The Body at Stake: Experiments in Chinese Contemporary Art and Theatre [Paperback ed.] 3837623092, 9783837623093

This publication enquires into the role and treatment of the body in the visual culture of contemporary China. What mean

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The Body at Stake: Experiments in Chinese Contemporary Art and Theatre [Paperback ed.]
 3837623092, 9783837623093

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Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan (eds.) The Body at Stake

Image | Volume 49

Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan (eds.)

The Body at Stake Experiments in Chinese Contemporary Art and Theatre

Institute for Critical Theory (ith) Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) The Institute for Critical Theory (Head of Institute: Prof. Dr. Jörg Huber) is part of the Department of Cultural Analysis (Head of Departement: Prof. Dr. Christoph Weckerle) of the Zurich University of the Arts (President: Prof. Dr. Thomas D. Meier); Zurich Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts

Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data are available in the Internet at © 2013 transcript Verlag, Bielefeld

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Cover layout: Kordula Röckenhaus, Bielefeld Cover illustration: Zhang Huan, »Family Tree«, Picture No. 3 (out of 9, detail), New York 2000. Proofread by Sarah Ress, Bielefeld Typeset by Justine Haida, Bielefeld Printed by Majuskel Medienproduktion GmbH, Wetzlar ISBN 978-3-8376-2309-3


Preface Jörg Huber | 7

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body in Contemporary Chinese Culture Zhang Nian | 17

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art Zhang Hong | 29

The Politics and Poetics of the Body Gao Shiming | 43

A Talk with Xiang Jing Zhao Chuan | 53

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body” in Contemporary Chinese Photography Gu Zheng | 67

Caught in Art’s Haze Lu Yinghua | 87

Physical Odyssey Zhao Chuan | 99

The Physical Body on the Grass Stage Li Yinan | 113

Physical Rebels Li Ning | 121

Female Memory Begins with the Body Wen Hui | 131

Theatre: Memory in Progress Wu Wenguang | 135

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field Three Stages of Practice and Progress, from Martial Law, Abrogation, to the Post Martial Law Period Amy Cheng | 145

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond The Lifework of Hsieh Tehching, Hsieh Ying-Chun, Wu-Chong-Wei,Graffitist Huang, DINO and Tsai-Show-Zoo Lin Chiwei | 157

Picture Essay Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan | 183

Twelve Flower Months Chen Lingyang | 209

A Talk with Jin Feng Zhao Chuan | 217

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing Yang Guang, Zheng Bo | 231

My Art and the World Lu Yang | 245

An Interview Cao Fei | 257

A Concept of Beauty Yang Fudong | 263

The Authors | 271


The present publication enquires into the role and treatment of the body in the visual culture of contemporary China (and Taiwan Region). What meanings are assigned to it in artistic practice, what does it represent and what (hi)stories does it refer to? On one hand, great importance is assigned to the body in discourse here in the West with a view to techno-ecologies and biopolitics, making one wonder whether and how these concerns are dealt with in other cultures; on the other, it is astonishing how the body has been brought into play following the cultural evolution, making it a salient factor in art and discourse. A few brief remarks follow. The art of the Cultural Revolution essentially ignored the body as self-contained material or subject matter. It was always and only a schematic adjunct of religious, cultural and social exigencies. Under Mao, the body was an ideological medium, functionalized and brought into play, if at all, to serve pathetic, formalized purposes: exaggerated or ignored. Some of the contributions in this publication discuss the paradoxes attendant on these paradigmatic revolutionary bodies. Generally speaking, artists had to find themselves in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and redefine their role and function as professional, freelance practitioners within the triangle of art, life and the public arena. This applied across the board, initially overshadowing the question of gender. Determining where one stood as an author was related to self-determination as an individual, as a subject and a self, and, in the final analysis, as a self-contained entity in a society undergoing a process of profound differentiation. It is, of course, imperative to examine the Chinese perception of the terms ‘individual’, ‘subject’ and ‘self’ as these cannot be transferred one-to-one to our cultural context. Substantial importance is ascribed to the body as a means of orientation and placement, for it is itself an arena and medium of social experience. The challenge lies in exploring how art can represent the individual and collective experiences that emerge in the wake of historical change and the anticipation of a newly won freedom. That also entails finding artistic means to express suffering


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and desire, wishes and ideas, anger and criticism. Two contesting aspects form the background to these developments: on one hand, the appreciation of tradition as an ethical and moral fabric combined with the idea of harmony between human and whole, between culture and nature, so that the body is never really a ‘problem’ and certainly not a locus of independent detachment; on the other hand, the increasingly acute awareness of all the manifold processes of subjectivation, advanced and made possible by ‘modernism’. The body becomes the arena in which art pushes these contradictory trends to almost inconceivable extremes, waging a battle on the cusp between discipline versus self-determination; between control versus libidinous manifestation; and between the pathos of valuing life and the physical versus the self-abasement and contempt of creaturely existence to the point of killing oneself (Zhang Shengquan) and ritualizing torture-like practices. One is struck by the often vehement, expressive forms and procedures enlisted in displaying a physical (and mental) aesthetics of transgression – without explicitly involving the body as a self-contained subject matter of art. It is above all a means, a material, and a medium of criticism, polemics and protest. Expression, pure and unadulterated. It has only been about ten years since the body began to figure as the inspiration and subject matter of specific forms of reflection with the rise of globalization and the onslaught of consumerism: a culture of spectacle that operates affectively, exploiting the body as both agent and target. Is it is here that the present selection of essays sets in, following the same principle that guided our previous publication, A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China. The official art trade is not important to us (except perhaps as a foil). Rather, we are interested in the personal reflections of Chinese protagonists on what is actually physically happening today with regard to their bodies and those of others, in spirit and soul and on a variety of stages. Zhao Chuan and I asked artists, theatre practitioners and theorists about their personal experiences, their thoughts and views, and also their experiments in implementing them in practice. We hope, of course, that these reports, conversations and thoughts will attract an interested public not only in the West but in China as well. Before continuing with this synopsis of contributions, I would like to thank all of the contributors, translators and image editors for their commitment: ChiWei Chang, Paul Gladston, Kate Griffiths, Lorenz Helbling, Kirk Kenny, Eva Lüdi Kong, Catherine Schelbert, Benjamin Marius Schmidt, Gavin Shen, Dora Tan, Helen Wallimann, Wu Meng, Yu Lin Na and Ouyang Yu. My very special gratitude goes to my friend and co-editor Zhao Chuan for a truly inspiring and fruitful collaborative venture. *


Zhang Nian approaches the body as one of the greatest challenges in the culture and politics of China. In the Cultural revolution, provocation appeared in paradoxical shape. On one hand, the body (and its sensations) was the enemy of the revolution, the symbol of the counterrevolution and a bourgeois consciousness. It was diametrically opposed to the pure consciousness represented by the revolution and embodied in the ideology of Communist Party. On the other hand, how could/should the proletariat acquire an awareness of the body, for it has no body at its disposal, having surrendered it to the revolution. As the revolutionary movement progressed, the dualism of body and soul established itself as a constant. The notion of the enemy was logically bound up with this dialectic: the enemy was not only on the outside, in other people, but also on the inside, in a false consciousness. And yet the body was the very foundation required to bring about a change of consciousness. As pinpointed by Deng Xiao Ping, the people need bread, not ideology. A materialism emerged in opposition to the ‘spiritualisation’ of the revolution that corresponded to changing currents in economic developments. The call for a renewed significance of the body thus came from another side as well. Mass culture and consumerism advanced the possibility of bringing it into play again against political ideologies and hence also against the voices that denounced these new possibilities as capitalistic decadence: “The re-emergence of the body’s needs brings China’s modernity back to its starting point to liberate the ‘body’ once again.” And, as Zhang Nian writes, this can only succeed from the bottom up and not from the top down, that is, from the body itself and not from some ideological imperative. “The body in socialist revolutionary movements is the physical carrier of classconsciousness and the main site of class struggle.” Taking a similar point of departure, Zhang Hong eloquently demonstrates how the revolutionary body was officially represented and deployed in Chinese art and culture. He also shows how the body as subject matter was and still is factored into performance art by critical and contrary art practitioners. The question arises whether these are simply different modes of functionalizing and deploying the body for various purposes and goals. Zhang Hong underscores the critical necessity of taking a closer look at the (self)-reflection involved in an artist’s practice and at the potential of communicating art through life, in other words, transferring it to the practice of life itself, as eminently illustrated by Ai Weiwei in a diversity of projects. According to Gao Shiming, Xiang Jing’s sculptures of human figures, as ‘All’, ‘Any One’ and ‘Every One’, encourage inquiry into the ego, the subject, and into Heidegger’s ‘one’. Gao Shiming elaborates the way in which the artist’s individual, portrait-like figures evolve into monologic bodies. He situates her experimentation with the single ‘individual among many’ in the larger context



