Yin Xiuzhen's Washing River

Leading Chinese contemporary artist Yin Xiuzhen first created the Washing River Project in the mid 1990s in China, a time when performance art was unknown. Shocked to discover the polluted condition of the Funan river in Chendu, Yin assembled 10 cubic metres of frozen contaminated river water and asked people to help wash the blocks of ice. 

In June 2014 Yin was invited to Hobart, Tasmania to create the latest iteration of the project using the water from the nearby Derwent river. Situated on the lip of Sullivan's Cove - an area with high pedestrian activity - the work consists of 162 blocks stacked upon one another. 

Yin Xiuzhen was born during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing and began her career in the early 1990s – a time of radical experimentation. Here she discusses her newest installation in Hobart, her first encounter with ‘performance’ and ‘participatory art’, her interest in second-hand materials, and her position on feminism. 


Yin Xiuzhen Lucy Rees Art

Lucy Rees: When you did the first project in 1995 in Chengdu, western performance art was little known in China. How did your interest in performance and participatory art begin?

Yin Xiuzhen: Twenty years ago, an American artist got some artists in China to do a water protection project. At the time in Chengdu, the Funan was incredibly polluted. All these new concepts of performance and installation art were totally new to China, and when I started working this way, I had no idea that it was considered ‘performance art’. It was just a very organic development. But it was quite interesting that people started categorising my art as performance. At the time, people’s awareness in China of this concept of environmental protection was new and unfamiliar. I received numerous questions as to why I was doing this project, whereas today it is obviously a much more well-known and important concept.

LR: Tell me about the process behind Washing river, 2014 – collecting the river water, melting it and stacking it.

YX: I started off planning how the wall would look and be built. My team went to collect the water in buckets from upstream, because we couldn’t take it from the harbour considering the extreme saltiness. We worked with the University of Tasmania and the river authorities to analyse and assess the pollution and the heavy-metal levels. We found that the water was extremely polluted, although not quite as bad as the Funan River.

After testing how long it would take for the water to freeze, all 200 containers were collected, then transported to a facility with industrial freezers.

Chainsaws were used to level out each block. Of the 200 blocks produced, only 162 were used in the composition of the wall. My husband Song Dong and I supervised the construction of the wall, which took about two hours.

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LR: Washing river joins a long list of your ongoing series including ‘Portable Cities’. Tell me about your interest in continuous work.

YX: My artworks are not simply sculptures; rather they deal with large and ongoing issues such as water pollution, environmental protection, in the case of Washing river, and globalisation and homogenisation.

I think that having an exhibition in one place with a finite end would do a disservice to what I am trying to communicate to the world. And there are many different elements that come into play within the different cities. I have now done Washing river, for example, in four different cities.

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LR: You trained in painting and graduated from art school in a very important year in Chinese art history – 1989, when the ‘China/Avant Garde’ exhibition was held at Beijing’s National Art Museum of China. Tell me about the art scene during these early years.

YX: All of my professors were trained in a very specific Soviet style of painting, which they, in turn, taught me. Song Dong and I were actually classmates back in art school, and we both followed our own style and strayed from what was expected from us.

In 1985 there was an American exhibition where I was exposed for the first time to this very new and innovative type of art. At this time I was still under the impression that art was strictly painting or sculpture, or something that simply hangs on a wall. I was suddenly confronted with installations using mundane, everyday objects. It really informed my practice.

When I first started, most of my works appeared underground, because we didn’t have access to exhibition spaces. We would display our works in our homes or friends’ homes. Song Dong did a project called Cultural noodles at home, where he took books and cut them up into strips that resembled actual noodles and then covered the house with them.

LR: Do you feel you were more able to push boundaries and foster creativity because of the cultural conditions of the time?

YX: There was definitely more of a creative community that existed back then. Because it was so underground with no government support, we ended up having to show these works at remote places. We couldn’t legally publicise where these showings were, so we would load up a car with our artwork, ring up our friends and supporters, and hold showings somewhere on the outskirts of town.

