At The Zoo, Oakland, U.S. Image by Randy H.Y. Yau
Yan Jun is a creative polymorph. Search on his name on the Internet and you’ll come up with a list of roles – from experimental sound artist, to critic, to curator, to performance poet – and stories of his pioneering in China's underground music scene from the late 1990s to early 2000s. In 1998 he began the independent label, Sub Jam, initially to publish zines and later for music CDs; and in 2004 he established Kwanyin records for the release of more experimental works. From June 2005 to December 2010, Yan and his Sub Jam community organised a series weekly of performances called Waterland Kwanyin at the Beijing Bar, 2Kolegas, serving up rock, experimental and electronic music to an ever-morphing crowd of listeners.
Both Sub Jam and Kwanyin continue, supported by a regularly updated blog (see here for Yan Jun’s own), as do gigs, and the general greasing of communal and creative activities for which Yan Jun has become widely known. Meanwhile Yan remains one of China’s most important experimental artists, pushing the limits of sound, language and music in his own performances and recordings. Translator, Maghiel van Crevel once said Yan Jun makes things happen, and there is no doubt that Yan has this generative role. Raised in Lanzhou, but based in Beijing since the late 1990s, Yan is something of a creative catalyst, preferring the early and ambiguous stages of invention and putting a high value on the amorphous in artistic communities.
I met with Yan Jun last week in a Korean restaurant in Beijing, where we chatted over kim chi and corn patties. A generous conversation partner, Yan is modest yet brims with ideas; self-deprecating in both his philosophy and humour. Our discussion covered topics well beyond China’s experimental arts scene, and is chockers with food for thought, so I’ve posted a longer interview than usual here. Read on for Yan’s provocations on the role of art in an age of consumerism (ala Beijing’s 798 Art Zone) and that of culture in a new world shaped by the power of the Chinese economy.