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of Western notions and interpretations of the body, from Plato to Foucault and from ancient sculpture to Cindy Sherman. Within this framework, he addresses a poetic soliloquy to Your Body, a seated figure that is one of Xiang Jing’s key works. It is a large figure, a body with none of the features that define an individual. It is marked by divestment: a physical body, flesh, the figure that has lost its self in consumerism and all the other accoutrements of contemporary life. A body that belongs to no one, unsettling in its anti-monumental monumentality, a striking body – “like a sudden and unexpected prick amidst the even density of reality”. A body that begins talking about herself, an exposition of spirit and soul, beyond the symbols and narratives that are constantly ascribed to it, classifying it. “The body rocks the decadent soul”, as sung by the Chinese pop star Cui Jian. In a conversation with Zhao Chuan, Xiang Jing has the opportunity to speak for herself. Among other works, she refers to Your Body in elucidating her artistic experimentation with a kind of existential corporeality. The body is a medium through which sensations and feelings are experienced, starting with her own body and moving on to sensitive observation of others. Her work is about the ‘self’, the person, a state of being, a generalized state, which – precisely because it is general – can only enter art through a radical subjectivity, through a firstperson narrative style. This notion of a ‘Humanum’ opens a space for a third being beyond the (power) struggles of (gender) contradictions: in other words, the practical experience of life, and not an abstract programme. “Your Body” is therefore our body; the sculpture touches a fundamental chord and it also means “pain, distress, comfort, depression”. “What I’m waiting for is that moment when the piece acquires a soul and comes to life before my eyes.” The figure looks at us: “When that happens, it really feels like I’m standing face to face with a real person.” With an expert, panoramic eye, Gu Zheng describes the historical and cultural transformation of the last 30 years as mirrored in photography. He distinguishes three ‘genres’ and artistic approaches: first, the documentary trend, which observes how the body bears witness to an age or ‘documents’ the ideal images of the imagination; secondly, the body as a medium of expression, of performativity; and thirdly, strategies of staging bodies. At the same time, he discusses fundamental questions such as the role of realism in the medium of photography and artistic practice in various historical and social contexts: the documentary and the metaphorical; agitprop and the political effectiveness of art; the role of the author in the context of various media, etc. Lu Yinghua directs her attention to the same period, focusing, however, on the development of performance art, specifically work with and on the body of the


artists themselves. Lu Yinghua emphasizes the importance of the raw physical energy and the mental state in body performances. They are about emotions and affections, intuition and instinct, about the unpredictability and uncontrollability of experience. In foregrounding the mediation of everyday life, of one’s own existential situation, it is the artistic process rather than the finished ‘work’ that is crucial. The qualities that mark artistic work with the body over the past three decades run into counter tendencies of art formatted on the basis of the burgeoning art market and the art industry along with the contexts that take their cue from art criticism and a discourse influenced by the West and by specific political ideologies. Art itself plays second fiddle; the personal commitment, the vibrant energy, the significance of aesthetic experience, and the power of resistance, all of which distinguish the body performances, are left waiting in the wings. The bitter conclusion reads: “Nowadays art is more or less manufacturing and artists are one and the same as entrepreneurs. One observation that especially stands out when surveying the new direction of the industry is that we no longer see any emotionally potent, engaging works involving the physical body.” This applies equally to the power and energy of the body on stage: “I certainly would not hesitate to sacrifice a dialogue and storyline to let this group of performers let loose their unbridled energy so visibly and unmistakably in plain, public sight. For our Grass Stage group, the only thing we had was this raw, physical energy: an energy that ignored the rules.” Thus does Zhao Chuan describe his theatre Grass Stage, a company of lay people. Its aim is to relate to the everyday, to engage in a critical investigation of the socially embedded body and of public space. That means performing in a variety of places and even creating venues. In the cultural history of China, the author writes, the body was not an issue. When it did appear, it was always clothed and represented in keeping with the figure’s social status and later with political ideologies: the body of the farmer, the soldier, the revolutionary hero. This concept of the body and its representation also prevailed in the culture and tradition of official theatre. The introduction of capitalism, consumer culture and globalization offered means of escaping these formats but led in turn to other forms and strategies of body branding. By working with lay people, Grass Stage explicitly opposes both ideologies and resists the constraints of commercialization; theatre is used to express distinctly personal, singular experiences and to advance the body as place and agent of individual expression, protest, everyday communication and self-determination. The way in which this can succeed is described by Li Yinan as spectator. She sees the group’s “realistic portrayal of the human body” as their “greatest weapon” in resisting ideological rigidity, capitalistic commercialization and the authority of



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classic theatre. Of interest here is the debate on how ‘realistic’ and ‘true’ are to be understood and how such ideas and objectives can be given shape. This leads to the question of the relationship between theatre and consumerism, with a topdown rhetoric turning into interaction with the public and becoming a “social project as a kind of community workshop” (see Zhang Hong’s reference to Ai Weiwei). It is a shift from flaunting the body to working with it and, even here, this shift involves the question of (class) consciousness. To liberate body expression from the alien (particularly Western) imposition of artistic standards and the art trade is also a core concern for Li Ning. His theatre work with lay people foregrounds the body of the individual and personal experience. His physical theatre takes place in everyday surroundings; the actors use their bodies to create a physical presence that interacts with the things around them. “It’s the process of using the body to rearrange a real space into a new reality.” The context is therefore not simply a stage; it is analysed and expanded in the process of acting. The bodies of the actors are like paintbrushes; practicing and acting is a form of sketching: the aim is not to interpret a given script but to be driven from within to move out of oneself. In this way, the exposition of the self and the surroundings intersect. The eccentric interpretation of the body and physicality that emerges in these experiments is diametrically opposed to any of the conventions and criteria that ordinarily apply to both the production and reception of theatre, dance and performance. Everyday lived experience is also Wen Hui’s point of departure. She is active in dance and theatre, so that the body is crucial as a means of expression especially with a view to her own situation and genealogy. The body is the place and medium of memory, through which the individual remembers, experiences and tells his/her story: individual trails as well as social and historical parameters. Significantly, for Wen Hui, wanting to become a dancer had something to do with reclaiming her own body. In her childhood, she remembers being forced into a kind of collective body, in an act of prescribed gestures and dancing in honour of Chairman Mao. The discovery of her own body thus entails exploring memory as a process of subjectivation, and it is no surprise that the artist focuses specifically on working with women and acting out specifically female experiences and narratives. In 1994, Wen Hui founded the Living Dance Studio in Beijing in cooperation with former filmmaker Wu Wenguang. His work has since shifted away from concentrating on the body of the dancer and the performer to more basic aspects of the very nature of the body and corporeality. He shares a commitment to the study of memory with Wen Hui. Speaking about certain modes of rehearsal and the development of performances lasting up to eight hours, Wu Wenguang


impressively explains that the work is not about memory; instead memory is actually being processed on stage. ‘Memory’ is a project that went through several versions, often working with young people who in turn began telling their own stories. To illustrate, the author describes how a young woman’s memories of confrontation with her parents and especially her mother led to self-discovery. (Tradition, parents, family, authority, etc. are important and acknowledged arenas of subjectivation.) Dancing is not an expression of psychology or emotion; it is “dancing motions of remembering”. “Current events write our scripts, the people are our actors and society our stage.” This statement by Wang Mo-lin could be a motto of Amy Cheng’s contribution. She looks back on three examples/phases of artistic and aesthetic protest in Taiwan, in which the body acquired special significance in the attempt to overcome martial law in the 1980s and 1990s. Wang Mo-lin, an important exponent of theatre (who also works with Zhao Chuan), devised a form of action theatre inspired by the Japanese scene. Opposition to the import of modernism from the West is expressed in experimentation with a radical aesthetics. This work focuses on the social significance of the body as a medium of remembering the period of suffering under martial law. Like Amy Cheng, the artist Chen Chieh-jen is not interested in the body as a vehicle of individual psychologies but rather as a physical element in performances, with which he conjured public space before it even existed. Using a different strategy – mounting pictures of himself in historical photographs – he too drew on memory in an attempt to reinterpret history and reveal the underlying structures of power. In addition, he used the medium of film to re-enact scenes of work and struggle with labourers at the original sites of action. The resulting fusion of fiction and reality yields an aesthetic that permits a critical revision of (his own) history. Cheng also refers to the so-called Noise Movement, which emerged among students in the 1990s and consisted of extremely physical, transgressive actions (vandalism, arson, desecration of graves, theft, the publication of perverse materials, etc.). The issue at stake now is what shape this history of resistance in body art will take in an age of globalized consumerism. Noise music also forms the background of one of the six Taiwanese, introduced by Lin Chiwei in his contribution. Since the 1990s, these artists have been working in a variety of contexts, taking different approaches in exposing the paradoxes that underlie the current situation in Taiwan. Their artistic practices operate apart from the official art system, capitalistic conditions of production and Western processes of modernization. They seek to address existing traditions without shying away from the means and potential of current developments in art and the media. Although aware of the cultural concepts that circulate in the West, these artists aim to take an independent position within the framework of



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Taiwan’s indigenous culture. This in turn leads to contradictions since cultural operations in Taiwan are an integral part of the globalization inevitably generated by capitalism and Western modernization. It is interesting to note the way in which this art purveys art and the artist, individually assimilating known practices and genres (performance, graffiti, music, architecture, etc.) while at the same time bringing into play a sense of the unfathomable in work that is vague and open-ended, conjuring the spirit of Eastern religions and philosophies. This art defies being captured in words and eludes classification, yet is still informed with a distinctive, idiosyncratic presence that is extraordinarily radical and politically incisive. According to Lin Chiwei, the majority of the art produced in the West can barely compete in this respect, for it is not self-reflective enough to realize that it is caught up in the official fabric of modernization. The confrontation between personal art practitioners and the official art trade also surfaces in the work of Chen Lingyang, who plays two roles: as Chen Lingyang in her own art and as Chen Lingyang 2 who stands on the outside. Duplication, a useful device for dealing with contrast and conflict, enables her to present controversial issues in contemporary China in such works as Twelve Flower Months, while at the same time commenting on them with the detached stance of an outsider. (In his conversation with Chen Lingyang, Zhao Chuan observes that, had she made the work 10 years ago, she would have landed in jail.) The artist uses her own body as a means of artistic expression, for reasons drawn from her own personal life experience and existence – an approach that can often be observed in Chinese body art. At the same time, her aesthetics relate to the larger context of Chinese tradition and philosophy, binding personal aspects into a more general whole. Correspondingly, the reception of her work oscillates between “poetic, erotic” and “(too) personal, voyeuristic, pornographic”. Opinion is similarly divided as to whether or not her work can be classified as ‘feminist art’. The contributions repeatedly emphasise that integrating the body into art initiates a shift from the work to the process of its production and its reception, and hence a shift from a product of consumption to an inquiry into specific problems and issues. Processes and stories are the stuff of Jin Feng’s art. He works with ‘concrete cases’, usually victims and people on the margins of society or controversial figures, often using them and their bodies in the form of ‘living sculptures’. His subject matter is not the human body but the social body, as Zhao Chuan notes in his conversation with the artist. Jin Feng explores the personal memories and processes that society tends to forget and suppress, specifically “cases” that are symptomatic of a society that promotes modernization without being modern itself. Feng’s criticism is relentless: consumerism is flourishing; the political system is stagnating. The artist encounters each of his


