CAN’T HELP MYSELF, SUN YUAN AND PENG YU, 2016.
*seen at the Venice Biennale, Central Pavilion/Giardini – “May You Live in Interesting Times” 2019*
At the Giardini, Sun Yuan & Peng Yu presented a giant robotic paintbrush that thrashed paint around a glass cage. The claw-like robot arm splashed blood-hued paint on the walls, floor, and ceiling. This installation captured the audience immediately and really took over the whole room. The repeated mechanical action and splashing of the machine was hypnotizing yet uncomfortable to watch. The texture and color of the paint was sickly, yet the viewer couldn’t take their eyes off the actions going on inside the glass cage. This critical review will asses the artwork’s intentions, audience effect and wider political influences, alongside discussing installation and presentation methods.
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are two of China’s most controversial artists, known for pushing boundaries and shocking audiences. They have previously been known for working with materials such as live animals, baby cadavers and human tissue to deal with issues of death and the human condition. However, “Cant Help Myself” marks a unique turning point and breakthrough moment in their art practice. Their use of non-biological material in “Cant Help Myself” demonstrates a less controversial attempt to achieve shock-value while providing an in-depth political statement and provoking visual disturbance. The piece provides association of human materiality as art medium while not actually using human/animal material. It is the opinion of this author that Sun Yuan and Peng Yu have answered their own ethical debate in that using human material in art is inappropriate, irresponsible and can be avoided while still creating great art.
It is interesting to navigate an understanding of intentions from both the artist and the art piece itself, AKA the robot. The robot had one specified duty and intention – to contain the thick, deep-red liquid within a fixed area. When the sensors on the machine detected that the paint had strayed too far, the arms scooped it back into place, towards the middle of the area. This left blood-like smudges on the ground walls. The robot’s intention is trivial, mechanic, and functional. Seemingly innocent on paper, but in action the robot assumes a villain-like demeanor and has it’s own disturbing characteristic. This is because Sun Yuan and Peng Yu present a whole range of artistic intentions for their piece and are rather successful in translating their ideas into a fully functional art piece. Their work is intended to represent the government attempt at using machinery and modern advances in technology in order to protect themselves and their countries. Therefore, one could assume the government is the robotic mechanism and the blood being cleaned from puddles on the ground is society.
There are a range socio-political influences interwoven in Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Cant Help Myself”. A major political metaphor is the use of highly advanced technological components. The robot in this piece directly and critically comments on our modern understanding of political constructs. Eg, nation-state, sovereign territory, freedom, and democracy. Additionally, the artists make reference to unconventional human material as art medium. This is a comment on social authority and and political systems.
The installation and presentation of the piece completely grabs the viewer, taking over the entire room and creating a disturbing environment. When we consider the large scale of the piece, it’s box physically dominates the room and by creating a barrier to walk around. The viewer observes from cage-like acrylic partitions that isolate the robotic arm. The audience is separated, and even protected, from the robotic arm that seemingly has a mind of it’s own. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu wanted the viewer to view and experience the work in close proximity and feel the eerily hypnotic and enchanting effect of the artwork. At the Biennale, the artwork was viewable from only 3 sides of the perspex box, with the 4th side being a wall ending. It is this authors opinion that a surround view of the piece would have been more effective and experiential for the viewer. However, the Biennale presentation still did not distract from the piece, and stilly conveyed it’s intended effect.
Overall the piece was successful in provoking thought and emotion. The artists reached their ideal outcome and achieved beyond what they intended with this piece. It is the opinion of this author that the piece was a successful and deeply considerate in exploring space, physicality and medium to achieve a mood and audience reaction. It provokes the audience to think beyond the gallery space and consider wider social and political influences.
“GALLERIACONTINUA” 2020 ,
Sofia Lekka Angelopoulou, Designboom, 2019 https://www.designboom.com/art/sun-yuan-peng-yu-cant-help-myself-robot-venice-art-biennale-05-12-2019/
Xiaoyu Weng, 2016