Interview with Stephanie Rosenthal about the performance “Happy Yingmei”


What changes did your experience when you performed “Happy Yingmei” in Hayward Gallery?

The whole concept for this piece of work was always changing and developing in my three months at Hayward Gallery in 2012. Compared to the two-day performance

“Happy Yingmei” I created in Lilith Performance Studio, Malmö in 2011 the work evolved over time. At first, I put new elements into this piece of work nearly every day.

Based on my initial quiet interaction with the audience using notes on paper I gradually added more body language and sound/conversation. On the other hand, how to organize and deal with the audience on-site became more and more important. There was often a large crowd so I had to react quickly and cope with all kinds of situations in order to adapt to new circumstances as quickly as possible. The experiences in Hayward gave me more opportunities to handle different situations, and this makes me more flexible and experienced interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds, different social backgrounds and different ages.

During the exhibition “Art of Change-New Directions From China” in Hayward Gallery, you had to keep working for at least 5 hours a day. How did you face this challenge?

It was really challenging to do this exhibition, with different demands coming moment by moment. First of all, around 25,000 people came to the exhibition: so it was a challenge how to face every viewer and make him or her involved with my artwork. In order to meet the challenges and achieve good results, I always needed to be well prepared for the next day, I would sleep well, have a healthy diet and exercise adequately, so that I could create my artwork in optimal mental performance. Second of all, I came up with something new in this artwork daily. I regarded it a challenge to improve and innovate every day.

So, how did the audience respond differently to this piece of artwork?

Basically, I can roughly divide their responses into two kinds; one is positive, and the other negative. I can’t just say right or wrong. Every coin has two sides. Some of them were less cooperative, but that was a small minority. Most of them gave me positive feedback in different ways, some communicated with me directly in the gallery, others e-mailed me, texted me or communicated with me through repeated participation. Here are a few interactions that stand out in my memory: One woman among the visitors saw a paper note written, “Could you please tell me an important turning point in your life?” Then a girl she saw as her own child who committed suicide came to mind, and sadly she started sobbing. There was also an old man who saw a note about the respectful relationship between parents and children. He found my work so instructive that he thought the ideas in my artwork should be adopted into children’s education in schools. And there was a crowd of women who came to the exhibition with their small children. They joined my work, and they all felt thrilled. Most visitors expressed that they attached great importance and affection to my artwork. Also, a surge of positive emotions came to them, which made me delighted.

In the early days of your artistic career you were a painter, how did the transition from painter to performance artist take place?

In my early years when I was living in Beijing’s East Village I primarily used painting for my artistic works. Some artists in the Village were doing performances, which made me very curious. Although I did collaborations with other East Village artists, I did not really engage myself in performance art until later. In 1998, when I continued my studies in Germany I found my answers about performance art from my teacher Marina Abramović. I also discovered that the medium of performance was the best method for me to express my artistic thought.

How do you think your hometown influences you?

The subtle influence my hometown exerted on me came along with my birth, living in my blood. When I was living in China I was influenced greatly by my traditional education and I understand that I have obtained many typical Chinese characteristics. Later on, when I studied in Germany or exhibited all over the world, I accepted western thought but what was inscribed in my bones has not totally changed. This is reflected in my artwork “Happy Yingmei” as many of the paper notes I use in the performance reference Chinese life, such as Chinese geography, tradition, history, and China’s present. This work is an embodiment of the influence my hometown had on me.

How did the performance change in Malmö when you did it for the second time in 2013?

Firstly, from an objective point of view, the date, venue, and cultural backgrounds of the people I encountered changed. The number of viewers and the extent to which the audience were engaged in the performance changed depending on the visitors. The most important changes have occurred within myself; during the process of

making this work my own feelings have changed therefore I feel I have a deeper understanding of myself and stronger sense of self-examination. In addition, I made reference much more to Chinese culture, politics, history and economics in Malmö for the second time. I felt like a communicator of Chinese culture bridging the gap between China and Sweden. Each day after my performance I used to spend a lot of time reading about Chinese culture and through this performance I also have a better understanding of Chinese culture.

Can you talk about your creative experiences in Swansea?

“Happy Yingmei” is a work that is constantly developing, and different themes can be expressed based on the audience and their cultural backgrounds. During the show

„Let’s see what happens“ organised by Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, my performance was in Elysium Gallery. There I met different people such as students, artist volunteers and also local art lovers. In this artwork I took on the role of performance artist and sometimes educator, attempting to spend more time interacting deeply with everybody. Most students came from preparatory art classes or from the Department of Arts at the University. The starting point for my interaction with them was the theme of “Performance Art” and sharing my experience with them. The difference from other previous performances lay in the addition of role reversal in order to deepen their knowledge of performance art. I hope they can add the medium of performance into their future art works.