‘cases’ at eye level by introducing himself as an ordinary everyday person, as a very small fish in the sea of the system: “I belong to the lowest rung of society in China.” However, he does not say that just to be on the safe side. Self-criticism is an important element of his work, not least in order to preclude the risk of provocation becoming an end in itself. Questions of artistic quality are important to him, and that entails thinking about what it means to “use” and “exhibit” other people/their bodies in art. The artist has to be an intellectual; he has to stake out the framework within which he reflects on social life. He has to start with his own experiences and bring himself into play as a real person and not as an artist with a capital ‘A’. Only in that way can he justify what is for him the only possible approach in contemporary China, namely an “aesthetics of pain” – and that involves the body. The admonition of urgency also informs the conversation conducted by Zheng Bo and Yang Guang about the work of homosexual artists. Curator Yang Guang mounted China’s first ever event on the subject in 2009, an exhibition entitled “Gender Diversity”. In their conversation, they speak mainly about two very different examples: on one hand, an artist who comes to Beijing as a migrant worker, where he practices the traditional folk art of paper cutting, expressing the struggle between anguish and erotic lust with powerful immediacy; on the other, an artist active in the professional art trade, whose fundamental reflections take shape in a similarly radical personal performance. Such issues as the production of visibility, the social stigmatization of the ‘other’, the role of the audience in this art context, the conflict between private and public and the distinction between real and fictional body are addressed. The conversation clearly shows how difficult it is for homosexual artists to persist in their work (and lives) in contemporary China. In any case, the theme reads: “The body seeks liberation”. According to artist Lu Yang, we can never escape our bodies, and she puts it bluntly when she asks, “If there is a Creator, why create that thing called the body?” Her training in the so-called New Media has allowed her to pursue her interest in the natural sciences, psychology, neurology, biotechnology as well as the current (and future) techno universe. The materials and media of her art are the bodies of animals and people in conjunction with equipment and machines. Lu Yang does not simply make ‘bio cybernetic art’ for galleries; her artistic commitment is an activity that enables her to orient, position and manifest herself in present day. This necessitates an approach so radical that it takes her to the extremes of ethical and moral tolerability and ultimately to the very justification of society itself. Issues of violence and control, the ethics of life, religion and knowledge, rationalism and affects/emotions underscore this aesthetics of existence. At the core of her agenda is the way in which we perceive, think and



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live the body when we turn it into an object and manipulate it, while, at the same time, fully aware that it is not ours to control. As a teenager, Cao Fei embraced pop music, MTV and the consumerism of Western culture. As an artist, she has applied a variety of technical media (audio, Internet, etc.) to experiment with the Internet universe: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and games, avatars and cyborgs. She advances the body as the arena and medium of games of identity and role playing in spaces where distinctions between physical and spiritual, real and virtual, experience and imagination are often blurred. Her art is characterized by affirmative participation in the open-ended potential of a techno universe. At the same time, a critique of consumerism surfaces in her observations and thoughts on these social contexts, demonstrating that the temptation to join in the game can also end in disempowerment. Similar ‘in between areas’ of abstraction, might also be said to surface in the photographs and films produced by Yang Fudong. The gestures, poses, movements and gazes of his figures are curiously de-individualized and detached. In a conversation with the artist, he discusses the concept of beauty in the abstract body, a notion of particular interest not least because of his artistic experiments with the norms and paradigms dictated by the world of consumerism and essentially governing our self-images. Yang Fudong has also produced films commissioned by major brands. Some of the remarks he made in the course of the conversation are reprinted here. Jörg Huber Translation from German: Catherine Schelbert

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body in Contemporary Chinese Culture Zhang Nian

As a refusal of oppressive ideology, the entry of ‘the body’ into the arena is a factor that has triggered contemporaneity in Chinese culture. It appears as a kind of a mind-body dualism with its logical contradictions causing political parties that embrace Marxism to return once again to a materialistic standpoint. After the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiao Ping, the man really in power at the time, publicly declared “seeking truth from facts” to be the ruling principal. The intellectual world responded to this by referring to it as “farewell to the revolution”. In the general consensus it was referred to as “the philosophy of food for the people”1 and its theoretical basis was ‘humanism’ as found in Marxist thought. Although the words ‘farewell’, ‘revolution’, ‘food for the people’, ‘philosophy’, and ‘humanism’ appear strange, behind them there lies a hidden message which is ‘bread not ideology’. The greatest form of humanism was to acknowledge and safeguard the most basic biological needs of people, and this was the kind of national politics that the world in that time could understand. As with biological systems, the political system has a survival instinct. It has to fight for its right to exist, to be fed and clothed, and to store up physical strength and energy. Before the body becomes a site for the control of power, it must first have an existence. Therefore, the choices and changes in contemporary China are not world significant happenings but are directed towards the self. The reason this turnaround in global history appears to have taken place is because the workers of the world did not unite and, as the abandoned children of Marxism, have to see how they can rescue themselves. 1 | Chinese contemporary thinker Li Ze Hou believes that the changes that took place during the era of Deng Xiao Ping threw off ideological differences, abandoning ‘isms’ for ‘common sense’, and returning to traditional pragmatism. Resolving basic human problems was the main political concept of the Deng era; he called it ‘the philosophy of food for the people’. See Farewell to Revolution by Li Ze Hou & Liu Zai Fu, Hong Kong, Heaven and Earth Publishing Company, 1995.


Zhang Nian

1. THE C ALL OF H UMANISM : G IVE U S B ACK O UR B ODIES This is analogous to signs of life returning. As the first stage in the politics of the body, ‘humanism’ as written about in contemporary China has completely different implications2 . In the context of everything that has taken place in the history of this ancient ethnic group of the Han, if the Cultural Revolution can be viewed simply a part of history, the life sciences can explain it as an abrupt change in the genes. And if this people are merely a link that forms the corporeal basis for the development of a historical rationale, the paradox is: what revolution requires is precisely the negation of the human body. This encompasses gender, as determined by structural differences in the body; as well as morale, perception, desire, the mind, emotions, fatigue, depression and addictions etc., which are determined by the functioning of the organs. The body is the ‘enemy’ of devotees of the Communist Party, and the bourgeoisie exists by virtue of a permissive body that is decadent and in decline. The flashpoint of real materialist critique resides in the ‘body’, and a direct consequence of the negation of the body is disdain for economic development. The development of the economy represents material wealth and creates an abundance of temptations that cause an irrevocable conflict of interest. There follows a kind of life of refinement that signifies control over human weaknesses. Merely resisting temptation is not sufficient; its origins must be eliminated. Of course, the so-called roles of ‘spirit’ versus ‘material’ are occupied by Communism and Capitalism respectively although as historical phenomena neither has a good reputation in practice. ‘Continuing the revolution’ can be construed in terms of the pursuit of human excellence—“noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests”3 . High ideals and their ability to move people came about precisely because once people were not 2 | In the 1970s, China’s intellectual world saw heated debate around ‘humanism’. This spread to issues such as the market, economics, the alienation of labour, and exploitation. According to the beliefs of right-wing theorists such as Wang Ruo Shui, alienation can also exist within a socialist society, for example, the historical fact of the oppression of intellectuals during Mao Ze Dong’s era, which caused a loss of human values and dignity. However, left-wing supporters of socialist theory believe that it is precisely the policy of ‘continuing the revolution’ that has allowed people to keep their dignity on a political level. ‘Continuing the revolution’ as a kind of world-view has, on a political level, brought about genuine ‘humanism’. See Hu Qiao Mu’s On Problems Concerning Humanism and Alienation. The author was formerly an official theorist of the management of ideological work. 3 | This is from Mao Ze Dong’s well-known essay “In Memory of Norman Bethune”. Norman Bethune, or Bai Qiu’ En, was a Canadian doctor who, during the 1940s, abandoned the comfort of a material life to travel to Yan’An as chief medic to support Communist

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body

refined or pure enough and their taste was not elevated; the betterment and purification of humanity was therefore a genuine demand. ‘Class struggle’ within a society without a ‘bourgeoisie’ did not have political significance since the political rights of the proletariat had already been established; nor did it have economic significance since a capitalist system did not exist. So who was the ‘enemy’? The definition of ‘enemy’ is problematic. In a public ownership system, everyone is proletarian, but that does not go far enough. Capitalism with its human signature rights has created an ‘internal’ enemy. The crux of the struggle is how to eliminate the internalised enemy of the people, which takes the form of capitalist consciousness. How to externalise the ‘Other’ within consciousness is no longer to do with Marxism, it is to do with Hegelian dialectics in which subjectivity has been denied. This is a spiritual drama of the self that is played out in campaigns within large-scale societies. In order to demonstrate one’s nobility and purity, purification must undergo two processes: the first takes the self to be the enemy, who must be investigated; the second takes other people to be the enemy, who must be accused. This constitutes the entirety of political life under the direction of the guiding principle of class struggle. The high degree of ideological ‘spiritualisation’ required for ‘struggle’ is nothing to do with the ‘thinking life’ admired by philosophers. As part of an alchemic process, everyday struggle has turned life into an existence in which, the self is first deprecated to the point of criminalisation and dehumanisation, and then subjected to self-examination in order to qualify as a ‘survivor’. The proletarian revolution wants to smash the old order and change the world, which as we know it at present, is full of oppression and exploitation. Once the ‘cannibalistic’ system4 has been eliminated, the next thing is to change people’s spiritual world and, of course, the starting point is the bottom line of humanity. The difficult issue of ‘continuing the revolution’ then becomes a question of how the ‘revolutionaries’ change their body. Thereupon two significant sacrifices appear: before the revolution, there is the heroism of risking one’s life; after it, the ‘revolution’ to preserve life takes place. An important pre-requisite for the latter is to offer the body as public property to the state and collective control. A revolution in which one has no choice then becomes a life in which one scrapes by, a kind of extreme revolution, in which people’s sense of existence is reduced to mere ability to draw breath. In this case, ‘continuing the revolution’ is not simply a concept or a way of actively inventing various forms of resistance, since a genuine revolutionary must have ownership of the body before he can know Party leaders during the Chinese Revolution. Mao Ze Dong commended him greatly, and this essay was known in nearly every household in China. 4 | A reference to Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman, in which he criticises the Chinese feudal system.



