Who is Zhu Yu? For those of you who aren’t familiar with Zhu Yu’s early work, I need only to introduce two works of his that attracted the most attention, Eating People (2000), which consists of photographs showing the artist apparently eating a human foetus; and Sacrifice (2002), a video of Zhu Yu negotiating with a prostitute to become pregnant with his child only for it to be aborted to make an artwork, and then showed the aborted child being fed to a dog.
Art does not get any more shocking than this. When confronted with such work, it’s practically impossible to maintain any sense of objectivity as one’s very subjectivity as is called into action. What you feel is a total detachment from the artist at a fundamental human level. Although it is very unlikely the artist planned this reaction, it could reveal something about Zhu Yu’s intentions at a deeper psychological level.
It is interesting that such extreme work came out of four years of slow and careful research by the artist, starting in 1995 when he first made contact with medical scientists working with human cadavers. At the core of his work was a basic need to explore one of the fundamental themes of art throughout the ages – mortality. However, he didn’t want to use any existing formal technique to approach such a subject matter. Maybe he took inspiration from the medical scientists he courted and studied for several years, carefully setting up a rigorous experiment and watching the results unfold.
The experiment that he set up was a form of social theatre, pitting his extreme work against a new form of society at that time, netizens. While there are enough clues in the work to suggest that it was staged, the sense immediacy his work created allowed for little objective analysis. After all, the desire for artists to shock can only be outdone by people’s desire to feel moral indignation. His experiment bore results far more potent than expected, with hatred for him and his work spreading well beyond the borders of China, and even affecting Chinese cultural policy. In direct contrast to the passionate reaction to his work, however, the whole process of making the work was quite dispassionate and detached.
Looking at these works now with less involved eyes, it is apparent that both Eating People and Sacrifice were in fact staged. The foetuses in both works are obviously inedible formalin soaked lab specimens. Knowing that Zhu Yu did not do those infamous deeds, but only pretended to, makes a big difference in how we understand his work as a whole. For example, we know that actors in horror films only pretend to do horrible things, and that’s why we can watch them and be entertained. If one day we found out that the torture or murder in a certain film was real, we would no longer consider it as being film but something actually horrific.
Likewise, artists shock us because we believe, or even take for granted, that artists really do the things they claim. But when Zhu Yu pretended to do horrific things like actors do, and then pretended that the actions were real, this double pretence brought him back into the realm of art by changing the rules of the game in the process. He was neither an actor in a fictional scenario, or an artist performing a real action. Zhu Yu’s work lay somewhere in-between. Therefore, the whole action set up an experiment to explore the relationship between artist and audience, and by extension, the nature or ontology of being an artist.
From a text by Colin Siyuan Chinnery