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LR: The art scene was an overwhelmingly male-dominated realm. To a degree it still is. You were the first Chinese female artist to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, for example. With this in mind, and the fact that you use textiles, threads and domestic objects, you are often grouped as a feminist artist, with contemporaries such as Yin Tianmiao. What is your view on this?

YX: When I graduated there were only four other female artists in my graduating year that I was aware of, because women were still expected to be good wives and mothers without any further pursuit. The concept of feminism is a completely western construct, however, and I do not consider myself a feminist artist. People constantly ask me about my works in regards to their female attributes. It’s the same as people labelling my work ‘performance art’, when I made the works with no real knowledge of the genre. It’s not that I prefer to go by an alternate label; rather I work organically and instinctually and therefore hope to avoid generalisations altogether.

Yin Xiuzhen was born in 1931 in Beijing, China and is represented by Pace New York and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney/Melbourne. 




Interview: Tabaimo

‘MEKURUMEKU’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney, presents Japanese artist Tabaimo with six video installations from the early 2000s to the present. During her time in Sydney for the opening, I spoke with the artist about the delicate reality she constructs in her work.

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Lucy Rees: A lot of Japanese contemporary art is considered Kawaii or cute. With your blend of surreal happenings that incorporate manga-like drawings and reference Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, your works are far removed from this aesthetic.

Tabaimo: I didn’t think originally about being an artist. I was a graphic designer for many years but it didn’t work for me. I would say that art grabbed me and picked me up and here I am. I really work by how I feel in an intuitive manner. I had no idea that there were even schools of art when I started. 

If you live in Japan, Manga and Anime are all around; it’s ubiquitous but it’s not something that I am necessarily interested in or inspired by. If I draw a line and animate it, it represents something about me – that is what I am more interested in. I am getting input from the world, responding to it, and then internalising it as my expression.

LR: Your animations begin with hundreds of drawings made with a pen or an automatic calligraphy brush. It must be such a laborious process.

T: When I draw a line it is an expression that came from my hand. If I draw a line on a computer it just exists perfectly between these two paints. It’s important that if you draw a line, it’s your line and you take ownership of it. It is indeed laborious; it’s like a Buddhist ritual of observance. It is incredibly disciplined. I don’t know if I like it but I know it needs to be done. I sit down and task myself to do it. Having said that, coming up with the subject is harder.

LR: Your installations are often on a 5-minute loop and there is no single narrative. Do you plan the story before you begin?

T: I don’t start with the finished work in my head. I build on elements as I’m drawing. If an element comes up that I have done before or seen before I am really disappointed. If it turns into something that I could never have imagined in the first place, that is great.

LR: You have created two new installations that respond to the MCA’s architecture, peeling back the walls to reveal the ocean outside. Tell me about the use of artifice, mirrors and optical illusion.

T: I work in fictional spaces, and so mirrors further assist in pushing this dimension. I really want viewers to experience something in my works. We are generally too passive. I want people to stand here and react and feel.

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LR: Your videos encompass motifs of femininity such as bodies of water, blooming flowers, petals and hair. What is the role of sexuality in your videos?

T: When I started I really didn’t want to make art that was obviously about gender. I didn’t want to be categorised in this way. Over time, however, I have come to the realisation that you are born with what you have. I was born a woman in Japan. I think it comes out in your work whether you choose it or not. It’s not like I have a particular insight into men; I have insight into being me, so it’s a very internal space that I am revealing. 

LR: The single projection dolefullhouse, 2007, depicts a doll’s house with giant human hands rearranging the contents before a large octopus takes it over and the house is transformed. I read this as East and West, with the octopus as the United States invading Japan.

T: It is welcome that people interpret my work however they like. In my daily life I am not a political being; it’s not actually on my mind when I create things. The octopus is nominally an invader from the outside, but the tentacles become blood vessels, and it’s the moment that transformation occurs that really interests me – an exterior force is internalised.

LR: Sound is a major element in your work, assisting to create a sense of uncertainty or fear, or envelope the viewer in an immersive state of meditation. How important is sound?