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what tribute can be made to noble causes. Once the body has been divested of its ownership, the ‘revolution’ that the revolutionary has created becomes his master. He no longer owns the revolution; rather, he is owned by the revolution. If, as the most primitive kind of material being, the body is supported by capitalism, then its opposite—consumption—belongs to the revolution. This is demonstrated by the extreme degree to which socialist culture worships intense physical labour. But it is here that the materiality of the body differs from other kinds of materiality, in that it cannot be completely controlled by consciousness, nor can it be entirely influenced by real relations. The achievement of unity of body and mind is governed by two conditions: the relinquishing of the body or the disregard of the spirit. This can only be established through the elimination and suppression of one by the other. That is to say, if people want to prove the purity of their ‘revolutionary’ spirit, then abandoning all matter external to the body is not enough; the final ‘counter-revolutionary’ stronghold is the body. At this time, the object of struggle is no longer a tangible ‘enemy’ that possesses armies, seizes national power or is involved in systematic corruption and fraud. The ‘enemy’ is the body, which produces evidence of counter-revolution such as hunger, fatigue, fear, and disease. While the enemy stationed within the body produced these symptoms on the level of the unconscious, the ‘revolution’ also sought to temporarily alleviate them by ‘drinking poison’. Despite the ‘greatness, glory and correctness’ of the political system, its corporeal foundation was forfeited and on the verge of suicidal collapse. Ignorance of the body has often been greater than the imagination, and consciousness of the body is even harder to master than consciousness of people. The body lies both within and outside the bounds of cognition; it is both object and subject. When people experience disorders in the functioning of the body, they are powerless and have no conscious control over it. For example, people are both familiar and unfamiliar with the historical body, the political body and body of the people; with regards to the experience of the body, it is very difficult to distinguish the boundary between the voluntary and involuntary. If one is willing to give everything you have to the party or to great and noble causes, one should first be clear about what the ‘self’ or ‘everything one has’ means. If ‘everything one has’ means all tangible matter external to the body as well as one’s own abstract consciousness, then ‘selflessness’ is a false proposition, since how can someone who forfeits his own consciousness be aware of what he is doing? According to this logic, we can say that a ‘slave’ with no consciousness gives himself to a ‘master’ who represents noble causes. According to Hegel’s master/ slave dialectic, the former represents the will and the latter represents practice. As a philosophy of the dialectics of consciousness, the success of subjectivity is an upward spiral. On the site of the body, the revolution originally wanted to smash the chains of the self formed by the body so that the proletariat could completely obliterate the fact that they had nothing: on the level of conscious-

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body

ness, the proletariat represented the negative existence of bourgeois consciousness; in terms of material existence, the proletariat negated all forms of property including the body. Because of this, it is not possible to disregard the body; otherwise the political system (like life systems) will wither away. In the name of humanism, the occurrence of the contemporary in China secretly disseminates the most fundamental desire—a kind of fundamental plea: return our bodies. And, in political and economic arenas, this has opened up the complexity of contemporary issues.

2. THE O RIGINS OF THE B ODY ’S N EEDS : THE F ORMATION OF P ERSONAL V ALUES In Western culture, there is two-dimensional response to the question of the body and belonging: one is theology (law) and the other is epistemology. The latter—as the body of knowledge—represents the putting into practice of knowledge, which prevents people from being enslaved and symbolizes the coming into being of modern individuality. In Chinese culture, every Chinese person knows this Confucian phrase: “the body is a gift from one’s parents”, meaning that we should value the things given to us by birth. This is by no means simply a biological expression since “a gentleman’s morals originate in conjugal relations”5, the origins of ethics is the body. What this tells people is that: from the day you are born, you share the same destiny as your body and it becomes a kind of ethical debt. Once the body is embedded within an ethical framework, the question of ownership no longer exists, and its independence is unimaginable. Debt and repayment form the most basic grammar of ethics and turn the history of ‘the body’ into a morality play. The body is not an independent object of cognition but is a result of the evolution of natural philosophy (consisting of ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ and the ‘five elements’) and conforms to the rhythms of nature just as living things do; the body and living beings of the natural world are no different. People’s moral practice and the “cardinal guides and five constant virtues”6 that they adhere to are as excusable as natural law. In fact, antagonism between the mandate of heaven and human desire is not absolute, since they are both set within a kind of rule or order. The body does not oppose the spirit and it is not primitive; rather it is an ethical product. Therefore, within a theory of consciousness, there is no strict differentiation between culture and nature. 5 | A Confucian phrase from the Lun Yu, meaning that, like relations between husbands and wives, ethics form part of natural law. 6 | The “cardinal guides and five constant virtues of the feudal ethical code ” as mentioned in the Lun Yu.



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Thus, at the outset, moral discourse occupies a natural position, and duty and responsibility have cast a heavy corporeal body. Gender and sexuality, which are intimately related to the body, have been appropriated for the purposes of health and ethics. The body has not been excluded, however; on the contrary, it becomes a proactive participant in the construction of culture. The body is not taboo, which is why people in ancient times valued the body and things associated with it even more. The body is placed within a system of signs; its passivity is fully understood. What influences and determines it and the kind of relationships it forms, is part of i.e. its external qualities, which have been internalised to become its ‘inherent nature’—just as there are few major differences between becoming a woman and her inherent female nature. The high value placed on the attributes of the body itself is a post-modern issue. Because of this, at the start of Chinese modernity, the phenomenological reduction of the state of ‘liberation’ is represented by the idea of ‘leaving home’7. For Chinese women, the phrase “putting down the foot to walk” conjures up a well-known image8. The freedom of walking stems from the functional needs of the body and allows women to escape the ‘boudoir’ with even greater resolution; the further they walk the more profound the burden of moral debt. New worlds commence with a fond dream of ‘distant travel’. This has nothing to do with unadulterated adventure or exploration nor is it the curiosity of romanticism. ‘Distant travel’ is discovered in the first instance through moral criticism. The Confucian commandment “whilst your parents are alive, don’t travel far afield”9 regulates the attributes that make us human beings, and thus “without parents we resemble animals”10. At this point, the impulse to ‘leave home’ makes people aware of the active nature of the body. The revolution of the body is located within human and non-human moral judgment. If the passivity of the body is human, then by contrast its activity must be non-human. In fact, it is a test of 7 | In his later years, German philosopher Heidegger, writing in Sameness and Difference, described the phenomenology of ‘liberation’ as a kind of activity, hence ‘from ... to’, and, at the start of China’s liberation politics, one obvious phenomenon was that of young people ‘leaving’ old-style homes after being influenced by the wave of thought that took place during the May 4th Movement. As a form of resistance against traditional morality, ‘leaving home’ became a typical phenomenon of liberation politics at the start of the 20th century. Prominent Chinese writer, social critic and thinker of the time, Lu Xun, also identified the phenomenon of women ‘leaving home’ and published a well-known speech, which circulated widely in China, entitled After Lana Left. Lu Xun believed that, after Lana left, what she faced was the ‘wilderness’. 8 | That of freedom from the traditional practice of foot-binding in ancient China. 9 | From the Lun Yu. 10 | Possibly from the Lun Yu.

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body

the self. The ‘self’ is not a transcendental notion, but formed through debate with other people. The body acts as the primary arena of struggle for the self and it is a product of struggle and action, since the self cannot be a ready-made or definite solution. The body itself is therefore political in nature and tends to need no guidance. Thus, it is able to discriminate between right and wrong, and identify oppression and constraints, as well as relaxation or tension. The muscles are able to judge, and their judgements destine the body to be a site of rival forces. When the body feels itself to have become an offering placed on an altar, it smashes itself to the ground and measures itself anew by the weight of the smashed pieces. This dialectic of disintegration and re-formation is therefore the scenario in which the body is realised and the idea of ‘distant travel’11 casts a completely new body. As regards modern people, the body is like a stray in the wilderness and the idea of ‘home’ is just an emotional bond. It is in the putting to one side of the emotions and the search for a means of ‘settling down’ that a national consciousness is formed. When for the first time in history the body awakened completely, after leaving ‘home’, safety and confidence once again became issues that were placed before the needs of the body. When clothing and shelter appear as the body’s most pressing needs, then political revolution is unavoidable. The reason why people who once regarded their home as the world turned to regarding the nation as their home, is that it is only as part of a nation that the body can throw of its consanguineous relations12 and obtain a political identity in the form of citizenship. Those who are isolated and without support similarly depend on security, which makes alliances possible. Because of this, the alienation of the body has become a negotiable ‘event’, and its value is realised in the course of ‘negotiation’. The body rids itself of moral debt to qualify for this negotiation. The body is the body and, just as when new life is born, the body’s needs become the origins of everything and arises from the fact of this birth. The body that ‘leaves home’ has no direct value, but there is a struggle for value when the body encounters its own shortcomings, and the danger of the ‘wilderness’ renders the question of self-preservation even more pressing. Then, the ability to survive becomes an expression of value, and the traditional and submissive body begins a course of resistance.

11 | From the Lun Yu of the Confucian School, meaning: “Whilst your parents are alive, don’t travel far afield.” 12 | The Confucian School believed that “the body is a gift from your parents” and thus, filial piety as a means of moral repayment must be strictly adhered to.



