My God!Yu Zhenli and His Experimental (Test) Art
2015年12月21日 14:18:45    作者:Qu Zhenwei   来源:Artintern

Yu Zhenli understands each day as the passage of a birthday, and at the end of each day, he collects his thoughts in written form in his notes. They are another kind of work by Yu Zhenli, his “Birthday Notes.”

Undoubtedly, Yu was a legend in 2014, because another transition and elevation took place after the game of life and death. 2014 was fixed as another memorable year in Yu’s life, like his birth on March 2, 1949 and his ascent into the mountains on December 26, 1994… Each event announced that the past is dead and the future is the start of a new life.

Yu Zhenli sees his life as experimental art. Life is his medium and society is his material because his life is both playful and dramatic, full of living conflicts and sudden surprises.


I first became close to Yu Zhenli in August 1998. I was new to the art scene, and my first job was as an art editor for a newspaper. I went to the castle-like building that was Yu’s studio, located near Xiangshuiguan Creek on Dahei Mountain in Jinzhou, Dalian.

In fact, when I came to Dalian in 1997 to work before I graduated college, I had discreetly inquired about Yu Zhenli because of the first issue of Fine Arts Literature in 1994, which had printed a feature on Yu Zhenli. I was overwhelmed by the weight of those ten full-page abstract expressionist paintings. So, when I found myself in Dalian, how could I not ask about him? The response from the Dalian art world was that he was crazy and that he had gone into the mountains to become a monk. These whispers implied that Yu Zhenli had been an amazing artist, but that he had suddenly lost his mind and decided to live as a recluse. My God!

Yu Zhenli formally retired to Dahei Mountain on December 26, 1994.

At the time, he had already decided what kind of studio he wanted. He needed a spiritual home that allowed for rationality, relaxation, and the development of artwork; he needed a free space where he could sleep for 24 hours, where he could stretch out, and where he could urinate wherever he wanted. He had grown weary of red lipstick and green lights, arguments and crowds, so he felt compelled to hide and withdraw. In particular, he was deeply influenced by the dark magic of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and as a result, he set his sights on the nearby Dahei Mountain. First, Dalian was his hometown and his mother, and he could not bear to cut the cord binding him to the art of his hometown. Second, if he had chosen Beijing, he would have become more distant from the spiritual directions and lived habits represented in his paintings, so maintaining close contact was better than moving far away.

After a number of setbacks, I finally made it to Yu Zhenli’s studio in the summer one year later. Traveling east along the highway from Jinzhou, the instant I passed the railroad tracks, I found myself in a plain, far away from the confusion and noise. I was surrounded by green mountains and waters; it was a completely different world. Sure enough, in the distance, I saw a castle-like house with nothing around it. This had to be my destination. Yes, the early version was a three-room tile house, and later Yu Zhenli drew on local resources, using the mountain environment and the crushed stones underfoot as “ready-mades” to further expand the building. Importantly, Yu blended his long practice of visual art with architecture, and what I saw was simply an artistic labyrinth; the studios, living rooms, corridors, and toilets were all embedded in deeply meaningful texts, pictures, geometric shapes, and trigram symbols. Even old tables, chairs, tires, TVs, millstones, and bottles were used as materials for art, and repurposed into sculptures or installations. As expected, it was a mysterious, surprising, and romantic utopia in which he could relax and develop his art.

That year, I wrote my first article as a new reporter, harshly entitled “Old Yu Lives For Death.” From then on, I hovered around the edges of art world.

However, what we see is simply on the surface. No one truly sees that the Yu who enjoys his “castle” also has the privilege of being attacked by mosquitos, plagued by bitter winters, and choked with weeds. He also had to deal with the selfishness of the villagers, the interference of urbanites, and the torment of loneliness. Yu said that his retirement to the mountains implied danger. Danger implied death, and death implied new life. When he reconnected with the city and people after distancing himself from them, he saw human nature, he saw the truth, and he saw art. He suddenly abandoned himself, and began a series of experimental art processes, in which art intervened in life and life intervened in society.

