated; a student would need to get nearly all of her/his knowledge from the few books borrowed at the art academy's library and read on her/his own, because the academic subjects taught in the classes were completely inadequate to match her/his expressive needs.
Bearing this in mind, I can affirm that in the Nineties Yanyin was definitely one of the most daring artists in the Chinese contemporary art scene, and, being a woman, she can be considered especially courageous and advanced. I remember that, visiting the studios of many artists in that period, I would very seldom find women, and these were mainly painters. Having grown up in a family with four women (my mother and my two sisters) and a father who was far from being a chauvinist, I was not fully aware of the fact that to be a woman artist was much more difficult than to be a male artist, not only because women have greater responsibility in their lives (giving birth and raising children, for instance) but also because women's art tends to be restricted to a special 'category' even by the so called pro-feminist theorists. Later I understood that the realm of 'feminine art' is a kind of Limbo that may be convenient for men (as their possible female 'rivals' have their own, separate, area of influence), and also by some women who have a better chance to be chosen thanks to their gender. But Yanyin's works, with their strong visual impact and their sometimes shocking and straightforward message, never needed to be included in any 'category' in order to be noticed.
Yanyin stated ' the expression of art is a conversation with myself, [my] works are the revelation of the heart.' This might be considered a very 'feminine' way of approaching art, but I feel that here the word 'feminine', in other cases carrying a somehow reductive meaning, resounds a deep wisdom, it is a hymn to truth, to that Socratic exhortation of 'knowing oneself' from which we should all start our journey as human beings. Anyway, my approach towards artworks has never really been influenced by considerations regarding the gender of the creator, as I prefer to consider women on an equal level as men even though they have had to struggle much more than their male counterparts. Beside this fact, I have to say that Yanyin's strong and independent character has contributed to placing her in a very special realm beyond issues of gender.
"I never found a companion so companionable as solitude"
These words from Yanyin's dissertation are the true expression of Yanyin's personality, or at least a major part of it. In fact Yanyin can be very sociable, she knows how to enjoy people even though she is not that kind of person who applies skillfully all those techniques aimed at making others feel at ease: when interacting with friends and even with strangers she is true to herself, even naive in her direct way of talking and acting. Being one of the few people she invites to stay in her house I know what she means when she considers solitude as her best companion. She is someone who can be on her own for days and days as long as she can work at her creations, eating simple and even fast food, not even bothering setting the table but munching something while going on with her task. I am sure that when she is involved in the creative process, Yanyin is fully herself. That is when she is free of the consideration or judgment of others, and she is not required to keep in mind all the rites requested by polite conversation. She just indulges in the expression of 'her heart', and long hours pass by without her even noticing.
However, Yanyin is a 'public person' as well: she has been invited to work both by the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture institute and by the Shanghai branch of the China Academy of Fine Arts, where she has taught for several years, choosing then to go back to her former 'working unit'. She is representing the official artists in the Shanghai municipality government, and she often has to take part in institutional meetings and decisions. Her 'public works', commissioned by the local government, are positioned in very important sites like the Bund, although she does not seem to take them into much consideration. My personal perception is that the relationship she has with her 'status', the one of a very successful and publicly recognized artist (at least in an 'official' circle) is of indifference: she does not want to get involved in power struggle or politics, as her real interest is far from these mundane realms. It is true, though, that with the passing of years her position, from a very 'active' and 'avant-garde' woman artist questioning the role of women in society and in relationships and fighting for their right to be true to their emotional life, has evolved to being much more moderate, intimate and mature.
Sitting in meditation
I know that the most important change that occurred in Yanyin's life even before the year 2000 was her discovery of the Buddhist way of looking at oneself and the world. After having embraced the approach to life that comes from the Buddhist teaching, she is no longer trying to change the outside world, as she considers it the projection personal perception. In her dissertation she writes that "the outside world which is spread out like a map around me is but the lining of my innermost experience exposed. However, when this experience makes us self-questioning, we may discover how wonderful and true our innermost world is." Buddhism is now quite widespread in China, although for the majority of the people it is little more than superstition, the occasion to follow rites and to repeat formulas, similar to many religions where people do not go to the extent of digging inside themselves looking for the core of their existence. Yanyin's involvement is completely different: she devotes herself to the pursuit of her real aim in life, and Buddhism has become her major interest, even overcoming her beloved art. Moreover, art has become a medium to serve a higher aim, which is the understanding of her own role on earth and the effort of fulfilling her task in the most complete way.
