What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
– Philip Larkin ‘Days’ (1953)
I can’t say I woke up this morning thinking about Chinese artist Chu Yun. In fact, if you had asked me, over breakfast, if I knew his work, I would probably have said that I didn’t. Yet, now, writing this at the end of the day, and towards the end of the ‘Minus Plato Today’ experiment (2 days left to go after this!), all I can think about is Chu Yun. More precisely, all I can think about is where is he?
Five years ago this month, I wrote about his work on Minus Plato. Here’s the link, although I added the cover photo just now – many of the older Minus Plato posts don’t have a cover photo, I am sure I will spend some time, when I am not posting every day, adding these photos to old, photo-less posts).
The post consisted of a report on my honors mythology class Classical Myth/Contemporary Art that I taught in Fall semester (or were we still under quarters back then?) and a series of student presentations on the topic of ‘Conflicted Identities’. One student presented on Yun Chun’s Constellation (2006) and I (they?, sometimes its hard to tell) related it to various stories of apotheosis in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and, specifically, stories of the origins of constellations (although, reading back over my post, I fail to reference the stories that now I would think of e.g. Callisto, Andromeda and Ariadne). I used the fact that the presentation by the student included a photograph of Chu Yun’s work that seemed to align the assortment of appliances and their lights with the constellation of the Plough, which would go against the artist’s description of the work (here the doubt starts to creep in, where did I or the student find this description?) as the random order of the appliances in his apartment. Here is my conclusion, accompanied by two different photographs of Constellation:
Do you see it? If you do, then how can both the biographical reference of the apartment and the manipulation of the appliances into the Plough be true? A cosmic coincidence? If not, it means that we must admit a further level of manipulation at the human level for encounters with and depictions of the divine. In other words, it is not merely a balancing of two processes of the becoming-human of the divine or the becoming-divine of the human, but the grounding of both in human resourcefulness (or deception?). Prometheus would have approved!
Reading over this earlier today, I am less interested in the ancient mythical analogies and ideas of the human-divine encounter in Ovid’s poem. Instead, I want to know why I had completely forgotten about this artist, Chu Yun? I loved this work and so, five years too late, I went in search of him.
My starting point was the book that I used, back in 2012, for the mythology course, from which I selected the artists for the students to present on. The book was called Defining Contemporary Art: 25 Years in 200 Pivotal Art Works and was just then published by Phaidon (before writing this post, I had just visited the Wexner Store where I saw the Phaidon book Artists Who Make Books and maybe it is because of our present moment, or the fact that I am currently teaching a version of the honors mythology course that juxtaposes female figures in Ovid’s Metamorphoses with contemporary feminist art, but I had a Guerilla Girls inspired moment and wanted to call out the publisher on only including 5 women among the 32 artists represented in this beautiful book. You can find my ‘intervention’ on my Instagram account here). I returned to this book to find the chapter on Chu Yun, written by Daniel Birnbaum. Here are a few photographs of his essay:
Birnbaum mentions a few other works besides the artist’s ‘seminal Constellation‘, including Who Has Stolen Our Bodies (2003) and This is XX (2006) – you can just about make out both of these works in the photographs above. I was immediately drawn to the former work, which, as described by Birnbaum, ‘used soap bars gathered from his [the artist’s] friends’. Around lunchtime today, I then went in search online for more information about this work. In general, I found there to be a general scarcity of information about the artist, several links were down, including his own website.
A Google Image search produced results that were mainly focused on the three works that I had discovered in Birnbaum’s chapter.
The only work that seemed new, was from a solo exhibition at Portikus (where Birnbaum was director):
The more I searched, the more I realized that there was very little trace of him since this exhibition in 2009. I did a general Google Search, with the parameters limiting the dates from 2010 to 2017, and the only results that came up were to earlier works included in surveys of Chinese contemporary art, as well as results that (presumably) are different people of the same name, who are not the artist:
By this time is was well into the afternoon and I was starting to feel like the day would be over before I got anywhere. At that moment, I decided that I needed to turn to more traditional research tools, so I went looking for books that included references to Chu Yun’s work. The most promising discovery came from the book To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet edited by Linda Weintraub in 2012, in which there was a whole chapter dedicated to Chu Yun’s work. Here it is:
While Birnbaum had already mentioned Chu Yun’s interest in the everyday, the end of this article on his work made reference to how the artist had disappeared from the art scene on at least two separate occasions in 1999 and 2007. Suddenly, as the sky was starting to darken outside on my day of loose ends and false paths, I felt I was getting somewhere. Was Chu Yun’s absence from the art world since 2009 another of these ‘active withdrawals’? I knew that the best place to prove this was by searching of Chu Yun in Artforum – if his name was not there after 2009, he had definitely withdrawn from the art world!
The results proved conclusive – no record of the artist after December 2009. In an attempt to somehow recover the story of how and why Chu Yun abandoned the art world (this time), I started sifting through the reviews, until I found by far the most substantial account of his work to day, written by Philip Tinari for the March print issue of the magazine.
Tinari opens his piece with an account of the soap works:
Chu Yun’s “Soap Piece” became something of an improbable legend in the Chinese art world in 2008. This sculpture, actually titled Who Has Stolen Our Bodies?, consists of used bars of soap, collected from friends and acquaintances, arrayed atop a white plinth. Featured prominently in a number of recent exhibitions, the piece was in fact created in 2002 for an audience of a dozen at a private exhibition in a commercial photo studio in the southern city of Shenzhen, which then lacked the trappings of a contemporary art scene. When making the original piece, Chu saw his soap bars as “anti-monuments,” nonobjects that existed only because someone decided to stop using them. Conceived as a pointed rejoinder to the vogue among better-known artists in Beijing and Shanghai for more symbolic or substantive work, this modest assemblage suddenly gained new and unlikely traction six years later in a capital engulfed by the bombast of the Olympics.
It is at this moment, as Tinari goes on to narrate, that Chu Yun abandons the art world, seemingly in disgust with the excess of production and over-production surrounding the Olympic Games. Yet, given the record for this artist stops at the end of 2009, we have no idea how the story ends. At the same time, did Chu Yun offer us a clue in the form of previous withdrawals or perhaps in his works themselves? Once I read it, and as I come to the end of the day, this post, and posting every day, I couldn’t get the statement that Tinari attributes to the artist about Who Has Stolen Our Bodies out of my head:
Chu saw his soap bars as “anti-monuments,” nonobjects that existed only because someone decided to stop using them.
Does the same go for his career? For his life? For his body? Tinari adds the question mark at the end, while Birnbaun doesn’t have it. As the time has come to start to pack up my computer to leave, I think that I prefer the title without the question mark. That way I read the ‘Who’ as not the person doing the stealing, wherein the question may lead to a police search for the thief, but as the identity of the person in a statement, and even an answer to the question: Who Has Stolen Our Bodies? Who Has Stolen Our Bodies. In the last five years, I had forgotten Chu Yun’s name, but had remembered his work Constellation. Could this be a strategy of withdrawal that enacts a critique on the name-dropping prestige of the art world? (“Do you know the artist Chu Yun?”, “Who?”, “You know, the Chinese artist who did that Constellation piece in the mid-2000s”, “Ah, yes, of course, I wonder whatever happened to him?”.) This brings me back to the apotheosis of mythical figures, the way their naming becomes part of their presence as constellations, and not as people with stories (do your remember what happened to Callisto? It is a tale of sexual violence that would fit right in during these days of Trump). Finally, where does Minus Plato fit in? What will happen to us when we disappear from view, from your Facebook and Instagram feed an Friday? I guess we’ll see.
Evening addendum on the future (2012)