Can't Help Myself by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

art Dec 02, 2021

Photo via Guggenheim's site

I stopped in my tracks when I saw this Instagram Post shared by a friend via Facebook:  

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by KRICKED 🎩 (@kricked)


Layer 1: Observing
Watching before reading, I'm grabbed by the movements of the robotic arm. Contrasting the weight of the machinery with how swiftly it moves and pivots.

Next, I notice the gorgeous shape created by the blade pushing back the liquid. Blood? How the round shape of the pool of liquid is cut away by the machine sweeping the liquid back. the contrast between the stark white of the floor and red-black liquid.

Looking more closely, I notice how much of the liquid is caked on the arm, making it look visceral. And the splatters of "blood" on the surrounding walls.

Seeing Abigail Lane's Bloody Wallpaper (1995) at the Walker Art Center's "Brilliant!" New Art from London forever shifted how I saw blood splatters. Blood became removed from the violent act and become design. Or data for the expert to scrutinize.

Here "blood" is a medium to contain. The splatter adds to the sense of repetition and mess in contrast to the stark box the machine operates in. 

Lives in? 

Layer 2: Reading
If you haven't yet, stop and read @kricked's caption.

Kricked explains how the fluid is hydraulic fluid keeping the machine going. The machine is anthropomorphized. Living, until dying. That the machine has been programmed to be busy and when it's not busy with its task, it can be playful. The piece's title is Can't Help Myself.

That the machine started out spritely and slowly became fatigued. That it ground to a halt. That it died


Layer 3: Sleuthing
Now I want to know more.

I find that the piece was commissioned by the Guggenheim and shown in 2016 as part of their show, Tales of Our Time. It brought together Chinese artists working on theme of space, geography, nation-states, borders.

Artist Sun Yuan describes the initial idea, in this video:

"I think an artist's work is a reflection of his or her will.

The artist doesn't need to be onsite, physically. Instead, you rely on an agent to carry out your will.

This is my agent.

[gestures to model of robotic arm]

It has limitless endurance. No one can match its endurance. All you need to provide it with is your will."

Still from video, Artist Profile: Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

Something unseen in the video is that the robot takes action when visual recognition sensors sense the liquid is spreading too far out. 

We project human character onto the machine. It doesn't have its own free will. Its environment is monitored and it is programmed to act. 

Still from video, Artist Profile: Sun Yuan & Peng Yu

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu write on their site

"Over time, the repetitive shoveling leaves marks and residue that resemble bloodstains, evoking the idea of surveillance and warfare surrounding border control and land disputes. Akin to real life, the borders that emerge and disappear."

Learning about the context of the work, I learn about the timeline of the work. It was on view in the Guggenheim exhibit 4 months

It was shown again at the Venice Biennale 2019 for roughly 6 months


Layer 4: Story and Sharing
Okay, so the machine didn't tirelessly sweep its own life force for 3 years until it died. 

49k+ ❤️s on the post embedded above at the time of this post. Clearly a compelling story.

It's a powerful story created by viewers.

It's not the reality of the piece.

Or it is a reality of the piece. 

Or an experience of the piece. 

I stopped in my tracks just seeing the movement of the machine in my Facebook feed. 

I would have stopped in my tracks had I been in the Guggenheim. 

I had my own experience of the piece watching. 

I added to my experience reading the caption. 

I fell down into a multi-hour rabbit hole learning about the piece and the artists. 

I wrote this friggin' post. 



p.s. I'm chewing on these great last point Sun Yuan shared in the video referenced above about the future: 

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