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You Show Me Yours, I’ll Show You Mine

My parents raised my sister and I to be well-behaved members of society. In our household, the evening meal was not an overly formal event, but there was a conscientious effort to maintain a level of decorum. Basic etiquette included sitting up straight, saying “please” and “thank you,” and keeping your pants on at the dinner table.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve let my parents down.

Last week, we visited a series of artist’s studios in Caochangdi. Among them were Wang Qingsong and He Yunchang, two of China’s more celebrated members of a recently emerged contemporary avant-garde. He Yunchang, in particular, is famous for his outlandish performance pieces in which he performs borderline masochistic acts that in the past have included casting his hand in concrete for twenty-four hours, encapsulating his entire body in a concrete box, and having medically-unnecessary surgery to remove his lower rib. To answer the question that is almost certainly going through your head would require another entry onto itself. Suffice to say there are political motivations behind much of his work.1

The piece I was interested in was a performance entitled, “One Meter Democracy,” in which He had a one-centimeter deep incision carved one-meter down his body without anesthetic. The performance itself was conducted only after a group of twenty-five people voted on whether or not they would like to see it carried out. Twelve voted yes, ten voted no, and three abstained. It was democracy in action. 

When we visited his studio he was more than happy to talk about the work, but less forthcoming about showing the scar. I wanted to see it. I was determined to see it. In the world of Photoshop effects and digital post-processing, only primary evidence would suffice in proving a story this outrageous.

On Friday, both artist’s attended a large dinner at our studio--another of our Burning (m)Eats sessions. to our studio for a Friday night dinner. As a designated member of the waitstaff,  I vowed to keep serving him Yangjing and wine until he revealed his mark. Not surprisingly (for a guy who’s medium appears to be self-harm), he handled his drinks well and remained sober for the better part of the night. As the evening wore on and my progress rated marginal at best,  I realized the need to up the stakes, and offered a quid pro quo: If he showed us his scar, I’d drop my pants and show him the shark bite on the back of my leg.

For such a grand gesture, I was a little timid at first. There were fifty or sixty people present and a friend’s mother had just arrived in town. This wasn’t exactly the impression I wanted tomake. If that weren’t enough, my professors were three seats down the table from us. I had to wait for the right moment. Serendipitously, my professors turned their attention to matters at the other end of the table. My friend’s mother stepped inside to use the bathroom. I stood, slowly turned around, undid my belt, dropped my pants and showed the dinner party my ass.

1. Those familiar with the rock n’ roll lore surrounding Marilyn Manson were probably not wondering about the political motivations of He Yunchung’s work.

2. Those of you familiar with the origins of the scar on the back of my left leg (which I assume is pretty much everyone who reads this blog), would do kindly to support the shark bite story. Apparently, in Chinese culture, surviving a horrific accident such as that it brings very good luck. As He Yunchung put it, it’s “because you lived to tell the story. If you didn’t, you would have bad luck.”