Happy Yingmei

For the duration of twelve weeks, artist Yingmei Duan inhabits a little forest within the walls of the Art Gallery of NSW (Sydney).


Installed inside the Art Gallery of NSW walls and hidden from the visitor’s immediate view is a little bare-trees forest inhabited by the artist. The gallery visitors are invited to enter into this fantastical environment in small groups. Here, they are turned into active participants and invited to interact with one another. Their participation activates the work and gives it a trajectory. As the audience becomes a co-producer of the work, the separation between the audience and the artist, as well as amongst the audience is shattered, and the distinction between the observer and the observed blurred – who is watching whom is unclear.

The audience comes to the piece in search for an experience and excitement, but Duan’s work jolts this expectation with its philosophical dimension. The participation is both voluntary and enforced – the audience enters the space willingly but is then entrapped within it; the space becomes suffocating and claustrophobic. The unease is fortified by the aesthetics – the trees are bare, the light is sparse, the atmosphere cold and grim, and Yingmei is dressed in a dreary nightgown suggesting we have perhaps entered her dream (which could easily be a nightmare).

Although it takes the idea of conviviality as its central theme, Yinmei’s work does not necessarily create a pleasant or reassuring experience. The interaction with the Other is confronting and awkward and only highlights the condition of social phobia where one is “caught between ‘a communal body’ and ‘an existential individualist’” [1]. Relationship with other is established only to demonstrate its utter impossibility and to further assert the individual self. In this antagonistic encounter my I is not attached to your I but brought into comparison, not to be dissolved but to be elaborated [2].


Yingmei works in the genre of long-durational performance and this work sees her inhabiting the oppressive, airless space for duration of 12 weeks. With endurance action of a lengthy confinement, she draws attention to the sacrificial act of the artist as a carrier of socially important message and generator of social (or individual) transformation. The installation/performance, as a matter of fact, takes its name from Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, an allegory of compassion and sacrifice.

Instead of being user-friendly and blissfully swaying, Happy Yingmei makes us enquire into the fundamental problems of sociability. The bonding is explored, but through a critical reflection rather than a feel-good distraction. Relational situation is not seen as an artwork in and of itself, but is constructed to expose inter-relational antagonism and facilitate reflexive examination. Rather than disintegrating individual within the communal body and obstructing his capacity for critical reasoning, the work uses dialogue and negotiation to reinforce personhood [3]. Considered symbolically, we are supposed to enter the space as one person and exit as another. At the end of the “ritual” the artist, in fact, dispenses instructional / inspirational notes – an act that reinforces the call for reflection and transformation.



[1]  Claire Bishop, “Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art,” eFlux Journal, no.29 (November, 2011): 3/12.

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Inoperative Community,” in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, 54-71. (London: Whitechapel and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), 67.

[3] Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October, vol. 110 (Autumn 2004): 69.






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