Fu Tiantong and Chu Meng'er in dialogue with Duan Yingmei

Fu Tiantong and Chu Meng'er, April 1, 2017

Fu Tiantong was born in 1999. As a current student at United World College Changshu China, his main academic focuses are philosophy, theatre and Chinese literature. He loves contemplating art and utilizing art to contemplate.

Fu Tiantong: I have noticed that many of your performance artworks involve multiple approaches of communicating with your audience. For instance, the major forms of communication used in "I am One of the Luckiest Person in the World" (2016) are eye contact and verbal communication. Likewise, you mainly focused on eye contact and literal communication in the work "Happy Yingmei" (2011). What types of communication did you utilize in "Mementos" (2017)?  And why?

Yingmei Duan: In "Mementos", communication with the audience was established through objects / things and notes. In this way, a three dimensional net structure was constructed between people and people, people and objects, objects and objects, objects and space, space and space, external space and internal space through the use of objects, notes, space and the involvement of people.

The objects in this show were from me, and people whom I met in Shanghai a few months ago and added on WeChat. Others are from old friends who are living in Shanghai. I tell different stories of all the objects through notes in a fairy-tale-like tone. The stories are related to the past, present and future of you, me, him/her and them. I truly hope to connect us all using these things and make some beautiful memories in this fast-paced contemporary life.

Fu: Why did you use verbal language and written language to present your work?

Duan: Ever since 2008, besides body language I consciously began to use spoken language including Chinese, English and German in my work, at the same time I also started using written text in my work like handwritten notes. Only using body language to carry out my works is not enough. Recently in a conversation with the curator Li Qi, he mentioned that language is so attractive because our daily communication and translations are all primarily completed through oral language and written texts. Simply and directly, people can either speak or write. This is also why I like to involve verbal language and written language in my artistic creation.

Fu: You have merged various kinds of sensory experiences in "Mementos", such as hearing, watching, touching, smelling, tasting and so forth. What are your intentions in doing so?

Duan: The integration of multiple sensory experiences is intended to evoke different senses from the audience and let the viewers use them to interact with the objects. In this show the audience can listen to music in Hanxiao Han's albums, watch an interactive object & video work called "Melancholic Pigs", touch a figurine of a broken angel, smell the scent of a soothing ointment and taste the flavour of tea and bacon.

Fu: From my personal perspective, objects, people and space are three main elements of this work. Which one of them do you think is more important and why?

Duan: For me, all three elements are very important. My intention was to create a big three-dimensional net structure, in which neither people, objects nor space are separated. Instead, they are all connected.

For example, sitting on the indoor carpet, the audience can see the shadow puppet outdoors through the windows, thus the internal space and the external space are connected. While watching the video "Melancholic Pigs" (2017), the audience can eat bacon in front of the video, using these methods I want to build an interaction between people and objects as well as an interaction between the audience and the video. What’s more, the audience can listen to Han Xiaohan’s albums while watching the “Melancholic Pigs” video in the other space, they can also listen to the music he created for the video. As a result, people can learn more about this musician. In this way, through the collaboration of connections, the objects and objects, objects and people, objects and spaces, people and spaces, spaces and spaces are all linked as one. 

Fu: You were at the exhibition all the time, and kept communicating with the audience. Do you take the communication with the audience and the improvement of the piece as part of your artwork?

Duan: In most cases, I stay throughout the whole exhibition. I quite enjoy and am used to the various ways of interacting and communicating with the audience. In some of my works, I’d intentionally regard the communication with the audience and the modifications of my work as part of the art piece, like in "Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice", "Polygamy" and "Happy Yingmei". But in this work "Mementos", I haven’t thought about it yet.

Fu: I read the descriptions of your subjective performing experiences in articles introducing "Yingmei’s Erotic Body" (2007) and "Body Dialogue with Japanese Men" (2008). Could you please describe the process and your personal experience of performing "Mementos" from your own perspective?

Duan: Up to now, I’ve exhibited this series of work several times. Different people and spaces are involved each time. Since I have a lot of work to do each time, I begin my preparation one or two months before the opening of the exhibition.

