On Zhu Jiuyang’s Declaration of the Blind

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

Zhu Jiuyang: Waiting for that Day of Reconciliation

Waiting for that Day of Reconciliation
An interview with Zhu Jiuyang

Note: Early in the morning on June 4, 2013, I got a phone call from Zhu Jiuyang in Beijing. He introduced me to his current work-in-progress, a piece related to the Yao Jiaxin case.[1] He described how in this work, he wanted to incorporate reflections on the concept of charity, and asked whether I’d be willing to write something about this. He had plans to organize a seminar with Su Xiaohe (an independent literary critic and writer on fin economics) and include the participants’ discussion as part of the work itself. It’s an extremely timely discussion to be having in this day and age, and one of great importance. I realized that this work of Jiuyang’s was destined to be an ambitious, controversial experiment that would require me to reflect on the possibility of mixing Chinese contemporary art with current events and personal development.

At 9pm on the evening of June 5, 2013, we had the following QQ conversation.

Luo Fei: This work of yours reminds me of Wang Nanming’s book “The Rise of Critical Art: The Chinese Problem Situation and Theories of Liberal Society.” He believes that contemporary art is no longer art for art’s sake, nor is it the use of new techniques for technique’s sake. Rather, contemporary art is art that seeks to critique public opinion. This sort of art participates in the same public discourse as the media and popular events. Its core purpose is to bring about “justice” – meaning that it also seeks to advance human rights.
In the Yao Jiaxin case, the judicial aspects of justice were achieved. But on a deeper level, the case provokes a more pointed reflection on the concept of “forgiveness” – an issue that can never be resolved or indeed even influenced by the law. It seems to me that this work of yours on the one hand is a work of critical art that seeks to generate public discussion and uses public events in order to criticize the extreme hatred and pent-up anger present in Chinese society. On the other hand, you discuss public opinion on very personal and even spiritual terms, hoping to bring about the mutual forgiveness that is true basis of any “harmonious society.”[2] Without social justice, without the inner peace and a sense of being at ease with oneself and the world, there can be no true societal “harmony.” How did you first come up with the idea to use the Yao Jiaxin case?

Zhu Jiuyang: When I’m creating works, I honestly don’t think about it so much – sometimes, I just act on a feeling. An artist’s way of working is related to his or her own approach to living life. I wasn’t trying to be express certain problems in a rational or deliberate way, the way a critic would. For the past few years I’ve been painting on an easel, but I’ve grown increasingly dissatisfied with this and so tried to do some live performance works – ones that would allow me to intervene in society through the medium of art. At the time I was actually thinking of a different project, and the title “Waiting for that Day of Reconciliation” came immediately to mind.
I think biggest problem between people is that we hurt one another. Throughout the whole of human history, there has been violence between people of different ethnicities and of different nations – even between governments and their own people. The only way to escape this sort of pain is forgiveness and reconciliation. At first I didn’t think to bring this idea into my work and didn’t pay too much attention to the Yao Jiaxin case. But later on, I saw the two sides fighting endlessly during the lawsuit, and felt that this event was no longer just a problem that remained between these two families, but rather an indication of a deep-seated socio-cultural problem. It was in fact an event of collective violence, because the whole of society came to participate in it. Even to this day they continue to fight. Everyone uses their own moral compass and sense of what is right to judge everyone else and demonize others. I thought, the only way to leave behind the injuries one has suffered is forgiveness. But does this concept of forgiveness exist in our culture? What helps us understand the feeling of being forgiven? In the end, I decided to create this work.

LUO FEI: You first contacted parties on which side of the case?

ZHU JIUYANG: Honestly, I’m not so great at dealing with interpersonal relationships, and at first was a bit nervous. I first contacted Yao Jiaxin’s family’s lawyer over the internet. When I explained why I’d done so, he told me directly: “There’s no chance of being forgiven, no chance of reconciliation.” I thought even so that this response was also part of my work, and considered going to meet personally with Yao Jiaxin’s father. Last fall, I went to Xi’an, and it just so happened that Dr. Shi Hengtan of the Academy of Social Sciences was also there and intended on going with a friend to call on the Yao family. At the time I didn’t over-think the visit, telling myself that visitors who come with good intentions are never turned away. I even forgot to call in advance, thinking that since I didn’t have his phone number, it might be better to simply show up at his door. I had no idea that Yao Jiaxin’s father would kick us out, chasing us away in such a violent manner.

LUO FEI: I noticed that on June 14, Yao Jiaxin’s father wrote this on Weibo: “Am commemorating the second anniversary of the evacuation of the weiwen troops from my humble home! Sending my thanks to the New City Politics and Law Committee, the Changle Road Police Station, the Changle Road Street Office and other maintenance of stability personnel – for your kind “care and concern” that year, I express my sincere gratitude!” Do you think he wrote this thinly veiled sarcastic message because he didn’t want to push himself back into the heart of the storm of public opinion? Their family was also a victim of the power wielded by the media and public opinion.

