Yang Xinguang gathering materials for his works

The Frac des Pays de la Loire invited the Chinese artists Duan Jianyu, Jiang Pengyi, Yang Xinguang, Yang Guangnan, Huang Xiaopeng, and Kan Xuan to visit the French city of Nantes for a two-month residency program. The outcome of this artistic venture then appeared in the exhibition “Be Natural, Be Yourself,” curated by Hou Hanru. The following text, written by Duan Jianyu for LEAP, describes life in Nantes and the circumstances under which the final exhibition came to fruition.

ON NOVEMBER 18, the Hou Hanru-curated exhibition “Be Natural, Be Yourself ” (Sois Naturel, Sois Toi-même) finally opened. The exhibition hall full of people and children going back and forth, we all could let out of a sigh of relief. The day before the opening we thanked the crew for their hard work during our residency with a taste of Chinese cooking: kung pao chicken, hongshao chicken, and scrambled eggs with tomatoes… some of the most common Chinese dishes, yet everybody praised them endlessly. We also thanked the technical staff JF and Pierre, whose professionalism and competency left a deep impression on us. Working side-by-side for two months, we learned a lot from the daily routines of the museum, and the ultimate realization of each artwork was undoubtedly the result of a collaborative group effort. At that point, the branches Yang Xinguang had collected from the woods had already been transformed into big and small pieces littered everywhere, each with one side cut extremely sharp. Discreet yet impossible to ignore, old Zhang and Xiao Xu (the names of two wood logs) leaned against the wall, white painted rocks towering over a few pine trees. Jiang Pengyi’s video A Meal added a layer of mystery to the powerful background of the whole gallery. The work’s highly individualized interpretation of natural scenery attracted a large crowd of visitors, and squeezing among them, its male protagonist occasionally flashed a Richard Gere-like smile. Yang Guangnan’s childish and humorous video installation Itch showed a pair of small hands scratching incessantly, while Huang Xiaopeng’s panther, bought from a flea market and here wearing boxing gloves, looked down from above, innocent yet quick-witted, at an array of golf clubs affixed with blades and inserted into the wall in expression of a kind of “black special” (Google’s rendering of the Chinese characters for heite, or “hate”; these rigid translations comprise one of Xiaopeng’s commonly used rhetorical techniques). Kan Xuan managed, as she always does, to capture the poetry of those fragments of life we often overlook. Her extremely imaginative writing style gives an indescribable appeal to her artworks, which are personal yet intimate, and go straight to the heart. As for me, I painted the plaza in front of the museum, where a mischievous goddess of art wanders alongside a slothful troubadour— and a group of hens.

Curator Hou Hanru with gallery assistants

We were deeply reluctant to return home. The last two months had passed by very quickly, and we had all become somehow attached to the place. All around, it was very cozy: pleasant scenery, fresh air we were fortunate enough to breathe for two months straight, and an abundance of trees that here and there would form forest. It all belonged to the Frac (Fonds régional d’art contemporain des Pays de la Loire), which is located in the middle of the woods. All around there are plenty of birds and wild flowers, multi-shaped clouds, and chestnuts and hazelnuts that would crack when we stepped on them; all this inspired each and every one of us in different ways. It was an idyllic life. At any given moment, Pengyi would disappear into the forest with his camera. He became acquainted with all the surrounding flora, and through his works he effortlessly managed to reveal the state of things— for me a source of envy. Talking about his work, for which he collected material from the surrounding nature, Xinguang would often stop and explain the hardness of this or that tree’s wood as we walked. He could magically turn most any piece of dead wood into an interesting artwork. His habit of constantly looking around for material made me think about my shortcomings, too, to the point that, after I returned to Guangzhou, I would have the urge to call him every time I came across a chopped branch. During the day, we stayed in our studios, each preoccupied with his or her own work. In the evening, we would get together to listen to all sorts of music on the radio station 95.7 and eat mutton, pork, chicken, and beef soup. We tried a wide variety of French wines, enjoyed oysters that tasted of the sea (EUR 16 gets you a crate), exchanged anecdotes and silly stories, debated the occasional artistic issue, and sometimes spoke of the deep impression the grace of French women had made on us. Most of the Frac’s staff were women, and we were somewhat fascinated by their each and every move. Laurence, the director, is just over 50, but the passing of time has only given her a unique charm. She moved swiftly and skilfully to receive visitors, and when she pried oysters open or arranged a small dish, you would forget for a split second that she was the director, and think of her as a mother or elder sister instead.

Huang Xiaopeng, Nous avons ouvert le sud de certaines terres en friche stupide comme toujours nous devons rentrer à la maison à la terre, 2011, golf clubs, golf bag, Ikea kitchen knives, dimensions variable

The Frac started to collect artworks in 1982. It places particular emphasis on acquiring the work of local artists, as well as of young French and foreign artists, but occasionally purchases the work of already historically established artists. In addition, it includes major collections of Emmanuel Pereire and Gina Pane. The museum’s holdings and expertise are extremely well known in France. The space is not very big, yet its equipment is exceptionally comprehensive, and its systematic archives boast a wealth of documents, files and research material on local and international artists. We were incredibly impressed after our visit to the underground collection: perfectly ordered videos, oil paintings, paper works and installations have been stored in a number of temperature-controlled rooms. As Anouk, who is in charge of the specialized restoration room, guided us through it, we came across works by famous artists, which she introduced enthusiastically. She specially showed us two huge oil paintings by Yan Pei-Ming. Working inside the museum, I was lucky enough to come into close contact for several days with one particular piece by an artist from the former Soviet Union, Olek Kulik. Covered in chicken droppings, the piece is kept at a constant temperature and firmly wrapped up in a plastic film. A member of the technical staff comes to examine it several times every day, and this effort of preserving the chicken droppings made me wonder how a museum in China would handle a similar work. I was deeply impressed by the Frac’s professionalism.

Working side-by-side for a while, I discovered that the six of us were similar in our naivety and simplicity. Our foolish enthusiasm has brought great happiness to our lives. After dinner, we would usually go for a walk, admiring the forest and taking in the fresh air. Above us, the star-filled sky would leave us in awe. Once, the moon appeared like a circle at close reach. As the cool breeze blew, Pengyi wanted to go back to put on his long underwear; we scolded him to never do or speak of such unromantic things under the moon. Kindheartedly, Guangnan often reminded us of the importance of staying in good health, while Kan Xuan would time and again tell us the names and properties of the flowers and plants we would encounter. Sometimes, Xiaopeng would tell us stories about the years he spent in England. Once, when it rained, Xinguang’s coat got soaked. When he went to the kitchen the following day, he found that someone had hung the coat to dry by the fireplace. He declared to have fallen in love with this secret helper, and asked everybody who this person might be, but no one would confess. His or her identity remains a mystery. (Translated by Marianna Cerini)