During my preparations, I hope to communicate with the owners of the objects and thus have a better understanding of them through their belongings. When deciding which object to be shown in the exhibition, people normally give me advice or we decide together. Then I spend a lot of time working on the texts. Next is the placement of the objects. I need to consider questions like how to place the objects, and what objects should be placed together. Then I make further modifications to the texts.

At the beginning of my show, I often take the role of a guide resulting in a performance that uses my voice and notes. In this work, people can touch all the objects, and further interactions emerge through the texts on the handwritten notes. During that time I will observe the audiences’ interaction.

Last but not least, let’s talk about removing the exhibition from a space. The de-installation sometimes takes more time than the preparation. That’s because I feel sad every time I leave a space. I de-install the show all by myself most of the time, because I like the feeling of moving everything out from the space slowly, quietly, and reflect on the experience for my next exhibition.

Fu: There are numerous works of yours that involve a large amount of interaction with the audience, such as "Happy Yingmei", "I am One of the Luckiest People in the World", and "Body Dialogue with Japanese Men". There are also other performances that involve less interaction or no Interaction, like "I Love Computers" and "Friend". In the work "Mementos", what’s the difference in terms of the role of interaction compared to your previous works?

Duan: Interaction is a very important part of my work, and I’ve been trying to interact using different art media. I like interaction as a way of doing performance art because there can be a lot of surprises that can enrich my experience and wisdom, as well as improving my ability to solve problems. Of course, there may be both good and bad experiences during these interactions. In the work "Mementos", the artist will be absent, but the audience can still keep interacting with the work. This kind of interaction is what I intend to emphasize in this work.

Fu: Chinese rice paper is used in a lot of your works, including "Mementos", "Happy Yingmei" and "I am one of the Luckiest People in the World". Are there any particular reasons for you to do so?

Duan: In fact, there’s no special meaning for that. I just like Chinese rice paper very much because it’s light and soft, and it looks plain and elegant.

Fu: I found that there is a certain degree of resemblance between the melodies in "Mementos" and "Happy Yingmei". Did you compose the melodies yourself? Are there any implications within them?

Duan: The melodies were all improvisations because I’m interested in sound and music, and I like to add them to my works. Some parts of the melodies in these works sounded alike, because I’d include some of the previously used melodies in my new works. Different melodies were used according to different objects and spaces. There is a connection between the melodies, the objects and spaces in the exhibition. In addition, as for composing better sounds, I am still in the process of trying and improving.

Fu: As you mentioned in our conversation, you love to immerse yourself in the local life and culture while doing art in different places. And the art pieces are created based on local life and culture. So did you add your personal understanding of Shanghai in this work?

Duan: Some of the participants of this work are local Shanghai people and some are not, they are from different cultural backgrounds, and doing different jobs. In our conversations, I often asked about their life in Shanghai, and how they felt about this city. I learned more about Shanghai through our conversations. Also, during my few days in Shanghai, I gained some personal feelings about this city. I hope I will get the chance to know more about this city in the future.

Fu: Your clothes in "I am one of the Luckiest People in the World" and "Mementos" are quite similar. What’s the reason for that? Do you have any unique preference and understanding towards colours?

Duan: I don’t think my clothes are important in many of my performances. Sometimes I wear the same clothes, because it has nothing to do with my work. I like all kinds of colourful clothes, and some of my clothes are in sharp colour contrast. I like matching different colours to create new effects.

Fu: During the performance I humbly suggested that you put the performance introduction by the door in order to help the audience understand. So how did you impart the main ideas behind your work to the audience before?

Duan: Normally during the exhibition, the audience can see the conceptual description for the whole project on paper. I hope that the audience can reflect on my work with their own life experiences and artistic experiences.



Chu Menger was born in 1994, when she was 16 years old she moved with her family to the United States. She studied History of Art as her undergraduate major at New York University in New York and Paris, mainly focusing on Chinese and international contemporary art. After graduation she returned to her hometown Shanghai and began to engage in curatorial work.