ZHU JIUYANG: Perhaps. This was quite a big blow for me. I started to have doubts whether I should continue with my work. Later, I started with a different family, and through them followed a trail of inquiries that finally led me to Zhang Miao’s family. Zhang Miao’s father isn’t an educated man – he’s just an ordinary farmer – but he’s extremely friendly. We talked a lot, and he went over the ins and outs of the event. When I explained why I had come to him, he told me very firmly that he was willing to reconcile with the other family, and also to cooperate with my project. He felt that reconciling with people was always a good thing to do.

LUO FEI: He was willing to forgive the other family?

ZHU JIUYANG: He was very willing. Perhaps he didn’t completely understand what it means to merely “forgive,” but he understood the concept of full “reconciliation.” He even said, “Both children are no longer with us – there’s no need for the adults to continue bearing grudges against each other.”

LUO FEI: I know that you yourseLuo Fei are a Christian. In the Christian faith, there are clear teachings on the matter of forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness stems from the idea that though we are all sinners, we’ve already been forgiven by God, who is pure and righteous. Because of this, Jesus’s grace has entered our lives, and through him, we can forgive those who have sinned against us and even love our enemies. In the Christian faith, the foundation for reconciliation between men is the reconciliation between men and God. When you were speaking to him about pardon and forgiveness, did you speak to him about this?

ZHU JIUYANG: I didn’t say much about it. Because this was an art project, I wanted to say these sorts of things in a different way.

LUO FEI: I see that in the first portion of your work, there is a photo of you and Zhang Miao’s father. You’re dressed in a white robe, looking into the distance. Mist rises from the field, as if it were a fairyland and you were waiting for the coming of the Messiah. You use this ritual approach to highlight a different kind of spiritual freedom that can exist in a world full of hatred.

ZHU JIUYANG: Right. I deliberately chose springtime, wheat fields and a sort of ritual-like approach because I think that all that is most positive, most longed for and most full of love in the world is related to that which is holy and to that which is part of the natural world.

LUO FEI: Why did you want to wear a white robe? It’s as if you were a priest directing the gaze of believers to the world beyond. In a past interview, you said that artists should return to their old function as priests. This photograph seems to illustrate this point.

ZHU JIUYANG: Honestly, I didn’t give it too much thought. At the time I thought the white outfit and the mist were necessary for the image. They endow the image with a sort of upward-looking, yearning feeling. Waiting is a certain manifestation of love, and love is innately a very sacred thing.

LUO FEI: The second portion of your work is a live performance in which you sit together with Zhao Ming’s father waiting for Yao Jiaxin’s father to appear. Did you invite him to attend? How long did you wait?

ZHU JIUYANG: I performed this work during the seventh annual “Guyu Action (谷雨行动)” Performance Art Festival in Xi’An. The furniture came from the Zhang family’s house. I sat down with the old gentleman, and we waited. Before, I’d wanted to contact the Yao family through Weibo, but their lawyers kept scolding me. Since we were unable to get in touch with Yao Jiaxin’s father, we could only use this method to solicit his appearance.

LUO FEI: In your performance, you don’t lay out any objects related to the case itself, such as the car that caused the accidents, the fruit knife, or even any photographs of the people involved, relevant dates, license plate numbers, and so on. What I mean is, the scene appears very calm instead of dramatic.

ZHU JIUYANG: The stage was set very simply. There was a table and two chairs. I took the old man’s hand in mine, led him to his seat, and then came down. We sat until the majority of the audience had already left, and then I went back up and took his hand again to lead him back down. It ended up being a few dozens minutes of quiet waiting.

LUO FEI: How did he feel about the project?

ZHU JIUYANG: I really didn’t ask him. He’s an especially straightforward man, and didn’t express much. He was just willing – willing to reconcile, willing to be waiting there together for the other man to appear. I think this is due to his nature.

LUO FEI: This event also reminds me of Beicun’s novel “I Have a Meeting with God.” The first half of the story is about a murderer struggling with whether he should plead guilty. The second half is about the victim’s family and whether they should forgive this admittedly guilty person. The story is fascinating, and also goes into the supposed public reaction to the incident, with most people divided into two camps that fought to the bitter end over whether the good man could go to hell while the repentant villain went to heaven. Really, though, the question of whether the involved parties could possibly forgive each other is one that can only be resolved by the profound struggle within their own hearts. Third parties like the general public and the media are always immersed in mere rhetorical flourishes and moral arguments.
There is in fact an advantage to literature, which is its narrativity. It is able in a single to story to depict all sorts of inner struggle. As a contemporary artist, a visual artist, what mode can one use to fully express this kind of human complexity? To depict not just the assumption that peace will be made, but also the spiritual journey from hatred to reconciliation, from inhibition to liberation? This is a great challenge for an artist.

ZHU JIUYANG: Yes, visual language must extract the essence of a lot of different things, put them together, and use a very simple image to express the sum. Unlike literature, it has no narrative, which is very challenging for artists’ own ability to seize images.

