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.