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3. THE TRUTH OF THE B ODY : THE F ORMATION OF R IGHTS C ONSCIOUSNESS The re-emergence of the body’s needs brings China’s modernity back to its starting point to liberate the ‘body’ once again. In the Marxist theory, the body only plays the role of labour in social production. It is only through the reproduction of labour as one of the factors of production that political and ideological issues arise and political economics can be established. Louis Althusser went further by defining ideology as the necessary condition for the reproduction of labour and emphasizing the productivity and practicality of ideology. Both theories, in which labour is politically inferred to bodies, are framed within mind-body dualism, with absoluteness and priority given to the mind, despite Althusser’s powerful institution of ideology, that is, the ideological state apparatus. But given that a body is nothing but a stereotypical physiological existence, similar to a machine which is only programmed to input and output, it is impossible for ‘low-level’ and ‘boring’ bodies’ needs to trigger political actions that manifest people’s character, talent and pursuit of excellence. Instead, Hannah Arendt held that the trigger is ‘self-evident truths’, regardless of sacredness or sense and with no need for further inference or reflection, since freedom and happiness are inarguable. However, inarguable freedom and happiness stir endless debate among different ideological groups, for the proletariat also believe that the objective of revolution is more universality, more reality and more absolute freedom. Since the body’s needs only express the original meanings of the body, the reflection of physical feelings in this world, the body itself is not a subject in these debates, except when these original meanings are interpreted as values. Where do people take instructions from when it comes to a judgment about values, the body’s ‘low-level’ needs or transcendence? When modernity is in its primitive state, the question can be: where does the impulse to ‘escape’ come from if the body is only physiological? According historical studies, incidental historical events were always misrepresented by their meanings. In the body’s case, the meaning of ‘escape’ is the definition of ‘liberation’ and invites the body’s response. Similarly in gender politics, if it is correct both naturally and morally for women to be confined to the ‘boudoir’, then how can trapped femininity be representationalized by the female corporeal body? People have legs to move and act, and so confinement obviously violates the body’s needs. In this series of top-down reasoning, the body at the bottom is the hardest to deal with, unless people can assume they are bodiless. In this primitive but truthful starting point, the body as a basic factor in politics represents rights. Debates revolve around the fight for rights because neither political production nor economic production works without bodies. Economic determinism and political determinism are too simplistic because

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body

the body in both theories is considered only as material to be processed, and its original form has been forgotten. If there is an unarguable truth, it can only be the truth about the body, that is, the right to life, which approves the body’s natural existence; the right to freedom, which guarantees the body’s ability to move and right to private property, which protects the body from violation. Subjection to the body’s needs is neither superior nor inferior. This is the most fundamental truth that integrates truth-consciousness-rights. The real power that supports us comes from our own body and our rights. The formation of rights consciousness resides in the body’s encounters with the outside world and in concrete sensations, rather than of abstract concepts. If one studies politics in the light of the body, then political actions can be motivated by hunger and deficiency, safety, threat, and repressive situations. The body’s actions have already formed a nexus of physiological, psychological, and mental activities, which distinguish the human body from that of animals. The body is subject to certain physiological inevitabilities, but with possible resistance; this resistance is not necessarily the result of ideological guidance. For instance, implicitly, discipline amongst the working class is a reflection of the memory of the muscles, which is developed through tightly scheduled and standardized production processes. As a result, the working class has significantly better control over the body than a rural peasant. In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes that the synthesis of body is composed of physiological, psychic and mental activities. These elements seek their own equilibrium; excess on one part will be constrained by the others. Human life and activities cannot simply be seen as associated with any single one of these elements. During particular historical periods, when politics was elevated to a dominant position, the continuous proletarian revolution would lead to the annihilation of the body. Similarly, when we decided to make ‘economic growth’, the centre of all activities—a decision made between politics and economy—fear began to spread that the evils of once defeated capitalism would once again consume our spirit. Rights are understood as equivalent to people’s wellbeing and economic growth. Economic reform satisfies people’s basic needs; moreover, this is viewed as a political achievement by the ruling authority, which can thus legitimatise its power. Today, the body is like a pendulum, swinging across to the spectrum towards mere biological existence. Economic dynamism is followed by exhilarated participation in the economic sphere and provides certain sense of freedom. In other words, once the body is reclaimed from the proletarian dictatorship, it immediately becomes immersed in a tide of ‘commodities’. Purely materialist indexes are used to constantly measure people’s ownership of property, cars and money. A sense of security is absent, while the body oscillates between ideology and materialism. After a transition from contempt for materialism to an obsession with it, the masses become only interested in whatever they happen to pos-



Zhang Nian

sess at that moment. Possessions, however, do not equal rights; they are merely a partial outcome of rights in material form. Rights should determine the availability of interests and benefits previously unrecognized or overlooked. The people’s sense of well-being is related to politics, but politics doesn’t stop there. The body, as a synthesis of the senses to perceive the world, swings between being and nothingness. Thanks to the return of the body, rights consciousness could develop and certainly go beyond material gratification. Most importantly, rights written upon the body will stimulate political action only between the being and nothingness of the body.

4. THE D UALIT Y OF THE B ODY : M ATERIAL P LE ASURE AND R ESISTANCE The most basic corporeal reason for abandoning class struggle is surrender to fatigue; consciousness of the body has defeated proletarian consciousness. Nowadays, there is nowhere for the body to hide; it has been turned into high-grade raw material by mass culture and forged into a corporeal reality that, in the form of pleasure-without-consequences, critiques policy and comforts the body which has been exhausted by struggle. Nowadays, society is permeated by an atmosphere of hedonism, which is an effect of the body’s reflexivity. The body has aggressively demanded a reorganisation of social relations on the most truthful level of the senses. The strategy of the body is difficult to guess, but it certainly is not what Western researchers believe—i.e. a formerly socialist country becoming more capitalist than the capitalists. Any kind of experience produces connections, and it is the relationship between extreme situations and the body that must be afforded priority consideration. This resembles the revenge of the body and is primal and direct. It is not the modern body of Hamlet. ‘The King’ has not been stabbed, but the body must be treated like royalty. The solitary and humble body can claim itself ‘King’ because it has been carried along by globalisation to collide with mass culture. Material pleasure is a way of cultivating the feelings of the body and, at its most basic level, it is harmless. The pleasure of the body is no longer counter-revolutionary and, on the contrary, excess pleasure can form a kind of consciousness that critiques policy. Pleasure cannot be systematized, it permeates everyday consciousness and customs, it is the opposite of labour and work, it is an object that forms the yin or negative element and only in this position of obscurity can the body deny its own manpower and productive ability by simply residing within a cycle of repeated pleasure. Two forms of ‘materialisation’ are difficult to avoid and are either associated with political production or technological systems. One way of refusing to become a means of production is to rescue the body from meaning; in the face of pleasure, everyone is equal.

The Genealogy of the Politics of the Body

If there is such a thing as meaning, it can only take place once and is detained at the beginning of activism, the first revolution and the first form of mass culture, in which the body was equally present. Throughout the 1980s, love songs on cassettes from Hong Kong and Taiwan captured the attention of the people. It was not clear to which ‘class’ these voices belonged, and compared with the grit of revolutionary songs, they are gentle on the ear or, at least, do not resemble the loud trumpet call of dictatorial times that brutally invaded the fragile membranes of the body. Mass culture as a return to consciousness of the body certainly has no understanding of any culture industry production ‘model’, which simply means: the senses are innocent13. Reason informs us that a confusion of the senses brings about the most deceptive form of cognition. Apologies, then, since the senses of contemporary Chinese people have long been out of practice. Our affinity with mass culture depends upon the fact that there is no need to think too much, and this implicates nearly everyone—how can anyone think that the people are continuing to debate whether China is taking the socialist or capitalist road? Before the body, the debate between these systems resembles a riddle or mythology that demonstrates a lack of realistic and practical experience and turns politics into a strange beast. The people have started a movement to drive it out. We know that the senses cannot replace the real circumstances of the body. The current stimulation of senses and the thirst, hunger and emotional sensations felt throughout the body have little to do with the empty stomach of previous eras.14 During the 1980s, a thirst and hunger for knowledge were manifest and intellectual theories from overseas flooded people’s minds, forming an intellectual tidal wave of various ideologies. It seemed as if people were all taking pleasure in something, but it still isn’t clear what it was exactly they were enjoying. Whatever it was, the impulse for freedom that was fermenting between physical hunger and an intellectual hunger for knowledge needed vindication, but harsh facts told people that the repertoire15 of the body in the expression of freedom was prohibited. The ‘repertoire’ of the body cannot be alienated, nor does it have any exchange value. The body—the value of the body and activism resides only in themselves, and self-determination and freedom must become a story to be handed down to later generations, forming innate qualities that appear on the body from generation to generation. Prohibition certainly does not signify the failure of the ‘repertoire’ of the body; its reality is already the witness of the 13 | Mass culture, pleasure and their appeal to the senses are not associated with ideological economic or political ‘models’ for development, which is why the senses are ‘innocent’. 14 | Probably a reference to the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61. (translator) 15 | A term possibly coined by the author. (translator)



