A Healthy Protest

A HEALTHY PROTEST, He Yunchang Long-Life Fruits performance

Today Art Museum, Beijing (CN)

by Jonas


The banner hanging outside Today Art Museum in Beijing, and the poster, to He Yunchang’s solo exhibition, “A Healthy Protest” is illustrated by a photograph from his monumental yet human scale work, Touring ’Round Great-Britiain with a Rock from 2006/2007. It shows a clear blue sky, and below, quite small, the artist walking with a rock on his shoulder on a small wall, separating the road from the dike of Boulmer in Northumberland. It documents the moment just before he will put back the rock where he picked it up 118 days earlier in his journey walking around the isle of Great-Britain. In the beautiful clear blue sky of the poster something is written in small letters, Curator : (…) and Presenter : (…). No names, just blank.

When entering the huge space where He Yunchang’s performance, A Healthy Protest, will take place, the media is already present with their cameras and tripods, they are joining a huge crowd of more than 200 people. Who are all waiting for the performance to start. The set-up of the work is simple. On the floor hundreds of transparent plastic containers are filled with 500 pounds of brown peanuts, or ”long-life fruits” as they are commonly known. They are placed in a half-circle, towards the 15 meter high wall of the museum. The white wall is draped in 18 transparent white linen or curtains hanging down hanging down as a backdrop. In the center of the half-circle of long-life fruits stands a transparent 50 cm low table with a small grey carpet on it. The whole installation is empty, only lit up by spotlights, just waiting to be filled with the human presence of the artist. There is an expectation in the air, but no silence, people talk and chit-chat. After twenty minutes, and on the exact time of the announced start, He Yunchang walks in slowly, ordinarily dressed in a grey long sleeve shirt, jeans, and blue socks. He moves some of the plastic containers with the nuts to make way, reaches the table and sits down. The cameras are instantly put on and the audience turns slowly their attention to He Yunchang who just sits there silently looking out towards everybody. Doing nothing, only looking out, changing position, and of course what we all can see, thinking. He is silent. After a while he stands up, puts his feet on the border of the table, looks down on the peanuts and… sits down again. This non-action in which nothing happens goes on and on. After around one hour some of his friends covers the peanuts with a similar white semi-transparent linen that hangs down from the wall, turning the brown semi-circle into a white one. After which one of them takes a hose to water the white linen and the long-life fruits.

Although we are all there observing, we are not waiting for something. Because everyone knows that nothing will happen. That He Yunchang will just stay on the table for 72 hours, in a solitary public conifinement inside the museum, refusing to drink or eat or for that matter smoke. He will only be. Without the very substance that keeps us alive. We all know that there will be nothing else, yet we stay, watch, feel and think and some goes on with their small talk. The strong contrast between our own presence as an observering collective and He Yunchang’s solitude becomes after a while overwhelming. A contrast emphasized by limiting himself to nothing, showcasing a nothingness and an absolute reduced existence. It is an opposition that denotes a self-imposed isolation and amplifies the sound of silence inherent in the work.

If this work shows an open solitary public confinement on a 1×2 m2 table in a museum, the obvious question is why ? What does it mean ? He could have realized it without limiting his movement, yet limits it to that of a table ? Why does he confine himself in this public yet invisible space ? In a way one can see it as a negative of his renown work Casting from 2006 when he was confined into the darkness of a block of cement. It also have some conceptual similarities with his Waiting for the Grass to Grow from 2012 in which he was seeding grains on his courtyard living with them until they thad grown into grass. However here he is in a self-imposed confinement, in the spotlight, in public, and in the art museum. Yet he does not do anything else than what you do in an isolary confinement, stand, sit, lie down, and of course think, sleep and dream. In the invisible space of 1×2 m, only delimited by the surface of a table.

Juxtaposed to this set-up stands his new installation piece Dragon Teeth. It has the shape of two concave and wedged structures each measuring about four and fifteen meter high, both being covered by the firewood of another work from 2007, Advance and Retreat. If the smaller tooth is completely covered by the firewood, the large one is only partly covered intended to be completed before the end of the show. It is made out of the wood that He Yunchang have chopped during ten years in his courtyard, where each one carries the inscription of the date of its creation. In Advance and Retreat they cover the outside wall of his home and studio in Caochangdi designed by Ai Weiwei. Here in the monumental space of the Today Art Museum there is nothing that separated Dragon Teeth from his performance Long-Life Nut, so both do speak to each other visually. It is impossible not to see them connected to eacher other. Not because they are the only two pieces that He Yunchang have created specifically for this retrospective show, but also because he has a regular eye and emotional contact with them during his performance.

His work triggers some basic questions : why refuse to eat and drink ? why a transparent table ? why 72 hours ? why the peanuts ? why draping an already white wall with 18 white curtains ? why covering the peanuts with white linen ? why watering them ? why keeping the performance open to the public at night ? why having it recorded online in a closed circuit group ? and why realizing it juxtaposed to his installation piece Dragon Teeth ? Of course, some of these questions can have practical answers. But together they do form an understanding of his work and its context. There is another crucial question that has to be adressed.   Why does he leave the space blank where the curators’ and the presenters’ name should be ? Is there no curator, or no presenter ? If so why mention it at all. The blank space do imply that these people are missing, a stated silence, yes maybe even a censorship ? And if so of what kind ? Is there no curator? Or is he not allowed to show his or her name ?

If his 72 hour elimination of nutrition and water goes to what is the recognized level of starvation, it is nevertheless a metaphor for an existence without anything, of nothing, or one could even say a non-existence. It also conveys a possible double meaning. It could be seen as a symbol of fasting, a purification of the body and the mind, with the intention of reaching another spiritual level and even to become healthier. But it can also be an action of pacific protest, a hunger strike, a revolt against an injustice. Whether we see it one way or the other or both, it is the open and I would say non-dualistic ground on which the work is based. Healthy Protest ? Health and/or protest… a protest of health.

