ARE THESE BOYS TAKING THE PISS?
They achieved notoriety by staging a naked pillow fight on Tracy Emin’s bed, and have attracted headlines for throwing food outside Buckingham palace, and urinating in the Tate. JJ and Cai - aka Mad4real - explain that there is method to their madness.
When I meet them in a Shoredich bar they look and talk like revolutionaries. “We piss on the stink” JJ explains as we buy a drink. He is stocky and energetic. Cai, who is taller and quieter, looks at me intently.
They met as art students in Communist China, and I ask if this has inspired their revolt. “Anyone not on our side is our enemy” JJ says cryptically, adding after a moments thought: “our enemies are institutions”. For his degree presentation at Goldsmiths, JJ threw money on the floor and watched the audience scramble to pick it up. He explains that: “galleries selling works for two thousand pounds is an abuse of art as a profession”.
So are they against capitalism? Cai, who has been silent up until now, suddenly starts talking. They are angry, it’s the aesthetic they criticise. Conventional art is purely decorative, he tells me, something you can buy in a hardware shop: “we don’t know what is art, this is why the Tate tries to tell people ‘this is art’.” Their performance on the bed was an opportunity to vent this anger: “Down Tate, down with Serota, burn the Tate” they shouted in Mandarin.
They are against globalisation: “fundamental change is what we’re looking for” Cai says. He starts talking about how institutions from the East and the West work together to define what is art: “we are fully aware of this and we don’t like it, we don’t play their games,” he tells me.
For them, the Century City exhibition at the Tate Modern epitomises this. With its plethora of curators, the gallery is trying to pre-package art for the consumer.
And it is this cynicism that inspired Cai to collect the iconography of Western art in his 1994 work The Great Encyclopaedia: Art International. JJ is famously quoted as saying: “The mainstream are caught in a circle, we’re outside that circle pissing in.”
At the Shanghai Biennale they ‘performed’ a citizen’s arrest of prominent curator and art critic Hou Hanru. Cai tells me that this work is ‘quite important’. They accuse him of self interest - using art as a commodity. As a Chinese critic living in Paris, Hanru is a figure that bridges the East and the West, a symbol of: “the transition of the East and the establishment of the West.”
Yet their revolt is broader than this - like Chairman Mao, who swam across the Yangse river before the cultural revolution - they attempted to show their strength by swimming across the Thames last year, their bodies covered in ‘isms’ “to wash away ideologies”.
And it’s for their own revolution they summon he who they see as starting modern art. “We wanted to revive the urinal” they say of their ‘extension’ of Duchamp’s The Fountain: “Our pissing on it created another work which is equally beautiful, equally important today”.
From DADA their work can be most clearly understood: “we are in a contemporary context, our targets and our enemies are different,” they explain. But their work is similarly provocative, similarly comic, encouraging their audience to look at art in new ways.
“We use objects in a different way, and see them differently,” Cai tells me. They often use themselves as the objects of their art, and sometimes others: “that’s why we arrested Hou Hanru, in our eyes he’s a live object”. The energy of their work, he tells me, reflects their search for the real. Yet their performances are by nature transient, and I can’t help pointing out the contradiction. After a moment’s thought he adds: “we haven’t got any ideology, ideologically we are unreal, you should call your article real and unreal”.
So are they Post Modern? “This is an ideology to describe the loss of everything, universal,” Cai explains, it’s the modern they want to revive. The spirit of modernism is dead, he tells me, much of contemporary art is personal, ornamental. JJ puts down his drink and says vehemently; “We are social artists, we intend to achieve a monument, so people can stand underneath looking up.”
Like Joseph Beuys, who they identify as being another ‘important figure’, they see everyone as artist, everything as art. Cai picks up an empty pint glass to explain: “if you throw this on the floor, that can be art.” JJ is more specific, he describes a free-form vision where: “art is practised in every corner of society”, adding: “our art is for everybody, the city is our canvas.”
Our glasses are empty and the interview almost over. My last impression is of their energy, and their desire for freedom. They want to set an example, to show what is possible. “We want to lead in our direction,” they tell me. And when I ask, they assure me that they are “against direction.” Their art is anarchic, their doctrine existential, they don’t want to limit their thinking: “People should be able to make up their own minds about what is art”.
And so what next? After a long pause they lean towards me, their voices conspiratorial. On Saturday Hou Hanru is taking part in the Global and Local: The Condition of Art Practice Now conference at the Tate. Aptly it is here that he will again become their ‘objet d’art’. They explain how they will wait outside for him to leave, and because he is supposed to know, ‘smash’ him in the face and ask him what is art. And are they just courting the media? Cai is quick to add: “We don’t want any publicity, this time it’s personal.”