Talking about Haiguang Li and Yunfeng Zhang; Or, their recent works
/ Boyan Li
Do artists need to confirm their existence? This is an identity issue.
For Haiguang Li and Yunfeng Zhang, or Yunfeng Zhang and Haiguang Li, this is a question the same as “who am I” . In their latest exhibition “Flesh Garden”(2017, 501 XU SPACE, Chongqing), they discussed the distinctions and overlaps between individual experiences and collective ones. They selected “a self-critical responding method”  to deal with all sorts of social problems encountered in life. It might also be the living environment of Beijing that created such a proposition.
Haiguang Li and Yunfeng Zhang, or Yunfeng Zhang and Haiguang Li, live in Yanjiao, Hebei Province, where is a place full of outlanders working in Beijing. They no longer live in bungalows like the artists living in Dongcun, Yuanmingyuan, and Songzhuang at the end of the last century, but communities with international names. They stop putting personal and social issues into opposite positions, nor using more radical or tougher approaches to make art works, embodying the strategies of new generation artists, with the knowledge of ingenious advance and retreat, and reasonable channels of expression and propagation.
Since 2015, they have entered the art circle with “Sports Ground”, a series of performance videos. At first, “Sports Ground” was only spread through network media (mainly WeChat platform), thus it seemed remote and irrelevant — not only because the watching devices reduced the sense of reality in spaces and sites, but also because of the unconscious entertaining attitudes of the viewers. These videos, from tens of seconds to over ten minutes, are like sketches in paintings, and essays in literature — moderately, a few words will make people laugh.
“Sports Ground” includes 71 performance video footages, which is by no means an endless self-entertainment game. But are they criticizing anything? Nor is it. Nope. The ambiguity floating between seriousness and jokes, timidity and threatenings, like a certain kind of characteristics obtained by the early black and white silent films — what is it? —The boredom! It’s the boredom of life. Boredom is also the least solvable problems in the world. Where they live, the shelter, riverside, and under the bridge… in changing seasons, repeatedly, they express their consensus on boredom. It is unnecessarily nerve-wracking to analyze those actions with semiotic knowledges. These works are so short that they could be told by several words — standing against the other’s head in snow; bowing on rockery; spinning in circles on an island; rotating on the community stage… those pointless body movements declare that any move could have a meaning in it. Therefore, the “sports” in “Sports Ground” are not real movement, but a metaphor for the exchange of people and the external spaces, and the self-confirmation of living. Cleverly, they keep away from iconic environment, and weaken the particularity of individual appearance and identity. The attitude of non-emphasizing and non-expressing conveys the understanding of “public meaning” and “individual meaning” by new foreign artists. The essence of “Sports Ground” is a seemingly everyday, but unexpected act that reveals the divide/ draws the line between passionless life and dull society.
In “The Devil” (1871-1872), Dostoevsky described a fire happens in Russia. He used large passages to analyze the distinctive feelings of the viewers and the victims. “The fire at night always gives effect of both excitement and joy.”  — According to Dok’s point of view, when the audiences watch something dirty, painful, and sad, their position of staying out always let them feel some happiness. The works of Haiguang Li and Yunfeng Zhang, or Yunfeng Zhang and Haiguang Li, have grasped this key point. Their approaches are like setting a fire for the audience to watch. Making use of the onlooker’s spirit, the excitement and joy were mobilized successfully in their exhibition “Beast Park” in 2016. The main part of the exhibition opening was a performance set in a “cage” and with hostile postures. This “cage” was a kind of green wire mesh which often appears in public spaces. It dispelled the specific orientation of the real beast cages, and returned to an indifferent life experience with the implication of daily universalities. They put on their helmets, shouted out each other’s name, and forced a sheet of glass towards the other’s head. One after another, tens of minutes went away. Sensory stimulations disappeared gradually into boredom over time. The shouts lingered around ears and never went away. Just like a lengthy gambling, the more you lose, the more you want to win back, and you cannot get rid of the exhaustion. Sometimes they cooperated joyfully, and sometimes ruthlessly attacked against each other. Besides the live performance of “Beast Park”, the offensive situation appears in “Nocturnal Animals - Attack” and “Drawing the Tap” as well. When the violent performance ended, the constant screams from animal behavior videos echoed throughout the exhibition space, as if the ominous signs revealed in silence after storm.