Yu Zhenli hired two local men surnamed Wang as long-term construction workers. As a result, the Two Wangs learned eighteen kinds of “art,” became noted village “brick experts” overnight, and began to prosper. When visitors came from the city, Yu prepared food, they drank wine, and he told fortunes. When the visitors left, he puts everything in order and things returned to normal. He made his dinner from wild grasses he found on the slopes, sunflowers with lost seeds became feed for pheasants, a butterfly became a serious lover, and a yellow dog became an unsurprising companion. After a time, Yu Zhenli had flawlessly and methodically married art and life.

Sometimes, he sees life as more important than art.

Reading was important for Yu after he went up the mountain. His desk was filled with Dushu, People’s Literature, Art Monthly, and collections of critical essays, and the names of Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Hawking, and Wittgenstein were always on his lips. When he was by himself, he opened these texts and engaged with these thinkers. He encouraged everyone to love reading, and he often took people to bookstores, where he bought them books.

Writing was a required daily task for him. After he retired to the mountain on December 26, 1994, he nurtured the rigid habit of writing every day. He wrote notes or made drawings about his lived experiences, reactions to his reading, and plans for renovating his studio; today, his notes fill 20 volumes and total three million characters. These notes have become another form in his life and another kind of artwork. He calls them his “Birthday Notes.” If you’re not careful, you become a stroke, a role, or an experiment in his notes, so everyone should simply be a good person. He had a printer to bind albums, which he distributed so that others could fill them with their writings and drawings. The notes are also a mirror, which might cause self-rejection.

In fact, when I first met Yu Zhenli in 1998, there were no women, cars, or mobile phones. He was relaxed and wearing slightly tattered clothes; he was still a bachelor, but his enthusiasm for building his studio was intensifying. A steady stream of people came from the city to visit him; he gave people calligraphy, fortunes, thoughts, and emotions, begging for replacements for the cement and old objects used to renovate his studio. Happily, in 1999, Yu Zhenli used many materials that had been “retired” from the city to successfully complete a successful second expansion of the studio, which gradually created links between Yu Zhenli’s studio and public art.

On December 26, 2000, Yu Zhenli held his first “Open Studio Exhibition” of work since his move to the mountains. He spent over a year making more than 30 abstract paintings entitled “Rainbow Portraits,” which he then gave to people who had helped him. That day, when everyone was signing the guestbook, they received a bag of chrysanthemum tea emblazoned with the words: “Improves eyesight, reduces heat, sparks the nerves, and soothes the six organs. The flowers were cultivated by Zhenli and collected by his mother.” At Yu Zhenli’s open studio, he gave away paintings and chrysanthemum tea in order to express his gratitude. He explained it as “pursuing fate,” implying that his conscious engagement with society was inspiring his experimental performances.

In 2003, Yu Zhenli issued an open letter about collecting used bottles. He collected bottles that “could not be recycled and were about to be thrown away,” and he used them to make a range of installations and architectural projects. Yu collected hundreds of liquor bottles, medicine bottles, sauce bottles, and perfume bottles and made hundreds of installations. Strangely, the centers of these installations were stuffed with garbage from his life and building construction.

Yu Zhenli said that this is a grand era of consumerism in which people throw bottles everywhere, so he can collect them everywhere.

He also said that bottles are beautiful when they are empty, and that he is an empty bottle.

In these interactions, Yu Zhenli repeatedly directed society and others to participate in the construction of his studio. Thus, the studio transitioned from a private space for life and work toward a public space for openness and interaction. After the third expansion of his studio in 2008, this public quality became clearer and more prominent. In particular, the 2010 expansion saw the sudden addition of two multi-purpose rooms. According to the plan, theses spaces would host events focused on the exhibition, creation, and discussion of art, as well as film screenings and archival materials displays.

On August 19, 2010, the second floor of the multi-purpose room in Yu Zhenli’s studio hosted “The Second 8+1 Art Exhibition,” showing paintings by Wang Lianyi and seven other Jinzhou artists. Art Monthly also published a feature on the exhibition. At many points, Yu Zhenli spent his own money to assist in the production of the artworks. On July 15, 2014, the first floor of the multi-purpose room was converted into Dahei Mountain Photography Art Space, which has hosted two photography exhibitions that presented experimental short films, feature films, and documentary films from all over China. According to the plan, Dahei Mountain Photography Art Space will develop into a public platform for the study, creation, and discussion of photography, which aims to explore the language of photography, express artistic concepts through photography, and present the classics of photography.

