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Sun Yuan & Peng Yu present "Can't Help Myself"



Originally created in 2016, the work consists of a large AI robot with a shovel shaped head who continuously controls and “cleans up” the red viscous liquid on the floor surrounding the structure in its large transparent enclosure, resembling a creature captured and kept on display. In its first appearance at the Guggenheim Museum in 2016, it was not only one of the most viewed installations to have ever been in the museum but it was also the most viewed work from the Guggenheim on the internet with more than 2 million views. 


To watch the installation in motion at Guggenheim Museum, click here.


This was improved upon at the 58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in the exhibition ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’, curated by Ralph Rugoff, which welcomed over half a million visitors, many of whom having shared and filmed the installations and art that they saw, helped the work reach over 3 million combined views on Instagram. 


“Can’t Help Myself” is contained in a large “cage” made of clear acrylic walls. The robotic arm occupies the space in all directions, moving and reacting to the deep-red liquid that for fault of its nature, slips and slides around the pre-determined area. The machine, developed in collaboration with Kuka Robotics, is in a state of continuous control with its own ecology and momentum that come from 32 programmed movements. These movements mimic human movements and were designed by the artists. They highlight the essential elusiveness of the liquid but also the defiant refusal of not only the liquid to be controlled but also the machine to never give up. The movements range from quick to smooth to at times aggressive. Although completely programmed, the robotic machine is physically performing what Sun Yuan & Peng Yu have planned. It therefore becomes an extension of the artists even though, due to its robotic machinery form, it is detached from the spontaneous creativity and emotions of a human being. In fact, Sun Yuan says "An artist's work is a reflection of his or her will. The artist doesn't need to be present on site, physically. Instead, you rely on an agent to carry out your will.".


The dynamic between artificial artist and machine is symbiotic; the work is created and programmed by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu and the engineers but it takes on a life of its own when turned on. The robotic arm is unsettling in how it seems autonomous in its mobility. Our reliance on technology and technology’s need for us in order to perform is a notion raised by the work and highlights that, although the image of the machine can be bold and strong in its associations and movements, there is an inherent vulnerability to both man and machine. 


As time passes, the incessant attempts to control the liquid leaves marks and residue that resemble bloodstains, suggesting the potential outcome of conflicts surrounding surveillance, border control and land disputes. These marks, together with the form of the robotic arm, recall the security mechanisms that through technology have invaded our everyday lives, from smartphones to surveillance cameras in urban areas. These allow us to document and share moments of our lives while monitoring and controlling our behavior in another iteration of the relationship between humans and technology; as we create and design machines, we simultaneously become the subject of their purpose. 



Can’t help my self

2016-2019

KUKA industrial robot, stainless steel and rubber, cellulose ether in colored water, lighting grid with visual-recognition sensors, acrylic wall with aluminum frame

Ed.3

From the catalogue "La Biennale di Venezia. 58ª Esposizione internazionale d'arte. May you live in interesting times"

Text by Carol Yinghua Lu 

Publisher: La Biennale di Venezia


The artist couple Sun Yuan and Peng Yu started their collaboration in 2000. In 2009, they created the installation “Sun Yuan Peng Yu”, a self-portrait describing the relationship and dynamic of their artistic alliance. A recurring smoke circle was persistently dispersed by a broom powered by a mechanical arm that kept on sweeping in the air; the smoke would persistently reappear, only to be dissolved when the broom hit again. For Sun and Peng, the moment of encounter between the two components – and the dissolving of one by the other – symbolised a moment of joint artistic creation in their way of working. 


Nearly all of Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations are bent on soliciting wonders and tension from spectators. The act of looking, sometimes peeking, on the part of audience members is a constitutive element of their recent works, which often involve the staging of intimidating spectacles. In “Dear” (2015), the tranquility of an old leather armchair is constantly interrupted by the eruptions of a black rubber hose that releases blasts of highly pressurized air, tearing apart the chair’s fabric and structure and gradually demolishing its surroundings. In between attacks, the chair sits inert again, almost inviting – until the assault recommences. 


“Can’t Help Myself” (2016), in the Central Pavilion, consists of a hermetic cube with clear acrylic walls, inside which sits an imposing and gigantic mechanical installation, a robotic arm that ends in a shovel. As the machine turns and flexes restlessly in the transparent “cage”, it may resemble a sentient form of life captured and placed on display. However, like the kind of industrial robot seen on production lines on which it is based, Sun and Peng’s modified version has merely been programmed to its makers’ will, in this case “taught” to perform 32 different movements, dance poses and gestures – from “bow and shake” and “scratch an itch” to “ass shake”. Simultaneously, the robot is also tasked with ensuring a thick, deep-red liquid stays within a predetermined area. The blood-like fluid naturally oozes away constantly from the designated area, triggering the sensors and making the machine shovel it back into place. The constant interplay between the fluid and the robotic – and the work’s title, with its evocation of impulsive, compulsive behavior – raises questions about the different and interrelated vulnerabilities of the organic and the mechanical.


For the artists, the uncontrollable liquid is almost a perfect embodiment of what they perceive as art. “Artists, or perhaps rather people who work in art, always attempt to ‘seize’ art through various methods – from the threads of artworks, theory, and art history. But the distinctiveness of art lies in its constant flight from such capture. It is very hard to establish who determines the positionality of art… To offer a definitive statement or idea usually only happens when you need an exchange of benefits – for instance when someone needs to offer an idea, to manifest a certain stance, and attempts to establish a certain position within the contemporary art world”. It is clear from the variety of approaches and forms they have invented throughout their career that Sun and Peng have striven to avoid being “seized” in their practice.