Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi deface Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and Tracy Emin’s piece My Bed

When these performance artists walked into the Tate Modern gallery and relieved themselves on Marcel Duchamp’s urinal exhibit, and argued they were paying homage to the French master, I said Genius.

“Duchamp’s “ready-made” sculpture ridiculed traditional concepts of art and caused a sensation when it first was exhibited in 1917. But rather than drawing accolades and applause, the pair of performance artists were widely dismissed as pranksters.

“In art there are expressionists, cubists and opportunists — that’s the new movement and that’s what they are,” said David Lee, editor of the art magazine The Jackaw.

The Guardian newspaper branded the pair “guerrilla artists,” while the gallery issued a terse statement acknowledging “an incident” but refused further comment. All of which has thrilled Yuan Cai, 43, and Jian Jun Xi, 37, who argued their goal was to fuel artistic debate and “celebrate the spirit of modern art.”

“Duchamp changed art. He gave people a different way of looking at it by putting art in a social context. What we’re doing is also revolutionary,” said Xi, who, like Cai, grew up in China during Mao’s cultural revolution.”

“Jian Jun Xi, performance artist, 46

In November 1999, Two Naked Artists Jump Into Tracey’s Bed made the two Chinese artists – who, in fact, kept their trousers on when they foiled security guards and invaded Tracey Emin’s work in Tate Britain – famous and led many to associate the Chinese with performance art for the first time.

‘I actually established a performing art group called Concept 21 back in 1986,’ says one of the pair, Jian Jun Xi, at his studio in Beijing, which he now calls home. ‘Performance art, until recently an alien concept here, is a good medium to provoke, a good way to express our desire for freedom.’

Concept 21’s first show saw four art students, bandaged in white gauze, pour ink over each other at Beijing University. It was so provocative that it led other students to protest against corruption later that day. It was a time when China was gingerly unbuttoning Mao’s straitjacket and an avant-garde scene had yet to emerge. Before long, Jian Jun migrated to the UK where he met his artistic partner, Chai Yuan. Together they staged some memorable performances such as Running Naked Across Westminster Bridge with Tony Bear (starkers this time); Two Artists Swim Across the Thames, a reinterpretation of Mao’s swimming in the Yangtze; and Soya Source and Tomato Catch-up Fight, commenting on the conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures.

Penis Spirit was perhaps their most shocking work. They pickled a human penis in spirit then drank it with friends in Beijing. ‘It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But what we’d like to do is to push the boundaries,’ Jian Jun explains in fluent English.

Lured by a burgeoning and innovative cultural scene and a more mature and accepting audience, the duo – who although heterosexual are now often referred to as ‘China’s Gilbert and George’ – decided to settle back in China. ‘We feel that we’ve learnt a great deal from the West. It is time to return and continue our journey.'”
by Lijia Zhang
posted on the Gurdian on Sunday 6 July 2008.