Artist: ‘She. Herself. Naked.’: The Art of He Chengyao

On 21/01/2014 by Site Default

Wearing only underpants, He Chengyao faces the camera, the long acupuncture needles sticking out of her body making her look somewhat like a human porcupine. The performance art piece, now a video and a photograph, is titled “99 Needles.”

In another work, a photograph titled “Opening the Great Wall,” Ms. He (pronounced “her,”) strides topless along China’s Great Wall, her obvious femininity lending a twist to the popular Chinese saying that “You’re not a real man until you visit the Great Wall.”

Stunt nudity or something deeper?

“It’s body politics,” said the art critic Tong Yujie, who has written a book about radical women’s art in China and says Ms. He’s work, which explores nudity, mental illness and memory through performance art, video and photography, is valuable for its focus on a little examined topic in Asian art: mother-daughter relationships.

“People often give social or political interpretations to my work,” Ms. He said in an interview in her home, a roomy Quonset hut in the Beijing suburb of Caochangdi. “And those things are the overall context.” But mostly her work is intensely personal, she said. Her mother conceived her out of wedlock and was punished – there was also forced acupuncture to “cure” her – for violating social norms.

“I’m using my body to take on her pain, to express guilt. What I’m doing is mostly about emotion, about familial relationships. I feel this is the center of life,” she said.

Her challenging work has been shown in China, though not often, she says. It has been more embraced elsewhere. She is part of a show at the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, Germany, through Feb. 2 in a show called, “Sie. Selbst. Nackt.” (“She. Herself. Nude.”) The collection of nude self-portraits by female artists also includes works by Marina Abramovic,Louise BourgeoisCecile WaltonMaria Lassnig and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Ms. He, 49, didn’t start out as an artist. Born in Sichuan province in China’s southwest, she taught math in an elementary school for three years before attending art college. She then taught art, but later left that job feeling that, as a young mother – she has a son who is now in his 20s – she couldn’t combine the rigid hours with motherhood. Instead, she painted at home to earn money.

The story of Ms. He and her mother began in the early 1960s, shortly before the Cultural Revolution shook China. Her young parents, who worked in a pottery factory in Rongchang in present-day Chongqing municipality, conceived her while unmarried. “They were told by the factory, ‘Have an abortion or be fired’,” she said. They chose to keep her and were fired.

“My mother was just 19 when I was born,” Ms. He said. It was 1964, the planned economy was in full swing and the offense spelled economic and social disaster. Two more children followed quickly.

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution began and Ms. He’s father disappeared, jailed for being in the “wrong” political faction, Ms. He said.

“My mother didn’t know where he was. She had no job, no money, no husband and three children.” So began a descent into madness, said Ms. He. She would strip in public, shaming her children.

“Twice on the street I pretended she wasn’t my mother. Once, later, she was rounded up and sent to another town,” Ms. He said. “She was lost,” she added, crying.

In an attempt at a cure, a door was taken down and her mother tied to it, screaming, as amateurs administered painful acupuncture. “I was about five,” said Ms. He. “I watched. And there was nothing I could do to help.”

In China, public nudity is generally considered shameful and art critics and fellow artists have chastised Ms. He for stripping. “They say I’m trying to attract attention,” she said. Yet she argues it serves a deeper purpose. She removed her shirt at the Great Wall because, “Women aren’t supposed to behave like that,” she said with a grin.

For Alison Stone, a professor at Lancaster University in Britain, it’s more than that. “It’s as if she becomes her mother, deliberately re-enacts her mother’s experiences, and pain, within herself,” said Ms. Stone, who has written about women, mothers and art, in an email.

“He Chengyao’s art works are nearly all connected to her mother,” said Ma Lin, a professor at the Fine Art College of Shanghai University. “We see her shadow everywhere in them.” Of “99 Needles,” she said: “That work is an attempt to feel her mother’s pain, but also an accusation toward society for treating her mother so poorly.”

With her mother ill, Ms. He, her younger brother and sister were cared for by their maternal grandmother. Their mother lived with them too. Despite the difficulties, the family was close.

Sometimes there was physical violence between the two older women. “All my life I was told, don’t talk about the craziness in the family, especially when you’re ‘discussing love’,” she said, using a term to mean, courting. “It will stain you. People fear it will affect the next generation.” To this day, she said, there is little help for the mentally ill in China.

“Today I wonder if other people think I’m mad for doing what I do. It’s a question of how you judge things,” Ms. He said.



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