Chinese artist Guang Ye: "Sex and death are integral to life, and we have to confront them"


Jack Smith talks to Guang Ye about being an openly gay artist in China and how sex and eroticism is so essential to life

Guang Ye's art work, which occupies every exposed surface in his studio-cumresidence, reflects its creator in both form and soul. Physically, Guang is a swarthy, fearless figure with a square, stubble-stippled jaw, cropped hair and fearsome brows. Yet a moment's conversation, conducted in his mellifluous Anhui twang, reveals an effortless warmth.

His work is equally dualistic. While 'public areas' of his home, namely the living room and attached studio, are largely devoted to a mix of delicate landscapes, richly tinted ink-and-wash still lifes, and adorable miniatures of his friends' lapdogs, when we were invited into his bedroom, all available space was given over to erotic, and sometimes brutally explicit, male nudes.

背影from behind-2

When asked about this dichotomy, Guang is disarmingly sanguine. 'Sex and death are integral to life, and we have to confront them. People sometimes react strongly, saying my nudes are too explicit. To me, sex and nudity is life, and erotic images contain their own vitality.'

Born into a rural family in which art was not equated with work, Guang Ye has fought harder than most to sustain the passion, which he sees as being as fundamental to his existence 'as eating or breathing'. Growing up meant concealing both his sexuality and his love of painting. 'My family didn't consider art to be a legitimate vocation. As far as my parents were concerned, I had to get into university before I'd have any kind of life path. But I just couldn't stop myself. I used to steal paper from wall calendars or posters in relatives' homes to sketch in secret. I was stealing doctors' prescription notes, anything.

'Then, in my final year of school, my closest female friend suggested we study art together. I called the only graduate in the family to ask him for advice. He was very supportive, and promised to have a word with mum. And she gave in! Lots of friends have congratulated me on "sticking with" art, but I don't see it that way,' he continues. 'It suggests hard, exhausting work, but I can't imagine my life without art. For me it's like eating or breathing – I have to do it.'

Being one of the few openly gay artists in China, Guang doesn't shy away from queer subject matter. He routinely incorporates classical Chinese symbols of sexuality into his works, with delicate chrysanthemums, pomegranates and orchids adding an extra layer of depth that a queer Chinese person would find difficult to overlook.

马蹄莲Lily of the Nile

'I feel the queer spirit is like a pool of still water – you drop a leaf and it creates ripples. Maybe that's why so many pianists, dancers and artists are also gay. Other people might look at us and think we're different, or even deficient, but in many ways we can offer a little more to the world. It makes me happy to think I might be one of those people.'

Guang admits he has come a long way in terms of how he thinks about his sexuality. 'Before I came to Beijing I was considering suicide. I was constantly asking why nature had seen fit to make me this way. Then I encountered a teacher in university who told me, "Sometimes the thing you consider to be your weakness is actually your strength. So you're gay, you think you're oversensitive – but if you weren't moved by the world around you, then how could you create work that moves the world?"'

In accepting his place in the world, Guang Ye has also found reconciliation with his past, and speaks admiringly of his father in particular. 'He never knew anything about art, but he took up painting because of me. I always thought he wanted me to have kids to pass on the family name, but he said that wasn't the reason at all – he was just afraid I'd be lonely in my old age. 'I still feel for my parents – they gave everything up for my sisters and me,' he continues. 'Lots of young people complain that their parents don't understand them, but you need to take the time to talk to your parents, and to understand them.

For our parents' generation, the greatest fear is being gossiped about. Chinese people love to have 'face', and will go to their graves to retain it. At Chinese New Year this year I didn't dare go home. But my dad talked me round, saying "You don't live your life for others to see." And he was right. You need to be true to yourself.'

背影from behind-3


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