Brushed out of history

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-5-25 14:47:00

A still from Sun Ping's Bu Zhi Dao video.

By Vera Penêda

A blank wall stood out at the Reshaping History art exhibition at China National Convention Center. Viewers didn't have many clues as to what the piece was supposed to be - some Chinese ink and brushes were scattered on the floor, standing next to a set of harmless calligraphy and a big monolith with inscriptions. But it wasn't quite what the artist intended. It was the remains of his installation, Bu Zhi Dao (I don't know). On the second day of the show that identified itself as "The first China (Beijing) contemporary documenta," photos of the performance and stills of the video by artist Sun Ping were removed.

It may be understandable to some that his works were withdrawn. The short film showed calligraphy being "written" by a performer. But then you see that she is holding a traditional Chinese brush in her vagina, writing symbolic Chinese texts. It's quite hard to imagine, let alone look at and bill as art. But this is Sun's most recent, and perhaps most shocking, artwork.

Bu Zhi Dao is a subversive multi-media series that organically combines China's classical culture and the Taoist spirit to probe value systems inherent to Chinese society. Sun was urged not to talk with journalists, but here's Sun, incorrigible, standing up for his art.

Sexual power

"Buzhidao," the artist says: "I don't know if I'm still an artist because pretty much all my works have been controversial in China." Although Sun's work is intermittent, he's been producing avant-garde art pieces that range from photography to sculpture, video to performance, since the late 80s.

A graduate from Guangdong Academy of Fine Arts in 1987, Sun didn't lose time in shaking the art world. His first significant work entitled Wet Dreams was a series of sperm-stained bed sheets (both his own and of other soldiers) produced while he was in the army. Sun described the works as ready-mades and as a metaphor for the frustration of spirit resulting from modern society.

At first glance, Bu Zhi Dao follows a footpath of sexual inspiration and "shock the world" type of art. "I just want to be upstream, to question and subvert everything creatively. Sex happens to be a channel of doing so, because it always arouses people's emotions," Sun says. "Our culture impregnated us with sexual taboos. If art is revered why can't sex be revered as well?" he asks. "People who look at Bu Zhi Dao with a perspective that is merely sexual, will immediately criticize and thus miss its deeper meaning and message," Sun explains.

Sex workers are disregarded in a society that glorifies art, power and wealth and calligraphy is the traditional way of engraving this privileged reality, acting as a strategic weapon of soft power. The artist selected meaningful passages of ancient texts, such as the Six Laws of Art, gave them his own ironic twist, and then "rewrote" the texts by the means of the sacred symbol of calligraphy, only with an abnormal method, to defy rules and values.


The Six Laws of Art drawn by Luoshan. Photos: Courtesy of Sun Ping

Empty dao

In 2006 Sun was taken to a performance in a nightclub where girls held felt-tip pens in their vaginas with which they wrote lustful messages onto the back of revelers on request. "Those women didn't have a choice, they told me they had to come up with new ways to please customers to make a living. That's why they learnt how to do this type of calligraphy, which has existed and been requested for centuries," he says. Sun emphasizes that it's not a new trend, but he considers it as a form of spontaneous performance art that derives from social phenomenon in a rapidly changing society.

"This may seem unfair, ugly and vulgar on the outside because we're clouded by principles and conventions. But it also bears elegance, beauty and inner value. It is also art," he states. It's inevitable to question the morals of the artist, but Sun's purpose was to register the very conflict of having a woman writing on his back with a brush in her vagina: Should he be stunned or shocked, ashamed or amused? Was this vulgar or artistic, noble or disgraceful?

Sun insisted on putting the calligrapher's name above his own on the video - "Luoshan&Sunping" - to emphasize that she is an artist too, entitled to the respect denied persons of her background, and that the artwork is a cooperative endeavor. Luoshan completed the calligraphy in five 20-minute sessions, but it took him one year to create the series. He says he subsequently lost contact with her.

The title of the exhibition is also a powerful pun drenched in Taoist principles. "The more I learn about life, the more I don't know and the less I care. 'Zhidaole' was an expression used by Chinese emperors to refer to possession of power and influence, but nowadays is meaningless parlance. This emptiness and vain feeling of our times also evokes philosopher Laozi's reply to his disciple Zhuangzi when he asked him what constituted "dao", or the "Way: 'Buzhidao.'"

The controversial work was first presented to a closed audience of artists and critics who described it as controversial and shocking as good art often is. Curator and critic Lü Peng, who featured Sun's work in Reshaping History wrote: "Although it contains inherent challenges to art, culture and society, Bu Zhi Dao nevertheless involves an absurd and wonderful reconfiguration of a history and contemporary civilization."


Revolutionary or fool?

Disappointed with a post-modern society and an artistic world driven by money and lost values, Sun abandoned the art world for six years to live a "carefree life of ease" during which he embraced the principles of Taoism and Buddhism, and to create Vision 21, an avant-garde art magazine, which was also repeatedly shut down. He returned to art in 2006.

An overview of his creations reveals the Chinese essence of Sun's work and places him side-by-side with the gaudy artists and the Cynical Realists. Like them, "Sun draws inspiration from the conflicts of his time, rebels against tradition and questions the new set of values in a fast growing China," says Esteban Andueza, the curator and analyst of Sun Ping's work. Sun used traces of semen to criticize individual repression in the Wet Dreams series; his Stock Issue satirical performance condemned the commercialization of Chinese contemporary art in a society dominated by money, trading art works by well-known artists for stocks at the imaginary "China Sun Ping Art Company Limited;" his Miss China installation caricatures the prostitution of Chinese society and features Sun in a leash and with a kitschy wig, in a "satirical indictment of the venality of his peers."

Censored and awarded, unsold and misunderstood, 57-year-old Sun can easily be seen as a revolutionary or one more fool playing artist. Unknown to the wider public but well regarded in underground artistic circles, Sun's latest installation series Acupuncture, which features Chinese ancient therapy to purge art is currently being shown in New York. So there is also a strong possibility that right now, Sun Ping is just too insubordinate for China, or even for the art world.

To see Sun Ping's works you can contact him at sxz1953920@

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