Masters of the Conceptual

If you have ever, like me, scrolled mindlessly through social media, you may have encountered a haunting piece titled Can’t Help Myself that went viral in 2020. Many found themselves profoundly saddened by this seemingly simple piece, sporting a robotic arm endlessly scraping up a red, blood-like liquid. A deeper look however shows that the programmed act also threw the liquid around, performed erratic movements responding to its viewers, and slowly but surely deteriorated in function until it “died” in 2019. I highly recommend looking through the many videos of this piece in action, like the International Art Exhibition in Venice clip, which I find so heartbreaking as it was filmed shortly before the robot died.

While I could spend this whole post gushing over Can’t Help Myself, I would like to instead move the spotlight to its artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The aforementioned piece certainly deserved the attention it has gotten, but there is also an entire body of work ready to prove the insane skill and mastery of messaging that these two artists possess. I figured the best way to convey my adoration of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu is to point out a few of their (admittedly less graphic) works that I find striking, starting with the piece Can’t Have It All.

This is one of their performance art pieces that relies heavily on audience participation. The basic idea is that the artists used 32 smoke machines and extreme environment control to create a dense sea of fog in a multi-floored hall of the Shaanxi Art Museum, in which participants were prompted to navigate the fog to the top floor. Only a few could reach the top floor and see the fog “sea” below, but in doing so removed themselves from the crowd on the first floor and could no longer interact with them. I think this piece is a stunning show of large-scale technique and firsthand delivery of messaging. There is a sense of unfairness, luck, and sacrifice in the activity that breaks down aspects of public life into purely conceptual form.

The next piece I’d like to highlight is If I Died, a hyperrealist installation piece using fiberglass, silica gel, and actual bird specimens. The piece is a realized representation of Peng Yu’s mother and her belief of life after death. This piece demonstrates the duo’s classic dichotomy of unsettling hyperrealism and fanciful concept, as the older woman flies along with cranes and manta rays uncanny in their detail. This is one of the few pieces I found myself completely speechless upon seeing for the first time. The decision to portray each figure exactly how they look in reality despite the whimsy of the scene adds a layer of beauty that I believe is rarely seen in creative works. Even now I struggle to express what exact feeling is inspired by this fantastical yet somehow grounded piece, not to mention the prose of Peng Yu’s mother who inspired it, which happens to be some of the most profoundly gorgeous poetry I’ve ever heard. I can only imagine what one would feel seeing this work in person.

“If I die, I don’t want to come back as some creature that lives on land. I want to fly, soaring above the earth in the company of red-crowned cranes. How free it would be, live wherever I want, land wherever I wish… Yes, maybe I will hold fish, because for a bird, fish can be both food and a source of wealth. I want to hold a wreath, bequeath my goodwill and aspirations to my offsprings. Death is psychological, it is fear. Wouldn’t that be nice? After I die my spirit should rise to a place like this. Why?”

The last piece I want to feature is Angel, another silica gel and fiberglass sculpture. This piece seemed to go viral long before Can’t Help Myself, due to the fact that some tabloid-esque sites claimed it was too real to be a sculpture. The artists’ past use of controversial materials such as human fat, blood, and taxidermy specimens only bolstered the confusion and speculation around this piece. Regardless of the context, I find this piece fascinating in both its depiction and commentary. The angel has been displayed in a number of ways, but I find the installation where it lies in a metal frame with mesh most moving. The massive net-like structure adds to the solemn, bare appearance of the angel and the overall feeling of cruelty and captivity. The viewer is forced to look at a divine creature like a zoo exhibit and feel pity for it, a phenomenon almost unknown in religious art. It’s an extremely unusual way to see an angel, to the point where the audience must feel intrusive in their experience of the work. I find it an effective depiction of spectacle that is pushed in our media-driven culture, taking it just far enough for the viewer to discover their own boundary of what is unacceptable to sensationalize.

These are merely a few of the incredible pieces that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have made among their enormous body of work. I highly recommend looking through the rest of their works, either on their website or through some of the many exhibitions they’ve been in.

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