The Inner Happiness of Ugo Rondinone’s Performing Clowns

Sam Gaskin breaks the fourth wall at the Shanghai exhibit “Breathe, Walk, Die.”

Installation view of "Ugo Rondinone's solo exhibition "Breathe, Walk, Die"
Photo: Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum.
Ugo Rondinone, (No One's Voice) (没有谁的声音) (2006) 旧人造皮鞋、木钉、颜料 Artificially aged clown shoes of leather, wooden nail, paint100 x 60 x 25 cmPhoto courtesy: Rockbund Art Museum

Ugo Rondinone, No One’s Voice (没有谁的声音) (2006).
Artificially aged clown shoes of leather, wooden nail, paint.
Photo: Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum.

For eight hours a day, Wan Shoujian and Zhao Ping dress up as clowns and take up positions on the floor of Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum. They’re there every day except Mondays, when the museum is closed, and will keep clocking in for the duration of the exhibition—Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s “Breathe, Walk, Die”—which opened September 9 and runs until January 4, 2015.

Wan and Zhao are middle-aged actors, both born in Shanghai, who usually find work as extras in movies, TV shows, and advertisements. Previously Zhao was herself in advertising, while Wan worked at a department store. The museum found them through a talent agency, a company called Jiameng, and pays the performers approximately 200RMB ($33) per day.

In accordance with the artist’s instructions, Wan, Zhao, and the other 38 clowns lie flat or prop themselves up against the walls, which are painted in the hues of the rainbow, a recurring theme in Rondinone’s work. Contrary to our expectations of clowns, these are performers who don’t perform for their audience.

“We’re allowed to change positions, but we try to stay still when there are lots of visitors so they can take pictures,” Zhao says. “Though we can’t perform for them, they are still attracted to us because they know we are real people. Some of them will wave their hands or stamp their feet next to us to see if we’ll move, but we just lie there,” she says.

“When people talk to us or a child says hi, we’ll nod,” Wan adds, “but that’s it. It’s just to be polite.”

Wan and Zhao like their costumes, a jubilant confusion of colors and textures that Rondinone says was inspired by the mosaic of pictures resulting from a Google image search for clowns.

Installation view of Ugo Rondinone's "Breathe, Walk, Die." Photo: Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum.

Installation view of Ugo Rondinone’s solo exhibition “Breathe, Walk, Die.”
Photo: Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum.

“The design is really colorful, but you have to make sure to wear the right socks and gloves,” Zhao says, adding, “It’s all part of a set.” Each of the clowns also wears a mask tailor-made for them based on 3-D scans of their faces. Though the masks’ eyes appear closed, there’s a narrow slit through which the performers can see out.

It’s not uncomfortable being a clown for Rondinone, Zhao says. “Sometimes I fall asleep during this work. At most twice a day, maybe for 15 to 30 minutes at a time.”

“There’s sponge padding inside our costumes, which is important because the floor is quite cold,” Wan says. Generally he’s comfortable, but sometimes, he says, his lower back feels a little sore.

“It’s not difficult work for us to do,” Wan says, “but it’s difficult for us to understand. We don’t really get modern art. I think the title of the show is ‘From Breath to Death,’ and in my opinion, it’s about loving ourselves and treasuring our lives.”

That’s not so far off from what Rondinone has said about the show. The clowns are all named after simple, active verbs—smoke, laugh, stand, and so on—that emphasize presence in the moment over our more constructed social, economic, and political roles.

In addition to the wall paintings, which transition from cool blues and greens on the ground floor to pinks and yellows on the sixth, the exhibition includes: a neon rainbow sign featuring the exhibition’s title; blurred target paintings, which he says imply a blurred reality; and colored plastic covering the museum’s windows.

Wan likes his new place of work. “The environment is great,” he says. “I’ve never seen something like this before in my life. The colors that come in through the windows are beautiful, and match the paintings on the walls.”

The neutral expressions of the clown’s masks creates some ambiguity about the emotional state Rondinone hopes to elicit from audiences, but Zhao is also happy to be there. “It’s like inner happiness. It’s there, but it’s not really expressed,” she says.

Ugo Rondinone, Vocabulary of solitude (孤独的词汇表) (2014) View of Performance Photo: Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum.

Ugo Rondinone, Vocabulary of Solitude (孤独的词汇表) (2014)
Photo: Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum.

“Breathe, Walk, Die” is on view at the Rockbund Art Museum, 20 Huqiu Lu, near Beijing Dong Lu, Huangpu district, Shanghai, China, through January 4, 2015.


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