Cheng Yao He

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body, gender, marginalisation, perception
Visual Arts (performance, photography)
Asia, Eastern
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July 6, 2003
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Chasing the Moon, Or, Naked Confrontation

He Cheng Yao is an artist who initially worked as an oil-painter but who now predominantly engages in performances, while also using photography. Often performing semi-nude, much of He Cheng Yao’s work is informed by her troubled family background and the mental illness of her mother. Her works are simple and subtle but her direct means of expression – using her own naked body – have generated much controversy in China, where nudity is still a serious issue.
‘I want to show that we are all seeking light in our lives but that it’s an illusory thing and you can never catch it … our destiny is in other people’s hands’.

Dressed in a simple white shirt and trousers, the artist stands facing a white wall. A soft circle of light appears, moon-like, just above her reach. As she stretches up to touch it, the light darts away instantly. It glides across the wall; the artist stumbles to follow it, hands grasping, but it nimbly flits away again, escaping her reach. She tries again, but now it swoops low. Dainty music tinkles along, an incongruous soundtrack to the artist’s ungainly movements as she anxiously continues to chase the light that appears and disappears before her.

This performance, entitled ‘The Illusory Reflection’, is characteristic of He Cheng Yao’s economy of means as she acts out performances that touch upon the universal sorrows of everyday life using the simplest and smallest of gestures and ideas. This delicate approach infuses her work with a sense of absurdity that at once conflicts with and fuses with expressions of sadness and loss to create subtle yet affecting pieces.

The performance elicits amusement: we see before us an ‘innocent’, a fool, clumsily and naively chasing the moon. The humour, however, is double-edged, for not only do we recognise the fool within each of us, but more significantly, He Chengyao family’s history has been troubled by mental illness. This undoubtedly contributes to why, as the catalogue accompanying the ‘Dream 02’ exhibition suggests, ‘much of her art is born from a real need for individual expression, from an authentic urgency’.

The artist speaks openly about the difficult and uncomfortable aspects of her heritage. Her grandfather suffered from mental illness, as does her mother, who was only eighteen years old and not yet married when she became pregnant with Cheng Yao – this, at a time when giving birth out of wedlock was considered a disgrace. Her mother was consequently ‘assaulted and humiliated all the time’ and within five years developed a mental illness, from which she still suffers today.

The effect of her mother’s illness upon He Cheng Yao has been profound. ‘She was always running around naked with her hair in a mess,’ the artist remembers. ‘I’m always having flashbacks … I could never get away from it. When I grew up I used to feel that it was me running naked, not my mum.’ Such an internalisation is now reflected in the way He chooses to tackle this subject, and may indeed have prompted the radical change in her artistic medium.

For, although He Cheng Yao initially worked as an oil-painter, she now predominantly engages in performance art. This shift occurred spontaneously. During a visit to the Great Wall of China, she was suddenly moved to enact an impromptu performance, in which she took off her top and walked semi-nude among the German artist H. A. Schult’s plastic ‘trash people’ installations.

Prior to this moment, He had never considered engaging in performance art. Through this piece however she acts out, as suggested in the Dream 02 catalogue, ‘the knotted details of her past in order to immortalise herself with her mother … to vindicate a closeness to, a descent from, even a “gratitude” towards that which estranges her from normality, from everything that is socially accepted and approved’.

At a time when perceptions of the mentally ill are still clouded by fear and misapprehension, when to quote the Dream 02 catalogue again, ‘to admit to a tie, or even worse, a blood relationship with a mentally-ill person inevitably arouses suspicion and provokes doubt’, He Cheng Yao’s statement was courageous. Her approach was perhaps particularly bold in a country where nudity remains a grave matter and where for many the human body may still signify truth.

Indeed, the artist has spoken of the hostility of many as a result of this performance. ‘I was frowned upon by people’, she says. ‘The Sichuan Art Academy where my husband and son lived had always held me up as a model traditional Chinese wife and mother. That performance completely changed their opinions.’

Disapproval was voiced beyond circles of establishment figures, however. ‘Even my friends and teachers didn’t understand what I was doing,’ says He Cheng Yao. ‘They thought I was an opportunist trying to draw attention to myself.’ For the artist, however, this only confirmed the value and necessity of such performances. ‘I decided to go naked again to confront their ideas’, she declares.

Through intentionally transgressive performances such as these, He Chengyao deliberately invokes a line of descent from her grandfather’s mental illness through her mother’s and to her own presumed aberration.

This is also true of her work, ‘Mother and Me’ (2001), series of seven photographs of her mother. In the first, her mother is seated alone, naked from the waist above. Two further photographs depict a woman wearing a T-shirt standing behind her mother, her head eclipsed by the camera’s frame. In the next three images, the woman standing has taken off her top and places her hands on the elder woman’s shoulders. In the last image, the woman standing, her arms draped round her mother fondly, is revealed to be the artist herself.

In works such as these, He Cheng Yao seeks to challenge widespread prejudices towards those suffering from mental illness. In doing so, she also succeeds in problematising our very perception of mental illness by illuminating the cracks and fissures that destabilise the boundary that separates rational from irrational, acceptable from unacceptable behaviour. It is this that makes He Cheng Yao’s voice, in an otherwise male-dominated art circle, a truly valuable one.

Sources include: ‘Dream 02’ catalogue (2002),published by the Red Mansion Foundation, London and ‘Beijing Swings’, Channel 4 documentary, UK, 2002.

Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts


He Cheng Yao was born in 1964 in Sichuan, China. She graduated from the Sichuan Art Academy in Chongqing in 1989 and has since exhibited widely in China, Japan, Korea, UK and Italy. She was the only woman from mainland China invited to participate in the group show ‘Dream 02’ at and the Bargehouse in London, UK, which was organised by The Red Mansion Foundation. She currently lives and works in Beijing.



Exhibition / Installation
2003 ‘Anti-SARS’, Beijing Tokyo Art Projects, Beijing, China 2003 ‘Listening to Women Tell Men’s Stories’, Chongqing, China 2002 ‘Pusan Bienielle’, Korea 2002 ‘Pingyao International Photography Exhibit’, Pingyao, China 2002 ‘Dream 02’, and the Bargehouse, London, UK 2002 ‘Body Limits’, Shangri-la Artist Gallery, Beijing, China 2002 ‘Asia Pacific 7th Performance Art Festival’, toured 5 cities, Japan 2001 ‘Busy Chaotic Conversation’, Youth Museum, Salvatore, Italy 2001 ‘Reality and Possibility’, Central Art Academy, Beijing, China 2001 ‘Contemporary Art Group Show’, Central Art Academy, Beijing, China 2000 ‘He Cheng Yao: Oil Paintings’, Qing Hao Gallery, Beijing, China


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.


Singularities | Einmaligkeiten

(11 June 08 - 21 June 08)


Singularities | Einmaligkeiten

(11 June 08 - 21 June 08)


Century Online China Art Networks

Century Online China Art Networks with various information on He Cheng Yao
Mother, Me and My Son