Despite the extraordinary range of works presented, Great Performances feels like an opportunity missed.
Most visitors to “Great Performances” were likely struck by the extraordinary range of works the exhibition presented, but what they actually made of those works, or of the exhibition as a whole, depended upon their knowledge of performance art in China (or in general). It also mattered how much each visitor cared about the matching of artworks to an exhibition title or theme. For me, “Great Performances” prompted reflection upon the role of a commercial gallery in promoting art of a radical nature—which habitually and electively sits outside mainstream practice—but left the question hanging.
First, though, the “extraordinary range of works.” Given the siting of this exhibition in a leading commercial gallery, it was not wrong to expect the works on display would be by artists of some significance. Pace, after all, is a “taste-maker” for collectors, which naturally makes its tastes of particular importance to the artists the gallery shows or doesn’t show, as the case may be. But the act of affirming individual artworks through exhibiting them is not equal to the validation of an artform, and one as difficult as performance. Perhaps for this reason, the term performance invoked here was somewhat misleading. For one thing, there were no live bodies present in the space: all that was awkward and potentially disturbing was contained in the safe borders of a photograph, or within the confines of a projection or video. To recreate performance works in venues or at times to which they are unrelated is a sticky issue. But unpicking the history—context and meaning—of performance works ought to have been part of an exhibition with a title like “Great Performances,” and which described its objective as interpreting “the occurrence, development and status quo of Chinese contemporary art (mid-1990s to now)” (1). Clearly such an objective necessarily requires more circumstantial material than a commercial gallery finds it appropriate to provide. But perhaps that’s open to debate.
On the plus side, a good number of the works included in “Great Performances” represent the finer points of the individual artists’ career: Wu Xiaojun’s brilliant string of luminescence “Gift” from 2006 verged on the sublime. As a gesture, it is simplicity itself: a series of neon tubes that appear to have been gently hand-crafted and painstakingly strung together to achieve a faltering upward trajectory that is both haunting and determined, vulnerable as well as otherworldly. “Gift” was previously shown in 798 in an exhibition titled “Enemy at the Gates” organised by 798’s renegade-founder, Huang Rui, in 2006. However, that previous presentation failed to display it to such effect as in “Great Performances”: here, it felt positively exalted, its inexorable air of fragility a prescient reminder of the zeitgeist of this present age.
Another work that found good advantage in this setting was Hai Bo’s photographic diptych “2008-1.” Presenting the image of an elderly man from the front, apparently in motion walking towards the viewer, and from the back, appearing to walk away, “2008-1″ is one of the most enduring “double portraits” from the artist’s recent work that build on the comparative approach between “then” and “now” that won Hai Bo deserved acclaim in the late 1990s. The light is perfect, the mood poignantly nuanced. Although recognisably elderly in years, the figure is nondescript—working class probably, but retired and therefore dressed in the generic simplicity adopted by those of his generation, except for the contemplative aura in which he is deeply immersed. The intensity of his inward-looking gaze is compelling, and somehow renders him so utterly, comfortably alone such that we are drawn into the aura of the work utterly ourselves, and into our own zone of introspection, fuelled by far less a measure of comfort than what Hai Bo’s subject enjoys.
A similarly mesmerising aura pervades Li Songsong’s “Big Container.” This new work—one of only a few from recent years in the show—is a pale, slumbering mass. The surface formed precisely of a final fat coat of pure paint, similar to Li’s paintings, to achieve a form that is a striking embodiment of pure power: its elegantly champfered sides might suggest the lower section of an elongated pyramid should the work be presented outside of China; yet, in being shown here in Beijing, whispered, instead, the language of the monumental associated with ideology and its icons. Was it this inalienable quality and the inevitable readings of the work being anticipated that led to its placement in one corner of the gallery space? For sure, the semi-umbra of the site enhanced the work’s present but did leave it hanging in the dark. This, for me at least, was the first hint of the problems of reconciling powerful and radical experimental art forms with the material efficiency demanded of collectable art and, of necessity, by its purveyors.
