“Artistic performance can be distinguished from everyday life only when it is given a certain intensity. … I want my work to move people.”

Born 1967, Lianghe, Yunnan. Lives and works in Beijing

He Yunchang’s hallmark is pain: he subjects himself to devilish regimens of self-torture, then sells photographs, videos and paintings of his agonies. Several of his works have been bloody processes in which incisions of specific lengths were made in various parts of his body. Perhaps the most sensational of these gory dramas, One Rib (not in the White Rabbit Collection), involved the surgical excision of most of He Yunchang’s lowest left rib; unusually, he was anaesthetised for the operation. The arc of bone was cleaned and integrated into a circular gold necklace. For One Meter of Democracy (2010), the artist asked 25 people to decide whether he should have a metre-long cut made down his left side, from just below his clavicle to his knee. When a majority said no, he repeated the process until he got the result he wanted. With the whole “electorate” looking on, a surgeon duly made the incision while cameramen recorded the procedure—minus the gut-wrenching groans of the fully conscious artist. The artist has said he conceived the performance as a physical demonstration of “the tension between the individual and the state”, represented by the scalpel as well as the ballot box. In a rare break from self-torment, the painting Self and Self—A Beginning (2013) portrays a giant He Yunchang, covered from head to foot in yellow oil paint and lacing up a shoe, apparently getting a head start in a race with a row of He Yunchang clones. He links this work to his 1999 performance piece Golden Sunshine, in which, after painting himself yellow, he spent two hours suspended high on a prison wall, first painting the bricks the same colour as himself, then using a mirror to “change the direction of the sun” by deflecting its light onto the shadows. Self, he says, represents that earlier He Yunchang and “my dreams and ambitions”.

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