Yingmei did not like to talk much from an early age due to her speech defect, but she often talked to things. In the eyes of other people, such behaviour is nothing but talking to oneself. As she grew up, she gradually realised people who did not talk much usually have eyes and ears that are extraordinarily sensitive, thus vision and body language can break the limits of verbal expression. She loves reading fairy tales and is fascinated by their simple, naive and personified language.

This penchant for fairy tales also grew out of her own life experiences. After moving to Germany, she tended to use childlike words and sentences because she did not have a deep understanding of the German language. It was rather a coincidence that she first performed a work like "Mementos" at the Danish Cultural Centre in Beijing. Fairy tales usually comes to mind immediately when people speak of Denmark. For this reason, combining her research on fairy tales and her habit of talking to herself, Yingmei brought a number of things to this performance including personal belongings and presents from her family and friends. A handwritten note in the style of a fairy tale served as a description label and was placed next to each thing in the exhibition. These notes, telling the stories about the things and their owners, indirectly reflect Yingmei's innocent and curious personality.

Each time Yingmei brings this type of artwork such as “Mementos” to a new city, she hopes to interact with local people through art. Previously, when she was invited by Sichuan Fine Arts Institute to participate in an art program named “Artists In The Classroom”, she made a spontaneous decision to add some personal belongings from the students and teachers that she encountered on the campus into her performance. In a similar way, the performance in Chengdu that took place later included not only the personal belongings from some of the local artists, but also those from the curators and organizers of the residency. It was also during this residency in Chengdu that she developed the idea of putting a wide range of different art mediums into large-scale interactive performances.

During her 25 years of art making, Yingmei has made eighty or ninety pieces of collaborative performance works. Since about 2006, many details of these collaborations were discussed remotely via Skype and other social media platforms because most of her collaborators were from different parts of the world. The ubiquity of social media brings great convenience to her long-distance collaborations that she could never have imagined in the past. While she was in Shanghai last time, she got to know a lot of people at a dinner. Before leaving the dinner they exchanged WeChat details, which linked them together again on the occasion of her performance ”Mementos" in Shanghai.

She often makes changing exhibitions, which means her work changes constantly over the duration of the exhibition. In conversation with Yingmei, she questions the default rule that artists must complete their works before the opening of an exhibition. Also, she attempts to explore this question in her art practice: Sometimes she deliberately makes her works appear incomplete and she is not afraid to reveal her imperfections to people. “I like artworks with imperfections. This imperfection is a part of me, and it doesn’t affect my work.” says Yingmei. During the preparation of the “Mementos” exhibition, she chose not to place a cabinet directly against the wall and to leave a gap between the door and its frame. All of these details tell the audience that imperfection is not just tolerated but welcomed in Yingmei’s performances.

For Yingmei, the intense preparation is part of the performance. This form of exhibition- showing personal belongings from participants alongside handwritten notes seems simple, yet these notes are prepared long before the exhibition and the preparation is an extremely time-consuming process. The description on each note contains roughly 100 characters, but each of the notes might involve hours of talking on the phone or face-to-face chatting in a café between Yingmei and each participant.

Sometimes the process of coming up with the right words and then writing them down on paper can be quite repetitive, because Yingmei can usually find a better way to word something after writing it down a few times. She finalises her writing only after putting the things alongside the notes in the exhibition, in order to determine if the text matches the surrounding objects. Many things from the exhibited items, to the notes and the space are connected.

For two days in a row before the opening of the “Mementos” performance, Yingmei did not get more than 4 hours sleep due to the many unexpected and repetitive preparatory tasks she needed to do. If the preparation of an exhibition and the artworks themselves are inseparable, then the de-installation (certainly not visible to the audience) is also crucial to her. Yingmei enjoys the peaceful time during de-installing, yet at the same time, she feels a bit sentimental at the thought that these things will never appear here again. This is especially the case for “Mementos” because many of the items exhibited in the show are personal belongings of her friends, and need to be returned in time.