Conversely, He An’s installation “Do You Think that You Can Help Her, Brother?” was both beautifully placed and beautifully installed, but as a result of this failure to reconcile the extremes, the work felt emasculated, its decorative aspects overwhelming its original intent. “Do You Think that You Can Help Her, Brother?” comprises a set of individual characters each of which was acquired by illicit means from their original place within one form of public signage or another. In short, each word / character was removed at the behest of the artist in a clandestine fashion without the prior knowledge of their owners. So, on one level “Do You Think that You Can Help Her, Brother?” is intended as a radical statement on ownership: think “Property is theft,” the statement by the French anarchist Proudhon, compounded with “what’s yours is mine” (and that what’s mine is also mine…) in deep cohesion with (Western) materialist society today. In terms of both form and content the sentiment expressed further references the state of being alienated, excluded and disenfranchised that accompanies the experience of urban life for many young people in China today. Its inclusion in “Great Performances” reveals how far a work born of a gritty social realism can be transformed into a parody of itself, certainly a travesty of an artistic idea when co-opted by “the establishment.” A fitting analogy might be how the most worrisome emblems of punk circa 1977—safety pins, rips and tatters, skulls and crossbones as well as God Save the Queen sloganeering—latterly found their way into couture by luxury brands such as Chanel or Dior.
Xiao Yu’s extraordinary installation, “Wu” (2000), provided another example, for although this work sat right out in the open as it were, it also suffered for this placement in the display: there is something about the formal arrangement of the gallery space, its whiteness, clinical contours and hushed atmosphere, that contrived to make “Wu” appear closer to an attraction in a children’s petting zoo rather than the insightful exploration of manmade / mutated / gnomically-altered life forms that pass for domestic animals today. Under these circumstances, “Wu” also failed to induce the dramatic viewer response that was indeed elicited upon its debut in 2000 as part of the exhibition “Harm / Hurt,” a seminal exhibition of its moment when issues of cloning and moral-ethical attitudes towards life / life forms were subject to fierce debate. Naturally the aura of “Harm / Hurt,” coupled with its considered siting in an old theatre in a hutong in Beijing, contributed to the shock and awe in which it was received, none of which was addressed for any of these “great performances.”
Moving through the exhibition, despite there being an extraordinary range of works, those most relevant to the history and development of performance art in China suffered from the lack of context provided, specifically of the complex web of relationships and circumstances that inspired them. This was manifest in various ways, foremost in the neutering affect that this pristine space had upon many of the works in the show, and in particular those associated with real acts of performance: He Yunchang’s “Keeping Promise” was originally a work of gruelling endurance. The artist had himself incarcerated in a concrete block in a gallery for 24 hours, alone in total darkness with no escape. Here, the performance was rendered in a single photograph of the artist as he emerged half suffocated and exhausted in front of the audience. A dramatic image but one that provided little sense of the extraordinary physical and, one imagines, psychological experience that preceded it.
“If Liu Xiaodong accepts the labelling of his painting from life as performance, then do we need to reappraise the same preference in historical figures like van Gogh, Monet or Turner—the latter surely a candidate for a performance artist if ever there was one? Or is that too literal an interpretation?”
What was most intriguing, though, was the inclusion of works that were not only notproduced by a self-professed performance artist, but that visually and intrinsically have little relation to performance per se. Foremost here are works by Yang Maoyuan and Duan Jianyu, but includes Liu Wei’s “Landscape No. 4, 6” (2004), Zhou Tiehai’s “Magazine Covers” (1995-97), and Zhan Wang’s piece as well as pieces already discussed. Of course, the interpretation of performance under such a wide-ranging context, or as a “consciousness of performance” (or “performative expression within contemporary art,” as the curator Leng Lin prefers to describe it) is an interesting idea, innovative even. How about the surprising inclusion of the painter Liu Xiaodong, who has always asserted a distance from even conceptual practice? If he accepts the labelling of his painting from life as performance, then do we need to reappraise the same preference in historical figures like van Gogh, Monet or Turner—the latter surely a candidate for a performance artist if ever there was one? Or is that too literal an interpretation? Several works led off in a more appreciable direction: for example Xu Zhen’s brilliant video “8848-1.86,” a parody of summiting the great mountain peak intended to be seen as a film. There were Qiu Zhijie’s light writing—“writing” done in the air in the dark with a torch before an open camera shutter—which only has visual form as a photograph. Hu Xiangqian’s “Sun,” which shows the artist acquiring a tan, which can also only be experienced via a video produced over time. These represent the various ways that “performative expression” has provided a liberating avenue of exploration for many of China’s most creative minds.
“To choose this distinctly non-mainstream form of art in China, and as a response to particular moments, was never happenstance. To perform was to engage in a moment and effectively to leave no trace of anything that could be used against the individual artist at some point immediately after or in the future.”
Performance has never been an easy choice of artistic career. The urge to “perform” fulfils a different need from that inspired by other art forms, say, painting: it is a full physical immersion in art that—usually—requires the presence of an audience, or interaction with the immediacy of a time and place, to be completed as each artist envisions. Thus, it is not surprising that the development of performance art in China occurs at some of the most challenging times that artists have faced: in the late 1980s, as culture flowered under the radar of economic reforms; in tandem with social change and unrest that these reforms engendered through the 1990s; and against scientific developments in the late 1990s through the start of the new millennium. To choose this distinctly non-mainstream form of art in China, and as a response to particular moments, was never happenstance. To perform was to engage in a moment and effectively to leave no trace of anything that could be used against the individual artist at some point immediately after or in the future. But the need to document these actions and performances was soon felt, hence the significance of the work that photographer Rong Rong did in the 1990s recording the performance works of fellow members of Beijing’s East Village co-operative. These times were, as Rong Rong has described, “dark, dark, dark” (2). These artists were inevitably poor, marginalized, and living on the fringes of society. Their body was the only thing they could call their own, and the works they produced, therefore, have a far different intent, meaning, and resonance than other forms of expression—or even those performance works that followed them in the new millennium by which time all forms of contemporary art in China had achieved a degree of legitimacy and official acceptance. That is, of course, with the exception of performance art, which continues to struggle for validation in the public realm as the organisers of the 8th Shanghai Biennale 2010 would attest (3). According to one writer in an essay on Zhang Huan: “Nothing is more politically, socially, economically or culturally challenged than the free expression of the human body as an autonomous entity. For while we are all inclined to say ‘this is my body,’ the container of ‘my consciousness,’ the body is nonetheless historically hemmed in and determined by many culture-based and structural suppositions of distinction and dissonance” (4). It is hardly surprising therefore that performance art in China has always been presented to a privileged few. Even before an official edict prohibiting it (5), performance art in China was positively underground. Yet, since the inception of an “avant-garde” scene in the mid-1980s, performance has drawn some of China’s most dynamic, innovative and fearless artists.
The question is this: should we really be surprised to find performance art now entering the mainstream? Of course, looking back, 2010 was a good year for performance art. The obvious example is “The Artist is Present,” the solo exhibition of the world’s most famous living performance artist Marina Abramovic held at MoMA, New York. If anything can be said to have made performance art “safe” for general consumption, surely it is this landmark exhibition of a radical performance artist in a major mainstream museum. Billed as the first significant presentation of Abramovic’s art, “The Artist is Present” celebrated four decades of her career: a long road to “popular” recognition, which reflects the choice of positioning of Abramovic herself as an artist, and the general attitudes towards the particularly “extreme” form of performance art she was instrumental in pioneering—relevant here because this is the side of performance that has dominated performance art in China. Flick through the exhibition catalogue and you get an idea of the struggle artists faced in those early years of performance art and to sense the often shocking extremes to which many of them felt they had to go in order to get their message and their commitment across. Abramovic is a relevant example, too, since many of her works have a parallel in the shape, form, and content of those of Chinese performance artists, beginning with the East Village artists in the early 1990s to Sun Yuan and Peng Yu later on. That was inevitable at the time, where artists who wished to depart from the visible norms and to experiment with life itself drew confidence and a certain raison d’être from the work of pioneers such as Abramovic for everything from physical endurance, to placing the body/self in imminent danger, and to the use of live animals or dangerous props.
“‘To Raise the Water Level of a Fish Pond’ (1997), included here, is possibly Zhang Huan’s most widely known and credited works abroad, but the body of earlier works beginning in 1993 is essential to any map of the history of performance art in China: if these were not ‘great performances,’ then how should a great performance be adjudged?”
Perhaps performance art is gaining ground in general—hence Performa as part of the 2010 Shanghai Biennale. It was also this year that, in conjunction with an exhibition of works from the Domus Collection at UCCA in 798, Beijing art audiences were able to experience the very latest in “cutting-edge” performance from the Chinese-Canadian artist Terence Koh. UCCA also offered the mother of monumental performances—if ever there was a performance it was surely this—in “Hope Tunnel,” Zhang Huan’s rescue of a train buried in Sichuan earthquake. Zhang Huan is, of course, one of China’s leading performance artists, its most infamous even, and is, too, represented by Pace. Thus, he was surely under-represented in the work included in Great Performances: there was no mention of “Hope Tunnel.” “To Raise the Water Level of a Fish Pond” (1997), included here, is possibly Zhang Huan’s most widely known and credited works abroad, but the body of earlier works beginning in 1993 is essential to any map of the history of performance art in China: if these were not “great performances,” then how should a great performance be adjudged? In a historic sense, the works of other artists, like Ma Liuming, Wang Jin, Yang Zhichao, Zhu Fadong, Zhang Dali, Zhao Bandi and Sun Yuan & Peng Yu, were more representative: a photograph of “Fen-Ma Liuming” in female costume from 1993; one image from the triptych “Red Flag Canal” (1994), showing the artist dying a river red with “brick dust”; images of “Planting Grass” in the artist’s shoulder, 2000; photos of this “Artist for Sale” (1995); a single image of Zhang Dali’s infamous graffiti tag from the “Demolish” series; a selection of the info-posters featuring “Bandi”; and a video of “Dogs which cannot touch each other” (2003). Each of these interventions has a place in history, and many fed off each other as well as the circumstances of the society and the art scene they were intended to defy or, arguably, to defile. Qin Ga’s “Miniature Long March” has resonance here, as does Ma Qiusha’s performance “From 4 Pingyuanli to 4 Tianqiao beili,” although as artists they, like Lin Yilin, are perhaps as yet less well known to general audiences.
