Born into an artistic family in South China, Shen Yuan started painting with her father at a young age to become what her parents considered as the most divine vocation – artist. In 1985, Shen Yuan participated in the Xiamen Dada group, exploring avant-garde art under high political pressure. “My father worried a lot for us.” In 1990, Shen Yuan left China with her artist husband, Huang Yong Ping, to settle down in Paris. A new life started, however, every single day is a challenge. Cultural shocks, language barriers, financial difficulties… hurdles after hurdles. When I asked her if she has sacrificed anything for art, she looked lost. Obviously, such question has never occurred her. Her life is so perfectly and delicately fused with her art. There is no conflict. Is an understanding husband a key to such harmony? “We both have a strong personality, but we understand and support each other.” What about in daily life, really no conflict with art? “When we first came to Paris, we decided not to have children. But then some years later, I felt the urge of wanting a kid.” Now, their daughter is 11 years old.
Shen Yuan’s installations are spectacular and aesthetically pleasant, however, the feeling is delicate, deeply mingle with the triviality of the everyday life. In her words, art means reborn in a new body. “I am trying to show language which lives in the material, the objects, I change something dead into something living, something useless into something useful.” That something finds an echo in the audience. That something we called Art. Shen Yuan emphasizes that art should be originated from life. I believe that while her art sought inspiration from her life, her life is also enriched through her art.
Today, we talked to Shen Yuan on Women Artists and Intimate Space.
Selina Ting, Spring 2010
Tongue, language and identity
Selina Ting [ST]: There are two major elements in your work, the tongue and the hair. Let’s start with the tongue. The tongue represents language and taste, etc.. What does it symbolize in your artistic creation?
Shen Yuan [SY] : The tongue has several levels of meaning and possibilities. In art, there is a dual metaphorical sense of the tongue, i.e. the physical and the spiritual; physical because it’s part of the body; spiritual because it’s a language, a tool. In my work, the tongue is more about the later, i.e. the spiritual. For example, the ice-tongue in Perdre sa salive (1994)… I like very much to use the ice as the material, it’s very fragile, easily melt into nothing. However, when you touch it with your hands, its chill pierced into the marrow. Visually, it’s unstable, in an eternal process of changing, of transforming. There are people who find it erotic, because it’s part of the body. It arouses physical excitement. Inside, at the core of it, is a knife, which is a tool. In another case, the 12-meter-long inflatable tongue that stretches out from the wall to astound the audience, becomes an invader of the space, at the same time poses a potential physical attack on to the audience. The tongue itself is offensive, just like language. In another installation, 80 fabric tongues dart out of a constellation of hair dryers like party poppers can be very neurotic.
ST : The tongue is endorsed with an active role and multiple functions in your work. How do you understand its relationship to language and cultural identity?
SY : Culture is about language. When the communication aim of language is attained, cultural difference or racial segregation melt away. When we are not accepted by another culture, we often figure ourselves as victims of discrimination. In fact, it was the language barrier that separated us. I once said that a person without a language is like a soldier in the battlefield without a weapon. Without language, we become fragile, unprotected. To communicate is to allow people to accept you, but also to protect yourself, to speak for yourself, and to make yourself understood.
ST : It’s about the discursive power.
SY : Yes. Especially when it comes to legal issues and financial interests, if you don’t have the language, you can only give up your rights to negotiate.
ST : There are lot of discussion about the discursive power since the post-colonial period. Another interesting phenomenon in post-modernity is the proliferation of visual culture, its expansion and mutation seem to surpass that of the language. As an artist who based her communication on visual elements, do you think you posses the advantages in communication compare to people in your similar situation? For example me, someone depends so heavily on literary communication?
SY : To me, visual communication is diffusive, whereas language is linear, logical. Everyone can have his own interpretation in front of an artwork. They approach the work from their own experience, educational background and interest. There is no barrier. On the other hand, language needs to be echoed, to be received in a specific way.
ST : Do you think the authoritative power of language still exist in the 21st century where visual elements prevailed?
SY : I believe language still has its charisma, which is more intriguing than visual sensation, because it is not what it appears to be. However, the situation today is that, there are two levels of language. There is the general enhancement of education in the public, there is also the elitist culture which continues to advance itself into a more sophisticated realm, and their language becomes ever more abstract. This is what the visual elements cannot reach. Pictorial communication is superficial, but language is about thought. Art is not pure picture, it also comes from thinking. That’s why not everything visually created can be art, and also why there is a difference between good and bad art.
Content and expression
ST : Hair, especially long braid, a very traditional image associated with women. You have magnified it by ten times and let it flow from windows, from the seat-back of a chair, etc. How did you start using hair as a creative element?
SY : The inspiration comes from a picture that I have seen many years ago. It was a picture taken in the 1930s when some Chinese men still kept their long plaits. It showed three Chinese soldiers imprisoned in the adversary’s camp with their hair tied together to prevent them from escaping. I was shocked by the image and it remains in my head for years until one day, I was invited by Hou Hanru to participate in a group show, Les Parisiens, which featured non-French artists working in Paris. When I went to see the venue, I saw the ten-some windows of different size in different alignment and I decided to use them for the installation. I imagined some people facing the window with their hair being tied together.
ST : What about the installation with the cotton shoes which formed the sentence “They left yet they have nowhere to go (Elles sont parties pourtant elles n’ont nulle part où aller)”. It reminds me of Henri Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. Is it about women’s situation?
SY : Yes, this is what I have in mind. But many Europeans read it as a work about immigration, but you are right, my idea is about the shared fate of modern women. Why I used these two types of shoes? Because the bond-feet shoes represent an epoch when men treated women as their commodities and confined them at home. The other kind of simple black cotton shoes transformed women into labors, deprived of any ornament or personal taste, void of personality.
