CHESS QIZI 棋子 is the title of the exhibition by Pedro Bakker at the Chinese European Art Center (CEAC) in Xiamen, China. The rumors about the performance by Pedro Bakker and Wang Yunke at the opening of the exhibition gave rise to this publication. The performance is not an advocacy of sexual harassment. On the contrary the artist seems more likely to fail as a domineering macho. Three large drawings in the group exhibition Rolling Snowball, Nanjing at the Art Museum of Nanjing University of Arts (AMNUA) strengthen this explanation. The artist has expressed in Burnt Home 6 (p30)_, L’Éternel Retour 7(p52) and Foot Woo (p8) a male inability.
Preface by Artist, Professor Qin Jian:
Themes of Pedro Bakker’s works touch upon the dark side of humanity - desire, violence, shame and sin. For Pedro, if a family or an individual were caught in disasters, physical or psychological traumas, the intrinsic qualities of man - the good and the ugly, will become ever more vivid and authentic as they get tested by all forms of complex interpersonal relationships. The fact that Pedro has taken on such a stance may be attributed to his personal experience: when he was little, his family home was burned to the ground; one of his younger brothers was drowned to death, overwhelmed by grief, his mother’s mental health status was so shaken that she strangled a younger son to death simply because the infant couldn’t stop crying. She was sectioned and then took her own life.
All these devastating experiences have been deeply engraved into Pedro’s memory and exercised great impact on the artworks he created later on. Life and death - the most fundamental topic in philosophy - have always been the underlying theme in Pedro’s interpretations of the world and his creations.
It is worth mentioning that in Pedro’s drawings, paintings and performances, the audience can see that the focus of his narratives is not the result of an event, but rather, the unknown, more complex and sometimes unspeakable things that took place before or after the event. This perspective of Pedro’s coincides with Albert Camus’ theory about suicides - “There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful.” Therefore, Pedro has constantly questioned and challenged the definitions people placed upon things and objects, and the bottom lines of perspectives. In some of the autobiographical images he created, he portrayed the scene in which his mother strangled the baby to death, he also portrayed some extremely private scenes between himself and his lover; he once even portrayed a public figure as a goatfucker. Through all these irrational and distorted scenarios, Pedro hopes to unveil some insidious dangers of the mankind people are yet to see, or are reluctant to see and to think about.
Pedro’s works have solicited some criticisms. This is probably because the relations between the characters he created always involve pieces and bits of their personal experiences drawn from a perspective that goes against moral norms. However, in my opinion, this is a theatrical way to reflect on the evil he created on his own.
Pedro’s works are mostly presented on large papers. He uses colored pencils or watercolor to portray people under different circumstances. When he explained to me his painting method, he said that he could never get tired of painting the details of different textures. When he is painting, he would never take a few steps back in order to see the overall effect of a painting from a distance. He explained that he would never make any adjustment to an image for the sake of aesthetics. He usually starts with one part, and then gets on with other parts one by one. Standing in front of Pedro’s works, you can vividly feel the life in his portrayal of textures and details, but you will feel an even stronger psychological impact created by the bizarre and intense relationships between the characters. Even if you are only seeing two people strolling in the street hand in hand, a person smiling, a young girl’s bare foot touching upon Pedro’s cheek, or passengers going to and fro on the sunshine-covered street, when portrayed by Pedro, you could always feel a kind of unsettling and indescribable danger. Through providing revealing descriptions of human behaviours behind certain events, Pedro recreated the intensity or conflict in those seemingly normal human relationships. He believes that this is the aptest way to express hope for life through his own artworks.
Qin Jian 16th November 2018
Introduction by artist Wang Haiqing:
When I switch on my phone, I’d always come across one or two infuriating news stories on WeChat public accounts - “Girl revealed on Weibo that she had been sexually abused by her cousin for 6 years, while her family told her to forgive and forget”, “Threatened by sex tapes, Goo Hara once knelt down to her boyfriend”. Last week, the news of Yammie Lam’s unexpected death was also disturbing. Lam was a Hong Kong actress, she had been admitted into a psychiatric hospital after suffering from sexual abuses. Despite the growing impact of “Me Too” movement in China, there seems to be no end to the perturbing news as the public see a significant surge in such reports. This also forced me to rethink the opening ceremony of the Dutch artist Pedro Bakker’s exhibition at Chinese European Art Center (CEAC), which I attended a few weeks ago.
