Sunday, October 29, 2006

Art In The News: The Controversial Art of Xiao Yu

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Xiao Yu, an artist from China, received harsh criticism after exhibiting one of his pieces in a Swiss gallery exhibit. Xiao named the piece "Ruan", a name he invented by combining Chinese letters that come from the names of a variety of animals. The piece was constructed with animal and human parts including: the eyes of a rabbit, the body of a bird, and the head of a human baby. Due to public outcry the piece was pulled from the galleries collection of Chinese art which was on display at the Bern Fine Art Museum.

The work was pulled after several museum visitors filed complaints with Bern's District Attorney. Visitors questioned the ethics of the piece and wanted to know where the head had come from. The concern was due in part to the problem of late-term abortions in China. Visitors feared that the head was acquired specifically to be used in Xiao's art. Many were also upset because they felt the work showed great disrespect for the dead. Legal action against Xiao is pending.

Xiao Yu has defended "Ruan" and has attempted to answer any questions that the public may have about it. He has stated, "It's precisely because I respect all life that I did this. The bird and the fetus both died because there was something wrong with them. I thought putting them together like this was a way for them to have another life." Xiao observes his work as a warning against abortion in China where newborns can be killed by family planning officials when it is discovered the baby was born without a license.

However, people are still offended by "Ruan" and it has yet to be displayed since being censored. "I want it to be displayed," he said.Xiao claims he bought the head in 1999 for a few hundred yuan from a man who was cleaning out a scientific exhibition hall. The head, which had been stored in a glass bottle, came with a handwritten sticker identifying it as a female specimen from the 1960s.

According to Xiao, the bottle had no name or cause of death written upon it, but did have a date of birth that had meaning for him as an artist. Xiao has since lost the paper, but knows that the date of birth was close to his. He stated, "It was close to my birthdate though, I remember that because I thought it was coincidental,". So he decided to use the specimen in order to convey a message against a practice that he does not agree with.

Xiao feels that if children are considered no better than animals by the Chinese government it is perfectly acceptable to use them as objects. In a sense, Xiao observes it as no worse than mounting an animals severed head upon a wall. Xiao feels that "Ruan" reveals the hypocrisy over the abortion issue and the staggering Chinese abortion rate.

Xiao assumed the fetus was miscarried, based on the condition of the remains and the stage of development of the head. It is unlikely that it was an aborted fetus because the assumed birt date predated China's "one child" birth control policy. However, Xiao has failed to remember the exact birthdate of the remains nor does he have any other physical proof of where he obtained the head.

Xiao is no stranger to controversy. He is known for his shocking material. For another installation, he paid an assistant 10,000 yuan (US$1,200; euro1,000) to sew pairs of living lab mice together at the hip and displayed them in glass bowls. However, Xiao has been adamant about stating that his work is not about shock. He claims to create in order to convey a message about the issues he believes in.

What do you think about Xiao Yu and his creations? Do you think his work goes against ethics when he creates to attack issues that he feels are not ethical?

Take care, Stay true

Brian Sherwin


Robert said...

Do you know if Xiao Yu, has a web site or of any place that has more info on his other work? As for your question I am quite conflicted at the moment. It doesn't bother me so I am stuck at why not and why should it. I don't see it any different than Witkin's work, which is not really an argument, but I think the question lies in the fact that you can go to science museum or an egyptian exhibit and see dead people of all ages. I think that contacting science and natural history museums and complaining about their offensive content and ask them to remove it. If nothing happens dig up 10 bodies stick them in a gallery and see how that goes.

Balhatain said...


There does seem to be a "This corpse is ok, but this one is not" mentality going on.

I believe that much of the fuss is over the fact that it is a 'baby' corpse.

I'll see what I can dig up... on Xiao Yu that is. :P


Robert said...

I will have to disagree, I think much of the fuss is that "Ruan" wasn't presented under the guise of science. It was presented in the realm of art, which if you look in any newspaper in the country falls under entertainment. That distinction is what all the fuss is about, we need the illusion, today, to feel good(I should say O.K.) about what we want to see. I've seen mummies from Egypt that were babies. Corpses of children found in the mountains of Peru. Just look back to the 18th century and Fragonard's work with the body(the dancing fetuses). It's just a matter of our own guilt for enjoying the subject matter that makes us want to pull it from the shelf.