“… the actual practice of art is apolitical, it only waits for the artist to become ‘politicized’”
Almost everywhere you turn in Chaoyang District, located in the heart of the Beijing CBD, you cannot miss the brightly coloured cartoon billboards depicting a little girl jumping for joy beside the declaration, ‘Civilized Chaoyang. Develop AND enjoy together’. In many ways this district, where international embassies as well as the Chinese Ministry of Culture reside, is symbolic of the new China. The Sanlitun strip alone is home to many cafes, bars, restaurants, nightclubs (including two gay ones!), and huge multistorey shopping centres specialising in Western-brand merchandise. Standing directly opposite one of these shopping centres is the old Workers Stadium, surrounded by Communist-era sculptures proudly displaying towering heroic figures posturing toward a bright, certain future. While one side shimmers like gold, the other is a grey ghost of a previous era that has not exactly gone. Squalor in narrow laneways and tenements is never far away. The absence of contemporary sculptures or public art on the main streets of Beijing is perhaps a glaring omission from the Ministry in its quest to be ‘civilized’. If the art here reveals anything concrete it is that this is a confident, albeit schizoid, city (indeed country) in great transition, with an undercurrent of restlessness and uncertainty. So where is the art then?
A short ten minute bus trip from Sanlitun to Dashanzi and you enter the gentrified confines of the 798 Art District. Enclosed within a Communist-era military factory, it is literally crammed with galleries, studios, cafes and gift shops. Contemporary sculptures pack the vicinity, fragmented and distorted, an alien reality of nightmarish, sometimes humorous, ironic imagery. Street art spreads its unruly vibrant language across exposed wall space in every laneway, as stoic uniformed guards benignly watch all entrances. In here a dialectic between old and new, light and dark, past and future coexists in creative delirium: from the ejaculatory spectacle of Zhan Wang’s My Personal Universe video and airborne installation at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), to the face-off between Western and Eastern abstract art at Pace Gallery’s Leaving Realism Behind, to Soka Art Centre’s exhibition Ruins: Face of Contemporary Northeast China, where the ideological, artistic and actual building foundations of Chinese society are represented as literally crumbling away. This is a powerful metaphor for a country struggling to come to terms with itself: and the energy is palpable.
With the tourists snapping photos at seemingly every artwork in and outside the galleries, the whole zone begins to take on the complexion of a theme park, an art theme park where art (and ideas) symbolically remain within the safe confines of this defined space. Only graffiti art appears to be physically defying this imposed limitation, slowly slithering out onto the vacant walls of a nearby freeway. Here Bart Simpson holds a ghetto blaster and sticks his tongue out fiendishly. Next to him stands a cigar smoking fat pig, surrounded by dirty cash and glittering jewels, as a flying meat cleaver impacts into its blood-splattered back. In a world where censorship of texts, emails, blogs and the internet are an accepted reality—Government officials are known to walk into a gallery, take down ‘unacceptable’ works and walk out without apology or explanation—the other defiant and uncompromising recent art development here is performance art.
Performance art first appeared here in the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, when China’s first wave of seminal performance artists came into focus. As an art form with no indigenous theatrical or performance tradition to draw inspiration from, it was predominantly Western influenced. Its earliest incarnations were relatively intimate affairs but in 1989, after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, performance art was officially perceived to be ‘an act against proper public conduct’. To a degree this attitude continues to linger today.
In August 2010, Pace Gallery opened The Great Performances exhibition, a major retrospective, through photographic and video documentation, of landmark performance works by the likes of Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, Yang Zhichao, He Yunchang, and Ma Qiusha, among others. By contrast, in September the ‘official’ National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) opened its Constructive Dimensions show, billed as a showcase of the ‘vanguard art of the new century’, but inexplicably failed to acknowledge performance art at all. Coincidentally or not, also in September, an op-ed piece by Zhu Linyong appeared in the China Daily declaring, ‘Performance Art is Dead’. Zhu surmised that artists had succumbed to ‘the pressures of commerce’, thus, and he quotes several critics and curators, the genre had ‘lost its steam’ (curator Leng Lin), ‘become chic acts catering to the curiosity of the middle class and the newly rich’ (critic Wu Hong) and that ‘nobody cares anymore’ (critic Zhou Wenhan). It would appear reports of the death of performance art in China have been greatly exaggerated! The truth is performance art has grown exponentially. Even Zhu (albeit mockingly), frustratingly acknowledges its expansion, as now ‘netizens … upload their weird performances’ online. In a time of widespread global unrest, Chinese authorities aggressively continue to enforce the tightening of cultural products toward ‘traditional virtues and socialist core values’. The arts and entertainment industries are on notice again.