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body. But prohibition opened up a way for interest in the culture industry, and how to turn theatrical space into an exchange market. The freedom of the body and activism can only be concealed behind commodities, and commodities have become the guardian of the body. This is the age of technology, a place where products are increasingly more human than people. The body has put on an institutional uniform. The people are no longer assembled in political spaces but have shifted to the market, and it is only here that they can encounter each other. There is enthusiasm for exhibitions and expressions of mass culture, and a fascination with the creative arts; but a shortage of innovation has by luck been masked by the development model of the culture industry. Today, the obsession with development models has also already spread to our political consciousness. Miraculous achievements and these models together speak of a theme: look at this, so much humanity. After the ‘repertoire’ of the body was prohibited, the bodiless organs overstepped the authority of corporeal truth. Once the unity of the grammar of the body was forfeited, the result was that every independent function of the organs came to represent a ‘miracle’. If speed is an extension of the function of the foot, then balance has become a secret that cannot be told. The body needs shelter, but from what threat? It is already no longer the violence of the natural state, where everyone is an enemy. The violence of development models and ‘miracles’ does not resemble the era of the proletarian dictatorship, when the entire body was kidnapped by the people to be dissected, shared out and ‘humanely’ dealt with one by one. Spiritual needs are transferred into a model and materialization becomes a tangible reality—political achievement. Offering up mental needs to economic miracles arouses gratitude; managing physiological needs so that they become the livelihood of the people circumvents the replaying of the repertoire of the body. The dangerous body has been split into ‘harmonious’ components, and the relational aspect of each type of component has been controlled in order to take the body and its attributes into custody. Humanity has been secretly transported into another reality. However, the fragility of this reality resides in its provisional nature. It cannot weather difficult times or become legacy for the next generation, but is used as a cheap game to deceive the people, and in the final analysis any protest about it will effect on social harmony. Of course the flesh of the body is also the most fragile being in the world, but the bodies of wise people will not replace one kind of weakness for another. If the long-term desires of humanity are reflected in the political activism of people, then the ‘repertoire’ of the body is unavoidable. Translation: Kate Griffiths

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art Zhang Hong

1 In Marxist philosophy, the theoretical basis for communist revolution is class struggle. In practice, however, this struggle is often described by a more colloquial word in Chinese—fanshen (literally, ‘to turn the body over’). The social transformation of the lower classes of society was presented as a fanshen campaign launched by the oppressed masses. At first, this fanshen revolution seemed to promise full freedom to control or enjoy bodily pleasures at will, but in reality, the revolution and this kind of anarchy of the body are incompatible. The body in socialist revolutionary movements is the physical carrier of classconsciousness and the main site of class struggle. Using a series of techniques to control the body, revolutionary ideology remoulded the image of the modern Chinese revolutionary body and at the same time declared the individual body to be the nation’s eminent domain. On the one hand, the ‘revolutionary body’ was established as a model for the public. As the revolution’s slogan went, “Communist Party members are made of special material.” They were considered not simply as ordinary beings, but as superhuman—combining revolutionary will with a robust constitution. On the other hand, however, as a ‘means of production’ for the revolution, bodies were largely ‘nationalised’. The revolution took the body very seriously, since fitness played a role in its final success. Every revolutionary’s body was effectively mobilised as production data or as a tool in the revolutionary cause. One of the most popular slogans during the course of the Chinese revolution, “A healthy body is the capital of the revolution”, clearly defines the link between the body and the revolution. The revolution was like a business. The initial investment was the expropriation of people’s bodies. Through large-scale political mobilisation and successive grassroots campaigns, every individual’s body was organised, reformed, disciplined, and absorbed into a powerful network, through which the revolutionary will could be realised more effectively. Accord-


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ing to the socialist ideology of Mao’s era, manual labour was the measure of the body’s value, and its capacity for physical labour was the ‘currency’ of the body. In this regard, ‘labour capacity’ became the means by which the physical capacity of individuals was measured and served as the basic reference used by production units to calculate their manpower. For example, a woman or a young person counted as half a unit of ‘labour capacity’. Officials and intellectuals, as well as the elderly and the physically challenged, were also required to work as labourers in factories, mines and villages. Failure to meet the physical demands of the revolution had to be treated by re-education, implementing revolutionary discipline and punishment. For example, the campaign launched by the Communist Party of China to reform ‘erliuzi ’ during the Yan’an Period1 , was a powerful force in political mobilisation, stabilising society and re-establishing social order. In the end, an ‘identity-role’ re-education system for individuals was set up, passed down and evolved into a massive laojiao (re-education through labour) system, that China still uses today.

Figure 1: Marriage Contract in Court, 1943

The film Red Detachment of Women provides a classic example of the disciplining of the body involved in revolution. The heroine Wu Qionghua is a servant at the house of Nan Batian, the despotic landlord. Wu makes several attempts to escape from the so-called ‘den of evil’ where she is constantly mistreated, but is recaptured each time and ruthless beating and punishment follow. During her last attempt to escape, she is caught and beaten unconscious in a wood. Finally, 1 | ‘Erliuzi’ or ‘idlers’ refers to people with no occupation. The movement to ‘reform’ them started in 1940.

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art

she is saved by the Communist Party representative, Hong Changqing. Wu later travels to the Red Base (the base of the Communist Revolution) and joins the Red Detachment of Women in order to take revenge against Nan. Wu has taken up arms because she is driven by the instinct for revenge. To become a true revolutionary soldier she has to undergo a painful process of remodelling. Discipline is a key step in revolutionising the natural human body, as well as ensuring that the bodies of the masses can be expropriated to accomplish the revolution. Mao Zedong pointed out that one need only “increase discipline and revolution is bound to succeed.” Discipline, in the first instance, means the control of the body, for which ‘militarisation’ serves as the most effective means. In the film, when Wu first arrives at the Red Base and follows behind troops taking part in a drill, her ordinary way of walking appears out of place and in sharp contrast to their trained military marching. (The ‘militarisation’ and ‘disciplining’ of the body was also considered to be a cure for (female) hysteria. For a considerable time, a military gait was the only alternative to the walking pace for the Chinese.) When following the troops, Wu gradually adjusts her stride and is finally able to ‘keep in step’ with them.

Figure 2: Red Detachment of Women, 1973 Revolution and class struggle must arouse hatred. However, hatred is usually driven by instinctive impulses and is obviously destructive in nature. In the film, there is a scene in which Wu and her comrade-in-arms undertake a special mission—infiltrating Nan’s house in collaboration with each other in order to annihilate him. To do so, Wu returns to her old identity as a servant, this time serving Hong Changqing, the party representative disguised as a wealthy Southeast Asian merchant. However, the encounter with her personal enemy and the familiar sound of whips from the dungeon rekindle Wu’s memories as a servant and



Zhang Hong

consequently her impulse for revenge. Possessed by a wild desire for vengeance, she breaks revolutionary discipline and the original plan of the mission by shooting at Nan. Having grown up as a servant, Wu has an innate sense of humiliation, an unfettered rebellious character, and an impulse for revenge that is almost frenzied and irrational. Nonetheless, the woman’s instinct for revenge against her abuser is not enough to complete the political mission. The image of the revolutionary woman is fulfilled when she is fully converted to revolutionary causes. Later in the film, the party representative Hong carries out ideological work on Wu and helps her to curb her impulses and to obey revolutionary discipline. The plot of the film has dual significance: the heroine overcomes a girl’s innate hysteria to become a ‘woman’; she has also become a member of society with a certain political identity. Here, ideological work has replaced whips, and iron discipline has replaced iron fetters; the control of mind and soul has replaced the punishment of the body. Revolutionary discipline has tamed the individual impulse for revenge; the male has ‘cured’ the hysterical ‘desire’ of the female body. This reflects the duality of female ‘rebellion’ and ‘conversion’ in social history. The production of the ‘revolutionary body’ out of the petty bourgeoisie and intellectuals on the other hand is even more problematic. The political identity of the petty bourgeoisie is ambiguous since they are both participants in and the target of the revolution. The revolutionary ‘coming-of-age’ novel The Song of Youth reveals the physical features of this anxious political identity. The ingeniously arranged heroic family background is significant. The background of the old-fashioned petty intellectual is often that of the so-called ‘exploiting class’. Artworks intending to describe events in which intellectuals with a pure bourgeois background become communist fighters evidently signify that antagonistic class groups can undergo change and acquire a proletarian consciousness relatively easily. Clearly, this is conceptually incompatible with the politics of the proletarian revolution. Thus, the writer has to be a bit ‘creative’ when dealing with the familial bloodline of his characters, by dexterously creating a ‘dual lineage’: the paternal line derives from the bureaucratic landlord class whilst the maternal line is from the peasant class. The dual origins of the story’s heroine, Lin Daojing, have a certain symbolic significance that hints at the dual political identity of intellectuals. This identity signifies both the close links between blood relationships and the relationship between the exploited and their exploiters. Because of this, the transformation of the intellectual becomes expedient and ongoing since his (her) lineage cannot be changed. Of course, transforming an individual’s way of thinking does not come easily, and transforming one’s lineage is nearly impossible. It can be seen from this that the intellectual faces a real ‘revolution’—of body and soul—that is both thorough and constant. Class-consciousness merges with lineage, forming a kind of acquired social consciousness that mirrors a person’s physical identity and shapes their natural attribute—‘destiny’. A ‘revolutionary’ transformation in thought takes place when

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art

revolutionary class-consciousness replaces natural blood ties. Seen like this, ‘revolution’ isn’t just an empty word but is genuinely directed at a transformation or abolition of ‘destiny’ brought about by a synthesis of body and spirit. After experiencing the ‘baptism’ of the revolution, Lin Daojing finally recognises this. Thus, the petty bourgeois intellectuals must incite revolution from a place deep within themselves, thoroughly transforming their own ‘blood’ in order to be ‘reborn’. As far as Lin Daojing is concerned, this revolution is by no means easy. She has to excavate the hereditary factors that form her ‘revolutionary’ character from her maternal bloodline in order to create a ‘fight to the death’ between her different class backgrounds. This is class struggle that takes place within the body.

