Yangjiang Group’s “iceberg” studio in Yangjiang, China. Courtesy the artists.

Zheng Guogu, one of the three members of the Yangjiang Group. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific

Jan 09 2015

Yangjiang Group at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney

by Michael Young

Yangjiang Group, the young avant-garde art collective based in the eponymous city in southern China, will bring their brand of mayhem in the form of a gallery-wide installation to Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art this January. “No area will be off limits,” says center director Aaron Seeto, including the 4A offices, kitchen, library and perhaps even the stairwell. Additionally, the Yangjiang Group will also put on a one-off performance—which they prefer to call an “action”—in Sydney’s highly manicured Chinese Garden, where, in the words of artist Zheng Guogu, the collective’s spokesperson, “anything can happen.”

The Yangjiang Group is comprised of artists Chen Zaiyan, Sun Qinglin and Zheng Guogu. Zheng was on a site visit to Sydney last November when he spoke to ArtAsiaPacific, through an interpreter, about the group’s particular form of “art anarchy,” which seems to fly under the radar of the authorities back home in China. Given that the group appropriates and attacks one of China’s most sacred cows—calligraphy—it is noteworthy that they have successfully managed to navigate away from any official opprobrium.

The group lives and works in Yangjiang, a small city in the southwestern Guangdong Province on the Pearl River Delta—a locale to which they have remained loyal. “You don’t really need a big city to create art. It is just about inspiration; you can get that anywhere if you have talent,” said Zheng to AAP.

“Actions for Tomorrow” will be the collective’s first solo exhibition in Australia, and Chinese calligraphy will feature strongly, as it has done in much of their artwork since the group formed in 2002. But don’t expect to be able to read what they write—even if you can read Mandarin. In fact, native Mandarin readers may be hard-pressed to decipher the Yangjiang Group’s less-than-professional penmanship, with its ill-formed characters and ellipses, which are often exacerbated by the group’s tradition of binge-drinking prior to making the works.

“Almost every art work we do has calligraphy at its core, and, yes, there will be calligraphy in the Sydney installation,” Zheng commented. But it is calligraphy pushed to the limits of comprehension.

The courtyard garden of Yangjiang Group’s studio. Courtesy the artists.

Interior of Yangjiang Group’s “iceberg” studio. Courtesy the artists.

The growing resurgence of calligraphy in modern China, and the role it plays in reaffirming the country’s cultural values, is a powerful tool for the Yangjiang Group. It allows them to dismiss the cherished belief that calligraphy should only be expressed through refined and delicate penmanship. Indeed, there is nothing refined or delicate in their work, which remains more like a scream of self-assertion, with its eclectic merging of art and life. The “calligraphy” seen in their art are at times formed using debris left over from a banquet, or are used as part of posters—hastily written and obscured by cell phone numbers. Such works were prominently featured in their recent Minsheng Art Museum show, provocatively titled “Fuck off the Rules,” which is a far from subtle reference to their motto that claims “there are no rules in art.”

The Yangjiang Group believes in elevating various moments of everyday life—such as gambling, tea drinking, binge drinking, simple group meetings and even shopping at bootleg stores—and bestowing the actions with an almost ceremonial presence. “Art and life are the same thing; they are indivisible,” Zheng said.

The Yangjiang Group’s in-your-face, reckless actions have somehow avoided official scrutiny in China. The serendipitous mayhem which inhabits their work, perhaps easy to dismiss as youthful exuberance, is evident in the concrete monolith that is their self-designed studio, which began construction in Yangjiang in 2009 with no official permission. Zheng, who does not have formal architectural training, designed the studio, which is known locally as the “iceberg” and has since received three demolition notices from local authorities, as well as raised the ire of neighborhood residents. “It is not really like a studio [and] more like another art project,” Zheng said of the structure.

Is he worried that the government will enforce the demolition notices, as they have done in the past with studios belonging to other artists who were deemed to have taken one step too far? The question doesn’t faze Zheng one bit. “The studio project is about the environment and life. If the government wants it to end [then] let it end. At the moment they [are letting] it exist,” he said.

The Yangjiang Group’s “Actions for Tomorrow” opens on January 17 at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Art, Sydney, and will be on view until March 7, 2015.