For the duration of the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire, Yingmei Duan will inhabit a little forest at the Art Gallery of NSW to perform Happy Yingmei (2014). Usually, Duan hides at the extremity of this magical place, but occasionally she will creep forward through the trees to investigate a visitor and perhaps offer them a secret note of instruction. The words are based on thoughts, observations and ideas that Duan formulates situationally: ‘Go to the church and ask them why religion is not free’ or ‘Watch the sky tonight and make a wish’, are suggestions that can, yet need not, be acted upon, but serve to inspire thought in their recipient.
Duan’s piece takes its name from Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, an allegory of compassion and sacrifice told through the tender relationship of a prince’s statue and a swallow that acts as his messenger. Happy Yingmei belongs within the tradition of durational performance art, and even though her inhabitation is a wonderland discovery for the audience, her occupation is lengthy, tiring, and a form of self-imposed confinement. Her notes reference the outside world and heighten her sense of alienation from those natural and free things available to all outside the confines of an institution. Duan’s is a gentle, yet poignant, critique of the incarceration of creativity under regimes of intolerance.
Duan began her artistic career as a figurative painter but was drawn to performance art while living in Beijing’s East Village, an avant-garde artistic community established in the early 1990s. This hub, named after Manhattan’s East Village, gave rise to the first generation of Chinese performance artists, who frequently collaborated on performances such as the well-known To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain (1995) in which Duan participated. In 1998, she moved to Germany and studied under seminal performance artist Marina Abramović at Braunschweig University of Art, Brunswick. Since then, Duan has doggedly interrogated the terrain of performance art: the body as material, the impermanence of performance and the traces it leaves behind, and the unique forms of engagement performance affords with space and audience members alike.
Duan works both in and outside traditional gallery spaces, often creating large-scale theatrical pieces with immersive environments. In her three-day performance work Rubbish City (2008) at the Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö, viewers navigated a large gallery space filled with tonnes of garbage. Amid the debris they encountered five different characters including a pianist, a naked woman and a young girl, appearing lost in a dark and dreary world. In this and other creations, Duan invites viewers to enter physical and imaginative environments, thereby incorporating them as necessary components of the work. Audience and performer become less delineated; observer and observed blurred. The artist notes that her performances are a form of questioning for everyone involved.
Future of Imagination (2008) saw Duan touring through Singapore, Thailand and China, adopting the role of a museum guide discussing a fictitious solo exhibition of her work scheduled for 2015. Although a real-time physical encounter between artist and audience, her narration encouraged temporal flight as viewers were encouraged to imagine these future artworks and their settings.
Many of Duan’s performances arise from her fascination with the qualities of time, sleep and dreams, particularly that familiar trope of endlessly searching for someone or something to no avail. She is interested in the psychological realm, in the connecting axes of human instinct and behaviour and how we may recognise parts of ourselves in someone else’s artistic endeavour. Sleeping in Van Gogh Museum (2005) was a live performance that engaged with a suite of Egon Schiele works on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Here, over a period of seven days, Duan responded to Schiele’s work by sleeping and dreaming in the gallery like his figures seemed to do.
Duan has performed as part of major international exhibitions, including ‘Art of Change: New Directions from China’, Hayward Gallery, London (2012); ‘Non-Aligned’, Marina Abramović Institute West, San Francisco (2010); Manchester International Festival (2009); ‘re.act.feminism – performance art of the 1960s and 70s today’, Kunsthaus Erfurt (2009), City of Women International Festival of Contemporary Arts, Llujbana (2009), and Akademie der Künste, Berlin (2008); 6th DaDao Live Art Festival, China (2008); and 52nd Venice Biennale (2007).