I had several brief exchanges with Pedro before the exhibition was launched. I remembered vividly that he was keen to talk, and he tried very hard to grasp Chinese. We had a short discussion about his previous works. Pedro is a visual artist, he depicts the intense, dangerous relationship between love, power and powerlessness by means of both authentic and fabricated images. He attempts to get a clear understanding about the issue of the good and the bad - an issue that haunts us all, especially when the boundary between the two is on the verge of diminishing. These exchanges helped me to understand Pedro’s real thoughts during the exhibition and performances more easily.
It appears that this exhibition has been divided into two parts - three paintings on the wall, and a performance at the opening ceremony. Before the performance started, I even doubted whether such a performance was necessary if the paintings were powerful enough to voice opinions. However, after seeing several acts of the opening performance, I began to understand the extended connotations this performance brought to the paintings.
At the beginning of the performance, the female dancer Wang Yunke was completing a task with seemingly limited aesthetic value using adept dance moves - she collected and accumulated the rice Pedro thrown onto her and tried to cover a rabbit. I believe every Chinese speaker could easily associate this with the feminist movement - “Me Too”, which has been gaining momentum in China. This also marked the beginning of the opening ceremony performance.
Afterwards, the same female dancer - Yunke, slowly unfolded two paintings drawn on traditional Chinese scrolls. We are no stranger to the protagonists in these paintings - You Sanjie and Qingwen from Dream of the Red Chamber. Pedro did not create these two paintings out of his own imagination, instead, he referred to scenes taken from the 1987 and 2010 TV adaptations. The first thing that surprised me was Pedro’s strong interest in the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, after all, this book quoted many ancient Chinese poetry and was set in specific cultural and social context, while Pedro comes from an English/Dutch background. Moreover, he didn’t choose to depict the most talked about characters such as Lin Daiyu or Xue Baochai, instead, he chose two seemingly less important characters - You Sanjie and Qingwen. Anyone who has got any understanding about Dream of the Red Chamber would agree that You Sanjie and Qingwen are two typical female characters who are tough, straightforward and rebellious, which again prompted me to associate them with women who stood up for the advancement of feminist movements.
In my opinion, the third part of the performance consists of two stories that go in parallel. In this section, the female dancer Yunke put on Lolita-style blouse and short skirt, accompanied by a piano piece from Lolita, she played a student who was sexually harassed by her teacher - portrayed by Pedro. Lolita is a beautiful yet unethical love story between a young girl and an old guy, but the sexual harassment stories we see in the news are nothing but devastating. Putting these two stories together would certainly trigger controversy and opposition from some feminists. In my conversations with some of the audience, I learned that some thought the artist might have painted a rosy picture of sexual harassment and abuses. In the meantime, Pedro’s self-portrait, Pedro’s acting of the extremely masculine Geto Boys, and the “bad guy” who is the Aunt Sally in sexual harassment cases, overlapped with the image of the artist himself, under this prerequisite, the discussion on sexual abuse and feminism may have already been contaminated by preconceptions from men, thus making the feminist movement and the “Me Too” movement in China nothing but a weak and powerless alliance. But I don’t want to make any wild guesses like that about the artist’s initial intention, I would prefer to view this exhibition and the performances as the artist’s interpretation of “love”. Pedro keeps talking about “the dark side of love”, and in real life, there are even more grey zones which we can’t distinguish or describe. These grey zones would more or less have different impact and reflections. Just like Éric Rohmer’s films which frequently depict stories with moral ambiguity. Such stories are on the borderline of love, power, and powerlessness. These stories usually bristle with violence and struggle, while at the same time, they are silent and restrained.
I still want to thank Pedro for completing a discussion on “Me Too” and feminist movement in contemporary China as a foreign male artist. We all know how topical the “Me Too” movement is in China and in other countries. Meanwhile, as a woman who pays limited attention to feminism, this exhibition and the discussions occurred after this exhibition made me to re-focus on and to rethink the perspectives and positions of contemporary Chinese women.