Sun Yuan (artist)

Sun Yuan: An artist who is not Concerned with Social Reality is not A Good Warrior


Interview completed on July 7, 2022

Editor: Emma Lee   Images: provided by Interviewee


I am a veteran Facebook user, therefore, connecting with curators and artists who are otherwise hard to meet in real life via this platform is a basic skill of mine. I started to use Facebook in 2017 after introduction from a friend in Hong Kong, and at the beginning, I added many friends without actually knowing who they were. Now, I can't recall at which point I added Sun Yuan. On Facebook, Sun Yuan appears like a warrior, a warrior with "ordinary" values and strict logic; he likes to comment on current affairs in China – those who speak the truth can always win a full house of applause. This was my initial impression of him until I read an article by a Beijing curator this year and realized that he was a successful artist who had participated in several Venice Biennales! As we say in Chinese, my admiration for him is like ‘a torrent of water’! The Beacon's first column "Ten People, One Hundred Questions" must include him.



Q1: Do you believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism or Christianity? What books are you reading these days? What music do you listen to?


A: I believe that the world must have a power beyond our perception. There is a classic analogy: in a duck farm, a duck finds that every morning at ten o'clock, there will be food flowing out of an outlet – this duck is our perception, while the operation system, the boss and the staff of the duck farm are beyond the duck's perception.


It's been a while since I've read anything in print. I have been listening to Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" recently because in New York it is almost becoming America's new national anthem. I have to study it.



Q2: How has the pandemic changed the way you work?


A: The pandemic has made me feel at peace while not working. I watch TV dramas I didn't use to have time to watch before, like some spy dramas written by Ma Boyong in a historical setting and those like "For the Sake of the Republic" that have been off the air due to censorship. I don't have a serious way of working; I just think of one thing and then do it.



Q3: How do you position yourself? Beijing artist, or international artist?


A: Beijing artist should be Guo Degang (Chinese crosstalk comedian and actor), whose art form has something to do with Beijing; international artist is the kind of artists who talk China in the international arena and talk international in the domestic arena, reaping dividends at both ends. I don't belong to either of these two. I'm an art worker, a practitioner. I like this line of work, and I'll just get on with it.



Q4: What artists from which city are you looking at these days?


A: Recently, I have been paying attention to some ancient artists, but many of them are anonymous; when I look at the famous artists in a particular era, all I see are individuals. Looking at those anonymous artists, you can see the art.



Q5: You have participated in two Venice Biennales, in 2005 and 2019 respectively. Can you share your experience (curatorship, mechanism of participation, etc.)?


A: Actually, I participated in 2011 as well, which was an exhibition of François Pinault's collection and a project of Venice Biennale, a parallel exhibition. So, I have participated in one theme exhibition (2019), one China Pavilion (2005) and one parallel exhibition (2011). As for the curators, the China Pavilion was Cai Guoqiang, the theme exhibition was Ralph Rugoff, and I don't remember who was the curator for the François Pinault collection (Editor's note: It was Peng Feng, Associate Professor of Department of Philosophy, and Deputy Director of Aesthetics Principle Research Department of the Center for Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education, Peking University). The China Pavilion had the most twists and turns. The François Pinault collection was the least complicated: everything was set up and I just had to show up. The only surprise was that they required formal wear, but I didn't bring any, so I was the only one who wore a singlet and board shorts – that was my formal wear.


As for the mechanism of participation, many people have asked me "How did you get to participate"; I can't answer it because I don't know – I didn't sign up for it myself, they came to me – I can't be blamed for this.



Q6: Chinese critics always likes to criticize Hong Kong and the West for being "lackluster", and the South criticizes "Beijing is no longer working (in art)", but they are often unable to even defend themselves. What do you think?


A: Are we allowed to talk about this? Won't your website be blocked? I really don't know who criticizes Hong Kong and the West, and how it's "lackluster". To paraphrase the man (Editor’s note: here refers to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi), “Do you know the West? Have you ever been to the West?” The person who knows the West best is not you, but the West itself; you have no say, but the West. The West welcomes all good advice, but rejects any unwarranted accusations.


This is a set of discourses that can be applied to any place, so that no question needs to be answered.



Q7: What do you think are the first productive forces of international and Chinese contemporary art respectively?


A: It's money, money, and money. There are poor artists, and when the world sees that poor artist, it's all about money burning. As for whether skills, academic achievement or financial garbage would be born out of that, it depends on the artist's ability.


The demand for art comes from "another kind of scarcity". What is "another kind" – this requires further close look.



Q8: About the work "As Long As There is A First", my experience/childhood trauma (I don't remember if the school made me raise tadpoles or it was a spontaneous act on my side) is that tadpoles will eat each other and eventually only Darwinian winners can evolve into frogs. May I suggest your work be developed a little more!

* "As Long As There is A First" (2011) is a video document of 14'10" in duration, describing the following: During the rainy season, which is also the mating season for frogs, the artists (with Peng Yu, Sun’s partner) chose a grassed area near a pond, and watered it continuously. Every night Peng Yu would make a croaking sound that the frogs were attracted to. As a result, frogs came from all around, croaking and mating there. Two weeks later, the grassed area was full of tadpoles.


A: Fine, but in actual fact the predatory nature of tadpoles is not that strong; it is possible that they eat corpses of their companions; the scene of tadpoles eating each other will not be as thrilling as one has imagined. Frogs and toads are much fiercer in their predatory nature, and they will eat their own tadpoles without batting an eye – or they do bat an eye.



Q9: About the work "Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other", do you see political correctness (animal protectionism, race, feminism, etc.) as a cannibalization of human intellect and civilization?

