Li Binyuan lives in Beijing, where he studied sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).
Li Binyuan speaks very little English and my Chinese is still not good enough to conduct a deeper conversation. So we resort to using a translation programme or we share moments of silence. Sometimes we have difficulty establishing a line of respect which clarifies how far his art reaches and at what point it becomes my picture.
He explains his artistic mode d'emploi thus: “My body plays an important part in my art, which is similar to performance art. But my art is impromptu, driven by my need to express my thoughts and feelings, unlike performance art which is often carefully orchestrated. And I do it for myself, not for an audience, which is another difference.”
Li Binyuan describes what he does as “Behaviour Art”.
Once or twice a year he travels to Hunan in Southern China to visit relatives and to use the rural setting for new video works.
I am interested in where he comes from, so I ask if I can visit him there on his home patch. He immediately agrees, then he changes his mind, then changes it back again…
We arrange to meet in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan. We spend the evening at the apartment of one of his good friends. I feel – as I do so often on my travels through China, beyond the big cities – like an outsider. Not because I think of myself this way, but because this is simply what happens. The feeling gets stronger in the days that follow, I hardly see any other Western faces at all.
Later on, his friend takes us to a nearby hotel as his apartment is too small to accommodate guests. To my surprise, he pays our hotel bill as if it is the most natural thing in the world for him to do. I am rather embarrassed but no matter how much I protest he insists. Li Binyuan is like a brother to him.
We take a late night walk through Changsha. It is prettier than I remember from an earlier visit, so green, almost tropical.
The next day, we continue to Lanshan, a small town deep in the south of Hunan. Our friend offers to drive us there and the five hour journey delivers us to Li Binyuan's mother's flat which overlooks the town. She and her son proudly inform me that she only has to pay 150 Yuan per month in rent, equivalent to roughly 20 Euros.
Li Binyuan's father died a long time ago and his mother has lived alone in the apartment ever since. We met before at the previous New Year's Festival when she came to visit her son for several weeks in Beijing.
Today we eat tomatoes with egg, meat, rice and soup, washed down with a glass of home-made honey schnapps. She ladles the liquor from a barrel with hundreds of dead bees floating on the surface.
We spoke about his relationship with his mother some weeks earlier.
They inhabit different worlds, seeming to lack a common language, which does not surprise me.
Li Binyuan grew up in a small village close to Lanshan. He began painting and sculpting figures at the age of two. His family and the villagers must have seen him as some kind of alien creature. An artist who does not paint in the classical sense. He who climbs trees for his videos, who dances a one-man Love Parade through the streets of Heiqiao on the north side of Beijing for hours on end, until he is literally sick. And then dances some more. He who shoots rockets, fireworks into empty sheds until smoke begins to rise.
The following day we leave Lanshan and make our way to his home village, not far away. His grandparents, aunt and uncle and their son live there in two adjacent houses.
The grandparents' house is vast, but there are no proper beds. Wood and straw are scattered around, animals run to and fro.
The first few days of our stay are accompanied by unbelievably hot and sticky weather. We explore the village, Li Binyuan shows me the fields and then his school, we bump into old acquaintances along the way.
I literally have to chase after him. I have never met anyone who walks so quickly without actually running. If it carries on like this, I will only manage to take photos of his back. Sometimes he waits for me to catch up, then off he goes again.
In the evenings, his aunt cooks a variety of dishes on the fire. I will never forget her home-made pickled cabbage with bamboo, meat with homegrown vegetables, tomatoes with eggs from the village, so many dishes every evening.
I am touched by the warmth of her hospitality.
My stay coincides with the Qingming Festival, when Chinese people all over the country visit the graves of their ancestors.
Fireworks crackle in the sky. Li Binyuan and I set out with his mother to clean the graves of his father, great-grandparents and his favourite teacher. The ceremony is always the same: food and libations are offered to the dead, spirit money is burned and relatives kowtow (bow down) in front of the tombs as a mark of respect. A firework is ignited on the grave to conclude the ritual.
We walk for a long while through this wonderful, unspoiled landscape, up and down the hills where the tombs are distributed.
Early in the evening, Li Binyuan hectically searches the room for a centipede, I had no idea how poisonous they are here – and he has spotted a really big one. We look for hours on end, in every nook and cranny, shift everything around, but no luck. Only after we have given up, does the centipede pop out of his rucksack and make his escape.
One night I am woken up by strange noises, I can hear rustling everywhere, right underneath me and out in the stairwell. Animal sounds. A family of mice seems to have taken up residence in my mattress. Outside on the stairs, a larger animal appears to be banging against the door. I never find out what it is but falling back to sleep is out of the question.
The next day I see Li Binyuan on the roof of the house, prodding the rooftop with a stick. He is waiting for rain. In vain.
At some point in the early evening, Li Binyuan disappears. It takes me ages to track him down. When I eventually do, I find him clambering onto the roof of the neighbouring shed to set up his two cameras, one to the left, one to the right. He edges his way along the ridge, making fine adjustments to the camera angles. I watch him from the roof of his grandparents' house next door.
Twilight is upon us. He begins.
He takes off his shoes and places them in the middle of the roof then, barefoot, crosses to the tall bamboo trees which are pressed close against the shed. He climbs up the first bamboo and it gradually dawns on me what he intends to do: he wants to get high enough to use his weight to bend the bamboo downwards, head first, with his legs wrapped around the tree. If he can bend the bamboo far enough, he can let go and jump down. He tries it three times in a row and it works a treat.
He climbs back up the tree, now looking pretty tired as he battles against the force of gravity.
The tree bends again, but this time he hangs three or four metres high in the air and the tree stands firm, moving neither forwards nor backwards. He cries for help. In English. He never speaks English. Li Binyuan falls.
He crashes down onto the hard concrete roof, landing on his back and hitting his head: he doesn’t move, doesn’t make a sound. I run to get help, my mind racing: he could be dead, paralyzed, a brain haemorrhage, hospital...
Li Binyuan slowly regains consciousness. He is in considerable pain and suffering from shock. Somehow, after what feels like an eternity, he manages to get up. I have no recollection of how I managed to do it but I pack our things in minutes and we drive to a hospital in Lanshan.
Getting treated in a Chinese hospital is nothing like German hospital procedure, as I already knew from personal experience. Still, I thought things would be different in an emergency. How wrong I was. Li Binyuan drags himself to the admissions desk, then to the next counter where he has to explain exactly what he wants to have examined. We decide on CT scans of his head and back.
Then, naturally, it is time to pay up. Li Binyuan asks me to photograph him in the CT scanner, but I left my camera in the car. He insists, so I use my iPhone.
At long last he emerges from the examination room. Miraculously, no cerebral haemorrhage. We drive back to his mother’s with a bag full of medicine. Severely shaken up, we both cry with relief.
Two days later I head back to Beijing. Li Binyuan is still in a sorry state but he travels the following week and visits a hospital in Beijing where he has another CT scan, this time also checking his neck.
One of his cervical vertebrae has not survived the fall completely unscathed. He has to wear a neck support like a ruffle.
We meet again four weeks later in Manchester where he has a solo exhibition and is presenting his “Deathless Love” performance. The neck brace is gone. He destroys 135 hammers with a hammer and his neck shudders with every blow. I can barely look.
explore more about Li Binyuan and eight other Chinese artists in my book CHICKEN ARE NOT NAKED, published 2016, DISTANZ VERLAG Berlin