The openness of these artistic activities presaged the complete socialization of Yu Zhenli’s studio. In recent years, Yu has described his attitude toward the future of his studio: he hopes that his studio will reflect on society as an artist’s spiritual home and he hopes that he can elevate Dalian to an artistic peak.


When I entered society in 1997, I was not used to Dalian, and I was ready to flee at any moment. At the time, Dalian was widely considered a cultural wasteland; even a bar, much less a gallery or a museum, where you could let your mind and spirit wander was an unprecedented rarity. Every time the neon filled my eyes, I felt as if it were piercing my corneas, and I wanted to run to the mountains that very night. Only when I entered Yu’s studio did I feel as if the energy in my body had been replenished, thereby giving me a reason to stay in Dalian. In this vast desert, I turned towards the oasis; in this vast ocean, I reached out for a passing boat. In Dalian, I planned Peninsula Art Commune and became an art curator with a focus on building a cultural ecology.

First, Yu Zhenli was the goal. He is a high mountain and a large tree.

The year was 2009, and it was summer once again. At Peninsula Art Commune, I published a series of features on Yu Zhenli’s political propaganda paintings, modern art, abstract expressionism, and post-modern art. I finally succeeded in bringing Yu down from the mountain and putting on an exhibition in Dalian’s Labor Park, entitled “Returning: Forty Years of Art by Yu Zhenli,” on December 26. This was a retrospective archival exhibition that traced his forty-year artistic career. The show contained political propaganda paintings, realist paintings, sketches, expressionist paintings, and abstract paintings, many of which had never been presented to the public. The flourishing Qingniwa Center served as the backdrop for the exhibition. The show was presented in a tent, which symbolized freedom and marginality, in the public and popular space of Labor Park. It revealed the flashiness of commercial society and the lack of a cultural ecology.

When the exhibition poster was being designed, Yu insisted on shrinking and blurring his picture, re-emphasizing his wish to fall back and disappear, such that all that remained was his art. Yu’s artistic career spanned political propaganda painting during the Cultural Revolution, modernist art during the New Art movement, expressionism, abstract art, and experimental art. He confirms the development and evolution of Chinese contemporary art. In particular, his expressionist painting reached a peak in 1989, when Yu had just graduated from the advanced oil painting teaching assistant course at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and he had just seen “The Eight-Person Oil Painting Exhibition” at the National Art Museum of China. In 1993, Yu held the revolutionary and extremely alternative “Yu Zhenli Painting Exhibition” at the National Art Museum of China. He perfected his “pure writing” mode of abstract art, such that the critical world finally realized that he was an important example in the Chinese art world.

Just as the exhibition “Returning: Forty Years of Art by Yu Zhenli” was being held, we also showed Yu’s “constructive” art from his studio since he escaped to the mountain in 1994. This exhibition presented the “evidence” of his having gone crazy, or having gone to become a monk, but these pieces were also his most dramatic actions outside of his painted work. He insisted on doing things his own way, and he persevered. Over the course of more than ten years, he had repeatedly complained about, and even criticized, those critics who said that he “only cared about architecture, which distracted him from his real work.”

I have raised the theme of returning because it responds to the changes in lived environments, cultural ecologies, and spiritual desires brought by economic globalization and the age of consumerism. After contemporary art was baptized by Western modernism, it once again fell into the traps of commercialization, fame and fortune, and stylistic ossification. “Returning: Forty Years of Art by Yu Zhenli” meant that, through Yu’s paintings and his 1994 “retirement,” he called into question the trends of his times and criticized the current state of contemporary art. This was also a return for Yu Zhenli, who had been away from the “center” for 15 years, since 1994. He successfully reflected on his hometown through this archival exhibition.

The other impact of “Returning: Forty Years of Art by Yu Zhenli” was in the presence and influence of critic Liu Xiaochun and businessman Shang Chengguang. Later, Liu Xiaochun reviewed the artistic nature of Yu’s 1994 studio construction projects in the mountains, and Shang Chengguang established confidence in collecting Yu’s work.

