The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

Back in March, finding myself cut adrift from all certainty and from what I had foolishly assumed to be a continuing professional identity, I was catapulted like so many others across the globe into a time of uncertainty and fear. One of the things that has held me together is my conversations with artists, and my interest in writing about the work of women artists in particular. In the last six months I've written about the practice of some extraordinary women, including Liu Xi, Pixy Yijun Liao, and most recently, young rising star Cao Yu. Of necessity our conversations have been conducted online, via email and WeChat, and it's sad not to be physically present in their studios for these conversations. But even given this restriction, our dialogues have been richly rewarding and I'm delighted by the trust they've shown me to represent their work in my words.

My article about the very transgressive and courageous work of Cao Yu, one of the most interesting young artists emerging from the Sculpture Department of Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. was published in Ran Dian this month. 

All images reproduced courtesy of the artist and Urs Meile Gallery, Beijing and Lucerne.

Here's an excerpt:

Show and Tell: Cao Yu’s Gendered Embodiment

A naked female torso is half obscured by shadow. We cannot see her face. As her hands rhythmically squeeze her pale breasts, jets of milk shoot into the air. ‘Fountain’ (2015), a video first exhibited at her graduation show in 2016, brought young artist Cao Yu instant notoriety. Viewers reacted viscerally – some with outrage and disgust, some with anger, some with fascination and delight, and some with bewilderment. Was it pornography? Was it a joke? Was it a feminist statement about motherhood? Reactions to this work, including an attempt by authorities to remove it from the exhibition, reveal so much about how women’s bodies and their sexuality are perceived. Cao Yu’s transgressive work issued a defiant challenge to ingrained cultural taboos, that is for sure.

Minimalist, conceptual, and deliberately provocative, Cao’s work reflects upon and exploits the physicality of her materials, from the conventional – marble, stretched linen and canvas – to unexpected, even transgressive, substances including the artist’s own hair, breastmilk and urine, and their various significations. Cao graduated from the academically rigorous Sculpture Department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts and cites Sui Jianguo and Zhan Wang as influential teachers and mentors. In a recent interview Cao Yu said it was Zhan Wang, whose own work is deeply conceptual and uncompromising in its refined physicality (1), who encouraged her to realise her potential when she began postgraduate study.(2)

Font of Wisdom

Despite dramatic lighting that creates a Caravaggesque chiaroscuro, ‘Fountain’ is no art historical Madonna. It is real and a bit disturbing. For me, it evokes memories of breastfeeding two babies, of painfully engorged, inflamed or leaking breasts. Lactation makes people uneasy. Bizarrely, it often evokes disgust. Even today, breastfeeding women in public are required to cover themselves discreetly with precarious arrangements of shawls, and are often pressured to remove themselves completely from the public gaze. Cao Yu’s video bravely defies such patriarchal, squeamish nonsense, forcing us to watch her female body doing its thing.

Obviously, the title refers to Marcel Duchamp’s notorious challenge to the art establishment in 1917. ‘Fountain’, a porcelain urinal turned on its side, is a sly reference to gendered sexualities, a hand grenade thrown into art history and over a century later it is still the subject of contested interpretations. Cao Yu also references Bruce Nauman’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Fountain’ (1966–1967), in which he spits out an arc of water (with obvious ejaculatory symbolism). Cao’s breastmilk fountain satirises the phallic subtexts of both works.

Cao Yu’s uncompromising chutzpah in confronting the masculinist history of modern and contemporary sculpture and performance art – so much testosterone! – echoes the similarly audacious work of a Chinese performance and transdisciplinary artist of the previous generation. In 2001, He Chengyao removed her shirt to stride bare breasted along the Great Wall. It was, she says, an impromptu performance during the public exhibition of German artist H. A. Schult’s installation of life-sized figures constructed of consumer waste.(3) When the semi-naked He Chengyao suddenly appeared in the midst of the crowd, attention was immediately diverted towards her. Because her spontaneous action was so public, and because it took place at this site – a potent symbol of Chinese nationhood – the considerable media attention was mostly negative.(4) She was accused of being an immoral attention-seeker, a judgement rooted in a misogynist view of ‘good womanhood’ that has not noticeably abated in the twenty years since. Some years ago, reflecting on her motivation for this transgressive action, He Chengyao told me, “Faced with all this hostility I tried to figure out the reason behind my performance. It was as if I was being controlled by a supernatural power of some kind. I decided to look inside for answers instead of outside.”(5)

This sense of looking ‘inside’, feeling an uncontrollable imperative to use her body as a means of artistic expression, is familiar to Cao Yu, too. Cao gave birth to her first child in 2014. Childbirth and motherhood changed her view of her own body and herself; a visceral female physicality found its way into her work. ‘Fountain’, Cao says, was a work that she had to make. After her child was born, for the duration of her lactation, she had frequent bouts of mastitis that caused high fevers and almost unbearable pain:

Although it caused me pain, it also brought nutrition and life energy to my child, so my milk became this wonder substance that I [both] loved and hated. So, in the process of fighting this pain, I was sensitively aware that my body at this moment was full of endless life energy and explosive force. I felt for the first time as a woman that my body could have an even more violent power to release tension than a man’s. And [if] my body was gradually turning into a masculine fountain monument, then it [also] became a container for life-giving and spraying milk. The white milk was imbued with the memory of love and hate.(6)

The video is shot from the point of view of the artist as she gazes down at her own body, experiencing its power. Undoubtedly there is an erotic charge in the work – certainly the physical closeness of breastfeeding an infant can be intensely pleasurable as well as sometimes extremely painful. But in a contemporary culture in which the breast is commodified as an erotic object, and sexuality and motherhood are often seen as incompatible, ‘Fountain’ issues a challenge to the pornographic gaze that reinforces this binary. Cao Yu wanted all attention to be focused on the jets of liquid shooting into the air and the power of her body to expel it with great force. The milk fell into her eyes, almost blinding her. Cao carefully directed the lighting, camera angle and the positioning of her body:

We chose to shoot this video with the brightest light exposure possible, which created a clear contrast between the white milk and the dark background. The details of the breasts were gone, instead, it showed a beautiful landscape of two active volcanoes.