LUO FEI: Consider, for example, a work of Hong Kong artist Pak Sheung Chuen’s called “Waiting for Everyone to Fall Asleep.” During the night, he stood outside an apartment complex and didn’t leave until all the people inside had turned out their lights and gone to bed. There’s also his piece “Waiting for a Friend,” in which he stood in the Kowloon Tong MTR Station until a person he recognized did in fact appear. These are all works associated with the concept of “waiting.” He says, “Time acquires meaning because of waiting.” I’m thinking, if you had taken your work beyond mere “waiting” and tried to attain some form of achievable “reconciliation,” it might have been even stronger. For example, if you had searched the whole country for another man named Yao Qingwei (Yao Jiaxin’s father) and befriended him. Then you would have achieved “reconciliation” within the logic of your own artistic concept.

ZHU JIUYANG: I still don’t totally understand these works. Perhaps there are many other works like them. I think your idea is a good one, but the crux of this piece remains its ability to reflect our societal problems rather than something more conceptual. I think this is a serious point to make: that we must wait until the day they finally reconcile. The focus on this social aspect makes the work purer.

LUO FEI: Now more and more television programs publicly broadcast the breakdown of marriages, of relationships between neighbors, between wives and mother-in-laws, parents and children. It’s sparked debate over whether the media is convincing people to consume the suffering of others. Crises in interpersonal relationships evolve into a form of entertainment, and those who initially intend to accept others end up instead being ridiculed. We all seem to underestimate the media’s influence on public opinion. What do you consider the artist’s role in these sorts of public spectacles to be?

ZHU JIUYANG: When I was creating this work, I also considered whether doing so would bring them further pain. I often would put myself in their shoes to think it over. As an artist, I came up with an abstract concept that generated discussion. When artists use their works as a way to participate in public discourse, our duty is to enter into these works in a responsible manner. For example, I have to consider whether creating this work is in line with the rest of my artistic vision. I’ll say it again, artists should return to their role as priests. The priest is that person who stands between man and his fellow man, and between men and god.
In this work I wanted to express the following questions. 1) In our spiritual lives, we are missing a form of love that goes beyond the carnal. If we each judge others from a position of moral superiority, by what standards do we determine our own righteousness? 2) In our culture, we typically mourn the victim and hate the murderer. We lack the ability to feel sorry for both victim and murderer at once. Yu Hong once wrote, “We lack a conviction that all life is of equal value.” 3) If it’s not possible to popularize such values, then is it even possible to have forgiveness in our lives? Why is our culture and society always trapped in a cycle of violence? We may be able to use hatred to bind the wound, but within there is still decay.
Before making this work, I watched a movie called “Life’s Collisions,” which is about the car accident of a Chinese exchange student in South Africa. The incident ends in a manner beyond any Chinese person’s expectations, with the victim’s family not only deciding not to prosecute the person responsible for the accident but even going so far as to comfort the perpetrator’s family, saying, “This was an accident; you shouldn’t be too upset.” Also there’s the case of the Virginia Tech massacre, in which the killer Seung-Hui Cho and his 32 victims were together all subjects of public mourning. These are all things that we have never encountered in our culture.

LUO FEI: Do you believe that reconciliation is possible between the two families?

ZHU JIUYANG: I believe that they will reconcile. This work is not yet over – it won’t be until they reconcile. I will continue to keep in touch with them. I don’t know how many years it will take. I might have to wait a lifetime until I’m able to hold hands with the elders of both families.

LUO FEI: The completion of your work depends on how determined the two families are to finally put their hearts at ease.

ZHU JIUYANG: Exactly.

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[1]. The Yao Jiaxin case, called “10•20” by the Xi’an police, was a homicide case involving a college student of the same name. On October 20, 2010 in the middle of the night on Xuefu Boulvard in the university district of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, Yao accidentally hit a pedestrian. When he got out of his car and found the victim Zhang Miao noting down his license plate number, he took out a knife, stabbed him eight times and drove away, leaving him for dead. While fleeing the scene, he then hit yet another pedestrian at the entrance to Guodu Nan Village, and was surrounded this time by witnesses who detained him and called the police. After the matter was reported by the media, it was a cause of great concern for the Ministry of Public Security. On January 8, 2011, Yao Jiaxin underwent a public trial for “intentional homicide” at the Xi’an Municipal People’s Procuratorate. At 8am on June 7, he was executed via lethal injection in Xi’an.
[2]. “Harmonious society,” a concept also known by its full title “Harmonious Socialist Society,” was proposed in 2004 by the Chinese Communist Party as a strategic target for China’s social development. It refers to a social state in which all sectors of society are in harmony, on good terms with each other, and working together with one mind. The Chinese Communist Party Central Committee formally proposed this concept of “Building a Harmonious Socialist Society” during its fourth plenary session on September 19, 2004. The abbreviation “harmonious society” has since come to stand for this concept in its entirety.

to start from art 400* Translated by Becky Davis 本文中文原文请点击这里

* This interview has been published in the book of <To Start From Art 从艺术出发>, written by Luo Fei