On Zhu Jiuyang’s Declaration of the Blind
By Luo Fei
Date and Time: February 6, 2015, 10 p.m.
Dialog: Over QQ Voice Message
Note: “The Declaration of the Blind” – the latest conceptual art by the contemporary artist Zhu Jiuyang – was premiered at the 99 Art Gallery and the Four-Dimension Art Space in Beijing on January 18 and 19, 2015. Five blind folk storytelling artists from Northern Shaanxi reinterpreted the full text of the “World Declaration of Human Rights” (hereinafter referred to as the “Declaration”) with their dialect. I had a dialog with Zhu Jiuyang on the background and the expression of his concept for this performance.
Luo Fei: How did you get to know these five blind people from Northern Shaanxi’s Yanchuan County?
Zhu Jiuyang: Years back, I watched the “Blind Storytellers”, a documentary by a young director Bai Zhiqiang. That was about a blind storytelling team from the Qingjian County in Northern Shaanxi. I was great touched and would like to one day work with them. Initially, I was thinking of inviting that group of blind people to perform. They used to be the members of the Performing Arts Propaganda Team during Mao Zedong’s era. However, they are too old now, and it’s rather difficult for me to work with them. Later on, Mr. Bai Zhiqiang introduced me to Mr. Cao Baizhi, a famous talking and singing artist in Yan’an. He then introduced me to this blind storyteller team. They come from Yanchuan, performing with Piba, or Chinese lute, while the previous team played with three-stringed instruments. Among five of them, only one can see a little bit.
Luo Fei: What did they normally sing previously?
Zhu Jiuyang: They used to sing Northern Shaanxi’s folk tales, plus they have been a self-organized Performing Arts Propaganda Team in the county.
Luo Fei: For this project, you spent three years traveling back and forth between Beijing and Northern Shaanxi.
Zhu Jiuyang: That’s right. Back and forth for three years. I thought it was going to be very simple, kind of like as long as I give them the “Declaration”, then they would go ahead and do it. Then I realized that’s not the case at all. It turned out that the adaptation of the “Declaration” into Northern Shaanxi storytelling performance required professional skills and was time-consuming. Because Mr. Cao was busy at that time, I literally said, for a couple of times, forget about it. Being generous, Mr. Cao agreed to help me with it in the end. Besides, it’s not easy to communicate with the blind team, as the ways of both thinking and working differ greatly from person to person. And the content for them to sing was totally new. The stories they were familiar with were the ones that have been passed down from generation to generation, those were easy to remember. There were also those songs that have been composed by the government about parsing socialism. They were all easy to remember. However, this was different in that it’s foreign to them and difficult to remember as there’s no plot in the “Declaration”. Mr. Cao was the only person who can talk to them. It occurred to me later that apart from him, I could have never been able to finish this project.
Luo Fei: Could they understand your idea and cooperate actively?
Zhu Jiuyang: We practiced for a long time back to their hometown in Northern Shaanxi, but only one day at Beijing. That’s their first time to Beijing, and nobody really took them seriously back to their hometown. Mr. Cao explained the project to them and encouraged them to come over. I personally offered them financial support. Initially, only three of them wanted to come. Later on, as I said I could pay their air tickets and took them to the Tiananmen, the other two agreed to come too. It’s their first time to ride on the plane, and first time to Beijing. I also promised to take them and show them around at the Tiananmen Square. Actually they could not see anything there, so we just walked around the Square. At least they had their wish fulfilled.
Luo Fei: Did they feel something special when they sang this “Declaration”
Zhu Jiuyang: To begin with, it was a performance without plot, so it’s difficult for them to memorize. Then, some of them were worried whether they would be in trouble because of this. To which I told them that China is also a member of the United Nations, as well as a party of relevant treaties. Of course, they became understand the idea of the “Declaration” while working on the project and lamented that: “Oh, all humans are equal?!” I never specifically asked about their understanding on rights and they have never heard of the “Declaration”. Perhaps it all best summed up in one of the lines they sang: “Well, there’s never equality any time.” Perhaps they have felt something in the whole process. As one repeats one phrase again and again, it would press and influence his/her heart and mentality with something. This is the significance of the project from another perspective.
Luo Fei: Do you think they will take the “Declaration” back with them to their mountain areas in Northern Shaanxi?
Zhu Jiuyang: No one likes this at the grassroots level. They prefer those that are interesting and amusing. This is not fun.
Luo Fei: The “Declaration” is a text composed of a total of thirty provisions, while traditional Northern Shaanxi storytelling is primarily about contents that are telling stories and entertaining. Are there any challenges for the audiences?
Zhu Jiuyang: For one thing, subtitles were not offered to the audiences, so they did not really understand what was going on. And I did it on purpose. Because, to me, this was primarily a project, not a show, so work was very ironic. It was indeed difficult for the audience to sit in a factory building without heater and to finish watching it. Fortunately, it went rather well with the live performance!
Luo Fei: It is the interestingness and the seriousness of the “Declaration” that formed the sharp contrast, and that in turn rendered the irony to the “Declaration”, as the traditional “storytelling” actually talks about fictional stuff. Besides, as I was watching them performing, it seemed as if the leading Pipa performer was on a rock show.
