He Chengyao

He Chengyao, Kiss, 2003 via HKW Archives

Feature image: He Chengyao, Kiss, 2003 via HKW Archives

The early 2000s works of He Chengyao

He Chengyao is a Chinese performance artist whose work explores mental illness, mother-daughter relationships, and her own personal history. Chengyao’s parents were not married when she was born. Their unmarried status drew ridicule and disdain from their community, directed particularly towards Chengyao’s mother. Their decision to keep the baby resulted in both of them being fired from their jobs. The couple had two more children after this. Eventually, Chengyao’s father got a job as a factory worker, but due to his political views, he was imprisoned. Chengyao’s mother was left to care for three children alone and was unable to get a job. Her mental health failed. These formative years of Chengyao’s life are a recurring topic of exploration in her art. From 1989 to 1992, Chengyao attended the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where she studied painting. Her paintings sold well, but Chengyao felt a desire to engage with other art mediums. She enrolled in a contemporary art graduate course at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. There, she became captivated by performance art. Soon after her enrollment at CAFA, she performed her first piece, Opening the Great Wall

Opening the Great Wall (2001)

He Chengyao, Opening the Great Wall, 2001 via AWARE Archive

In her initial foray into performance art, Chengyao removed her shirt and walked along the Great Wall of China. She envisioned this performance as a reenactment— one that paid homage to her mother, who was sometimes found walking the streets of their town naked due to mental illness. The work was not well received, with many criticizing Chengyao’s partial nudity. This visceral critical response caused Chengyao to continue to explore the nude female body and its liberation. The photo captured of this performance shows Chengyao striding confidently towards the viewer. Her top half is bare, and she holds a red shirt in her hand. Other visitors to the Great Wall stand in the background. On either side of her is a wall of crushed soda cans. This display of cans, created by HA Schult, helps direct focus on Chengyao in this photo. While her mother’s nudity caused Chengyao embarrassment and shame as a child, in this work, she reclaims and redefines what it means to be a nude woman in public. 

Mama and Me (2001)

He Chengyao, Mama and Me, 2001
He Chengyao, Mama and Me, 2001 via The Brooklyn Museum

After Opening the Great Wall, Chengyao returned to her hometown to visit her mother. She observed her mom sitting torso bare, playing with a rotting apple. At this moment, Chengyao decided to join her mother. She removed her top and stood behind her mom, resting her hands on her mother’s shoulders. The resulting work features a series of photos showing Chengyao removing her top and taking her place behind her mom. As Chengyao places her hands on her mom’s shoulders, her mother smiles and looks up at her daughter. This was the first time Chengyao had ever taken a photo with her mother. The work helped Chengyao face her family’s history of mental health struggles that had been avoided for decades. Chengyao also expressed that this act partially satisfied over thirty years of yearning to support and embrace her mom. 

99 Needles (2002)

He Chengyao, 99 Needles, 2002
He Chengyao, 99 Needles, 2002 via The Brooklyn Museum

To perform 99 Needles, Chengyao inserted 99 acupuncture needles into her body. Chengyao’s grandmother tried various folk methods in hopes of curing Chengyao’s mother’s mental illness. One of these attempts, which Chengyao herself witnessed, involved a forced bout of acupuncture treatment. Chengyao shared her memory of her mother screaming and struggling to break free from this so-called cure. Chengyao dedicated this work to her mother, “who endured so much shameful wearing down.” She also performed this work as an act of atonement for being a witness to her mother’s suffering but being unable to intervene. The photos of this work depict Chengyao in nothing but underpants as the thin acupuncture needles protrude from her flesh. Her skin is visibly red, irritated, and broken. Chengyao stares out at the viewer with a look of resilience and pain. 

Illusion (2002)

He Chengyao, Illusion, 2002
He Chengyao, Illusion, 2002 via Overblog

Illusion grapples with ideas concerning connection, gender, and making active what is normally passive. This 10-minute performance piece began with Chengyao inviting a male audience member to hold a mirror and use it to reflect the sunlight onto a gray brick wall. As the man moved the reflected light around the wall, Chengyao would attempt to chase and catch the patch of sun. The man holding the mirror gained control over the movements of Chengyao’s body, making her run, jump, and dive for the light. The audience eventually became aware of the manipulator’s movements and power over Chengyao. The choice to make the mirror holder male adds a gender dynamic to the piece, paralleling the way women's bodily autonomy has long been dictated by men. Chengyao reaches and grasps for the light, yearning to connect but is unable to, largely because of circumstances outside her control.

Broadcast Exercise (2004)

In this work, Chengyao wrapped her nude body in duct tape, sticky side facing out, and then performed a routine exercise that is mandatory in almost every Chinese school. She walks in place, squats, kicks, does jumping jacks, and twists at the waist. The tape is wrapped tightly and often restricts her movements. Each time her arms come down to her sides, they stick to the tape, and she must use extra force to pull her arms back up. By the end of her exercise, the tape has begun to loosen around her body, allowing more freedom of movement. The performance speaks to both the sexual repression of the female body in China as well as the struggle between conformity and individuality that Chengyao felt growing up there. As she moves, she loosens her bonds, slowly liberating herself from the control the government exerted over her childhood.

Once Chengyao became an adult, she traveled back to her hometown and filmed a documentary about the families who suffered from mental illness there. These people are often neglected by society and not given access to the help they need. Chengyao shared, “I hope people can pay attention to the children from poor families and those who suffer from mental illness. I myself came from that kind of family.” Chengyao’s works are profound and thought-provoking. Her performances are deeply personal while also discussing overarching themes and concepts that integrate individual and societal experiences.

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