Yang Zhichao in his Beijing studio. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Aug 15 2014

Yang Zhichao’s Love Story

by Michael Young

YANG ZHICHAO’s punch cards from the first year of Love Story (1996– ). 

YANG ZHICHAO, Love Story (detail), 1996– , diary entry from May 23, 2013. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

YANG ZHICHAOLove Story (detail), 1996– , diary entry from March 8, 2013. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific. 

There are sure to be both prurient reactions and voyeuristic interest when details of Chinese artist Yang Zhichao’s Love Story become public in 2016. Originally a collection of punch cards, it has grown over the years, and now takes the form of a diary, with individual pages embellished with drawings. It lists all the times the artist has had sex with his wife Zhang Lan since 1996—they were married in 1992—as well as the times it took them each of them to reach climax, as well as other corporeal details which most of us would choose to keep private.

When I visit Yang in his cavernous Beijing studio, he explains his intentions in making the diary as we flick through its pages. “I think the stories and drawings in the diary are romantic. When the characters are smiling it indicates a good week. There are occasional explicit drawings but it is a truthful record of our activity,” he says. It isn’t surprising to learn that his wife had reservations about the content in its early stages. As the work developed over the years, she often complained that some of the drawings were too sexy. But now she has come around and appreciates Love Story for what it is: “Everyone has their own love story. This is mine,” she says.

Originally, bald facts were recorded on punch cards—time, day and length of coitus—but, although entries are still written only on those days when sexual activity has taken place in its more expansive diary form, details of the weather are now included, as well as indications of world events. Local newspaper headlines—the state of the economy, environmental pollution or the rapid spread of avian bird flu across China—are assiduously transcribed by Yang. To date, there are several hundred pages of diary entries. 

Not all is harmonious within this intimate world. Disagreements are evident—on April 1 last year, for instance, we learn that, in addition to their 11 minutes of lovemaking, the couple also argued. Zhang told off her husband because he refused to go and see a doctor—a screaming match ensued. A few days later, they even end up wrestling each other. “She is very tough but I have always needed a tough woman. She used to be a policewoman and has a lot of training,” Yang says, proudly.

Yang has a reputation for gruesome self-mutilation: he has implanted grass into his body (Planting Grass, 2000), branded his flesh (Iron, 2000), inserted vials of dirt into his stomach (Earth, 2004) and asked his friend Ai Weiwei to implant an unknown object into his leg (Hide,2002). To this day this remains buried in his thigh and—x-rays have revealed that it is disc-shaped, but beyond this Yang is none the wiser as to what it is. But as Yang grows older, he has pulled back from this litany of self-imposed suffering.

Love Story was originally intended to be a private and anonymous project, yet curiously it continues Yang’s more public provocations on the nature of privacy and individualism within a society where everyone’s life is subject to state intrusion. With this work, he asks whether or not intimacy is indeed beyond public scrutiny, while simultaneously taking control and allowing the world to observe his and his wife’s relationship. When the books are exhibited in 2016—the 20th anniversary of the work’s inception—Yang and Zhang will be opening up their lives up an almost unprecedented level, yet this is through their own volition, not through government diktat.

Despite these serious concerns, looking through the diaries is a hugely enjoyable experience. There is much laughter as we turn the pages. “This is a love story and it is very important in a marriage to have this sort of document,” Yang says. A question I feel impelled to ask him, however, is whether he has always been monogamous. “Only sex with my wife in all these years,” he replies. 

Love Story is a poetic documentation of a relationship, and offers insight into the nature of intimacy. “When Lan looked back through the journals she could see how Love Story was a witness of our relationship and remember the growth of our intimacy through times of happiness, worries, ups and downs. Everything is in this story,” says Yang. Looking at the cartoon-like drawings in Love Story, it is easy to see who wears the trousers in this relationship and it isn’t Yang Zhichao.

YANG ZHICHAOLove Story (detail), 1996– , selection of diary entries. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.