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He Yunchang Wrestling: One and One Hundred

photographed 2001, printed 2004
Monochrome photograph consisting of 100 images arranged in five long rows. The images focus primarily on two people wrestling in an open area. In many of the images, a line of onlookers stands in the background.

M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation, © He Yunchang. Photo: M+, Hong Kong


These photographs form the record of a remarkable piece of performance art by He Yunchang in the 1990s. Hailing from Yunnan in southwest China—a province not necessarily known for its artists—He Yunchang has used his own body as an artistic medium throughout his career. Pi Li, Sigg senior curator here at M+, tells us why that made him such a revolutionary artist.  


So, He Yunchang can be regarded as quite a remarkable figure during the 1990s where people try to extend or enlarge the medium of art. He really used his body as the way to mediate with the society. So as for him, his body is not something he played with himself. He really used his body to test all aspects of the society. So that makes He Yunchang very different from those previous performance artists. 


For the work documented here, He Yunchang paid one hundred migrant workers to wrestle him, and to show no mercy. We asked Pi Li what struck him most about the piece.  


I just think for this work that the quantity is something very important. I think one hundred, one and one hundred, the title, or even why the artist has selected this number is quite interesting. I think it's not a one and the ten, it’s not one and the twenty, it's more like the relation between the individual and the society. So, one hundred people here for me also representing the highly organised society. And the one is the unique individual; here it’s the artist. So, they are like a constantly a battle with the society, sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.  


Not being an experienced wrestler, it took He Yunchang three months to recover from the injuries he sustained. But for Pi Li, the physicality of the performance isn’t as important as the message behind it.  


It's not about the body, it’s more about the spiritual: what your spiritual can achieve, even with very bad conditions. So, that’s the most amazing part of the work, and you can see on that level, this was [really a] dialogue with the very special social conditions at the end of the twentieth century. 


Wrestling: One and One Hundred comprises photo documentation of a performance created by He Yunchang. The work was photographed in 2001, and the photos were printed in 2004. The overall presentation measures 125.8 centimetres high, and 742.8 centimetres wide.

A hundred monochromatic photos of brown-grey tone are aligned in a grid of five rows and twenty columns. All are landscape-format shots taken from middle-distance that capture the artist engaged in a wrestling bout with other people. The full bodies of the performers and the surrounding environment can be seen. The wrestling site depicted in each photograph is at the corner of a large open space that’s covered with sand and surrounded by short buildings. Next to the sandy ground is a long spectator stand made of stone, on and around which some people sit and stand to watch the bout. A few people are taking pictures with a camera. There’s also a queue of more than forty men at the rear of the sandy ground who seem to be waiting in line for a wrestle. All of them look attentively at the one-on-one wrestling match between the artist and his opponents.

As depicted in the photos, the artist is of medium stature and bald. He’s shirtless and wears dark jeans and leather shoes. His opponents are of similar stature and wear similar clothing but with shirts on. All photos capture the artist wrestling with an opponent on the bare ground. In most photos, he appears to be losing. Consider five of the photos as examples:

In the first photo, the opponent is in a reclining position and the artist kneels at his side on one knee, shifting his weight onto the opponent’s torso and wrapping his arms around the opponent’s neck. His biceps can be seen bulging prominently.

In the second photo, the artist stands with his back to his opponent, bending his right knee and dropping down the torso. His left arm stretches backwards and slides under the opponent's armpits to clutch the neck. The opponent has one leg up in the air, as if he’s about to be slammed to the ground.

In the third photo, the artist sits on the ground and the opponent bends forwards with his head on the artist’s thigh and a leg kicking up. Sand is flung up into the air. The artist seems to be locking his arms around the opponent’s chest with great strength, as the veins on his neck can be seen bulging.

In the fourth photo, the opponent bends his knees and leans backwards. He holds the artist’s torso with one hand and grabs the back of his knees with the other, lifting the artist in the air. It’s clear that the artist is about to be flung to the ground.

In the fifth photo, the artist looks as if he had just been thrown down. He’s lying on his back on the ground with hands pressing against the ground and legs in the air. His face is scrunched up and appears to be in pain. The leather shoes on his feet are missing, and the opponent is not seen in the image.