Since the late 1990s, the artistic duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu has tested preconceptions about what constitutes acceptable artistic materials. Their collaborations, which include the use of live animals, human flesh, bone, and oil, have challenged not only audiences’ physical senses but also their sense of moral propriety.
Peng and Sun share a concern for the viewer’s response to their work. Remarking on the moral quandaries it raises, Sun has remarked:
I am concerned with whether the viewer is able to break their existing moral boundaries when looking at our work. What is the function of morality? In society perhaps it allows people not to over-analyze the consequences of their actions, not to be over-burdened by responsibilities.1
Civilization Pillar, commissioned for The Allure of Matter, continues their exploration of materials derived from the human body. Tall, yellow, and gleaming with texture, the work is actually made of human fat that was collected from plastic surgery clinics, then mixed with wax and cast. For the artists, human fat is the physical manifestation of excess: unused food energy stored as deposits on the body. The liposuction process that extracted the fat adds another layer of meaning to the material; excess fat was eliminated through a cosmetic procedure that caters to vanity and modern ideals of beauty. Considering the material to be “a by-product of our contemporary society,” the artists display the reclaimed fat as a monument to civilization.
“I am concerned with whether the viewer is able to break their existing moral boundaries when looking at our work. What is the function of morality?”—Sun Yuan 1
Sun Yuan, quoted in Paul Gladston, “Collaboration as Struggle and Non-Cooperation: A Conversation with Sun Yuan and Peng Yu,” Eyeline Contemporary Visual Arts, no. 74 (2011), accessed December 15, 2018.
Human fat, stearic acid, paraffin wax, petroleum jelly, and metal support
Overall: 145 11/16 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (370 x 100 x 100 cm)
Commissioned by the Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago