Chengyao He

1964 | Chongqing, China
Chengyao He — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Portrait of He Chengyao, Courtesy of the artist

Chinese performance artist.

From 1989 to 1992 HE Chengyao attended the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute (SFAI), majoring in painting. During this time, she worked as an art teacher at a junior high school. As a way to generate revenue while also taking care of her son, she soon left her teaching job and began painting at home. Although these romantic, sentimental paintings sold well at auction, she realised that she wanted to experiment with different artistic styles and mediums. Therefore, she enrolled in a graduate class in contemporary art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing in 2001. As a graduate student He began experimenting with performance art after becoming captivated by the contemporary art scene in Beijing.
Her early work, including her first performance Opening the Great Wall (2001), speaks of her personal history and the tumultuous memories of her mother during her formative years.

He had been a child born out of wedlock, two years prior to the dawning of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At the time, pregnancy before marriage was greatly frowned upon and considered immoral. He’s mother chose to raise her nonetheless, though according to the artist, the stress of this decision led to mental health issues throughout her mother’s life. In the performance she spontaneously removed her shirt and walked along the section of the Great Wall of China, where the work of German artist HA Schult (b. 1939) was installed at the time. As a personal homage, He re-enacted a memory of her mother wandering the streets of her hometown naked as a result of her mental illness. Although she was accused of indecency and profiteering from the work of a foreign artist, she felt an underlying force to continue exploring the theme of the liberation of the female body. After this performance, He went to volunteer as a teacher in Tibet and discovered a drive to help others. In the same year she created 99 Needles (2002), which allowed her to experience the pain and torture her mother received from an acupuncture treatment that was meant to “cure” her mental ailments.

In addition to performance art, He has worked with the medium of film. Her film project Children from Poor Families (2006-2007) addresses social issues concerning the living conditions of poverty-stricken children. In 2007 this project was exhibited at the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai. More recently, she performed Of Other Spaces (2017) at the Cooper Gallery in the University of Dundee, United Kingdom. In the performance she challenges social stigmas around power structures and institutional systems by enveloping the gallery space in adhesive tape.
He has exhibited her work in group exhibitions at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and the Brooklyn Museum, New York, among others. Her solo exhibitions were held at the Juhua Gallery in Shanghai and the Beijing World Art Museum.

Meghan Ruyle

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