ST : It’s also about the bewilderment of facing a new world; once the door is closed behind us, then where should we go?
SY : Yes. It’s the precise moment of a tragic comedy. When the door is open, we found our freedom, but what to do next? There is this complex feeling of excitement and fear, something we confronted so often in our life. Besides, visually, the shoes give the impression of really walking out of the space.
ST : Are you not concerned that, facing such an expressive, concrete imagery of work, the audience would take them as lightly as visually pleasurable?
SY : There are different layers of audience too, there are professionals from the art world, some are the general public. If the work can evoke in the general public ideas such as, “oh, art can be like this”, or that “I have this shoes at home as well” or other cultural association or life experience, I think that is pretty satisfactory for an artist. If audience can feel something, think of something else, that he or she starts to accept that art can be such, these materials can be there in the museum, then it good enough.
ST : Do you have an image of an ideal audience?
SY : No. I think, most of the work today has an interactive aspect in it. When a work emphasizes too much on the communication, or is too eager to engage the public, there is a danger is becoming shallow, superficial. It’s very similar to computer images.
ST : Entertaining.
SY : Yes, entertaining. I think this kind of work cannot go too far, too deep. In my opinion, art has to be more advanced than the public, to be more professional.
The private space of women artists
ST : How do you found this tendency of women artists focusing on their personal life?
SY：The demarcation in male and female mentality exists not only in artistic creation. The phenomenon is obvious since college when boys are more oriented towards sciences and history and girls prefer to write novels, diaries, etc. Of course, the different living environments and lifestyles have an impact on this. Most female artists have to take care of their family and children alongside their artistic creation. It’s like an inborn responsibility. Therefore, works conceived from a private, personal space would naturally be more intimate and personal. Whereas, male artists care more about the social and political situations, their work may be more concern with social issues. I think everyone has his/her constrains. My inspiration comes from the people around me, from what is going on around me. They speak to me, they inspire me, in a very natural way. There is limit imposed on you, so just take advantage of this limit and do your own things, tell your own ideas. Of course, both the strength and the weakness are there.
ST : Do you think one day women artists can get over these hurdles, these constrains?
SY : I think yes.
ST : Do you think it’s necessary?
SY : I think the most important is to speak with one’s own thought. For example, many Chinese artists seek inspiration from traditional Chinese culture, I am not against this. Why shouldn’t one employ his or her own culture to connect to the global contemporary art scene? In my opinion, this is to enrich the world, to give one more dimension to a world which is, and should be, multi-cultural, multi-dimensional. When we comment that “this work is too feminine”, we are criticizing it by devaluing the feminine quality. In fact, there are many women artists who are producing very good work.
ST : Because this world is largely a male-constructed world, accomplishments are their accomplishments, failures are their failures. When a woman participates in the world, her role and style are very different.
SY : My observation is that, in some biennales, women artists are doing better and better. Most of their works come from their daily experience, their authentic understandings of life. There is tear and blood. Feelings come from life, truly experienced life, be it political, social or private. In the past years, artists are very simple, they work in their studios, in their private space, with a vision on the world, on the society. They try to understand the world from a personal perspective. However, today, with lots of biennales and international shows, artists are running after the trends, from events to events. Of course, this is an important process for art to reach out to the public. However, we should do it without rendering art shallow and empty. I wish to go back to the private space as well, to do work with my authentic experience instead of creating, producing for exhibitions. I remember one time, some one talked about the value of an artist and if he or she is happy during the creation. I replied that an artist would be truly happy when one is working solely for oneself. The feeling is very true and sincere.
ST : There seems to be an urgency among the female artists to relate their work to their gender role, while male artists are much more relaxed with this. Do you think it was a result of women’s long-term marginalization, being the “Other” of their male-counterparts that there is a gender-crisis, a need to articulate and to understand her own sex and gender identity?
SY : Marginalization is an existing problem. But on the one hand, women have been searching for an unique language, a language differed from men. Be it a merit or a shortcoming, at least, she demonstrates another possibility, another discourse which makes the world more divers. Of course, we can’t avoid the problematic that sometimes, women want to use this language to make clear that she is different, therefore, to seek attention. On the other hand, there is her limitation, as what we have said, that can also be her advantage. For example, a woman artist likes to use thread, fabrics and many other daily life objects. These are the materials that she touches everyday; that she is familiar with. The distance between artisan and artists sometimes is not as far as we imagined. On the contrary, if you asked a woman to work with irons and steels, she might find them difficult to handle. Just like asking a male artist to work with needles and fabrics, he might as well feel that his energy is not fully in function. The difference in material can be understood as a difference in the nature.
ST : Is there is any feminist critique in your work?
SY : I think yes, but I am more interested in the critique of ourselves, in women, kind of self- introspection.
ST : Do you read feminist theories?
SY : Yes, such as the work of Virginia Woolf. My aim is not to refer to certain feminist theories but to know how the other women react to the same problem, the same situation that we are in. They can be inspiring.
ST : Thank you very much!
About the artist
Shen Yuan was born in 1959 in Xianyou, China. Lives and works in Paris since 1990.
Shen Yuan’s most solo exhibitions include Shen Yuan: Hurried Words, 2009, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; Le Degré Zéro de l’Espace (2008), Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris; Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Vancouver, BC (2007); Shen Yuan (2005), Beaumontpublic, Luxembourg. Selected group shows that she participated include : Our Future: The Guy & Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection (2008), Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; ’85 New Wave – The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art (2007), Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; 52nd International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale / Biennale di Venezia – La Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2007); Wherever We Go: Art, Identity, Cultures in Transit Phase 1 (2007), San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, CA; Emergency Biennale in Chechnya (2007), Centre A – Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Vancouver, BC.