In May 2011, artist Cheng Li performed Sensitive Zone, a live sex act in front of a small invited audience next to a sign that read ‘Art Whore’ at the Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art. As a result he was arrested and charged with conducting an ‘obscene performance in public’ that police claim led to ‘public disorder and chaos’. He was sentenced to one year labour and ‘re-education’. The intention of this work, he says, was to ‘ridicule the over-commercialised nature of contemporary art’ and to ‘beautify the act of love making’. Though Cheng’s arrest appears to have barely raised an eyebrow amongst the artistic and wider community in Beijing, his incarceration occurred the same month as the more internationally recognised Ai Weiwei was detained as part of a clampdown on dissidents in the wake of the Arab Spring. Despite this threat, artists continue to create challenging work.
One such artist is twenty-five year old Yan Xing whose recent solo exhibition REALISM (2011) at Galerie Urs Meile, consisted of seven actors, including Yan, performing around an Asian-faced giant replica of Pietro Francavilla’s Renaissance sculpture of Zephyr (1577), and whispering scripted text, based on André Breton’s Surrealism Manifesto, to each other. On the back wall hung a black-and-white photographic representation of the sculpture, viewed from behind. Also featured was a Warholian video performance excerpt They Are Not Here (2010). Shot from above, surveillance-like, seven uncommunicative, listless young men in a claustrophobic hotel room are sprawled all over the space, one stands naked, silently smoking, staring out of the slit in the curtain, all the while the artist takes photographs, documenting. Yan states he seeks to ‘challenge the existing system in everyday life … to reflect on the disparity between the physical and the ideological’. In recontextualising Western art history he embodies an intermediate plateau where socialist realism and surrealism powerfully collide in a clash of ideologies and realities.
Yan’s body, as a young openly gay man, is inherently political. Daddy Project (2010) began as a contentious blog entry that morphed into a live performance. Standing with his back to the audience and speaking into a microphone for the whole performance, Yan offers a first-person narrative of his troubled and sometimes disturbing childhood, and his life as a gay man searching for ‘Daddy’, or ‘somebody who understands me’. Such an emotionally charged and open display of the artist’s life, and by default a social critique, is voyeuristically compelling, confronting and a rarity in China. When Yan speaks of his ‘broken and sick family’, he could very well be talking about Chinese society. Yan Xing’s performances defiantly transcend the old paradigm of silence and subservience to inveterate unyielding ideologies. By literally adding his voice, and a theatrical mise-en-scéne (re-mixing classical and pop sensibilities), he embodies this uncomfortable transition from Cultural Revolution to ‘Market Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Described by the New York Times as ‘a controversial star’, Yan’s ‘realism’ is stark—it is black and white, it is complex, bold and quietly transgressive. Though citing Tino Sehgal as an influence, unlike Sehgal, Yan’s work is always documented and a video excerpt is exhibited. Galerie Urs Meile’s Artistic Director Nataline Colonnello stresses, however, the videos are not the art but are documentation.
