The Artist is the Genius of Suffering
Interview with Pei Li
Interviewer: Edward Sanderson (ES)
Interviewee: Pei Li (PL)
The pursuit of beauty and the artist’s commitment to their practice are parallel concerns for Pei Li, whose solo show closed recently at Beijing’s Platform China space. This young artist holds these pursuits to a high degree of scrutiny and suspicion, regarding the beauty and fame as suspect notions that demand a certain cynicism. In a series of complex and sometimes audacious projects, she has grappled with the ideal of the artist and the relation that art has to the presentation of the body through representation, psychological projection, and performative acts. The following conversation was conducted via email and a face-to-face interview in Platform China’s galleries. UPDATE: Platform China have kindly translated this interview into Chinese.
Edward Sanderson: You titled your show at Platform China “Generation P,” and the catalogue cover shows a text that has been roughly crossed out, leaving only the words beginning with the letter ‘P’ visible. Can you explain this and what is its significance?
Pei Li: At the very beginning I planned to call the exhibition “Generation Pain.” The sound of the word “pain” is close to my name “Pei” in Chinese, and I have a particular interest in pain. But then I felt that, for me, using the word “pain” was a little strange, because I always want to be fun. I like pain, but my character is cheerful and optimistic – and I think there is no conflict between the two!
I have a dual personality: sometimes I am cheerful and optimistic, and sometimes I fall into deep depressions. When I was a little girl I had infantile autism, apparently I would stand face-to-face in front of a wall, for the whole day, day after day. Actually, up until the age of 14 I don’t have much memory of my childhood, my family told me all about this.
When I was a teenager, I used to cut myself – not because of any bad experiences, just because of the pain itself. But I think pain on the body is really nothing. The real pain is the one you feel in your heart, a pain you cannot see.
ES: OK, in the piece Artist should be beautiful (2010–2012) you imagine and document the cosmetic surgery you underwent to have your jawbone reshaped. Aside from the physical pain you went through in this procedure, does this reflect an inner pain?
PL: I did that piece because I felt there was no beauty in 798 [the main gallery district in Beijing], in the galleries, or in contemporary art. I had no idea what artists were searching for.
When I lay down on the operating table, I think of the operation as more like a statement. I wish to pay to have beauty in my work. I love beauty, so I try to attain beauty, the beauty gained through pain (pay). It was my way of saying to the world, “No sacrifice. No victory”!
A lot of women choose to go to hospital and have cosmetic surgery. They pay for this and suffer the pain because they feel their husbands will love them more, everyone will love them more. They think they will get something from all that pain.
I really liked the experience in the hospital. All the other girls there for plastic surgery were really nice. After their surgery, they were much happier, more confident, and we just talked about beauty – nothing else, nothing bad.
So when I say, “I like pain,” I really mean suffering. This suffering comes because I always strive to feel new things, to experience life – not necessarily as a way to gain inspiration, but to discover the true meaning of the thing that qualify an individual to be an artist.
I think the artist is the genius of suffering. I quite like van Gogh for instance – in one of my early video pieces I graffiti his painting of the Irises on a wall [Ms lonely (2010)], and I’m actually doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw of the same image at the moment! I remember he said: “Sorrow is better than joy… for by the sadness of the countenance, the heart is made better.”
ES: In your works you maintain a strong relation to other artists and artworks, in many cases adapting them (like with the Irises), or in a more sustained way in the piece Copycat – Rebuilding the rights of statues (2012) where you select a whole series of famous performance works and redo them. Unlike, say, Marina Abramovic’s “original” re-stagings (Seven Easy Pieces), you use the originals for very different purposes, creating these seemingly highly ironic adaptations of the originals.
PL: I have done nine performance works so far, by Abramovic, Tracy Emin, Zhang Huan, Ai Weiwei, etc., some of which I really like, but some I completely do not understand nor even feel anything for. Experiencing an art work is like listening to music: if find a song I like I will listen it many times, over and over again, but if I find a song I don’t like, I can hardly bear to listen to it once. I cannot understand a lot of artworks, and I would rather not have to think about them. But I cannot deny that they have a place in art history and memory.
So I have a neutral attitude to copying these pieces. I did not want to be ironic or pay tribute to the pieces. It’s just about the act of repetition. I love performance art, but I always feel that it is a derogatory term in China: there are so many artists grandstanding in their performances.
ES: You are usually the player in your videos and performances, and in the case of Artist must be beautiful the piece seems to be very much about a personal situation of wanting to be beautiful. Yet you seem to want to distance yourself from being seen as the meaning of the work. Why is that?
PL: Yes, I am a bit narcissistic, but usually it’s simply more practical: it’s cheaper and I have more control if I am the actor. The relationship between the audience and me doesn’t really matter; they don’t really see me in the works. The most important thing is the relationship between the work and the audience, to give people a feeling from my work. The piece Healing Mushroom (2012) helps to explain this.
ES: This video tells the story of a woman (played by you) who thinks she is a mushroom, sitting in various places under an umbrella. She has been admitted into a hospital, and one day a new doctor arrives (also played by yourself), who begins his treatment by acting like a mushroom too. But progressively he adapts his behaviour into “normality” in a way which encourages the woman to also start eating, start moving around, and eventually return to society. The captions (which tell the story from the woman’s point of view), though, make it clear that she still sees herself as a mushroom. What are you saying with this story?
PL: I hope my work conveys the idea that when someone feels sad and is finding it difficult to keep going in their life, maybe they don’t need much persuasion or comfort. They only need someone who is willing to squat on their heels nearby, a silent companion – even if it seems silly to do it as a mushroom!
ES: Reading Karen Smith’s extensive text in your catalogue, she seems to be bemoaning the fact that you are quite ambivalent to the idea of an artist?
PL: I think it is really difficult to be an artist – a real artist. In fact, I’ve been a little resistant to say I am an artist – I just think I am an art practitioner. You have to suffer a lot of things and if you really want to be an artist you have to go through everything by yourself, you cannot ask anyone else to do it for you. I really respect artists that are committed to their work, like a painter painting the same picture for one year, two years, three years, five years, ten years!
Right now I don’t think I am a real artist, I haven’t been working long enough. But I think I’ll try to be a good artist in the future.
[Many thanks to Lilian Ding at Platform China for her assistance with this interview.]