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Art

Boundary-Pushing Artists Sun Yuan & Peng Yu Are Masters of Provocative Art

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Can't Help Myself, 2016. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists, GALLERIA CONTINUA, ARARIO Gallery, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Can't Help Myself, 2016. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists, GALLERIA CONTINUA, ARARIO Gallery, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection.

Artist duo make loud, in-your-face work. Their two dynamic installations at the 2019 Venice Biennale were noisy and violent, monstrous in scale—and arguably the most spectacular pieces in the Arsenale and Giardini.
The first, Can’t Help Myself (2016), resembles a giant mechanized paintbrush that sweeps and splatters blood-red liquid around a transparent box. The second, Dear (2015), features a silicon chair with a rubber hose that periodically lashes at the sides of its see-through enclosure. These formidable artworks simultaneously frightened and attracted visitors, who stood safely beyond the machines’ reach.
Sun describes the pair’s work like science experiments. “I like action, color, ecology,” he said. And while those elements are typically found in nature, he likes to force them into controlled, experimental scenarios within their artworks, to see what happens. Sun also embraces vicious language when he discusses the work. In regard to Can’t Help Myself, he said, “We see how the robot and the liquid finish by torturing each other.” The duo’s brutal approach has previously caused major uproar, raising questions about censorship and the psychology of an audience.
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Dear, 2019. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists and GALLERIA CONTINUA.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Dear, 2019. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists and GALLERIA CONTINUA.

Sun and Peng were both born in China in the early 1970s (the former in Beijing, the latter in Heilongjiang). They studied at Beijing’s Central Academy of Art and began working together in 2000. Their partnership is artistic and personal: They’re married.
It didn’t take long for the global art world to catch on to their work. “Sun Yuan and Peng Yu are the sharpest social critics working in China today,” said Guggenheim senior curator Alexandra Munroe. “The object of their radical, often outrageous critique” extends beyond “China’s autocratic politics or the dark consequences of globalization,” cutting across national borders.
Over the past two decades, the pair has exhibited in Australia, France, the United States, and Qatar. They’ve been included in biennials in Moscow, Sydney, and Liverpool, among other cities.
In New York, Sun and Peng may be best known for their video Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (2003), which the Guggenheim Museum planned to show in its 2017–18 exhibition “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” The film captures two pitbulls on treadmills, running at each other while an audience watches. Once animal-rights activists learned that the work would be shown at the Guggenheim, they were enraged. The museum received so many complaints about that artwork and two others that they swiftly pulled all three pieces before large audiences had been able to come in, see the art, and judge for themselves.
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Dear, 2019. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists and GALLERIA CONTINUA.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Dear, 2019. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists and GALLERIA CONTINUA.

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“The anger of these people, like that of the dogs, just needs an excuse in order to explode,” Sun said, reflecting on the brouhaha. Ironically, the artists’ aim with the film was to expose the horrors of dog fighting. By tethering two dogs who are trained to fight on treadmills, they actually prohibited them from harming each other. Yet for their pacifist project, Sun and Peng received death threats. Their work, in this way, brought out other people’s worst instincts and their most violent fantasies.
Munroe, who co-curated the Guggenheim exhibition, commented, “They are starkly atheist, bluntly realist—and therefore the bravest artists I know.” She sees “zero idealism” in their work.
Sun, for his part, reflects on the whole episode with distanced intrigue. He believes it was, ultimately, an enlightening reflection of his audience’s mentality. “This is what my work is like—sometimes a physics experiment, other times a biological one, other times a psychological one,” he said.
Sun and Peng have also made work about firearm handling and predation. Their 2013 performance If seeing is not an option featured blindfolded participants picking up guns, while their 2006 piece Waiting featured a giant fake vulture atop a perch. The insidious element that pervades the duo’s work reflects on our own fear, sense of danger, and cognitive distortions. The work often asks, “What do we perceive as a threat? And why?”
Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Can't Help Myself, 2016. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists, GALLERIA CONTINUA, ARARIO Gallery, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection.

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, Can't Help Myself, 2016. Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Courtesy of the artists, GALLERIA CONTINUA, ARARIO Gallery, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Collection.

Galleria Continua recently mounted an exhibition of the pair’s monumental art, titled “If I Died,” at the St. Regis hotel in Rome. The show is as morbid as the title suggests, including hyperrealistic, figurative sculptures with boulders where their heads should be.
The exhibition is, unfortunately, timely. As the coronavirus reshapes life around the globe, many of us are contemplating our own mortality in a brand-new way. The pair, who are based in Beijing, are currently on lockdown in their country due to the virus’s spread. “This is a completely new experience,” said Sun. It’s impossible for the couple to go out and meet anyone.
Yet he sees a silver lining, particularly for creative folk. “Artists should like surprises,” he said. From his scientific, observational perspective, he’s interested in witnessing divergent reactions to different crises. He noted that economic issues should spur thoughts on how to make money, a monster’s appearance should spark ideas on how to kill it, and a virus’s arrival should force people to stay home and sleep.
Asked what he’s working on now, Sun merely noted, “I’m just about to go to sleep.”
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.