One of the first generation of performance artists who continues to create confronting work is He Yunchang. Notorious for his ‘extreme’ performance work (to which he retorts ‘compared to the cruelty of reality they’re nothing’), he has been encased in concrete, wrestled one hundred workers, carried a rock across Great Britain and been suspended in the air several times upside down. On the day of the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, he had a rib surgically removed in protest. His Rib (2009) exhibition featured vibrant photographic portraits of himself with the important women in his life, each wearing the rib (now a gold necklace), unaware of its origins. More recently in One Meter Democracy (2010), he invited twenty-five people via text to a secret location, where they voted ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to an unknown question. As the ‘Yes’ vote won, he was subjected to a surgeon cutting a one metre long incision into his body. Afterwards he wrote: ‘It seems as if we realised true democracy in doing this’. If there is such a thing as a ‘Chinese-ness’ of performance art in China, He Yunchang embodies this spirit. Much of his earlier work directly challenged Chinese tradition, philosophy and myths or legends. His questioning of tradition is matched by his concerns and critique of contemporary socio-political issues in China. He remains one of the few first-generation performance artists in China still active and creating edgy performance-based work.
It is interesting to note that performance, or body art, was embraced in the West by the feminist movement as a unique expressive medium. In China, however, due to various cultural phenomena and traditions concerning propriety, women have, up until recently, been more apprehensive. One woman to break through is Ma Qiusha. Speaking with a razorblade on her tongue, her seminal No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili (2007) video performance depicts a world where speaking the truth is a blood sport. Like Yan Xing she is of the new generation, brought up in a more affluent and material contemporary society, who freely expresses her private pain and life experiences without being overtly political.
Perhaps one of the most surprising new developments in performance has come via the master Ai Weiwei. Having helped introduce performance art to China with The Stars as far back as 1979, he continues to be a highly significant figure in performance. Under house arrest with harsh restrictions imposed upon him, Ai decided to directly challenge the authorities through virtual online interactions to make an artistic statement about transparency and openness via social media. When the Government handed him a massive tax bill he posted it online and made a video of himself singing an anti-censorship song. Supporters began donating money to help him pay off the tax bill. When the Government charged him with making pornography, netizens began posting nude photos of themselves online in an act of solidarity and resistance. ‘This has become a social performance’ said Ai, ‘and there are so many people involved’. This ‘social performance’ has taken performance art right into the social sphere. Ai’s studio in Coaching Art District with its high walls, surrounded by Government surveillance cameras, ripped out intercom and permanent police car presence, is no barrier to his art practice and influence.
As more people embrace new technologies such as social media, finding ways to leap over the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’, it becomes a conduit and unstoppable catalyst for social change. If previously the Chinese authorities had a problem dealing with performance art, then clearly that was only the beginning. In 2001 Zhang Huan noted, ‘In China art has so many possibilities’. Over ten years later it is apparent that Chinese artists continue to defiantly shake off the shackles of the past and spread their ever-sprawling creative wings. In the process they are redefining their culture and, as we charge into the so-called ‘Asian century’, they offer the world new perspectives, shapes and ideas in this virtually converging, globalised and insecure world.
He Yunchang, One Meter Democracy, 2010. Performance. Courtesy the artist.
Jacob Zheng, Ai Weiwei Social Performance.
Yan Xing, They Are Not Here, 2010. Video still. Courtesy the artist.
Yan Xing, REALISM, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing.
Berghuis, T.J., Performance Art in China, Timezone 8 Ltd., Hong Kong, 2006.
Borysevicz, M., ‘Zhang Huan, Before and After’, Art Asia Pacific, 30, 2001, pp.57-61.
Kosuth, J., Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings 1966–1990, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991.
Zhu Linyong, ‘Performance Art is Dead’, China Daily, Beijing, 15 September 2010. See http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2010-09/15/content_11305071.htm
Pickup, O., ‘Chinese Artist sentenced to a year’s re-education through labour for performing live sex as part of his exhibition’ Daily Mail, London, 10 May 2011. See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1385619/Chinese-artist-sentenced-years-education-performing-live-sex-exhibition.html
Wong, G., ‘Ai Weiwei makes tax battle a “social performance”’, The Guardian, London, 17 November 2011. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/9951504
Interview with Galerie Urs Meile’s Artistic Director Nataline Colonnello, Beijing, 7 December 2011.
D.B. Valentine is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Art Design & Architecture, Monash University, Melbourne, where he is researching remediated digital performance.