2 The body is an important carrier of revolutionary consciousness. In the first instance, it is an ideological position, and in the history of socialist China, it also represents an aesthetic position that has been repeatedly fought over. The principles of the socialist political economy have also influenced socialist aesthetics. During Mao Zedong’s era, the rights and aesthetics involved in the expression of the body were monopolised by the party, which formulated unified and generally applied aesthetic standards. In 1942, Mao delivered his ‘Speech at the Yan’an Art Symposium’ setting out his principles for socialist art and literature. Mao pointed out that they had to serve proletarian politics. This doctrine was at the root of the task of socialist art and literature. Shaping images of workers, peasants and soldiers became the main basis for the revolutionary transformation of the body. For those who called the tune regarding so-called ‘proletarian art’, the basis for modelling the body was its principal class attributes, each class having acquired its own typical ‘model’ physical features. But on the whole, such images didn’t surpass the level of artistic imagery of the proletariat found on bank notes of the time. Finally, this ‘model’ body appears in an even more exaggerated form in the ‘model’ artworks of the Cultural Revolution. The principles of gao da quan2 and hong guang liang3 of proletarian and heroic imagery contrasted with the wretched, insignificant and gloomy portrayal of class enemies. But these images are just codes. If class-consciousness is a product of China’s ideological state apparatus, then the political propaganda paintings of socialist art and literature are its best form of advertising. Advertisements of this 2 | This is both the name of a heroine in a contemporary Chinese film and a play-onwords that implies that heroic figures should be ‘lofty, great and perfect’. (translator) 3 | A requirement of revolutionary art was that the women depicted in it be ‘red, bright and shining‘. (translator)



Zhang Hong

kind flooded the high streets and back lanes as well as all forms of media, providing image-based models for their audience—although these images certainly did not represent the lives of real citizens (whether proletarians, landlords or capitalists). This seems like false advertising; samples are always much better than the real products on sale. Precisely because of this, proletarian art very easily became a useable reference for later commercial advertising. The oil painting I am a Sea Swallow is a classic example of revolutionary model art of the 1970s, and its influence at the time was equal to that of Chairman Mao goes to An Yuan. These two works best represent the model art of the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao goes to An Yuan portrays the youthful image of a male revolutionary leader, while I am a Sea Swallow represents a typical youthful image of a female revolutionary fighter. In I am a Sea Swallow, a female soldier clambers up an electricity pole trying to fix the cable in the middle of a storm. In the background, a dark sky, pouring rain and thunder and lightening set off her heroic bravery and spirit of revolutionary optimism. This all conforms to the principles of model art. There is no doubt that the imagery of I am a Sea Swallow comes from a prose poem by the Russian poet Gorky entitled “Sea Swallow”—Swallows flying in a stormy sky are usually symbols of the heroism of Communist Revolution. Their dexterity, agility and impetuousness are particularly feminine qualities. Because of this, their robustness and implied heroism have generally been seen as spiritual qualities specific to revolutionary heroines. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, there was a Red Guard handbill4 that compared Jiang Qing5 to a “robust swallow flying in the red storm of the Cultural Revolution”. In this painting, the ‘swallow’ is a code for the female signal soldier and symbolises her attack on the storm. The slanting rain and the coat flying in the wind form an angle against the unstable background, which is full of movement, making the steadfast posture of the female soldier standing erect in the air even more apparent. Absurdly, the body, and more particularly the desires of the flesh, have always been subject to proscription in revolutionary ideology. The characteristics of gender must always be cleverly and closely concealed or erased. This ‘sea swallow’ is no exception. As a female body tightly wrapped up in revolutionary clothes, she carries out her duties with fervour in a night of torrential downpour. This can only be revolutionary work with the revolution acting as a facilitator. But art also inadvertently reveals non-ideological content. The revolutionary themes cannot completely stifle the instinctive impulses of life. Through the 4 | The Red Guards were a collective organisation made up mainly of young students. They were an important force that impacted on the political structures at the start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which added impetus to the movement on a national scale. 5 | Jiang Qing was Mao Ze Dong’s fourth wife and one of the major Chinese leaders during the Cultural Revolution. In 1976, she was arrested and later underwent political trial.

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art

rough movement of the surface of the painting, a hard-to-conceal but intense life can be vaguely discerned. The bottle-green army clothes are soaked by the rain, the contours of the woman’s body appear clearly beneath the severe military uniform, her reddened face contrasts with the cold tones of the sky and is exceptionally vivid. And precisely because the image of this female fighter reveals the warm, sexual intensity of the body, the work has more visual impact than many others of the same period. Sometimes it causes the viewer to lose him/herself in dangerous reveries. The intensity of a young woman alone on a stormy night and the image of her body against the sky against the background of the gloomy and unsettling crisis of the Cultural Revolution gave people a flicker of comfort. In the so-called ‘red art’ of the Post-Cultural Revolution period, the ‘model’ body disintegrates. Firstly, the aesthetic principles of ‘Hong Guangliang’ and ‘Gao Da Quan’ are overturned. Avant-garde artists enthusiastically chose revolutionary art of the Mao period as a target and made subversive transformations to it. Following the arrival of the consumer age, the ‘revolutionary body’ faced disintegration. During the market era, the ownership of bodies became a matter of individual determination, and the power of the state control over the body gradually weakened. Female artist Hu Wu’s series of works, Transparent Uniform, were representative of the artworks of the time. Transparent Uniform Series was a take on I am a Sea Swallow. These parodic art forms were concerned with throwing off the ideology-imbued images of the flesh themselves and exhausting the remaining values of the revolutionary body. Transparent clothing and the invisible impact of the soaking rain is enough to reveal the contours of the woman’s body to the point even of completely exposing its more intimate regions. In I am a Swallow the areas of the female body that are covered and inhibited, together with the transparent treatment, make completely clear the unconscious content of the revolution. The posture of the body is stylised in a way that carries erotic meaning. The intensity of the revolutionary expression has been re-written as sexual passion. The revolutionary body overtly becomes an object of desire and visual consumption. These images of the transformed revolutionary body, with its ‘red scars’ carefully erased, are turned into symbols of desire and sexuality and start to penetrate the market. Along with all sorts of beauty pageants, keep-fit, healthy living, yoga and televised beauty contests, as well as the ‘body writing’ and ‘lower body poetry’ of the literary world, the body has been hauled out of ideological control and thrown into a market full of desire. The consumption of female beauty in contemporary China has also announced the occupation of the territory of the body by desire and capital. The ‘S-shaped’ body revolution of ‘Miss Lotus’6 on the internet, on the other hand, pushes the symbolic consumption of the body towards its zenith. 6 | Miss Lotus was and still is an icon on the internet who became famous for her dancing despite a less than ‘perfect’ body shape. (translator)



Zhang Hong

Figure 3: Hu Wu: The Transparent Uniform, 2000

3 Before the 1980s, the body depicted in fine art was always the object rather than the material of artistic expression and generally appeared in framed paintings. Only in the performing arts such as song and dance was the body used as material. But in the performing arts, the activity of the body obeys other artistic language such as musical rhythm and dance. The body itself is still a closed, selfsufficient and complete whole. As an entity it acts as a code that can be programmed into the artistic vocabulary of dance etc.; it does not in itself form sentences nor does it produce semantic meaning. Semantic meaning is constructed and completed by the logic of artistic language. Performance art has changed all this. Beijing’s 1989 China Modern Art Exhibition is usually seen as a watershed in the history of contemporary performance art, but people tend to be more concerned with the symbolic significance of this time as a turning point, and the actual content of the performance art is frequently neglected. Looking back at this exhibition of 20 years ago, we realise that the performance art included was not only the expression of individual artistic impulses, but also surprisingly demonstrated its ability to make predictions about social culture. Li Shan’s Washing Feet foreshadowed the wave of body consumerism, Wu Shan Zhuan’s Big Business

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art

(Selling Prawns) presaged the commercialisation of culture, Wang De Ren’s Salute to The Sun God (Throwing Around Condoms) predicted a flood of desire, and Zhang Nian’s Waiting predicted the commercialisation of the education industry and its crisis. All of these sociocultural symptoms were apparent throughout the 1990s. This series of prophetic performances was brought to an end by Gun Attack Incident7. Female artist Xiao Lu’s ‘gun attack’ performance shattered the phantasms of the artistic themes constructed during the 1980s. In the 1990s, the artists of the avant-garde had to contrive to piece together the imagery of the tattered artistic themes of a tattered era. On the other hand, Gun Attack Incident also signalled the ‘great leap forward’ of mainland China’s avant-garde. Performance art must be enacted by the body, but the expression and activity of the body are an outward projection of its inherent spiritual condition and unconscious desires. Performance of this kind is intuitive. Any type of performance that does not strive for real material goals and that, within a specific context set by the artist, conforms to the fundamental principles of art (such as stimulating the senses or creating [new] forms) can be considered performance art. The significance of performance art compared to more general behaviour is that it is more representative. On a certain level, it relays the physical experience of an era along with the concept of behaviours particular to that era. It is also an era’s public expression of body sovereignty and creative power. In the 1980s, people’s bodies and behaviour were still quite restricted. External authority and power used legal and administrative measures as well as public opinion in order to strictly regulate individual behaviour. Art that sought a higher degree of autonomy and freedom required an even greater degree of commitment in order to circumvent restrictions. From the sporadic appearances of performance art in the 1980s it can be seen that body performance art was limited to relatively static positions within narrow confines, such as wrapping and binding the body (for example, Ding Yi’s Street Corner Wrapped Sculpture); static poses (as in the sitting posture of Washing Feet and Waiting etc.) in which movement, when present, is limited in range. After the 1990s, as society became more open, people became freer to act as they wished. Even peasants who had been tied to the land over a long period of time started to migrate in large numbers, looking for work. Linked to this, from the 1990s on, performance art underwent extensive and unprecedented changes both in terms of occurrence and of scale. The appearance of many different kinds of performance underscored a new awareness of individual body sovereignty. The demand by artists for body sovereignty rights was no longer limited to the subversive search for reformative semantic expression within the 7 | During the China Modern Art Exhibition of 1989, artist Xiaolu suddenly shot to pieces her own installation piece using a real gun, attracting the police. Not long after, she was arrested.



Zhang Hong

framework of particular forms of performance, but a continual desire to break with the language of the body itself, expand its linguistic territory, trigger its creativity, and—in the exchange and conflict between the Self and the Other, individual and group, body and environment, human and animal—fulfil its vision.

