- Ben Cade
Zhu Yu is China’s most famous shock artist for whom ‘unconventional’ is an understatement. His stomach-churning installations and provocative performances have raised huge controversy, yet Zhu claims that his works critique his own and Chinese society’s moral values.
Born in Chengdu and a graduate of China’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Zhu Yu has built a reputation as one of China’s most controversial artists. Using shock value to challenge his audience’s perspective, human anatomy is central to his body of work; his materials have included decomposing, disembodied corpses, a patch of the artist’s own skin, and at least one work that involved what looks like a cooked and mutilated fetus.
While shocking (mis)use of the human body has featured in Zhu’s work on multiple accounts, his more recent projects are shocking in their subtlety. Working with oil paints, Zhu’s Pebbles and Stains series are hyperrealistic paintings of mundane objects like pebbles and teacups.
Using the traditional Western medium of oil on canvas, Zhu creates single-object canvases that are contemplatively spare, yet surprising in their construction. Showcasing Zhu’s mastery of the medium, the oil paint mimics ink painting as tea stains materialize on painted white porcelain. Taking everyday objects that are otherwise superfluous, he showcases them with undivided attention, which transforms the banal into the beautiful.
These oil paintings are a far cry from the provocative works that garnered international attention. In his work entitled Skin Graft (2000), Zhu grafted skin from his own abdomen and placed it on a cut of pork. This work was intended as a reflection of the artist’s attitude towards animal cruelty. Always one to push the boundaries of artistic language, Zhu’s works are as much an assault on society’s morals as they are an assault on the human senses. In fact, this contradiction is a hallmark of Zhu’s works. Titillating in their shock value, the viewer simultaneously wants to look and shield their eyes.
This is particularly true for Zhu’s most notable piece titled Eating People (2000). In this performance piece, the artist recorded himself in his kitchen eating what appears to be a six-month old fetus, purportedly stolen from a medical school. Eating People was part of the controversial Fuck Off (不合作的方式) exhibition of Chinese avant-garde artists, unsurprisingly curated by Ai Weiwei and Feng Boyi.
A public outcry arose as stills from the performance were featured in a Channel 4 documentary in 2003. At the time, Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe described the piece as “hideous” before it was broadcast. Former Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak defended the program by pointing out that whilst the act may seem deluded, “It is worth trying to understand why China is producing the most outrageous and darkest art, of anywhere in the world.”
Zhu’s ‘shock art‘ was criticised for being a cry for attention. Whether or not people agree with his art or his message, we are undeniably drawn to Zhu Yu’s work. We can’t help but look.