Persevere with Applause and Pressure
An interview with Mr. Cui Yaowen, an environmental performance artist
Reporter: Angelo Pieroni
Editor’s notes: His works are quite outstanding, which create much of a stir for the adoption of human body as the main carrier of performance art; His concept of artistic creation is well-known for its foresight, originality and novelty in the field of art at home and abroad. Surrounded by numerous halos of artistic achievement, Mr. Cui Yaowen, an artist known as “the first person of the environmental performance art in China”, has been using the avant-garde style of performance art to advocate for environmental protection, and has created a series of works for the environmental performance art, such as “Clean Our Ocean”. However, it has also incurred certain complaints from medias and individuals with conservative traditional ideology.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I interviewed Mr. Cui Yaowen, a famous environmental performance artist, via livestreaming to talk about his feelings about his artistic career over the years.
AP: First of all, congratulations to Mr. Cui for being honored on the NASDAQ screen in the New York Times Square as the “Outstanding Environmental Performance artist” in the 2022 Chinese New Year Art Appraisal. As a forerunner of the environmental performance art in China, you always think about the events happened in the times, and then express your ideas in the form of performance art activities. Since when has the performance art become a way for you to express your thoughts and appeals? Performance art has a long history abroad, but it was only emerging in recent years in the traditional China. As an avant-garde artist in the field of performance art in China, have you been influenced by any ones?
Cui Yaowen: I loved art very much since I was a child, or maybe because I was precocious, I was looking for a way distinctive from that of traditional art (such as painting, sculpture, etc.) to express my ideas. When I was in college, the engineering design major had a great impact on me. After trying many forms of artistic expression, I finally chose performance art, and because I was a victim of environmental pollution, environmental performance art has become the focus of my artistic career. A great deal of works in performance art have been produced abroad since the 1960s, and I am fascinated by their characteristics of freedom, contingency, improvisation, interaction and experiencing, so I choose such a way of creation as my primary artistic approach. I am influenced by many contemporary artists, but the one who has influenced me most is the German artist Joseph Beuys, who once said: “Everyone is an artist!” It inspired me to embark on the road of performance art.
AP: When you started your engagement in performance art, did you feel a lot of pressure in the traditional society? For example, “Environmental Earth”, which you built with waste plastic bags in a residential area in the early days, was expelled by a number of local residents. How did you handle when your art was not appreciated?
Cui Yaowen: No, I don’t feel any pressure in front of the traditional people. On the contrary, I always feel extremely confident and even arrogant for such an avant-garde posture. The creation of “Environmental Earth” is my first activity of environmental performance art. I was still very young at that time (a freshman in college), so I was fearless and dared to challenge anything. I remember it was created in an urban village. Back then, the environment in the village was extremely harsh, with rubbish everywhere. I was very disgusted with that situation, and felt deeply frustrated simultaneously. Therefore, my friends and I made that creation of performance art in the village, using plastic bags covering everywhere, much like a graveyard in the Tomb-sweeping Day (Qing Ming Festival), which provoked the local residents, and I was eventually evicted from the village where I lent a room, with my things dumped into the garbage. Even so, I was still excited and made myself wander under the flyovers and on the streets for a long time with my self-given pride as an avant-garde performance artist. It is both touching and ridiculous in retrospect. In fact, it is quite normal that art is not appreciated and accepted. I think we should take it with calm. Only in this way can I devote myself thoroughly to the new creation. Of course, it’s not as easy as we are talking now.
AP: “Trapped Ocean” is the first work that your campaign of environmental performance art boldly used mannequins. Female nude mannequins crawled on the coast, plagued by numerous plastic wastes, indicating the miserable consequences of human environmental pollution. You were complained and criticized by many ones for that. Have you ever thought of giving up under so much pressure? Were mannequins indispensable?
Cui Yaowen: It is the first time for me to use mannequins to create a work of environmental performance art in a public venue. In terms of the reaction of the medias and public, it is the artistic work that introduces me from the art circle to the public. Because that work became a popular topic in social life for a period of time. In the face of the public with traditional ideology, various feedbacks followed after the release of the work, which brought me much pressure, but I never thought of giving up artistic creation. The purport of the work was to awaken the public for the protection of the environment. I thought I had no choice but to use mannequins, because I must take the female bodies representing our mothers and the nature to sting and awaken the numb and ignorant mind of the public, now that people were insensitive to the harm created to the natural environment. In my opinion, performance artists should break through the barriers of the traditional artistic consciousness and use all kinds of avant-garde artistic approaches to make people understand the world and different forms of artistic expression. Therefore, most of my works are created with the expression through human bodies since then.
AP: For each creation of your performance art, do you conceive the form of artistic expression after having ideas in mind or receiving the influence of external things, or do you establish a model first and then look for the social significance going with it?
Cui Yaowen: It is not much of a concern to me, or I have both of them combined. I know that as an artist, it is a fundamental responsibility for me to pay attention to society in my own way.
AP: Your performance art has been characterized by avant-garde artistic concepts, novel subjects, keen and profound artistic expression, and shocking visual effects of your works, which has made you controversial, just like your performance art. What do you think of yourself? What is your attitude towards the complaints and criticisms? Haven’t you ever wavered? Or have you ever doubted your artistic proposition?
Cui Yaowen: It is not a good idea for me to judge myself, because it doesn’t make any sense. Whether it is praise, complaint or criticism, it has been increasingly becoming valuable experience in my artistic life. I have never wavered and never doubted my artistic proposition. I will persevere in my pursuit of environmental performance art.
Thanks to Mr. Cui, I think it is owing to such everlasting dedication to art that he has persevered, grew up under both applause and pressure, and finally won not only the cheers of the people, but also the recognition of the authorities and the art circle. It is not an easy success of performance art in the traditional China.