* In 2017, an article published on September 20 in the New York Times, “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreams at the Guggenheim,” a preview of a highly anticipated, art-historically important survey of Chinese art practices, “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” detonated a crisis. One day later, the Guggenheim had received such a volume of complaints that it issued a public statement acknowledging concerns around one particular video, “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” documenting a 2003 performance-installation by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, which involved pit bulls chained to treadmills. Five days after the initial Times story, on September 25, the museum pulled three works from the show something that museums almost never do, as a matter of principle citing “explicit and repeated threats of violence.”


A: The matter of morality is not about the right choice in itself, but the majority choice. If there are only four people in the world, three decides to kill one person, the killing becomes the right thing to do. Reasons behind the decision can be made up later; it is the will of the majority that determines the rules. A civilized society is a highly complex society. The more complex, the higher the degree of civilization. A simplified moral concept is bound to contradict this complexity.


This question is too big, so I can only say this: what kind of complex narrative we can accept decides the level of our intelligence.



Q10: In your work, how do you reflect the civilization/brutality of society towards individuals?


A: Should artistic creation reflect reality? If an artistic creation is metaphorical to reality, it is only creating a metaphor; the artist does not need to refer to the subject. When a work has an allegorical meaning, it is the result of the work and its environment. The speaker is only responsible for the "words", not for the "meaning" of the words.


Works by Peng Yu & Sun Yuan





Farmer Du Wenda's UFO

Two flying saucer of 250(D)×230(H)cm

Steel, aluminum, cardboard, V8 engine, tire, plexiglass, wire, tubing and workshop


2005 "Virgin Garden: Emersion”, China Pavilion of the 51st Venice Biennale, Italy





Can't Help Myself


Industrial robot, stainless steel and rubber, cellulose ether in colored water, lighting grid with visual-recognition sensors, acrylic wall with aluminum frame


2016 “Tales of Our Time”, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA






Air compressor, air storage tank, pipe, silicon sofa


2019 "May You Live in Interesting Times”, 58th Venice Biennale, Italy






Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other

8 Pit bulls, 8 running machines without drive


2017 “Art and China After 1989: The Theater of The World”, Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA

2011 “Great Performances”, Pace Gallery, Beijing, China

2004 Gwangju Biennale, Korea

2003 “Second Hand Reality”, Today Art Museum, Beijing, China







Venue dimension: 1,700x2,000x1,200cm

Metal plate, high-pressure hydraulic pump, fire hose, hydrant, electronic control system


2016 “What about the Art? Contemporary Art from China”, Qatar Museums (QMA), Doha, Qatar

2015 “Myth/History II: Shanghai Galaxy”, Yuz Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, China

2014 “Myth/History”, Yuz Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, China

2009 “Freedom”, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing, China






Far Away

Venue dimension: 1,300x600cm

Two forklifts, three pottery jars, vacuum pump

A sculpture installation comprising of three pottery jars linked together by a pipe to evacuate the air inside using a vacuum machine. The pottery jars would be pulled from different ends by two forklifts.

2016 “Why Not Ask Again”, 11th Shanghai Biennale, China






If Seeing is not an Option

Guns, performance

2013 “China, Individuality and Collective”, Pinchuk Art Centre, Kiev, Ukraine




Setting a Jinx

Find a sword swallower and put a red flag in his stomach

2019 Garage Gallery, Moscow, Russia




The Beacon网站搭建.jpg

Old People's Home

Electric wheelchair, fiberglass, silica gel, simulation sculpture


2008 “Avant-garde China”, National Art Center, Tokyo, Japan; National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan; Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya, Japan

2008 “The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art”, Saatchi Gallery, London, UK

2008 “Unmoved”, Galleria Continua, Beijing, China

2007 “China Welcomes You”, Kunsthaus Graz, Graz, Austria







Sculpture: 180×220cm

Silica gel, fiberglass, stainless steel, woven mesh  


2012 “The Angels of Klee”, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland

2009 “Time Versus Fashion”, Kunstverein Nuertingen, Nuertingen, Germany

2008 “Mediations: Identity and Tolerance”, Poznan Biennale, Poland

2008 “Go China – New World Order”, Groninger Museum, Holland

2008 “The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art”, Saatchi Gallery, London, UK

2008 “China XXI Secolo: Arte fraldentita e Trasformazione”, Palaexpo delle Esposizioni, Commune of Roma, Roma, Italy







If I Died

Fiberglass, silica gel sculpture, bird specimen

Inspired by a dialogue with Peng Yu’s mother


2013 “Dear”, Galerie Perrotin, Paris, France



Human Oil

Medical sample, performance


2000 "Sharing Exoticism”, 5th Biennale d'art Contemporain de Lyon, France

2000 “Indulge in Hurt”, Sculpture Research Institute of Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China




Sun Yuan
Born in Beijing in 1972
Graduated from the Affiliated High School of Fine Art to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1991 and from the Oil Painting Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1995

Now lives and works in Beijing

2021 "Silk" Exhibition, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo, Florence, Italy
2019 "May You Live in Interesting Times”, 58th Venice Biennale, Italy
2017 “Art and China After 1989: The Theater of The World”, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA
2016 “Tales of Our Time”, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA
2016 “What about the Art? Contemporary Art from China”, Qatar Museums (QMA), Doha, Qatar
2012 “Worldly House _ Returning material”, dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany
2010 “The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age”, 17th Biennale of Sydney, Australia
2009 "Breaking Forecast: 8 Key Figures of China’s New Generation Artists", UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China
2005 "Virgin Garden: Emersion”, China Pavilion of the 51st Venice Biennale, Italy
2000 "Sharing Exoticism”, 5th Biennale d'art Contemporain de Lyon, France

Curatorial Works and Awards
2014 "Unlived by What is Seen" Contemporary Art Exhibition (Beijing)
2011 CREDIT SUISSE Today Art Award
2001 Best Young Artist of Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA)