Performance art (| xíngwéiyìshù in Chinese — among other terms) has been paving new paths in China’s art scene as it opened up to Western ideas and “values” back in the early 1980s, testing the limits of both legal and social norms. From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, how has China’s performance art(ist) managed to survive — and thrive?
Increased pressure on many forms of art, as President Xi Jinping (2012-?) has been shoring up Party control over all aspects of society, has had a chilling effect on the performance art scene in particular. Xi most famously in 2014 urged all artists to “carry forward the banner of socialist core values”. The question thus beckons…
Given that “in order to civilize the mind, one must first make savage the body”, one must take a look at the past, present and future of China’s Performance Art. A visceral matter of pure provocative pleasure?
Humble Human Beginnings
Performance art events first found their way to the Middle Kingdom in the early 1980s, following Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao economic reforms in 1979, which pulled China’s socialist society out of its global isolation and rendered it receptive to foreign investments and influences. At a time when China’s mainstream art was mostly defined by official Academic Realism or Socialist Realism, American painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), for instance, in 1985 staged a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing. Subsequently, incipient strands of avant-gardist experimentation surfaced through the birth of informal art groups.
According to Dutch curator and art historian Thomas Berghuis in his 2006 publication “Performance Art In China”, Rauschenberg’s exhibition portrayed a portfolio consisting of innovative readymade assemblages, installations and collaborations, opening up a whole new world of major trends in contemporary Western art, including the breaking down of aesthetic and conceptual boundaries, to Chinese audiences and artists. His work motivated budding artists to move away from the deeply embedded modes of thinking and art-making rooted deep within Chinese society.
Furthermore, the exhibition confirmed a new awareness in China that art could embrace participatory agency and break down|through the rules of perception and action, all the while expanding the possibilities of the duration, place and materials used in and for art. China’s newly burgeoning performance art scene questioned the thresholds of visuality and aesthetics and was widely translated into Chinese as “| xíngwéiyìshù” (behavioral art).
Vernacular circumstances hereby oblige us to note that other Chinese terms too can refer to the art category at hand.
Consequent Constructive Constraints
The overtones of human behavior and conduct in the above translated term reflected performance art’s role in addressing lived experiences under socio-cultural constraints in an authoritarian state, as well as social change and upheaval during China’s transition into a socialist state — with capitalist characteristics. As always.
This fresh form of self-expression stands in contrast to the more rewarded, institutionalized practices of art which “tended toward the Maoist-laced Social Realism that preaches social cohesion with heavy-handed metaphor”. Thank you again, Berghuis. The new art on one side of the spectrum and the venerable practices of calligraphy on the other, performance art in China from the late 1980s well into the early 2000s has become the alternative to a system of stylistic reserve. Afraid of change.
China’s performance art scene by the mid-1990s had managed to firmly entrench itself as the alternative, anti-establishment, go-to practice beginning to find its way within the international arena of contempo art.
To be duly noted, the works at large became heartfelt, sometimes sneering, expositions on and of social disenfranchisement, over-population, poor sanitation and an uneven social infrastructure. China exposed.
The Confrontational, Visceral And Personal Threesome
Zhang Huan (张洹 in Chinese)
Zhang (born 1965) is a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York City. An avid fan of avant-garde art, Zhang in the early days of his career did not really have adequate resources at his disposal that would allow him to execute his artistic vision. As such, the painter| photographer| performance artist decided to change the way he expressed himself by adopting a more provocative and transgressive form of performance art, later to be photographed and documented.
Zhang’s work according to critics is at times confrontational, visceral and personally dangerous, as well as engages both implicitly and explicitly problems of overpopulation, cultural erasure, political repression, poverty, famine and “want”. He is one of the most significant contemporary artists working in China today and a pioneer of performance art within the country from the early 1990s onwards.
Though having been based in New York for quite some time now, Zhang believes that modern China forms the right backdrop for the coming to life of his work, taking into account all of the nation’s contradictions and difficulties as a global giant on the rise.
Zhang’s work often exhibits the unique cultural context of contempo China, sandwiched in between the capitalist mind and a communist state mechanism.
Zhu Yu ( 朱昱 in Chinese)
Zhu (born 1970) is a performance artist living in Beijing. Zhu in 1991 graduated from the Affiliated High School of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. His work deals with subjects of contemporary art. Zhu was formerly part of the infamous “cadaver school”, a group of performance and installation artists who used human and animal corpses in their works. See YouTube video.
Zhu in 1998 constructed an installation from a severed human arm he had acquired for a mere 500 yuan, suspended from a meat hook and holding a rope. A year after that display, he raised the stakes again by sitting down to a meal of (an alleged) deep-fried stillborn fetus accompanied by a Caesar salad and a glass of OJ. In a statement released with the documentation of the work, he wrote, “Morals and ethics are nothing but something which human kind changes at will”.
After the Chinese government cracked down on a number of shock jock artists when it was announced Beijing would host the 2008 Olympics, Zhu went underground and his art was put on hold. He has returned in recent years with art that is completely different to his previous controversial works.
On a side note, Zhu has never been officially censored — although since his 1998 video, the nation’s criminal code has been amended to include the prohibition of cannibalism.
Ma Liuming (马六明 in Chinese)
Ma (born 1969) is a contemporary Chinese artist known for his confrontational performances. He is known most of all for his exploration of the power and poetry of public nudity in China, where such behavior remains strictly forbidden. This defiance of both legal and social code is the reason why Ma has often been subjected to government censorship, unable to perform in his own country for most of his career. In addition to the aforementioned, Ma also broadcasts his formidable fascination with the social restrictions surrounding gender identity on a regular basis.
Fen-Ma Liuming (芬-马六明 in Chinese) is the androgynous alter ego Ma in 1993 assumed to distinguish his performance from himself. Fen- Ma is a transgender creation with woman’s face and dresses but has a man’s body, a woman born in the 1990s when Ma was still an undergraduate at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts. See YouTube video.
Fen-Ma emphasizes the contrast between feminine beauty and a man’s body, but the artist’s nude performances during the early 1990s did eventually lead to his arrest. His “Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall” of 1998, as you’ve just watched courtesy of YouTube, furthered his stance through the act of walking naked along the revered national relic, raising issues of tradition, cultural taboos and political boundaries.
Provocatively produced art challenges traditional understandings as well as preconceived notions about moral and political issues, as well as how we view ourselves. Plus those surrounding us.
No social, legal or political pain; no artistic gain.
WRITTEN BY ELSBETH VAN PARIDON
FEATURED IMAGE: Zhang Huan, “12 Square Meters”, 1994. Zhang’s performance art has always been characterized by some degree of pain. For instance, in one of his most famous performances (“12 Square Meters”), Zhang covered himself in a mixture of fish oil and honey from head to toe. He then sat stock-still on a peddle stool in a public latrine for hours on end as he let different types of insects crawl all over his body. The photographs from this performance were taken by fellow artist and photographer Rong Rong (荣荣 in Chinese).
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