MANCHESTER, England—They've run naked across Westminster Bridge carrying a stuffed panda, staged a pillow fight at the world-famous Tate Gallery, and pretended to arrest a Shanghai curator for “international crimes against art.” Because of these and other antics, U.K.-based Chinese performance artists Cai Yuan and Xi Jianjun are being called “the bad boys of Chinese art.”
Their new show, "Happy and Glorious," runs through Nov. 21 at the Chinese Arts Center in the northern British city of Manchester. In an interview with RFA, Cai and Xi said their latest work continues their style of using visual humor to challenge traditional forms of authority and probe the paradox of being born in China and naturalized in Britain.
Cai says they chose the name "Happy and Glorious" because it illustrates their dual identities.
"It comes from the British national anthem. That’s where we got it from, when we decided to use it," he said. "On the Chinese side, it points to the happiness and glory you can see from the Mao era, in the Cultural Revolution propaganda posters of fat babies and goldfish.”
Cai and Xi have lived in Britain for more than 20 years, and they've put down roots.
“We also wanted to explore our impressions of 'Happiness and Glory' in that context," said Cai, "what those things really mean for us. Of course they have their surface meanings. But we wanted to explore their deeper meanings through our concrete work. "
In 1999, the pair, also known as "Mad for Real," caused a stir in the art world when they visited installation artist Tracy Emin’s work at the Tate Gallery in London. Titled “My Bed”—a messy bed covered in quilts, underwear, and other personal items—it commemorated the artist’s time in a state of depression.
Xi and Cai jumped on the bed and had a pillow fight, in a satire they called “Two Artists Jump on Tracy's Bed.” The artists were arrested and released without being charged. Emin had to remake her bed.
They use the incident in their new show in an exhibit of a giant coffin. Inside the coffin is a letter they received from the Gallery. Tate officials told Cai and Xi they are forbidden from ever setting foot on Tate property again.
"We have put [the letter] in a frame and cordoned it off inside the coffin. The interior of the coffin is decorated with chandelier [and] traditional English wallpaper. Visitors will walk through it and see the letter in an old-fashioned golden frame on the ceiling,” Cai said.
Cai explained that the inspiration for their iconoclasm comes from the political climate in which they grew up—the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
“All this stuff… really it was only at the time of the Red Guards that you could do things like this. There were no leaders, you could do whatever you wanted. It was lawless. Without structure,” Cai said.
Their activities have also included inviting British Prime Minister Tony Blair to run with them across Westminster Bridge. He didn't reply, so they substituted a stuffed panda. They urinated on another installation art work—which was, in fact, a urinal.
And in Shanghai they staged an “artists’ arrest” of curator Hou Hanru, accusing him of “international crimes against art.”
The centerpiece of their performance will be the artists’ rendition of the British national anthem, however. They plan to perform “God Save the Queen” stark naked, with the words to the Chinese national anthem written on their skin.
They will also swear loyalty to the Queen in a personalized version of the Citizenship Oath, which is sworn by those seeking British citizenship.
“We are half British, probably always will be. The other half is always questioning that. Half of our bodies belong to the Queen. But in our blood, the other part of us will always be Chinese,” Xi said.
“So we will write words from the Chinese national anthem on our bodies," Xi said, " 'arise, you who don’t want to be slaves, make a new Great Wall of our flesh and blood,' then we will swear our oaths to the Queen. Our bodies were Chinese but now they are changing.”