Zhu Jiuyang: That’s right. In fact, I have always thought that the folk arts in Northwestern China have very strong characteristics of modern music, like the folk songs, storytelling in Northern Shaanxi, and even the Qinqiang (or Shaanxi opera). Their talking and singing are actually the direct expression of their heart.
Luo Fei: Compared with other works of yours, what are the major inspiration and challenges?
Zhu Jiuyang: Mainly the relationship between the stage, music and contemporary art. Both the stage and music are unfamiliar to me. I dragged the stage and music into my works, yet could not present them as a show, and it was a performance art after all. It’s rather difficult to keep the boundary, as it could easily become a show if you were not careful. Apparently it’s not bad to have made it like a show! Why can’t it be a piece of work at the same time?
Luo Fei: Looking at your personal creation course, you’ve been very good at introducing the scenarios and objects of your life experience, such as the flocks in your paintings and performances. For this time round, you introduced the blind storyteller team from Northern Shaanxi. From the perspective of Christian arts, you are expressive in your rendering of religious imageries. The paintings and on-site work – the “Lost Sheep” (2010), for example, obviously managed to introduce the Christian idea of “lost sheep” to the viewers. Likewise, the blind people have special connotation in the New Testament, suggesting the objects that are pitied and healed by Jesus. Jesus’s parable on the blind leading the blind was to teach the absurdity of the dead end of self-righteousness. The Blind Leading the Blind (1568), a famous distemper on linen canvas, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was an excellent work on this theme.
Zhu Jiuyang: I think this is a special religious experience of mine that most of other artists lack. The voice of sheep in the “Lost Sheep” was a strong metaphor, pointing to a state of mankind. This time, the blind also meant to be metaphorical. According to the biblical narrative, we are all blind, thus cannot see the truth. So the metaphor of the blind is what I would like to address. This is the very thing I’ve been seeking, that is why my works do not specifically aim at any political view but humanity. It’s because in the problem of mankind, they are in nature political too. This will make the work more profound.
Luo Fei: That’s what brought the multiply levels of publicity in your works, being political or concerning public life for one thing and spiritual the other. The very act of the blind singing the Declaration on Human Rights has become an imagery of how the spiritually blind yearn for care and freedom. We know that the direct cause for people to draft the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” was their reflection on the World War II. So, you made the “Declaration of the Blind” to discuss the reflection and longing for the beautiful existence of human being after men’s departure from God and escape from the Garden of Eden. Do I understand this right?
Zhu Jiuyang: In fact, the “Declaration of the Blind” was not just an expression of the reality, and I never give voice to any political situation. The truth is that I did it more from the perspective of humanity, while mirroring this problem somehow in some way. And ultimately it is an inquiry into human being itself. Aren’t we blind too? In today’s society, how far we are away from the right of true freedom. While the blind is singing to the sighted the rights and freedom of human being, isn’t it the same as enquiring our own hearts?
Luo Fei: Be it the live performance for the “Lost Sheep” or the “Declaration of the Blind”, you have introduced the most marginalized and strange objects to urban life, herds of nomadism for the former and folk storytelling from the mountainous region for the latter. It created a tremendous tension on the site, and formed a sort of confrontation. In the “Lost Sheep”, for example, the hanging sheep was unceasingly moaning and bleating, coupled with the tension between the wolf masked sheep and the rest of the flock. Those blind people performed in the “Declaration of the Blind” were a group of people from the bottom of the society with little education. With a group people joyously singing “Declaration of Human Rights”, just like the bleating sound of the hanging sheep, causing people to watch with embarrassment and anger. I think you have handled the absurdity of the rite well, and it’s like some of the scenes in your paintings. Whether it’s the bleating lamb hanged up in the air or the blind people singing the “Declaration on Human Rights”, they have been place at the center of a theater to be watched, or even be spitted on. It’s absurd and sacred at the same time, just like when Christ was crucified on the cross. It is not the strong that speaks out loud, but the weak that has been scorned at – the helpless lamb and the sightless and unprotected blind – this is what makes your works “absurd”. And its sanctity lies in their effort to give voice for others in spite of their suffering.
Zhu Jiuyang: When the artists look for resources and materials to apply in their creation, they are inseparable from his personal life experience. One winter evening many years ago, I was walking on the darkening road in the countryside. The air was mixed with the smell of soot, then I heard a still small voice: “Delicious konishii-” I saw a man, bending over, was dragging a cart while repeated breathing that one sentence. The small voice was cut to my heart. It occurred to me at the moment that the gentlest voice turned out to be most powerful one.
Luo Fei: Thank you for your sharing!
About “Declaration of the Blind”:
Artist: Zhu Jiuyang
Work: “Declaration of the Blind”
Formats: On-site Photograph, Video
Cooperating Artists: The Blind Storytelling Team from Yanchuan County, Northern Shaanxi
Performance Venues: Beijing Song Zhuang 99 Art Gallery, Original Four-Dimension Art Space
Props: Stage, white cloth, storyteller instruments
Content: “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”
Adaptation: Cao Baizhi
Length: About 40 minutes