Thursday, May 08, 2008

Notes for Class: Animals in Art

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu
Honey, 1999

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu
Aquatic Wall, 1998

Damien Hirst
Love's Paradox

Damien Hirst
Away From the Flock

Interview with Sun Yuan and Peng Yu (from artists' website)

Li: When I first saw the aquatic walls (you made), it felt a little bit overwhelming. The animals (on the walls) were moving. Usually when people have aquatic animals for food, they are taken from an aquarium. Now these animals were placed in a different environment – on walls and out of water. They were on both sides of a corridor where people had to walk through. The audience was forced to take in this work. It was very provocative.

Sun: It felt like that. Basically it looked like that too. I thought it was quite interesting.

Li: It was a new environment for the animals.

Sun: Yes, there was a shift of environment. In the meantime, it had a certain visual appeal: the shapes of the animals were outlandish and they kept moving about on the walls; some with sharp-pointed body parts sticking out from the walls. It was like a live adornment.

Li: But what people saw were animals inlaid in the walls. The fact that the animals were taken from their usual environment was rather cruel. I remember that I had once written a few lines about when people had (seafood), they didn’t know about the brutal process of turning live animals into food. What you did was to reveal this cruel practice. “Fresh and lively seafood” is what everyone likes. Some restaurants in their peak time like to add “fresh and lively” in front of their dish names.

Sun: Eating means consuming this thing (seafood). The process of eating is already detached from the actual cruelty, which has been transformed. There is another transformation taking place as it’s being eaten. That’s when the diners taste and evaluate this food item beyond itself.

Li: When we talk about the ice bed, I remember you said that they were very intimate. The name was “honey” too but the mood was very frosty. The room was ice cold, emitting cold air, which created a contrast to its title.

Sun: Yes. In fact, the sense of the material itself was in concert with ice and the room temperature. The low temperature and coldness at the time was arranged to contrast the sense of intimacy. Another visual aspect about this work is rather warm and calm. I tried to avoid the sense of the material and let it appear different on photos from the actual object, material and reality.

Li: But when the viewers looked at it then, no one could quietly and positively observe a cadaver because it was dead and the color of the body was not lively.

Sun: If I wanted purely to generate a provocative effect, the cadaver itself was sufficient. But I didn’t plan on using this material itself to shock or to frighten the viewers. I hoped that it could convey another message and the discrepancy between this message and the material was probably what I liked more about this work. This little difference might just be what art is about.

Li: But it was after all the first time that you used this material and the first time people got to see such material. What made you want to use this material?

Sun: For many reasons…

Li: You mentioned one day that you saw an anatomy when you were a student. Even when we went to school, it was not very formal but we still had to see anatomies, to touch cadavers and to feel the structure. It was treated as an object for scientific study. The cadaver was devoid of human relationship and was meant to educate you and to give you exposure.

Sun: There are many chances to come in contact with this kind of material. For example, when a relative passes away, you can see something special on his body. Because the person you saw when he was alive was dissimilar to the one that was lying there. After a person passes away, his relatives who mourn and express their feelings towards the body miss the point that this body no longer exists. Life has left the body. Life is something immaterial. Once it’s separated from its carrier, it no longer exists. Then any kind of emotion is abandoned. Or otherwise people find it difficult to confront the truth and still treat the dead body as a relative. But if you look at it objective, you would know that what’s lying there is no longer the person you know. He’s been separated from the body already.

Li: You meant the difference between the specimen or the so-called “cadaver specimen” and that person, right?

Sun: Yes, that’s the state that my work tried to present, because the cadaver appeared to be in deep sleep, very intimate. This is what the entire setting and bed tried to convey.

Li: This work is about a contrast.

Sun: Could be, I think. Because when you mingle every aspect together, it became one result that has two contradictory sides.

Peng: We fabricated a very emotional set so that the audience would freeze in the kind of icy feeling upon arriving at the scene. Then he would realize that it was a cadaver, something unacceptable.

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