T: People don’t often realise that my works are a combined whole – the video and audio are equal elements. Even if I opt to go totally silent and there is no audio in the space, that silence is equally charged. There is the sound of breathing and whistling, and it’s actually me making those noises – something from inside me conveyed to the outside world. It mirrors the very core of my work – the juxtaposition between interior and exterior.

Tabaimo: MEKURUMEKU, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 3 July – 7 September 2014.

This interview was originally published on the Art and Australia website. 

Interview: with Isaac Julien

Part documentary and part fiction, Isaac Julien’s PLAYTIME, 2013, is set across Reykjavik, Dubai and London – three cities, defined by their role in relation to capital – and follows six main protagonists – the artist, hedge fund manager, auctioneer, housekeeper, art dealer and reporter and their entanglement with the global financial crisis. The exhibition - which comprises of the large film installation, PLAYTIME, a two-monitor flat-screen installation, KAPITAL, and six photographic works - was shown at Metro Pictures gallery in New York in late 2013. KAPITAL presents Julien and David Harvey, author of the book “The Enigma of Capital,” in conversation with theorists, critics and curators at the Hayward Gallery in London.  

I caught up with Isaac Julien while he was in Sydney with an exhibition at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (15 March – 12 April 2014). 

Lucy Rees: You’ve said that PLAYTIME was influenced by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but the themes have been in your work all along. How did PLAYTIME begin?

Isaac Julien: During the making of Ten thousand waves, 2010, I began to want to make a film called PLAYTIME. I was really struck by the 2008 crash. After I saw Jacque Tati’s film Playtime(1967), a hilarious comedy of manners, I wanted to make a piece of work that was an ironic reflection; something that might be quite sardonic in terms of its visual presentation. I wanted to make a work that was looking into the mirror, pointing the camera at myself and at the art world in which I exist.

LR: Tell me about your personal relationship to the film’s three stories.

IJ: I think it’s important to say that a lot of my works begin through a personal relation. PLAYTIME starts its story with the Icelandic photographer Thorsten Henn, who lost his modernist dream home during the crash in 2008 as the bank withdrew its funds and the country falls into financial ruin. It’s about the experience of trauma he underwent. The modern ruin couldn’t be finished – it needed a memorialisation. Memorialisation has been a theme in my work.

Dubai came about through my housekeeper. She was from Dubai and came to work for me in London. She wanted to escape her Dubai employers. What’s interesting about her story is the way that capital is vulnerable and unstable – insecure. It makes people disposable; people need to be able to move from space to space, which is important for capital to work. I wanted to juxtapose that with her story.

LR: Has your own view of the art world changed during the research and making of PLAYTIME?

IJ: I don’t think I participate in the art world uncritically. I came from film via art school at Central Saint Martins, London, and then decided to make video works. The thing about video art is that the very medium is quite excluded from the secondary market, which I think allows for further reflection.

LR: Was a lot of the film completed in post-production?

IJ: Yes, there are a lot of special effects. For example, the computer terminals that appear in the scene when the bankers are looking down are all CGI.

LR: There is an interesting link to the very concept of capital there. David Harvey says that capital cannot be seen but only detected through its effect, something that is in constant motion.

IJ: This is important. And that’s why there is a lot of talking in the film. Visualisation is not enough. It’s shot on super high definition and it’s the first work I have made that is not on actual film; it is just a digital code. There’s definitely a metaphor there. We know the scenes must have taken place for the camera to have recorded them, but they don’t really exist. It is non-material and only gets activated through projections. The technology actually mirrors the enigmatic nature of capital. It’s like in banking: millions of dollars can be made and lost in milliseconds, all through computer programming. These are the invisible forces that are literally controlling our lives.

This interview was first published on Art and Australia's website. 


Isaac Julien has had one-person exhibitions at Centre Pompidou, Paris; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago; Milwaukee Art Museum; Bass Museum of Art, Miami; St. Louis Art Museum; Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; SESC Pompeia, Sao Paulo; and Aspen Art Museum. Julien participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, 8th Shanghai Biennale; and 2012’s La Triennale at Palais de Tokyo, Paris. His films have been included in film festivals such as the Cannes Film Festival, Berlin Biennale and Venice Film Festival.