Ji Shengli (Hei Yue), Beijing - China


Cultural Capital

Black Moon Rising: Discipline, Punishment and Loads of Laughs

By Maya Kóvskaya

When he adopted the name "Black Moon" (Hei Yue), back in the heyday of the Yuanmingyuan artist colony, Ji Shengli could hardly have known the intimate connections in English between the verb "to moon" and the performance art that would bring him fame. Yuanmingyuan was one of China’s most fertile art communities and it flourished from the late 80s until being disbanded in 1995. "Hei Yue" Ji Shengli originally made his name in the avant-garde art scene as a painter, but after he moved to Japan in 2001 he began to work with the medium that would take his work to a new level: his buttocks.

"123 Buttocks" is the title of Hei Yue’s ongoing performance art series, acclaimed in the US and China, as well as Japan.

Incorporating elements of humor with figures of authority and questions of propriety, Hei Yue’s performances employ a cheeky method to pose a serious question: "who has the right to discipline and punish?" Wearing pants specially designed to reveal his butt, Hei Yue appears before various symbols of power, authority and tradition, and spanks himself repeatedly: policemen, Buddhist monks, Japanese fishermen in traditional (and more notably, butt-revealing) garb, a stern elderly Japanese man and more.

"I first got the idea from the split pants we Chinese kids all wear, with the butt hanging out, when we are little," he explains. "Also, parents spank kids on the butt to discipline them. But now that I’m an adult, the only one who has the right to spank me is myself."

Hei Yue’s use of props also manifests and extends his central preoccupations. In Japan, from 2001-2003, he performed "123 Buttocks" on street corners, in ornate gardens and other public places, carrying a miniature toy bird cage in hand, a child’s toy that reminded him of the combination of cuteness and repression that he came to associate with aspects of Japanese culture. In 2004 Hei Yue went to New York for a change of scene. In Central Park, Times Square, Chelsea, near Boston and elsewhere, he continued to document his "self-discipline" on film, carrying a plush, pink stuffed monkey wearing an I HEART NY t-shirt. Back in Beijing in early 2005, he began to experiment with a range of props, such as Qiuqiu, a squirrel-sized Pomeranian on a leash, who barked and lunged, fearless as a lion only to be crushed by a careless passing car hours late (not part of the performance!). Most recently, while spanking away at his reddening buttocks before a phalanx of cops who looked mighty squeamish, he suggestively brandished a vibrating French tickler *** mounted on a long, menacing staff. It was as if he was saying: "I wield the phallus, that ultimate symbol of power and domination, mounted like a weapon that I can use to punish or pleasure, depending on your persuasion." And in his hometown in Qinghai, vermilion-robed Buddhist monks and against the serene backdrop of a Tibetan lamasery, Hei Yue decided that the only suitable prop to hold in hand was nothing at all but air.

In 2006, Hei Yue made a break from his early abstract paintings. Recently, he completed the first batch in a series of oil paintings that meditate on the same subject matter as his performance art—his buttocks—but in ways that bring fresh questions to light. "I felt that since I had already used photography extensively to document '123 Buttocks," a strictly realistic style of painting would be visually redundant, and conceptually limiting," Hei Yue explains.

Using cute, stylized images of himself in with a gigantic pink butt, swelling rosily from his split pants, dramatically out of proportion with the rest of his child-like body, Hei Yue paints scenes that extend the thread of his performance and add a new dimension to his exploration. No longer is "discipline and punishment" the main subject of "123 Buttocks," but rather a tenacious state of child-like innocence in the face of a complicated, compromising society.

With the exaggerated pink butt as the focal point of each painting, the viewer is stimulated to consider the butt itself as an object of meditation. In none of the paintings are we able to see the figure front-on, suggesting that the rear end is the inverse of the face. Moreover, in Chinese society, it is only small children who can expose their rear ends freely in public (wearing split pants), while adults can usually only expose their faces and hands. Indeed, in this "face-obsessed" culture, even the face is not something to be simply, casually seen. It is something to be "maintained," "saved," "unwanted" and even "lost" on occasion. Social intercourse is accompanied by the donning of masks—masks to protect one's face, bolster one's ego, manipulate interlocutors. While the face is often romanticized as a "window" into our inner selves, in practice, it becomes just as much an external image used for instrumental social intercourse—a wall keeping people out and obscuring the inner world of its wearer.

The butt, in Hei Yue's paintings, offers a response to this world of complicated interactions and masks upon masks upon masks. Signifying a child-like state of tenacious naïveté and a refusal to be sucked into the so-called "adult" world of dirty games, the voluptuous butt in these paintings guides us through a series of serious, adult world scenes—a quintessential red wall, a prominent and politically-charged, public place, a flourishing metropolis—which the figure in the paintings maintains a stance of purposive distance, while viewing the world with an innocent curiosity.

This stylized representation of Hei Yue refuses to give up his child-like simplicity before symbols of political and economic power. In one painting, the child-like Hei Yue holds his floating head (with face also turned away from us) attached to a string like a balloon, while standing on top of the Tiananmen entrance to the Forbidden City. In another painting, the child-like Hei Yue stands on the head of the adult Hei Yue. Both are facing a red wall, behind which bloom fragrant plum blossoms. But while the adult Hei Yue can only see the red wall before him, the child-like Hei Yue can smell the flowers, and can see over the wall. He gazes out onto a vast expanse of blue, horizon-less sky. And in yet another, he balances peacefully on a tightrope overlooking a sprawling metropolis, using the familiar ***-mounted staff from his previous performances—this time more a symbol of pure pleasure than instrument of punishment—in hand to maintain his balance.

Maya Kóvskaya

Beijing, 22 April 2006

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               last changed: 06. 12. 2008