If "Beast Park" and “Sports Ground" implied some sorts of impromptu, then since the "Performance Art Stage" (2016), they found a broader way. The performing events planned and dispatched by external forces looked more like the acting style of small art institutions or some curators. "The Great Stage of Performance Art" is a work for a large-scale exhibition of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Art Museum. In order to create an onlooking event better, they listed all the shows and the performance timetable in advance, and promoted online. The "shows" are mimicking those classic performance art works that has gone down in history. They invited a special host looked like the emcee in front of a mall for promotions, sometimes singing and sometimes telling stories to attract customers with slippery and motivating words. When the host screamed out: "The performance art grand stage, come here if you like!" The audiences gathered from every corners of the museum to the lively stage. With a small amount of money, they could participate, “experiencing performance art”.
Haiguang Li and Yunfeng Zhang, or Yunfeng Zhang and Haiguang Li, made the act of classic parody and classic consumption a new behavior. Bois, Klein, Abramovich, Yoko Ono, Gilbert and George — those famous art stars were only props here. Through the whole exhibition, they were not satisfied with simple imitation gradually, and then they searched for various business approaches for the “grand stage” — inviting calligraphers to give lectures, off-season promotions, new year tea parties, reading and writing poems, etc. to let more people participate in the new performance. The practice of this virtual institution more or less had an anti-classical motive and was a rebellion against the performance art itself, and it revealed the insurmountable gap between artists and audiences. So that they sold all the props through the online store eventually, declaring the bankruptcy of art in a broken posture.
Another similar attempt, the "Eight Views of Jianshan" (2017, Renewable Space Project, Tianjin), was a tour plan implemented in an abandoned community in Tianjin. They spent a lot of effort cleaning and carefully arranged an empty room as the temporary travel agency office, and then they published the “Eight Views of Jianshan Promotional Video” online. Upon the official opening, the pre-registered visitors were invited to participate in the opening ceremony of the travel agency, following the tour guide played by Yunfeng Zhang. Those fictional attractions were referred to the spots, calling white black, and mythological stories were interspersed. The sound of music attracted nearby residents. The artists waved hands to them like entrepreneurs; and those who did not know the fact would only feel funny. They acted as the tourism land agent in the “myth of public”, supporting every links of the operation with a unique taste of current China: real estate advertising, promotional videos, unveiling ceremony, tourist souvenirs — everything showed the greedy face of “bag companies” who tried to make money rapidly .
Compared to their previous live performances, "Flesh Garden" was freed from being shaped by live scenes. The relationship between performers and audiences was more ambiguous, and they could even be transformed. The subversion of the concept of "artist is supreme" allowed the performance to be applied in the collective society. The performance had two parts: The first part consisted of Haiguang Li and two volunteers, one leading in front and the others following. This kind of poor imitation was symbolic, hardly precise, and became a test of figure experiences. Those body movements that looked like “posing" could be understood as physical instinct. During the performance, between the image priori and physical instinct, the effect of force and reactive force was generated. The second part of the performance was composed of Yunfeng Zhang and three volunteers, and they started performing during the first part. The content was “slow-motion boxing”, which explored the essence of “performance” more closely. The four young men performed "boxing" on a platform which could accommodate only four people, exhausted and sweating, and their shouts filled the whole space.
Posing, corresponding to photography; and slow-motion, corresponding to video — the main media in these two art creations were treated as content in their performances, expressing the doubt about image (video) carrying public events. It also reflected the confusion that the image-popularizing era caused to everybody, that is, everyone is equal in images.
Whether "Eight Views of Jianshan", “Grand Stage of Performance Art”, or “FleshGarden", they cannot be separated from the bustling scenes brought by the rapid development of China. The rising housing prices and the new class division become increasingly obvious in many first-tier cities with strong centripetal forces. Both the aborigines and outsiders are marginalized by the new “rich class”. Through their actions, the two artists clearly displayed art as the weapon of leisure persons, and it could remedy the dilemmas brought by various social problems at appropriate time. Looking for the gaps for individual survivals in the social landscape, and questioning the power system of contemporary art through the approach of performing art. This kind of questioning shows the basic attitude that life is art, and art is life. This kind of questioning is like questioning why you need to apply for a certificate when entering Beijing. In their ideology, a checkpoint of Yanjiao, Hebei has been virtually created in order to examine the special status privileged by the name of art.
At last, Haiguang Li and Yunfeng Zhang, or Yunfeng Zhang and Haiguang Li, this unnamed artist group is always maintaining some uncertain actions. This unavoidably temporary relationship also symbolizes some kind of "danger." Or, it is a contest between one individual and another in continuous negotiations, exchanges, and understanding. They are trying to avoid the conventional contract-relationship, instead, their practices are like taking private events away from themselves, and exposing them to the camera for public inspection.