Once the exhibition ended Yingmei began removing the items. The process went on from evening until the afternoon of the following day. Meanwhile, she would give some thought on how to “fix” the flaws that she came across during the exhibition from a pragmatic point of view (issues such as how to rearrange the location of certain specific items in order to generate a stronger and more lively narrative). Before leaving, she looks around to analyse the exhibition space again, and summarise the whole exhibition in her head, which also allows her to visualise and to structure her future exhibitions. Questions arise such as whether she should perform several times on the opening day to limit the audience numbers, in order to avoid the audience members at the back having their view blocked which can affect their experience of the performance.

Another keyword that brings Yingmei’s artwork together, aside from “incomplete” spontaneous improvisations, is “interaction”. It is a form of interaction that does not only engage the audience but also the curators. In the “Mementos” exhibition at Capsule Shanghai, Yingmei tried to challenge the convention where a curator plays a supervising role in an exhibition. Instead, she invited curators to be part of her show so that they were able to view it from a personal viewpoint (the "curator as a direct part of her work“ is a theme that has appeared in many of her previous exhibitions). By bringing their personal belongings to share with the audience, curators became an integrated part of the exhibition. Since the artist herself might not be present for the full duration of the exhibition, the artwork itself is a performance that the audience can use their own actions to initiate.

Unlike a conventional exhibition, the audience is encouraged to touch, move, smell and taste the objects around the gallery. The audience's perception of the exhibition is essential to Yingmei. She likes to hear people's feedback, especially critical voices. Without mixed feedback, she feels she would not have been able to make the progress that she has over the years.

The exhibition space of Capsule Shanghai acts as a platform that brings people of various nationalities, occupations, and ages together through different artistic media such as video, painting, sound and installation, therefore allowing and inspiring the audience to reflect upon their past by looking, smelling and touching these exhibited items. Meanwhile, it also provokes a dialogue between objects and objects, people and people, people and objects, internal space and external space (those who sit on the carpet in the main exhibition room can see the external space through the French window), as well as a conversation among each room (objects placed in the bathroom may resonate with those in another room) that construct a three-dimensional network within the space.

The preparation of an exhibition often feels like a dream to Yingmei - the word “dream” here is more of a reflection of her artistic career than a metaphor: she had always wanted to learn art from an early age, yet never had the right opportunity to pursue her dream. It was not until 1991 when she had an oral surgery and stayed hospitalized for 9 days, during which she kept dreaming about art, that she finally set foot on art. Upon learning about these dreams, her father decided to let her study art. Haphazardly, the creative path that lied ahead of her has been so smooth that it is as if she is still living in that dream.

Accustomed to interpreting performance art following her feelings from the very beginning of her artistic career, Yingmei values freedom as the only and most crucial principle that she abides in art creation. For the past two decades, her art practice has always involved an endless cycle of self-inquiry: from analyzing each of the thematic questions that she poses to herself, to coming up with satisfactory answers which are then followed by another series of questions. Her choice of exhibition venue also reflects the enthusiastic pursuit of freedom. Places such as toilets, prison cells and basements, however bizarre and unconventional in the eyes of many people, are among her considerations when it comes to choosing a performance space.  By nature, a different space requires different types of works, and it is exactly this kind of challenge that inspires her as she expresses: “I can create art in whichever given space, and these unusual spaces have always enlightened my creativity.” Never settled in a proper studio during the 20 years of her career as a performance artist, Yingmei firmly believes that anywhere in the world can be her studio.

Compared to her previous works, the pieces Yingmei brought to Shanghai provided a new type of work that she has just began to explore: a performance that involves the interaction between objects and videos. The juxtapositions between the screen that plays ‘Melancholic Pig’ and a bowl of cured bacon place next to the screen, as well as between the cards (each of them showing a fragment of a cave painting) that scatter around the carpet and an adjacent screen that shows a video of cave paintings, both show her intention to explore the relationship between reality and virtual objects; or say, to evoke an organic conversation between objects of various types in the presence of audience. In another part of the room, her early sound work ‘Talk to Myself’ is playing, and the recorder that sits right on top of the monitor was exactly the one that recorded Yingmei’s voice in this video. These two vintage things, whether in a virtual or real world, perfectly echo with the title of the exhibition “Mementos”; yet more importantly, with the close and intimate relationship among different objects that the show aims to create.