Sarah Mayhew-Craddock finds out about an unusual month-long project at the Ashmolean by Chinese artist Cai Yuan

Most Brits believe the adage that there’s a time and a place for everything. Which is why many of us are left slack-jawed when we hear the slightly disconcerting statistics about what people get up to at work (not on my desk – one desperately hopes!), for example! Some things are fine to do, so long as one bares in mind that etiquette is everything, and the dos and don’ts that accompany certain acts of behaviour… but that’s what makes breaking the rules all the more enjoyable, isn’t it!? That sense of mischief, pushing the boundaries, knowingly not toeing the line… because we all know that with a bit of perspective, no one’s going to get hurt, though it seems there’s an interesting line between context and control.

Can you imagine screaming at the top of your lungs in the Ashmolean and encouraging a museum full of visitors to join in, for example? Or jumping on Tracey Emin’s Bed in Tate Britain? Or urinating on Duchamp’s Urinal in Tate Modern?

Or spraying well-heeled onlookers with soya sauce and ketchup as you have a performative food fight at the Liverpool Biennale? You might like to think that you’d do these things, you might quite like to do these things, but would you actually? Alongside his ‘partner in crime’, Jian Jun Xi, Witney-based artist Cai Yuan has done these things – all of them.

Sometimes people’s actions can be perplexing, can’t they? Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend the arbitrary rules and regulations that people conjure up in a bid to assert authority. Cai Yuan knows this only too well. He was a teenager in 70s, which in the West would have meant that a liberally inclined young man would have been embracing peace, love and flower power, but in the East growing up during the Cultural Revolution of the People’s Republic of China painted a polar opposite picture.

Cai Yuan’s current exhibition, Optimism, (a collaboration with Chinese born, German-based artist Yingmei Duan) opened on February 1 to a performance by Cai Yuan in which he read out memories of his three years spent as Prisoner 4046. His crime – reading classical literature such as Jin Ping Mei (The plum in the Golden Vase, which has been likened to Lady Chatterley’s Lover in English literature for its graphic depictions of sexuality), and dreaming of escaping to a country where he could get rich, flirt with girls, and freely comment on politics. Outrageous behaviour for a 16-year-old, I’m sure you’ll agree!

Yingmei Duan laughed in the gallery as Cai Yuan described this oppression to me, exclaiming how funny the performance was because of the farcical nature of its content. To coin another phrase, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. I could barely believe what I was hearing, but it made sense of the title of the exhibition, Optimism. Signalling a message of hope, a glass half-full attitude and even a strategy of survival.

Optimism is a month-long, collaborative, interdisciplinary project combining drawing, writing and performance. Taking place in a pop-up exhibition space on The Plain (St Clements) that the Office of Contemporary Chinese Art has secured for a year with support from Arts Council England.

Yingmei Duan is a keen collaborator and was attracted to making work in the hub of academia and publishing that is Oxford as her work is centred around methods of communication. Through her practice she experiments with passing on messages to visitors in the form of speech, texts and drawings to draw out social and cultural articulations.

Sharing an interest in visitor experience and participation Cai Yuan takes a more political approach often presenting an alternative perspective on the mainstream. Using forms of intervention and satire to question one’s relationship with power and the institution, he poses incisive and often hilarious questions about the absurdity of the artificial structures of political or institutional power through the use of the body and everyday domestic materials.

Working together for the first time the two artists are going to be based in the exhibition space (during opening times) for the duration of the exhibition engaging with the public, their visitors, and inviting them to leave their mark in the gallery through paint, pencil, inks etc. Yingmei Duan went to great lengths to stress the fact that it’s possible to be contemporary using traditional methods, and that she’s been really surprised by England’s interest in, and dedication to drawing. The entire building is available to use as your canvas, with the exception of the floor.

Communication and messages are at the heart of the project; and it’s important to remember that whilst the impetus for these two artists to make work might be steeped in all kinds of complicated reasons, this isn’t a complicated exhibition – it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s engaging, and like the artists themselves, it’s optimistic. I urge you to join the children who’ve scrawled on the walls, the China Correspondent who painted a note of warning and optimism, the Classics students who carefully scribed a note in Latin, the ‘traveller’ who painted a profound note on the window.

Drop in, get involved, and make your own mark – no one is going to stop you!

Optimism continues until Friday, February 28, at OCCA Gallery, 11 St Clements Street, Oxford, OX4 1AB.
Join the artists in the gallery on the evening of February 28 to share thoughts and ideas on the exhibition at a closing party