Inspired by the Opera—interview with art historian Wu Hung on Performativity in Art

by 作者:Dasha Filipova
translated by 译: Lu Wanwan 路弯弯

Inspired by the Opera: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video

Smart Museum of ArtThe University of Chicago (5550 S Greenwood Ave, Chicago) February 13–June 15, 2014

For the occasion of University of Chicago’s “Envisioning China”—a five month festival of forty China-inspired events and exhibitions, Wu Hung, who is a professor in the Art History department at the university, has curated “Inspired by the Opera: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video.” The show presents the work of four contemporary Chinese artists, and is held in conjunction with the larger exhibition “Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture” at the Smart Museum, co-curated by Judith Zeitlin, faculty at the East Asian department and Wu Hung’s spouse.

The scholar, critic, and curator Wu Hung has furthered the conversation on medium-based division at the center of Chinese modern and contemporary art, a division that culturally demarcates work by being either a Western-style oil painting (xihua) or done in the traditional Chinese style (guohua)—predominantly in ink. Pivotal to Wu Hung’s interest in experimental and new media work, of which this show is a clear extension, is the idea that video and photography are not culturally specific, and thus offer a way out of the quibble over medium-specificity..

The four artists selected by Wu Hung—Liu Wei, Chen Qiulin, Liu Zheng and Cui Xiuwen—appropriate the visual and gestural language of traditional Chinese opera in very different ways. It becomes apparent that the engagement with the imagery is not at all a commentary on the opera tradition itself (unlike the didactic works in the larger show, which shares the exhibition space with “Inspired by the Opera”), and in some cases, the work is not even fully conscious of this visual inheritance. Instead, the artists engage with subjects intimate and personal, for instance sexuality and identity, power and annihilation, performance and anxiety. What is most striking about the exhibition is the interaction between and layering of diverse cultural references and the fact that the artists are not consumed by the implicit “Chinese-ness” of an exhibition dedicated to traditional Chinese opera. By not engaging explicitly with Chinese opera in the work—i.e. the work is not about the opera—the artists overcome the exclusive belonging to this tradition; they then fold smoothly into another, more subtle and very contemporary layer: the conversation on identity and performativity which is central to contemporary queer aesthetics today. Concepts of “the stage,” being in the spotlight, “invisibility” and a prolific sense of sexual anxiety all play out in the works on view. Wu Hung discusses his thinking behind the selection of artists for the show and comments on these new, complex dichotomies in conversation with randian.

Chinese, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Mask Designs for Court Opera Characters, ca. 1746–95, Album leaves, ink and color on paper. © The Field Museum, Photographer John Weinstein.(1644–1911) 中国清代(1644-1911)《宫廷戏曲角色脸谱设计》,约1746-95年,纸本设色、水墨。©菲尔德自然史博物馆,摄影师John Weinstein.

Wu Hung giving a tour at Smart Museum. Courtesy of Smart Museum.


Dasha Filippova: Can you speak about how the project came together and about your experience collaborating with your spouse, Judith T. Zeitlin?

Wu Hung: I suggested doing two separate sections [for “Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts and Culture” at the Smart Museum]. The traditional part becomes more historical, and the contemporary part becomes separate because the logic is quite different in these two components. “Inspired by the Opera: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video” became a smaller show, but in conversation with the bigger show.

DF: In relation to the Three Gorges Dam work (Rhapsody on Farewell; Bie Fu [别赋], 2002), Lu Jie’s “Long March Project” comes to mind, and the utopian idea behind a reenactment of the historic Long March; it was explicitly made to intertwine art with original Chinese context and history. Call it “anxiety over influence” or resistance to the seduction of Western ways, but I suppose critics and art historians are always very aware of these things. Artists themselves do not think of that as often.

WH: I feel that critics or curators or writers can often overemphasize how important tradition is in contemporary art (laughs). In the introduction to the show, I mention the dichotomy between Eastern and Western art. And that is the general context of modern Chinese art in the 20th Century. From the 20th Century, Chinese art was divided into these two big systems, or camps. Now, contemporary art has to deal with this dichotomy. In a way, new mediums or new forms provide a way out. When you use a video or a photograph—these forms are not strictly speaking culturally-coded—they are not Chinese or Western, unlike oil painting or ink painting. These artists’, sources are just images, and their logic is no longer Chinese versus Western. It’s a very postmodern style.

Liu Wei, still from “The Shadow”, video, running time 2:47, 2001; courtesy of the artist.

DF: The exhibition itself poses another dichotomy, beyond Eastern and Western mediums. Traditional Chinese opera on one hand is a seemingly clear signifier, but on the other hand, we have performance and “performativity, which speak to Western culture wars, and international contemporary conversations over identity, queerness, sexuality This part of the exhibition folds into the larger, critical conversation, and much beyond Chinese traditional opera. Cui Quiwen (崔岫闻; b. 1970) and Liu Zheng do engage with queerness and identity issues explicitly, but to what extent is this an explicit theme of the show or the Festival?

WH: Yes. In these four works alone, we have quite different subjects. “Rhapsody on Farewell” is really about a contemporary event, and Cui Xiuwen’s three videos are largely about her identity and her sexuality, and about her memories of herself as a little girl. Although these artists use a lot of elements from the theater, it’s really about something else. It’s about themselves, about different things… Opera offers them a sort of means through the images. Liu Zheng, the photographer, is especially interested in this artificial kind of image—things that look like statues —and there is a weird kind of symbolism there; opera very naturally becomes this “half real, half unreal” theme. I was surprised by how many opera-inspired images were there in his 100-piece set of “The Chinese” (The series “My Countrymen/Guoren” [国人], alternatively known as “The Chinese”). And I was wondering: Why? And it’s because the mask offers an opportunity to be both real and unreal. There is a surreal feeling about it: one image of an older man performing as a young girl.

DF: It seems that each artist engages with visual inheritance, an engagement with structures of power—like Liu Wei’s “Forbidden City” (紫禁城, 2000),or with fantasy and transcendence in Cui Xiuwen’s work (reference to “Drifting Lantern” 飘灯, 2005 and “TOOT,” 2001).

WH: This term “performance,”—is realized on many levels. Play itself is a kind of performance, and here the artists play in different ways. New media provides a kind of venue to re-perform certain things. Like Liu Wei’s masks—it’s like a game, almost. The mask is totally artificial, but somehow he makes these connections between his real face and the mask’s expression—which is a complete construct. It’s an interesting visual game, but I don’t think he deals with any profound meaning or social critique. There is a childish feeling, or excitement about it.

DF: This makes me think of seeing something like Commedia dell’Arte, where there are only a few masked archetypes, and so you must choose among them.

WH: For Liu Wei, it’s almost as of the face is pulled upon by different forces—destroyed, or about to vanish. There are two kinds of transformation: one is into these old masks, and the other about total disappearance, total destruction. And if you look at TOOT—Cui Xiuwen uses this paper to wrap her body and then stands in water—it’s a very sad piece. Chinese theater often uses this kind of scene of a single person on a stage with certain gestures.

Chen Qiulin, Still from “River, River”, video, ruvning time 16:00, 2005; courtesy of the artist 
陈秋林, 《江河水》截图,视频,时长16分钟,2005; 版权归艺术家所有
Liu Zheng, “An Old Peking Opera Actor Playing a Female Role”, Beijing, 1995 (negative; this impression printed 2007), from the series My Countrymen (Guoren, alternately translated as The Chinese), gelatin silver print. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago; the Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions, 2013

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