Someone who is not familiar with Buddhist thought could feel disappointed, looking at an active and talented young woman artist who has chosen to leave her 'outpost' and who has withdrawn into herself. From the viewpoint of a person who is socially and politically active, Yanyin's choice can be considered a defeat, a surrender. Only the acceptance of the fact that everybody is different and has very distinct needs and opinions (an acceptance that is not so widespread, and China is no exception) will enable one to accept Yanyin's decision and enjoy the works she has created following her adoption of the Buddhist faith. Having pursued a very similar path to hers, I have no problem understanding her position, although it is true that, from an 'artistic' point of view, her early works are the most powerful because they were so necessary, because they represented all her world and they were her only way to express herself. Now that another kind of 'wisdom' has embraced her, that her understanding of life has grown, and that she enjoys the privileges of a recognized artist, together with the calm and detached look of a Buddhist, her works might be less striking. Everyone has her/his peculiar expectations towards art, and expectations - just like everything else - are the projection of one's own interiority. I guess it is very difficult to be able to communicate to the public one's own unique way to look at life through art nowadays, as everyone is busy chasing material achievements, but Yanyin has no choice: she can only be true to herself in the way she has always been. I see her enthusiasm when she goes to religious retreats and I see her deeply concentrated when working at her art. That creative urge is no longer burning her up inside: now she is better able to govern her emotions.
Nature and culture
Yanyin's meeting with Buddhism led her to evaluate Chinese traditional artistic media she had not used since she was a youth. As a child she liked to use the brush and ink and she wanted to become a traditional painter. To paint with ink on paper or silk, a precious material that Yanyin prefers to paper, is a very meditative practice that trains one to concentrate on the process itself rather than on the final achievement. Yanyin has drawn on dozens of silk squares, sometimes choosing Buddhist themes, at other times combining the images of internationally renowned architecture with vegetal motifs (series Nature and Culture). To paint with very thin brushes on such an extremely light and ethereal surface like silk is for Yanyin both a contrast and a way of balancing herself with the physical activity she has to deal with when sculpting, where she has to manipulate heavy or hard materials. The brushwork is very skillful and the lines even and firm, the hand does not tremble even when she draws very long and thin lines (as long as forty centimeters). She has confided to me that she feels a 'physical' pleasure when drawing these lines; I think what she means is that her whole body is concentrated in the action and her mind is at ease. Once the idea has been formulated in her brain, the technical realization allows Yanyin to follow the flow of her hand, without needing to obey rules or limitations. Yanyin is intrigued by both the baroque appearance of nature, especially the form of luxuriant plants, and by the magnificence of human creation, as expressed by architecture. In this way, beside comparing and joining 'organic' and 'artificial' forms (in Buddhism such distinction is not stressed) she has the chance to indulge herself in tracing lines of very different form: straight or convoluted. In so doing she loses herself in the fantastic unity she creates on the yellowish impalpable silk. Her creations seem to follow desire for a certain order, they seek an aesthetic harmony and a harmonious feeling that allow no excess and the visual elements are very balanced as a whole. Yanyin told me that after selecting elements of world famous architecture, she would project the outline onto silk and draw from there. This part of her creation is therefore quite mechanical, her brain can be silent and at rest. When it comes to the vegetal growths, she follows the inspiration that flows through her hand. The luxuriant, sometimes exotic plants penetrate and go through the flamboyant architecture, but where the latter is, as I said, very faithful to the original, although reproduced in a two-dimensional, flat way, the first are visible only in their upper and lower extremities: the central parts of fantastic trees are hidden by the buildings in which they grow. The tallest branches and roots emerge from manmade constructions and link the earth to the sky. Or rather the sky to the earth, as we might prefer to think of it. Human beings and their creations are the medium that connects the square earth to the round sky (in the Chinese tradition), and it seems to me that Yanyin enjoys to embody exactly that creativity, putting her hand and her heart, together with her (empty) mind, at the service of the energy of the universe. When I write that her mind is empty I mean that it should be divested of all worries regarding the individual’s limited horizon. Eastern and Western culture are represented by selected examples of their creativity over the centuries, but even in their magnificence and ornamentation, they are overwhelmed by the much more imaginative and free evolution of nature's spontaneous growth. In some instances the plants are unrecognisable from a botanic viewpoint. When lotus leaves emerge on long thin stems and cross straight lines that outline buildings, the Buddhist message is expressed in a more explicit way.
