A cornerstone of the bodily performance and shock art scenes that characterized so much of what was considered the radical world of Chinese contemporary art throughout the 1990s, Yang Zhichao is not an artist from which one would expect sentimentality (or even subtlety). He is probably best known for an action in which he planted two pieces of grass in his shoulder for the infamous 2000 Ai Weiwei-organized exhibition “Fuck Off”; indeed, the press release for “Chinese Bible” describes him as “China’s most extreme performance artist.”
But for this equally absorbing project, exhibited for the first time in Hong Kong at 10 Chancery Lane after several outings in Beijing, the artist spent years gathering notebooks from secondhand stores and flea markets around mainland China, ultimately amassing a collection of some 3000 volumes of handwritten diaries ranging from 1949--the year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China--to 1999, most likely chosen to conveniently bookend a half century of collective experience. Stacking all of these precious, plastic-wrapped objects in the gallery space for all to touch and read is a surprisingly simple gesture, bordering even on the thoughtless, but as an aesthetic environment it succeeds far more than, say, the framed drawings that surround this central installation on the white gallery walls.
Contrary to what one might otherwise expect, it is not the architectural presence of this body of physical memory that impresses upon the viewer. This is almost disappointing: the books are stacked, variously between one and five pieces deep across a waist-high platform taking up much of the gallery space, albeit hugging two walls along the far long and short sides of the table, respectively. Thankfully, the books do not form a pattern modeled after the national flag or any other such absurdity. Instead, they constitute a straightforward plane of possibility, tempting the viewer to reach in and pick at something compelling. At first it is largely a question of design, as wandering eyes are attracted to bright colors, intriguing typography, odd textures, and kitschy graphics. For the reader of Chinese, the inscriptions and titles on many of the journals are fascinating: although those from the 1990s belong to the familiar category of “My Daily Thoughts,” many of the older items were received as souvenirs from political conferences, or were intended to record notes relevant to labor in a work unit, from a geological survey team to university political struggles. Inside, the handwriting is invariably stunningly neat and tidy, demonstrating that these texts are, indeed, meant to be read again; those not literate in Chinese may be especially excited to find the vocabulary lists of English-learners, or the Russian notes of Soviet-trained engineers. Of course, it is all of these defining traits--and the sheer variety thereof--that drive home what Yang Zhichao has learned in collecting, reading, researching, and archiving these pieces: that the “sacred classic” of China (as the Bible is usually translated) belong not to any one dogma but rather are composed of the collective historical memory of a complex and irreducible social apparatus.
~Robin Peckham, a writer living in China.
(Images: Yang Zhichao, TAO TE CHING 1, Performance Photograph, 68 x 100 cm; Planting Grass, Performance Photograph, 68 x 100 cm; Pub-3, Performance Photograph, 68 x 100 cm; Courtesy of the artist & 10 Chancery Lane Gallery)