He Xiangyu

He Xiangyu / b. 1986, China; lives and works in Beijing and Berlin


The 5th Ural Biennial Main Project features the work:
«Terminal 3» (Video, Colored clay, 2016–2019)
Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, SCAI The Bathhouse,
Tokyo, White Cube, London and Hong Kong, and White Space, Beijing

Having grown up in China during a period of rapid urbanization and social changes, He Xiangyu is especially attentive to the mutability of things. While his earlier projects, often framing the material changes of objects as analogies for social phenomena, are rather abstract, his recent work takes a more documentary and often biographical approach.

His multimedia installation Terminal 3 (2016–2019) presents snippets from the lives of young African acrobats attending the Hebei Wuqiao Acrobatic Arts School in China. Most of these students come from Ethiopia and Sierra Leone and have diverse religious beliefs, but share the dream of joining an elite circus one day. Accompanying the video are sculptures of acrobats made from colored clay, a material as “plastic” as the students themselves. Acrobatics, which has a rich history as a court display in imperial China, is now integral to the cultural industries and tourism sector in the town of Wuqiao, continuing the legacy of expending bodies for monetary gains. In this context, the school seems like a factory: importing talent, contorting student bodies into more profitable forms, and then exploiting them.

But for the African students, there is more at stake than their bodies. The video exposes a profound sense of rootlessness—amongst the movements of globalization capitalism, individual identity and the cultural past become burdensome and ultimately disposable. These young African students, semi-willingly put under the constant pressure of being re-molded, ground their realities in the monotonous cycle of training and praying, which appears to reify their bodies and—more importantly—their identities. For these students, does moving forward entail letting the past die?