In summer 2010, Liu Xiaochun made a special trip to Yu’s studio and proposed hosting a critics’ salon about Yu and his work. On June 25 and 26, 2011, Liu Xiaochun hosted a salon on public sculpture and performance art theory at the Jinshitan International Conference Center in Dalian. About 20 critics and scholars, including Shui Tianzhong, Li Xianting, Tao Yongbai, Jia Fangzhou, Deng Pingxiang, Lu Xinhua, Xu Hong, Wang Lin, Wu Hong, Lin Xueming, Chen Mo, Huang Lisi, and Tsai Meng, gathered in Dalian to discuss Yu Zhenli and the eighteen years he had spent building his studio. This added a dramatic full stop to Yu’s lengthy construction performance.

More dramatically, this salon on public sculpture and performance art theory actually became a venue for Yu Zhenli to “test” theorists and critics, leaving temporarily speechless those who had doubted him and called him a “brick expert” who “engaged with architecture to the detriment of his real work.”

The salon was sponsored and hosted by Shang Chengguang. The year before, Shang had purchased Yu’s works from the artist himself and from elsewhere. The “Yu Zhenli Painting Collection Exhibition,” which ran parallel to the salon, featured a total of 33 works. After the meeting, Liu Xiaochun and Li Xianting decided to plan a solo exhibition for Yu in Beijing.

On September 29, 2013, “Self-Deportation: A Yu Zhenli Solo Exhibition” opened at Today Art Museum with Li Xianting as the curator and Liu Xiaochun as the academic adviser. The exhibition employed a reverse chronology. The main exhibition hall described Yu Zhenli’s life from 1994 to 2012, and a side room held eighteen years of his notes. The “tactile” exhibition on the second floor presented some of his post-1989 mixed-media abstract works, and the “upheaval” on the third floor contained political propaganda prints he created during the 1970s and works from the period of stylistic upheaval during the Cultural Revolution. Li Xianting said that the exhibition attempted to express “self-exile from or psychological rejection of modern life and China’s crazed urbanization process, but it also rejects art as a space of fame and fortune. Yu wanted to return to himself.” “Self-Deportation: A Yu Zhenli Solo Exhibition” was promoted as one of Today Art Museum’s major exhibitions, and the museum’s director, Gao Peng, was deeply moved by Yu’s “uniqueness.”

“Self-Deportation: A Yu Zhenli Solo Exhibition” entered the history books for its experimental spirit, independent mentality, and special methods; it confirmed the real meaning of art’s essence and showed that an artist’s identity cannot be tarnished.

“Self-Deportation: A Yu Zhenli Solo Exhibition” was enacted on an unprecedented scale, becoming almost all-consuming. During the preparations, Yu could not avoid the disputes, the balancing acts, and other tests; he was so fatigued that he fell into bouts of anxiety and depression. Especially after the exhibition, his suffering continued, and his life reached a definite low point.

No one wants to see anyone suffering, but suffering happens. It cannot be stopped; it can only be treated with time.

Fortunately, 2014 arrived, and this was certainly a year worthy of study.


On March 2, 1949, Yu Zhenli was born in Yujia Village, Huajia Town in the Jinzhou District of Dalian, a city in Liaoning Province. His birthday was the third day of the second month on the lunar calendar. When he was born at 11:30 am, he chose the ox, horse, and rabbit, symbolizing the fire in the hearth in the early morning or in the first days of spring, which meant that he was destined to fight cold or loneliness. As a result, he has immense energy and vitality, but when tired from work, he feels isolated and lonely.

Yu Zhenli’s life has been very free, but he has also faced hardship. He was born in 1949, and his father completely lost his sight in 1959. From a young age, Yu took up the heavy responsibility of caring for his father. During the rainy season in 1979, a leak in the family’s roof destroyed more than 1,000 of his drawings and posters, thus erasing this important artistic prequel in his life. In 1989, his divorce completely devastated him. In 1999, he left his post as the director of the Dalian Oil Painters Society and took early retirement from his job. In 1994, he withdrew to the mountains, which meant confronting disaster…

In “Self-Deportation: A Yu Zhenli Solo Exhibition,” Yu once again confronted hardships that could not be stopped or ignored, and actually presented an imminent threat. Good God! “There is only one way to defeat suffering, and that is to make oneself suffer even more.” Finally, Yu chose to concede. If he was in for a penny, he was in for a pound, and so he thought he might as well sell all of his work and find himself in emptiness.

