Performance Art in China

Book Review

The rise in popularity of Chinese performance art can be ascribed to as many ‘right’ reasons as ‘wrong’ ones. Beginning about a decade after performance art’s widespread revival in the West during the protest era of the late 1960s, it surged in China in the 1970s, after the death of Mao Zedong, with the kind of frenetic energy that comes from decades of pent up frustration. It was (and still is) perhaps because of this difference between the ‘free world’ and China, that performance art in China was lent a greater credibility, for it was seen as the purgative expression of a deeply repressive social system. This is true to a point, and Chinese performance art has rightly earned its own place within the annals of contemporary art, known for an originality that is born not only from social unrest but from not having to be answerable to a commercial market (though this is changing). On the other hand it has been subject to the sentimentality that the West typically unleashes on cultures which it believes less privileged than itself. It is a sentimentality born of guilt that, while wanting to change nothing, expresses itself in uncritical wonder. Thomas Berghuis’s book, the first major study of Chinese performance art in English, is an indispensable document in assessing and demystifying the Chinese performance art phenomenon.

One of the difficulties in defining performance art for anything other than an expert audience is in it being, like land art, both a movement and a practice. Unlike land art, however, performance is rooted in the fundamentally ritualistic and incantatory nature of art and by implication hearkens to art’s beginnings. Performance art is therefore something reasonably new and ‘avant-garde’ while also being the most ancient of all the arts. Berghuis acknowledges such relationships and locates the more recent influences of Jackson Pollock (or reactions to him), Antonin Artaud, Joseph Beuys and John Cage, while also being careful to delineate certain relationships of difference from Western discourse. In particular, these include ‘the role of personal embodiment in [the] work in relation to the embodiment of social circumstances’. And, ‘The role of the mediated subject of the acting body in art’. This stands in contrast to the more rewarded, institutionalised practices of art, which tend toward the Maoist-laced Social Realism that preaches social cohesion with heavy-handed metaphor. With this on one pole and with venerable practices of calligraphy on the other, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, performance art has been the alternative to a redoubtable system of stylistic timidity which is afraid of change. As Berghuis suggests, in China performance art cannot be seen as just one tendency amongst others as in the West; in China it is the sine qua non, a point of emanation, for all artistic practices that distinguish themselves from sclerotic tradition and which seek to engage in globalised contemporary art.

Berghuis traces this practice back to the Stars Group Public Art exhibition of 1979, the first major effort to engage in art practices other than those ratified by the state. The festival model comes easily to Chinese artists as it is a natural extension of China’s models of family and group, but when united into an artistic front it is potentially threatening to the authorities and, as so often occurred in China, police were brought in to deal with what were viewed as socially deleterious disturbances to public order. The culmination of this attitude, though it hadn’t to do with art, was of course the Tiananmen Square massacre. Since then, the Chinese government has sought out more covert means to discourage what it deems seditious behaviour. (At the Fourth Dadao Live Art Festival, 2006, in which I participated, official advice was given to the press not to report on the event on threat of reprisal.)

Following the Stars Group, artists became increasingly interested in what Berghuis terms ‘the body in action’, performances which were often staged by collaborative groups. It was also around this time in the early 1980s that journals began publishing articles dealing with these actions, which helped embed them within the intellectual sphere and to give them wider exposure. Many such efforts were profound attempts to bridge Western and Chinese discourse, as in the journal Meishu (Fine Arts) that published an article by the artist Zhong Ming to do with self-expression and agency in relation to Sartrean existentialism. The same journal took pains to publish images from German contemporary artists as well as other examples from Western Modernism. While it is not within the aims of Berghuis’s book, a study of the selective exposure within China to outside sources and their influence would be another welcome point of inquiry. The development of Chinese performance in the 1980s was largely a form of pared down theatre which brought together body, action, site and medium. As one can expect socio-political commentary was often sporadic and always latent. Nonetheless the performances were grounded in unrest and the need for alternative expressions in a world whose officially sanctioned artistic values were more and more redundant.

As Berghuis emphasises, the Cartesian mind-body split is inadequate to the understanding of Chinese performance art which presumes a unity between mind and body. Using the notion of body as a vessel, Berghuis explores the ways in which Chinese performance confronts or presumes the way the body is the symbolic and physical nexus between inner subjective will and social influence. Whereas with Western ritual we might presume that someone is acting for the group, in China that person is as much acting within the group; the distinction is blurry, but it is there.

In the late 1980s, as with the Black Union Group, institutional critiques gained in momentum. By the 1990s, performance art had firmly entrenched itself as an ‘official’ alternative, anti-establishment, practice which was beginning to forge a place within the international arena of contemporary art. It is from this time that we have some of the most lasting images of highly charged and what to Western eyes are maybe wonderfully deranged performances: in a farm in May 1994 Zhu Ming asked the farmers to submerge him beneath a mound of mud, where he spent two hours blowing bubbles from a pipe; or Zhang Huan who, in 12 Square Metres, sat on a stool naked covered in honey and fish oil in a public toilet in 40-degree heat attracting thousands of flies that languished in the putrescence of his body, until the artist, in stylised movements, retired to the polluted pond behind the building to bathe. They are works whose photographic memories have entered into the consciousness of contemporary art on the basis of their visual impact alone.

But to the Chinese mind, they are also heart-felt comments on social disenfranchisement, over-population, poor sanitation and uneven social infrastructure. It is important to distinguish the Western eye of disgust, which cannot escape the titillating horror primed by the media, from a society whose problems are now well-known and who are presented with new ones. Others, like Zhu Yu’s Baby series (one where he eats what looks like a foetus, another where he feeds a foetus to a dog), have been hot topics of conversation around the world, especially when it comes to censorship. When one reflects, however, on the amount of voluntary infant mortality in China based on the one child policy and the pre-eminence of boys, Zhu Yu’s work seems almost obvious, though no less disturbing.

Berghuis traces the various trajectories of Chinese performance art, which still converge on the reciprocal relationship of mind and body and the body as a microcosm of the social body, until 2005 and he looks at its exposure within major international art events. The fascination with Chinese performance appears not likely to flag in the near future, given that Western commodity culture is always looking for the patina of newness to advance its sometimes suspect goals. (As interesting and relevant is the nature of the Western reception and appropriation of Chinese performance art, a reception which at its worst has been chronically faddist and quasi-Orientalist, as evidenced in the way this art is packaged by state museums and unquestioningly lumped in with mainstream performance practices.)

Despite its place within Western-global contemporary art, performance art’s freedom within China continues to be tenuous. In the 2004 festival in Dashanzi, the official art district of Beijing, for example, all the performances had to be screened by the authorities before they were authorised to be shown. It is a negative note to end on but as Berghuis concludes in relation to performance art in China, ‘fear will continue to accompany its public reception. This document is dedicated to reversing this situation’. As a comprehensive and clear-minded history, Berghuis’s book goes a long way in achieving this aim—so long as the book is read and its observations reflected upon. Only with the kinds of first-hand understandings that Berghuis offers can Chinese performance art begin to be absorbed as any practice: sporadically and uncomfortably as opposed to the mixture of quizzicality and blanket acceptance that are the attributes of the West’s often veiled condescension for the Other. 

notes: 

Thomas Berghuis
Timezone 8 Books, Beijing, 2007
pp.320, RRP: $64.95 AUD