“Each of these interventions has a place in history, and many fed off each other as well as the circumstances of the society and the art scene they were intended to defy or, arguably, to defile.”
“The mediation of random text—quotations from the artists out of context, or from philosophers / theorists whose connection to the artists is unclear—for me, at least, intruded upon viewing and interpreting the works. Some kind of historical timeline or overview would have helped set the scene for those more dramatic videos of actual performances.”
“This type of work cannot be separated from the context either in which it was conceived, actuated, or, latterly, in which it is presented. It is an extreme act, with little in the way of redeeming features, laced with anger, violence and isolated solitude, hopeless helplessness.”
It doesn’t matter that, in addressing an art form that does not have a high profile in the art world, “Great Performances” would include artists as yet unfamiliar to viewers. What does matter is that there was no real attempt to address the unfamiliar, either the complexities that underscore performance art, or the forms it has adopted and embraced. The mediation of random text—quotations from the artists out of context, or from philosophers / theorists whose connection to the artists is unclear—for me, at least, intruded upon viewing and interpreting the works. Some kind of historical timeline or overview would have helped set the scene for those more dramatic videos of actual performances—Yang Zhichao being one, Wang Qingsong another, and Ma Qiusha. All could be seen as shocking but, equally, each illustrates the extremes to which such artists were willing to go to make themselves seen and to be taken seriously; ergo, the most extreme of works from Zhu Yu, like “Skin Graft” and “Eating People” (both 2000). In “123,456 Chops,” Wang Qingsong performs a death by a thousand cuts on the corpse of a dead goat. We are not privy to the manner in which the goat met its death, and are instead forced to wonder and to imagine why the artist chose this mode of expression. This type of work cannot be separated from the context either in which it was conceived, actuated, or, latterly, in which it is presented. It is an extreme act, with little in the way of redeeming features, laced with anger, violence and isolated solitude, hopeless helplessness. In the artist’s words, it is specifically “imbued with the general attitude, personality and character we are taught is the ideal male in Chinese society,” which is perhaps hard to reconcile with the newly minted image of the “metrosexual male” in Western society. Its placing in this “blue-chip” gallery was awkward and made a theatrical, callous gesture of what was a consciously constructed act.
The main reason that “Great Performances” feels like an opportunity missed is that it is arguably the first exhibition of its kind to take place in Beijing and could have marked a milestone in its art history. It says much about the perception of galleries, about success, and about achievement in in the Chinese art world that artists who have successfully navigated the complexities of live performance within the constraints of the highly controlled or watched public arena find it now natural to present their demonstrative stands against social convention, mores, and controls in mainstream, albeit elitist, galleries. In terms of art, Beijing Commune would have been so much better suited to the task, but to return to the analogy of punk, this type of exhibition makes the unknown / abnormal safe.
If the title didn’t lay claim to a theme, none of the above would really matter. And maybe taking issue is merely being pedantic: it was a great selection of works after all. I can’t help feeling that comment is necessary, however: because the positioning of galleries like Pace and that of curator Leng Lin command huge respect, where they lead, others follow. So we can expect a spate of further presentations of performance art. Great or not: who will be in a position to decide?
1. Gallery press release.
2. Rong Rong in conversation with the critic Gu Zheng, “World Photography Festival,” Bund 18, Shanghai, 16 October 2010.
3. This is in specific reference to the Performasection of the Biennale.
4. Mark Gisbourne “Zhang Huan: Palimpsest: Writing on the Body,” Zhang Huan, published by Gallery Volker Diehl, Germany, 2006.
5. In 2001, it was specifically outlawed by the Ministry of Culture in a “Notice on its Resolution to Cease All Performances and Bloody, Brutal Displays of Obscenity in the Name of ‘Art’.” The ban has yet to be formally lifted. See Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, published by MoMA, 2010.