Email interview with Deva Eveland translated by Jacques Qu
DE: I'd like to start with Fountain, which was probably the most provocative piece on display in the whole museum. I saw a look of shock cross the face of more than one viewer. Do you see yourself as a provocateur? Have you faced any resistance or backlash in displaying this kind of work?
CY: Although I wouldn’t call myself radical, I don’t like clinging to conventional ways, either. I got a notice during the preparation for the graduation exhibition in China Central Academy of Fine Arts that I had to withdraw my work, no room to negotiate. The reason was that my work was too obscene. I explained my work to my advisor, the dean of my department and my school, fighting for an opportunity, while at the same time thinking of the worst case scenario: if I still had to withdraw, I would bring a flat panel TV into the exhibition room to play the video. In the pre-meeting between the professors, most of them thought my work was not about obscenity, but about body, so it was given the green light. The reception was enthusiastic and my work got a lot of attention and recognition from many professors, curators and gallery owners.
DE: The piece shares a title with another famous (or infamous) provocative work of art, Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Is this intentional?
CY: Although Duchamp’s Fountain is the most famous one, “Fountain” has richer meaning in the art history, like Ingres’ The Fountain and like Bruce Nauman’s Self-Portrait as a Fountain. My The Fountain is more like my conversation with Bruce Nauman. I used my body at the time of breast-feeding to build a fountain monument with male characteristics.
DE: Okay, now that you say it, those two Fountains are probably better reference points. They both seem like quite gendered works. I see Ingres' The Fountain as the traditional alluring & demure feminine nude. In contrast, the body language of Nauman's Self-Portrait as a Fountain is cocky and self-confident (stereotypically male traits). Your body-as-fountain piece seems to be aiming for something more androgynous.
CY: Your point is correct, and also very interesting. Nauman’s fountain shows distinctive male traits with clear symbols, while mine displays masculinity through a female body. The milk ejected upward makes me feel a masculine, explosive power, so it’s a wonderful state of androgyny.
DE: It also struck me that this piece might understood quite differently depending on who was looking at it. To a conservative it might be perceived as an affront to public morals. To an infant it might be a video about food. To someone with a lactation fetish it might be erotic. To other people it might be icky and gross. To a breastfeeding advocate it might be a political statement. How do you see it?
CY: Personally, the work Fountain depicts the time when I just had my son and changes happened in my body, which started to produce milk incessantly. Fountain appears beautiful and explosive, but to me it’s about pain. The frequent pain from mastitis forced me to release the milk trapped in my body. At that moment I felt how amazing my body is, and I wanted to create a fountain by using my body as a vessel. The white milk ejected upward made me feel a sense of masculinity and greatness.
However, I’m also happy that Fountain can evoke completely different feelings in viewers and make them think. I’m very pleased. It would be boring and flat if everyone walked out with the same feeling.
DE: Because of the odd positioning of the female body (horizontal, faceless) it almost took on a landscape-like quality for me, conjuring up associations with fertility or natural eruptions. Was this your intention?
CY: Before the shooting, I already thought that the main character should be the breast (the vessel to create milk), not the face of the actress. Plus, if the face of the actress enters the picture, it would distract the viewer and interrupt the key point of the work. Of course, if what’s taped is porn, the face must be in it.
If the ejected milk is seen as a fountain, the body is the vessel to create life and the fountain. There is something in common with the natural eruption of volcanoes, and I think the scenes in the video are classical, beautiful. Therefore you would associate it with a landscape of natural eruption. I think it’s a very interesting image.
DE: Is the female in the video you or an actress? Is the distinction important?
CY: It’s myself. During the period of breast-feeding my body intrigued me and amazed me. I had a strong desire to transform this feeling and express it. My body could best illustrate the feeling I wanted to express.
So the actress for this work could only be me, not anyone else.
曹雨: 没错，作品《维纳斯》是一尊造型极简的女人体，我送给她一个女神的名字——维纳斯。《Mother 》的材料就是绷在木框上的空白画布，但我没有在上面绘制图像，而是在上面缝制了一个通道，它立即从平面的画面变成一个有着立体空间的雕塑。很明显它与女性身体的特征以及局部有关。
DE: The canvas and pedestal pieces were also interesting. I read them as being about the female form also. Is that accurate?
CY: Correct. The work Venus is a woman’s body in the minimalist style and I gave her a goddess’ name, Venus. The material of Mother is the blank canvas on the wooden frame, but I didn’t draw anything on it. I only sewed a passage on it, turning it from a flat surface into a three-dimensional sculpture. It is related in appearance to traits of women’s body or body parts.
