Sitting in the low-ceilinged loft of a smoky bar in Yangjiang – China’s answer to Sheffield – Zheng Guogu has just learned the English for ‘piss artist’ and likes it so much he says it three times over.
With the kind of arresting rawness that you only get when foreigners or very young children swear, Zheng relishes the fact he has no idea what he’s really saying and lets out one more emphatic ‘piss artist’ just for good measure.
Zheng and his collaborators in the Yangjiang Group, Sun Qinglin and Chen Zaiyan, use Chinese calligraphy and alcohol to occupy exactly this space – the unconscious mind seething up through the cleft created when you know vaguely what it is you’re trying to say, but you’re so bladdered on the local Zhujiang Beer you can barely hold an ink brush.
“When we first started working together we used to drink and then by accident we found things that we’d written that we couldn’t remember doing at the time,” says Zheng, who first began working with the other two 10 years ago.
The power and clarity of these calligraphic works impressed them so much that drinking became a pre-condition for their Jackson Pollock-like art jams, sometimes binge drinking for up to three days at a time.
“When you’re in this mental situation you don’t remember what you’ve done,” says Zheng. “It’s exactly this distance and unfamiliarity between your state of mind and what you are doing that draws you to a higher state of art.”
Often taking preposterous news stories for inspiration, the calligraphy is so sloppy the viewer is forced to read the label to find out what the work is referring to.
The results are hilarious and disturbing at the same time.
One piece entitled “The Morning After: Masterpieces Written While Drunk, No. 1: ‘I Need a New Kidney to Kill Bin Laden'” references American would-be assassin and dialysis patient Gary Brook Faulkner who launched a private mission to kill Osama bin Laden; the dribbles and spatters of the drunken calligraphy highly suggestive of madness.
Another “Bloodwritten Letter on Imprisonment with the Opposite Sex” uses calligraphy to retell the shocking news story of a 16-year-old girl who, in 1996, was imprisoned for a week with two dozen male suspects who sexually abused her. Zheng writes the text over an unrelated photograph of what appear to be binge-drinking revellers.
The group is unusual in China in that they’ve never left their hometown for the art centers of Shanghai or Beijing. Yangjiang is an unprepossessing coastal industrial town in the southern province of Guangdong famous for producing one-in-ten of the knives in American households.
Staying at home means the money from their growing international reputation (they say there’s little interest in their work in China) goes further.
In the past couple of years, they’ve built a sprawling studio in urban Yangjiang in the shape of an iceberg and in the countryside a complex of interconnected exhibition spaces, rooms and gardens that ranges over several acres and is inspired by the video game “Age of Empires”.
Zheng says there’s little in the way of planning or design in the studio or the complex, the various rooms are created depending on discussions with the builders on the day, and there’s nothing in the way of official planning permission for the buildings.
He says he even once made an exhibit of the receipts for the bribes he had to pay to various authorities to get his architectural projects through. Kickbacks in China are often demanded through semi-official means, for instance overly rigorous fire safety requirements and the like.
“Oh yes, a lot of people complained,” Zheng says matter-of-factly about his own flat, a warren of connecting chambers built on two presumably illegally constructed floors on the top of a central Yangjiang apartment block. In China, obstacles such as bent-out-of-shape neighbours are usually simply a matter of compensation.
While the group is not overtly political, and they say the authorities take no interest in what they are doing, their works are radical and directly challenge the complex position of calligraphy in China where it is regarded as something of a sacred art.
Chen Zaiyan, who studied calligraphy at university, says simplified characters – a system introduced under Mao Zedong which drastically reduced the number of strokes and characters in a bid to lift literacy – is still unable to take complete hold in the country even after more than 50 years.
He says there’s a gravitational pull towards traditional script because the characters carry a deeper cultural sense, which he says comes shimmering out of the characters “like a mirage”.
“Most calligraphers habitually tend to write in traditional script,” says Chen. “I think in 20 years or more China will return to traditional script.”
Their calligraphy and installations not only keenly identify where the written language is debased, but where it is most vital.
Their Presidential Decree of the People’s Republic of China No. 74 takes the dead language of a screed of bureaucratic text outlining the minimum aesthetic requirements for the modern Chinese city and breathes life into it by blowing it up to 30 metres high and slapping it on the side of a glass tower in Shenzhen.
Meanwhile, their installation Last Day, Last Struggle gives a new context to the kind of bold and direct messages you can see on any market stall in China – “I’m bankrupt and suicidal. Everything must go” says one sign, “I’m old, I’m poor and my wife has left me” reads another.
“In China you can’t just go on the street and protest,” says Zheng. “In many ways, these people are using their shops and these signs to demonstrate.”
As for China’s many calligraphy associations and academies, Zheng says the Yangjiang Group has yet to receive any formal approaches.
“From these groups,” he says with a deadpan and faraway expression, “We have had very little interest”.