He Yunchang
(b. 1967, Kunming, China; lives and works in Chaoyang, Beijing)

Rock in the Niagara Falls.

C-print on Dibond, 119.5×192.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

When the first Apollo mission to the moon in 1961 gave humanity the first photograph of Earth from space, our planet suddenly seemed so small, a glowing sphere in the middle of a dark and unknown universe. One of the enduring, traumatically sad impressions it produced is that of a lonely sailing ship. A similar feeling comes to mind when looking at the beautiful landscape of Niagara Falls after the realization that a small human being is there, in the middle of the water, attempting to stand on a rock at the very edge of the waterfall. Hoping that the rope would hold him, He planned to endure the freezing cold, turbulent water for 24 hours. Ironically, this act of extreme vitality and resistance to external forces, including common sense, was interrupted by the police and the artist was dragged back to shore after a few hours.

An oil painter by education, He turned to performance in the late 1990s and has been at the forefront of contemporary Chinese performance art ever since, producing some of the most challenging, ethically consistent, and life-affirming pieces of endurance art. Using the body as an instrument through which to exert his individual freedom, He’s practice is deeply informed by a sense of mistrust not only in the obvious institutions of power but in those ingrained in us since birth— internalized societal rules, the omnipresent grip of common knowledge, and collective “wisdom.” His performances become instances of conjuring a timeless drive, a beautifully illogical, unproductive, almost hyper-human determination. “The small hero is here,” He says jokingly, and points to the to the tiny spot in the water.