Lifestyle & Belief

This Chinese performance artist is crazier than Ai Weiwei


A photo of Chinese artist He Yunchang performing "One Meter Democracy" in He's studio in Beijing, April 18, 2014.



He Yunchang says he will do anything for art so long as it doesn't kill him.

Anything includes staring at 10,000 watts of light bulbs to damage his eyesight, encasing himself in concrete for 24 hours, and burning his clothes while wearing them.

Anything also now includes cutting out his own rib and wearing it as a necklace.

That operation, which was carried out in 2008 at the start of the Beijing Olympics, was intended to demonstrate He Yunchang's individual autonomy, he told AFP.

It was a decision he could make for himself "while many other things are out of my control."

It isn't hard to hear the resonance of his words in China today, where personal freedoms continue to be checked harshly under Communist rule.

In 2010, in a piece entitled "One Metre Democracy," He Yunchang asked a 25-person audience to vote on whether he should cut himself from his collarbone to his knee.

There were 12 votes in favor and 10 against. Three abstained. He did not use anesthetic.

"I want to convey the message that I am ready to pay a high price to show my concern," he said.

"My principle is that, if it's worth the pain, then my safety comes second. But I keep things under control. It is important that I do not let myself die."

In an even more recent piece this past March, He Yunchang painted the fingernails and toenails of 10 mannequins — with his own blood.

Ai Weiwei, everyone's favorite Chinese dissident artist provocateur, says He Yunchang's work is "a mix of play, personal history, political message and poetic romance," according to the Shanghaiist.

But compared to Ai Weiwei's work, which almost always has an overtly playful edge to it, He Yunchang's work sways much more masochistic. 

Judith Neilson, founder of the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney which specializes in contemporary Chinese art calls him "an alchemist of pain."

"He Yunchang evidently believes that pain and extreme discomfort, deliberately planned and willingly undergone, have a transcendent quality," she said, "and that it is this quality that raises mere action to the level of art."

Whether you think it's art or just plain crazy, He Yunchang's work does make you think. How far would you go for something you really cared about?