Cao was in so much pain from her engorged breasts by the time the video was shot that she felt they would explode. She experienced exquisite relief as she began pumping, until the last drops of milk were gone. Tension and release, and that strange mixture of joy and sorrow familiar to all new parents, are communicated so powerfully in this work. Cao Yu knew that ‘Fountain’ would evoke strong reactions (undoubtedly, at least in part, her intention) but her video is not merely subversive, it is also aesthetically beautiful.

Such candid representations of motherhood are rare. We are more accustomed to saccharine depictions of selfless maternal sacrifice, or airbrushed, Instagram-perfect imagery that belies the bloody reality of childbirth, the delirious exhaustion and pain of new motherhood and lactation, or the endless, repetitive labour of raising a child. It is no surprise that the work excited controversy when it was exhibited – indeed, Cao Yu says she suddenly knew what it was like to be an overnight sensation. Some members of the art academy’s administration tried to prevent the work being shown at all, declaring it to be pornographic. Her name was abruptly withdrawn from an awards list. Members of her family were embarrassed. Audience reaction was mixed, and she was attacked online, in terms reminiscent of those used to attack He Chengyao almost twenty years earlier. Cao described the scene:

In the museum, someone was whispering in front of the work, someone called friends to come back and watch it again and again, some people were pointing fingers with bad intentions, there was also someone bursting into tears during the viewing.

I wondered whether the references to Duchamp, Nauman, and the problematically masculinist narratives of art history were at the forefront of Cao Yu’s mind as she planned this work, or whether they had revealed themselves only once she saw the video. In response, Cao quoted the Chinese idiom ‘to paint a dragon and dot the eyes’ (huà lóng diǎn jīng 画龙点睛) meaning ‘to add the final finishing touch’ to something. From the moment she decided to make the work, Cao realised that she was entering a dialogue with art history, not just with Duchamp and Nauman, but also with earlier works such as Ingres’ ‘La Source’ (1856), a neo-Classical painting depicting an idealised nude woman holding an urn spilling water balanced on her shoulder. The Chinese title of Cao’s video ‘泉’ may be translated as ‘Fountain’ but also refers to a spring or source of water. She says:

These classics have one thing in common, namely, they all came from the interpretation of ‘Fountain’ by the great male artists in art history. Therefore, the video work Fountain, created using new media, and from the perspective of a female artist from a younger generation, launched a new understanding and interpretation of the classic works in history, which was a leap forward, and that really excited me.


‘Fountain’ transformed the milk produced by Cao Yu’s body into an art material. ‘Artist Manufacturing’ (2016) makes this intention even more explicit. Cao condensed eighteen litres of her breast milk into a malleable, clay-like material, and used it to mould abstract forms. Unmediated by the distancing of video camera and screen, they bear the marks of the artist’s kneading fingers and are redolent of sour milk. Described by Rachel Rits-Volloch as an ‘extrusion of her own bodily fluids, an inversion of herself from inside to outside, signed with her own fingerprints’(7), Cao has made the product of her own body into art. This is not unprecedented; in 1961 Piero Manzoni filled 90 cans with his own faeces. Each was numbered and labelled in Italian, English, French and German, identifying the contents as ‘”Artist’s Shit”, contents 30gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961’.(8) Thus, in a neat comment about the aesthetic judgement and intellectual acuity of the artworld, the product of the artist’s body became a commodity.

Cao Yu’s work is quite different, however, and arguably more interesting. Although she says, very emphatically, that she is not a feminist,(9) ‘Fountain’ and ‘Artist Manufacturing’ align more readily with works by feminist artists who challenged taboos around menstruation, pregnancy and birth and refused to hide the realities of the female body – its inconvenient leakiness, as well as its sexual and maternal power. Carolee Schneeman’s 1975 ‘Interior Scroll’, a performance in which she drew a long, narrow scroll of paper from her vagina and read aloud from it comes to mind.(10) So, too, do the performance works of Patty Chang, such as ‘Melons’ (1998) in which she wears a large bra with the cups filled with cantaloupes that resemble prosthetic breasts. Chang slices through bra and melons with a sharp knife and scoops out the flesh with her hand, enacting an imaginary ritual at the death of her aunt from breast cancer. Chang also used her own breastmilk in ‘Letdown (Milk)’ (2017), photographs of the discarded milk she had expressed into cups and any other available receptacles as she documented an arduous journey through Uzbekistan. The double meaning of her title references both the physical sensation when milk begins to flow, prompted by the sucking of the infant on the nipple, and an emotional state of disappointment.(11)

To read more about Cao Yu, click on the Ran Dian article HERE