For me this series of works represents the more intimate realm of Yanyin: where she does not consider the outside world, or her responsibility in society as a persona and as an artist, and she indulges solely in her interior journey. This is where she feels really happy and at peace.
There is another side of her, though, that pushes her to face the outside world and confront society; a task she must fulfill in order to realize her aim in the universe.
Human beings as social animals
Yanyin has been making two kinds of works in tandem: one is intimate, connected to her interior quest and to her spontaneous predilection, and the other is reacting to the environment around her. The group of small bronze sculptures (Shanghai people) created in the mid Nineties was inspired by Shanghai at that time: a busy, overpopulated city where the individual was but a number, an ant struggling to find some space - on the bus, in the market, on the street. The small figurines queuing to make a phone call at the public phone booth remind me of the complete lack of privacy in one's life, and the frustration she used to feel. 'Bicycles in Nanjing road', 'On the bus no.21', 'Large meeting', 'Waiting for the train', ‘Morning exercises', 'Waiting room' are all works that mirror the daily life of a Shanghainese, one out of several million where everybody at those times was leading the same lifestyle. Small flat bodies of quickly modeled people, deprived of personal features and characterization, that look like shadows rather than real persons; they exist because they are part of a mass, like the roller of a gear. Their taste, their feelings, their thoughts are not important because, as even now I continuously hear, 'Chinese people are far too many', and this very fact weighs like a huge rock on the shoulders of the individual. A Chinese person of Yanyin's age might only recently start considering her/himself a 'person', different from all the others, even if still carrying a heavy responsibility as a member of society. This 'weight' weighs heavier on the shoulders of artists because they have a more accentuated personality and a more urgent need for self-expression. Sometimes I wonder when a 'Chinese' will be able to act according to needs or desires without the moral constraint of being considerate towards parents, children, friends, colleagues, government.... Compared to other countries, Chinese people are more conditioned to accept self-sacrifice. I just wonder when the first generation relatively free of such an unbearable burden will appear, and at what point they will feel at least partially the owners of their lives. It might eventually come as a shock, but it will also bring new possibilities.
This is an issue Yanyin has been addressing in her art since the beginning of her career, and to this end she has just completed an important and impressive group of sculptures after several years of work.
'Mother' - a social fresco and a sweet memory of past years
Over the last few years, I have witnessed the birth and development of Yanyin's 'Mother' group of works. Every time I went to Shanghai I found more completed sculptures and paintings, forming a small crowd of people who would transport Yanyin back to the time when her mother was still a young girl.
The loss of Yanyin's mother has been a real sorrow for the artist, not only because of the filial affection she used to feel, but also because her mother, being still relatively young, in her daughter's eyes had just started to enjoy life as an 'independent' person, without the restraints and heavy responsibilities that had weighed on her shoulders during her whole life. I remember Yanyin lamenting the fact that her mother did not have enough time to live 'for herself'. This strong sense of pity has become, I think, the main reason for her devoting so much effort and dedication to this monumental work - perhaps the most demanding of her career in terms of time and labour. It is at the same time a homage to her mother and also to those millions of people in China who shared her mother's fate.
In contrast to her other artwork, this oeuvre is making use of a realistic technique that has never been Yanyin's genre, except for the officially commissioned public sculptures. I believe she has made this choice because she feels it is the most appropriate to recreate the atmosphere of those years, when 'revolutionary' and 'socialist' realism were the only accepted styles. I can think of at least two other Chinese artists who have used photos of their relatives and friends dating back to the first thirty years of the then newly formed People's Republic of China in order to re-interpreted them: Zhang Xiaogang with his internationally renowned 'Blood line' series and Hai Bo with his brilliant photographic re-enactments. I feel that, despite being male, both Zhang Xiaogang and Hai Bo have elaborated a much more sentimental way of expressing their longing or criticism towards that period through images. In contrast, Yanyin has chosen a rather detached way of expressing a subject that, I am sure, affects her a lot. It is as if she did not want to appear too emotional, as if she wanted to make her work become more 'universal' or maybe even more understandable by the people of her mother's age, who are the most suitable viewers. Being a sculptor first of all, Yanyin has translated some of the most important occasions in her mother life (or at least those that were considered to be so in those days, and are immortalized in photographs) into life-size (or even slightly larger) statues. Moreover, as if she wanted to immerse herself in those lives, at those moments, she has even made a painted version of the same photographs chosen as a source of inspiration for the three dimensional works. The result is a monumental ensemble, entitled 'Mother', composed of both paintings and sculptures - and in certain cases, with the addition of the slightly enlarged original photographs.