My God! At this point, Yu had nothing apart from the money he had made from selling his work.

Of course, Yu returned to battle in 2014, reigniting the fuse of his life.

First, he took a large sum of money and gave it to his children and grandchildren, his relatives, his friends, and even old classmates, old colleagues, and new neighbors. He constantly created opportunities to pay the bill. In the past, he had immersed himself in his career and ignored his friends and neighbors; he wanted to gain them back, little by little. He frequently criticized himself for his “error,” and he hoped to “clear his intuition, cleanse himself of impurities, and protect his soul.”

Sometimes, he sees being a person as more important than being an artist.

Then, he began to focus on young artists. He held gatherings at his mountain home, sometimes for little reason other than the chance to barbecue. He organized a group visit to the Shanghai Biennale, even if he had not made it through half of one floor before he went to find a restaurant and drink. The exhibition needed to be done, because the mountain had no photography and he needed to make a photography art space. 8+1 was also very important, but the quality needed to be improved. Everything became closely linked and strongly supported.

On October 10, 2014, Yu Zhenli created the 8+1 Art Fund with one million RMB, which supported artwork creation, exhibitions, and exchanges for young artists. Managed by a third party, the fund has already been spent to sponsor four art exhibitions and artists.

The 8+1 concept came from the “8+1 Dalian Art Exhibition” held in Longquanhua Court on Bayi Road in 2002. At the time, Yu Zhenli was making an abstract painting for the head of Longquanhua Court Real Estate. In the process, the painting sale was changed to an exhibition at Yu Zhenli’s suggestion.

Therefore, Dalian held a contemporary art exhibition, which had an unprecedented standardizing role because of entrepreneurial sponsorship and critical intervention. The critic Wu Hong has maintained contacts in Dalian, thereby becoming an important witness for Dalian contemporary art.

“The Second 8+1 Exhibition” began on August 19, 2010, and Yu Zhenli held a ceremony for the successful enlargement of his studio, which featured an exhibition for seven Jinzhou artists. This exhibition represented the transformation of Yu Zhenli’s studio from a private to a public platform. Just as important is the extension of the artistic symbol “8+1” that spurred the exhibition. To date, seven editions have been successfully held and the series has become important to the Dalian art scene.

Yu Zhenli could not bear to be severed from the art of his hometown. He doesn’t just talk; he makes things happen. As in the construction of his studio, he needed to put everything together brick by brick, gradually building things with his own hands.

On the surface, “2014 Yu Zhenli Birthday Notes + 8 Projects” seems to be a partial extension of “Notes,” exhibited in a side gallery at the 2013 show “Self-Deportation: A Yu Zhenli Solo Exhibition.” This follows Yu’s logic, and also symbolizes his art. “Notes” clearly records all aspects of his life, and for him, his life is his greatest artwork. It would seem that his 2014 notes simply carry the people and events that happen around him. However, the “8 Projects” appended to the exhibition were completed by eight young Dalian artists, which means that Yu is exhibiting something that is not his, but is “Other.”

Can contemporary art have more positive meaning than life?

Everything I had seen and heard in 1997 about Yu Zhenli in Dalian was true; he was incisive, strict, manic, spiritual, angry, snide, anxious, and suffering. However, I saw much more. All of the antagonism between him and society evolved into a blazing fire. He burned himself to illuminate others. Thus, we discover that, after his “self-negation,” his true qualities survived: breathing, enthusiastic, poetic, referential, persevering, intellectual, and expressive…

That year, I wrote my first article as a new reporter, harshly entitled “Old Yu Lives For Death.” From then on, I hovered around the edges of art world. Through the help of Yu Zhenli, I can now have direct discussions with top critics like Liu Xiaochun. By following Yu Zhenli, I can now freely engage with curatorial godfathers like Li Xianting. In living with Yu Zhenli, I gradually organized and removed distractions and daydreams. After seeing Yu Zhenli, my anxieties about my direction gradually disappear.

My God!

November 11, 2015



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