DE: With these pieces, it was like something was being purposefully hidden from the viewer. A plain white pedestal isn't that interesting, but a crevice in it seems to indicate there's something else hidden inside. What? A "no touching" sign kept me at bay. Likewise with the canvases, I wonder what's going on inside those stitched sock things. They're about the width of an arm, as though someone could reach right into the canvas. Any comment?
CY: For me, Venus and Mother are both about women’s bodies. In terms of the features of the figure, they both have holes, which attract people’s curiosity and imagination. The desire to peep or touch also reflects the fact that a woman’s body is considered something to be appreciated or peeped.
Venus doesn’t have the slim, beautiful body of classical women, nor smooth, fine skins, but rather a stark cubic box. The black hole on its top can only be noticed when you get close, so it’s easily neglected. After I drilled a hole on top of the pedestal, its inner space is connected to the outside, and the rim of the hole was polished, exposing the original wooden texture. The hole and the surrounding white paint form the look of the body feature of a woman, which further indicates a woman’s body. The pedestal used to display sculptures is now the sculpture itself, in fact a woman’s body in a minimalist form. The details in Mother No.1 symbolize the scars on the body and the passage for life creation. In my eyes, it’s not just a canvas, but a great mother.
DE: The other two pieces really baffled me. I read Chinese at about a kindergarten level, so I could only guess at the materials and your process. Could you elaborate a little bit?
CY: The work Made in Artist is made from dried milk from 18 litres of liquid collected in my breast-feeding period. When it condensed into balm, I held it in my hand. I felt a warm power, fine, soft, but with power. Holding it outside of my body, I sensed the very substance that was once trapped in my body and caused my pain. It left me with pain while delivering nutrition and power of life to my child. When holding it in hand, the feeling was opposite to the cold feeling from holding a lump of sculpture clay - I felt the weight of motherly love. It’s motherly love, and also pain. But to me, it’s no longer any material, but an excretion rich in emotion, a substance created by the artist’s body and through a round of kneading. Putting all these together, I called it Made in Artist.
In the work Every Grain Costs A Drop of Sweat, I took grains from my daily leftover rice and kneaded them, trying to feel the substance and sense the world through my touch. Day after day, the form kept evolving and resulted in a shape of a hill, which accumulated a lot of my efforts. It made feel that every grain costs a sweat. If I say that Fountain is the energy released from my body, Every Grains Costs A Drop of Sweat is the source of daily energy for our bodies. It happens in our daily lives but we don’t carefully observe it.
DE: When I approached them, I thought they could be made from some kind of wax or modeling clay. But maybe not, because they've got this very grubby and biological presence. The thought of what they might be filled me with curiosity and a bit of revulsion at the same time. I think there's a contrast between your process (tender, thoughtful, reverent) and the physicality of the work, which makes viewers squeamish.
CY: Ha, Ha. Your description of your experience is brilliant. Indeed, I remember someone’s first reaction to Every Grain Costs A Drop of Sweat was that those were a pile of boogers. Actually, Every Grain Costs A Drop of Sweat is not intended to impress people with the singularity of the material, or to draw any forceful contrast. To me, they’re still rice, still grains, and they still cost drops of sweat. The material of Made in Artist generates many questions in the viewers’ mind. The most memorable moment was that a female viewer smelt the milky smell when gazing at the work – she said her eyes immediately became wet. She told me, she was moved, she wanted to cry.
DE: Regarding Made in Artist, why are some light and some dark?
CY: These pieces are distilled from 18 litres of human milk, which were made in two batches. The differences in timing and temperature resulted in difference colors.
DE: Do you have any general thoughts about depictions of the female body, either in high art or popular culture?
CY: I don’t have a preference for any particular topic or material. The reason I use the woman’s body is just because it is the symbol of my life experience and body experience at that time.
Being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean you have to use women’s bodies to create your works. My life experiences and feelings are the direct source of my creation, so anything I feel in my life, anything that inspires me or evoke my thoughts, can nurture me as an artist and can possibly find ways into my art.
CaoYu was born in 1988，Liaoning Province，China. She got her Bachelor's Degree and Master's Degree from the Sculpture Department of the Central Academy of fine arts. Now she lives and works in Beijing.
Cao Yu's works include sculptures, installations, and images. Recently, Cao Yu's works at the Postgraduate Graduation Exhibition in China Central Academy of Fine Arts attracted great attention and interest of the audiences. In her works, we can not see any context and grand narrative traces, but she was obviously in a new way of questioning issued on art and significance.Involving body and self, expansion of media and the role of language, rational judgment and the phenomena of consciousness, artistic experience and the viewer experience, and so on.
"Cao Yu's use her body as a tool to reveal the relationship between the media and art, art and language, language and experience. She uses and transforms her body as a medium / material. Not only creates a physical sense of pleasure, but also constructs a kind of body’s emotional communication."
- Huang Du