The story of Yanyin's mother is the story of a whole country. No wonder the first photograph the artist re-elaborates dates back to 1949, the occasion of the birth of New China. Here, Yanyin has reproduced a whole group of 15 people posing together to commemorate the event, in the same way as did millions of others in every corner of the country. Her mother is in the last row, smiling, with her face slightly turned to show two long, neat braids as was common back then. All the individuals of the group are wearing the same dress - or uniform - and share the same quiet optimism.
From this point, the images chosen from the original album recall special moments both of family history, such as her mother and her father at different early stages (her father died quite young), the appearing of Yanyin and her younger sister and brother..., and of the country's development.
Having heard Yanyin talking about her mother for many years, I know a secret that I hope I am allowed to relate here: before marrying the man who became Yanyin's father, she had a boyfriend she loved dearly but could not marry for 'social' reasons (I don't remember whose 'background' was bad... those situations were so common in China in those years) and whom she started to see again after the death of her husband, many years later. Yanyin was sympathetic to this love story and she wished that they could finally be together in their last years. As a representative of a younger generation, and a 'modern' woman, Yanyin gave much more importance to love relationships and to private life than her predecessors. I believe that when a sudden illness carried away her mother, Yanyin considered it somehow an injustice despite her Buddhist vision. One of the few photographs of her mother alone, taken by Yanyin, catches her in a pensive mood while she looks at a pond. For Yanyin this picture (transformed into a painting) has become the symbol of her mother's quietly repressed melancholy.
Yanyin has chosen to portray her mother and the people who were part of her life in the way that was most common back then: frontally, statically, with an optimistic look on their faces; in other words, showing their 'official, exterior' appearance and concealing their intimate feelings. Still, Yanyin's protagonists are not those 'impersonal, standardized' representatives of the masses that have been the propaganda cipher of socialist China's iconography. She has modeled very closely resembling portraits of each person, she has made them look like individuals, each one with their unique physical features.
The components of those impressive statuary groups of people who are now standing together and stare at the viewers with their smiling, fixed eyes, trying to appear at their best, not only share the same uniform, but are also all painted in white, as if they were ghosts, visually transformed into fading memories of the past. Only Yanyin's mother, in those more intimate moments where she is alone or with her husband, is highlighted with paint here or there, on her jacket, hair, lips, glasses and so on. I suppose this is because she is the main character and the only one who has shown her inner self to the sculptor. Coming back to the two-dimensional works, we can see that the original black and white pictures have been transformed into paintings where grey or sepia hues predominate, so as to enable the artist to stress the historical value of those images. The painting technique itself is simplified although it could also be considered realistic.
Yanyin's parents and relatives, like the majority of Chinese, were in their youth truly and enthusiastically devoted to the construction of 'New China" and had given all their time – both at work and at leisure - to the country. The artist is fully aware of this, as she grew up in those heroic years; yet, looking back from afar, with detachment, she finds herself rather skeptical towards any 'mass phenomenon', because individuals were carried away by external circumstances and lost sight of their inner selves.
Nowadays Yanyin is a cheerful person who smiles most of the time and is always ready to see the positive aspect of everything, although her optimistic, joyful attitude has been achieved through a combination of the acceptance of the world's sorrow, and the understanding of her deep needs through the sounding of her individuality, a person completely different from all others. She believes that no individual (and subsequently collective) progress can be made without a mature awareness of one's true self.
I would like to end this long essay, that I consider to be an homage to Chen Yanyin's attitude towards life and art, with a quotation from her dissertation dating back to the year 2000, where we can understand how serious she is in what she does:
"In order to achieve self-realisation, one person should face her/himself in a very frank and brave manner. Who am I before my birth? Who am I at birth? Why am I alive? What is really valuable? Then, what is the meaning of the expression of art for oneself as well as for others? Why would one want to display one's emotional idea in an artistic way? What kind of artistic expression is the most appropriate for oneself? I believe that only in this way can people find appropriate and sincere material. The creation of art is based on the answers to these fundamental issues."
Vigolo Vattaro, May 24th, 2015
Thanks to Christopher Taylor