This double meaning is also present in the long white linen, or curtains, which through their position on an already white wall emphasize our understanding that they are not used to cover or hide something. But to convey a meaning. If white on the one hand symbolizes a purity, it further denotes death. On the one hand through the colour but also in the historic use of white linen to drape a dead body. In China, white is the color of mourning and funerals, it is also representing reincarnation, showing that death is not a permanent separation from the world. The set-up of the white curtain, with He Yunchangs small body resting or sitting on the table, clearly have resemblances with the composition of the ” A Healthy Protest” poster and the clear blue sky. Yet here, its emphasized verticality, height, colour and texture gives it an impression of a heaven.

Why confining himself to the size of a table ? Why delimiting his movements to a 1×2 m2 flat surface ? What does the table mean here ? Normally used as a furniture at which one meet, drink, eat, it is quite often also the center of a home or at least a gathering. He Yunchang transforms it into the opposite of its function. Not only refusing to eat or drink but making the table into a living space. Standing, sitting, walking or sleeping on it. Not drinking nor eating at it. Its transparency enhances the feeling of another level, that he actually sits, walks and sleeps in the air. He is using its surface, and its delimitations, as the borders of what obviously is a self-imposed restricted or closed area from which he can not leave, a isolatory confinement with no walls. Surrounded by the symbol of long life.

The Dragons Teeth, in its turn also the potential of multiple readings. If the term signifies a weapon, it is the name of an ancient Chinese double sided sword, which has been coopted in the more contemporary world of computer games in Battlefield 4. It is a term that further connotes to the mafia, or a small group of conspiring people. In military terminology it signifies a conical or wedge-shaped concrete antitank obstacle protruding from the ground in rows as to stop the heavy artillery of the enemy. Through the expression to ”sow Dragon Teeth”, it has yet another meaning which means to take an action that is intended to prevent strife or trouble but that actually brings it about.

However, in Chinese myth and culture the Dragons Teeth is esteemed as a highly efficient medicine. Which according to the oldest Chinese medical work, written by the mythological emperor Sheng Nung (Shennong), drive out spasms, epilepsy, madness and attacks by demons. Yet it also owns the quality of appeasing unrest of the heart and calms the soul. Without doing a more profound analysis of this installation, one could say that it not only represents 10 years of He Yunchangs life and work. It is also both a medicine and a weapon, an obstacle for attacks, a Retreat and an Advance. Which accompany him here, in his fast or protest, as a defense and a medicine with all its possible undermeanings. Brought from the outside walls of his home in Caochangdi, designed by his friend, to make him stronger in his struggle not to eat or drink, to rise to another spiritual level in Todays Art Museum.

His dry fasting or hunger strike is not private but public, it is realized as a work of art, surrounded by thousands of long-life nuts. Which also has the implicit meaning to”give birth” through its second character (sheng 生), symbolizing the wish for many children. A birth or a growth, emphasized by the watering, and by white linen, denoting a purity but also that of a white death shroud. As a fusion of the human purity of birth and of death.[1]

The peanuts’ connotations to common people and ordinary life is immediate, not only symbolizing a long-life or the wish for many children, it is also the most used ingredient in Chinese cuisine as cooking oil.[2] It is a nut which is eaten at celebrations and gatherings, like the Chinese new year, thus owns a symbolism that reunites feast with ordinary life. It is associated to a collective, like the audience standing around it at the opening, and in a general way something shared between friends. But also something that in this set-up separates He Yunchang’s isolation from the visitors. Obviously, the symbolism of the peanut is multi-layered, and has in this work a rather complex meaning. Even more so since the significance of the peanuts are transformed through their watering during the entire performance, giving them an even healthier quality, raising the level of protein through their final germination. Which in itself is a new birth, a new germ for an even longer life.

Bringing together symbols of both the negative and the positive, or maybe more precisely the opposites, gives Long-Life Fruit an enigmatic character. It might appear simple, but clearly is not. The action of non-nutrition is also surrounded by high protein, highly nutritive seeds, being watered thus enhancing its protein level.

The simplicity of the non-action of being, of a reduced existence, of a healthy fast or a hunger strike, is here mixed with other apparently opposing symbols of a non-dualism. Nothing is black or white, but rather grey like the shirt He Yunchang is wearing, or the carpet on which he rests his body. There is no doubt that his fast is healthy, its denotations to Buddhism can’t be neglected with its meaning to rise to a higher spiritual level. However, the question if his refusal to eat and drink also can be seen as a protest, a hunger strike, is still there, hanging in the air. Just like the empty space on the exhibition poster where the curator and the presenters names should be. In the blue sky. If it is a hunger-strike, a protest, then it is an action fusing with health. Conveying a very specific meaning to the work. The unspoken names on the poster, carries with it a specific meaning approaching myth. If the names would be stated, the work would undoubtely lose a large part of its inherent poetry. Its sound of silence. Its myth. Of course, everyone asks the same question, who is the curator? Actually, whoever it is, is of less importance. What is important, are the blanks. The non stated, the erased, the traces of censorship.



[1] This use of a non-dualist dialectics, uniting the apparent opposites, is also present in his loss of proteins through his fasting while simultaneously being surrounded by thousands of protein rich peanuts.

[2] But as well to China’s economy, being the largest peanut producer in the world as a result of the household responsability system of the early 1980’s which moved financial control from the government to the farmers.

Read more about He Yunchang.