4 Chinese performance art since the 1990s has ruthlessly demolished art as the refuge of the human spirit. Art representing the possibility of a homeland for existence and aesthetic utopia has already disappeared. These days, the temple of traditional aesthetic meaning is like a ruin exposed to the elements—it is already unable to withstand the violent storms of politics, morality and a commercialized market. Art is exposed in the desert of reality. Artists subject themselves to a destructive moulding of the body in order to resist external political power and the expropriation and disciplining of the body. Compared with the ‘good taste’ of traditional art, performance art is bloody, violent and ugly, and its protagonists are a crowd of wilful exhibitionists set on changing the status quo. They encounter the condemnation, derision and rejection of officialdom, the public and the intellectual elite alike. They are judged on the basis of aesthetics, morality and communal ethics, and some of the opponents of this kind of art have even planned to resort to legal proceedings, using legislative means to shackle performance art completely. But these brave artists continue to strive to defend their freedom of expression.

Figure 4: Ma Liu Ming, Dong Cun, To Add One Metre to an Unknown Mountain, 1995

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art

Ma Liu Ming and Dong Cun’s collaborative work To Add One Metre to an Unknown Mountain (1995) is a renowned artwork involving the body. A group of naked bodies are piled on top of each other to form a mound rising from the ground, in a futile attempt to increase the height of a mountain. This kind of scene can be observed elsewhere only in the mass grave pits of Nazi concentration camps. Although the bodies are in such close proximity to the ground, they are also a superfluity, a tumour-like pile of meaningful flesh that can perhaps be seen as the artists’ critique of humanity as well as culture. Although the bodies are piled up to form a mound, they are still solitary. This solitariness is expressed more fully in the individual works of Ma Liu Ming. Images of the union of yin and yang and the silent display lead the viewer into strange territory. Fundamentally speaking, Ma Liu Ming’s practice has a kind of profoundly introverted and meditative quality—it is a philosophy of the body.

Figure 5: Ma Liu Ming , Lunch No. 1, 1993



Zhang Hong

The collaborative work by students from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute entitled @41 can be seen as imitating To Add One Metre to an Unknown Mountain, but in contrast the expression of the body in @42 is bashful and half-concealed. A deep-rooted moral standpoint, rather than an artistic spirit, continues to control the young artists’ bodies. Visually they look naked, but there is still an invisible ‘chastity belt’ that conceals and restricts both their bodies and their artistic spirit.

Figure 6: Gao Brothers, The Utopia of Twenty Minutes Embrace, 2000 Compared to the introverted and solitary nature of the body in the work of Ma Liu Ming, the Gao Brothers are passionate about bodily exchanges and the expansion of the subject into external space as well as the individual realisation of body sovereignty in the public arena. The Gao brothers are followers of Utopianism, and their work always reflects radiant ideals while at the same time critiquing the reality of cruelty. The Utopia of Twenty Minutes Embrace (2000) involves groups of strangers hugging in an attempt to surmount the physical unfamiliarity and to cross personal demarcation lines. This expression of the spiritual quest to break down the barrier between the Self and the Other is a

Fragments of the Body in Chinese Contemporary Art

fundamental political, utopian allegory. What the Gao Brothers show, is a politics of the body.

5 The body and its behaviour provide new artistic material and means of expression for Chinese contemporary art, and body performance art is increasing rapidly. At the same time, generally speaking, the repertoire of Chinese contemporary artists for showing the body is impoverished and their idioms are drab. This has brought about a kind of ‘inflation’ of bodily symbolism of the bodies. In the bodily demonstration of citizens’ rights, artistic expression often seems to fall short. From the Summer Palace and the 798 artists’ quarter in Beijing8 to the Song Village9 , a complex and intense confrontation has opened up between art and power, art and capital. At the same time, there is also large-scale renunciation, compromise and conspiracy. Another aspect of socialism’s techniques for controlling the body was the collectivised control of physical exercises. Following the establishment of standardised images of class, what the masses wanted, was to imitate and conform. From collective labour to collective gymnastics and group calisthenics performances—in particular Zhang Yi Mou’s political celebrations during the Olympics10 and mass movements promoting songs extolling the Chinese revolution11 —collective expropriation and management of the body continues. Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds allegorically targets this aspect of China’s reality. Millions upon millions of reduplicated ceramic seeds symbolise the subsistence of China’s citizens. In their solitary individuality they become stereotyped and reduplicated monads. In real life in contemporary China, the question of the body is becoming more important by the day. Differences in identity and clashes of interest at class and individual level are often expressed as direct physical resistance. Also, at a certain point, artists forfeited their special position as artists. Along with peasants, workers and other ordinary citizens, they must adopt direct physical resistance in order to protect their rights.

8 | From the 1980s, some freedom artists living in the vicinity of Beijing’s Summer Palace created work that was influential until the 1990s, when the artists were dispersed. 9 | The largest contemporary art quarter in Beijing, based on an old industrial estate. 10 | Chinese film director Zhang Yi Mou was the director of the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in 2008. 11 | In recent years, the government has been promoting large-scale collective singing of these songs and developing a movement to promote old and new songs.



Zhang Hong

Ai Wei Wei’s engaging in activism to protect rights simultaneously involves physical resistance at street level. He is an artist who puts knowledge into practice. Ai’s peformance is both art and real life. His use of the body to bring life and art together has been taken to its extreme. At the same time, he brings together body performance art and other fine art media (film, sound, sculpture, architecture, etc.), materials (cloth, ceramics etc.) and digital technology to complete a range of performance formats: live investigations, flash mob performances, group dinners, street demonstrations, physical clashes, or even (passively) violent legal punishment as a warning. He has almost reached the limits of what can be achieved through autonomous performance by a free citizen. However, just like Ai’s millions of sunflower seeds, when the time is ripe, every seed will sprout, grow and produce new shoots, allowing new and glorious flowers to bloom freely. This is the inspiration that art gives us. Translation: Kate Griffiths

The Politics and Poetics of the Body Gao Shiming In the latter half of Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the thought police, reveals to us what the body means to the mind and humanity—he shows Winston his reflection in the mirror and Winston, looking at himself, beaten and disfigured, finally breaks down. 2005 The crowd, I used to face them once and once again, Trying to tell them apart. But in the crowd, One is All.

‘A LL’, ‘A NY O NE ’ AND ‘E VERY O NE ’ ‘All’ is referred to when an individual is too weak a representation. It is a collective title for the human race. It represents nobody, but guarantees each individual’s existence as ‘human’. ‘Any One’ is ‘whoever’, the negative and reflexive title of individualists. But, anyone is entitled either to be someone else or refuse to be oneself. ‘Everyone’ is ‘One’ whom each and every individual deems themselves to be. While ‘All’ is a totalitarian concept, ‘Every One’ is the subject of democracy—a society in which all people are happy is a tragedy for every one of them. ‘Any One’ lies in between, suggesting ‘All’, whilst having the potential to become ‘Every One’. Together, they mark a kind of submersion, the being of ‘das Man’1 .

1 | A reference to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.


Gao Shiming

Rather than a specific person, ‘das Man’ represents an existence into which every one of us is dispersed. While ‘All’ indicates the gathering together of a group, ‘das Man’ is translated as ‘One’, or ‘People’. In other words, das ‘Man’ implies a situation where ‘Every One, All and Any One’ are hardly differentiated. This is ‘Uneigentlichkeit’2 —a kind of inauthentic being. It represents ‘common sense’, an existence in which we always desire a flight that never comes along. In every day life, when ‘das Man’ is often our form of existence, we are nobody but ‘Any One, Every One and All’. Xiang Jing’s sculptures are certainly not based on particular individuals, rather they are inspired by the indeterminate—‘Every One, Any One and All’. Despite the lack of definite objects in her artistic process, her artworks represent the unspecified being of a collection of undefined individuals. Before 2005, Xiang Jing’s works were mostly about individuals from daily life. She was committed to creating an environment in which her audience could develop a sense of immediacy and psychological space. The environments resembled metropolitan scenarios, similar to the ones captured by the photographic images that Xiang Jing is so fond of in her accumulated piles of photo albums. Confronted by these silent and static sculptures, it is as if our experience has unwittingly been drawn into a scenario beneath a scorching midday sun, a dull twilight, a sleepless midnight, a moment when the ash falls off the end of a cigarette, the moment where one loses oneself in a mirror… Every sculpture brings out a pertinent moment. Those moments help shape the black box of time. But it was not intended that these moments should epitomize eternity—that is, after all, the pursuit of monuments. What Xiang Jing captured ,was a certain number of ‘moments’, moments that triggered the experience of alluring charms. Xiang Jing’s sculptures are best exhibited in groups. This is because each of them is a reference to another. Their exhibition resembles a world petrified in an instant—at this moment, nobody can escape Medusa’s gaze and curse. But never expect them to be dead, grey stone statues. Colourful, delightful and graceful, her sculptures are such that our world, in contrast, seems as rigid and heavy as stone. Xiang Jing’s sculptures are light, owing to a painstaking and crafted exaggeration, as well as her ability to construct various scenarios. But the true nature of this lightness lies in a kind of unexpressed passion and comedic pleasure. Milan Kundera was the first to discuss this ‘lightness’. In his view, life is heavy mainly because of threats, ideology that imposes tight constraints on us, and the obsessive revolt that is part of this ideology. The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells us that everything in life that is light and precious will in a moment unleash the 2 | A reference to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time.

The Politics and Poetics of the Body

true nature of its unbearable weight. Xiang Jing finds the origin of this weight in the rigid and solid reality of the world itself. Like a menacing wall before us, the world not only imprisons us, but damages the reality of life. So Xiang Jing uses sculpture, the heaviest form of aesthetic expression, to freeze a panoramic picture of the world at its lightest, sometimes slightly absurd, moment into lighthearted sociological portraits of contemporary life. Sobbing women and smoking men, who can be found anywhere at any time, and those who laugh innocently, are immersed in a trance or doing nothing, are like figures in the staged photos of a long-winded and dull soap opera. No matter where or when, ‘she’, ‘he’, and ‘they’ all represent the indefinite ‘All’, ‘Any One’ or ‘Every One’. They are numerous, anonymous in the crowd, and unknown to each other. They are lively puppets, lost things that cannot remember their owner. People come and go, bustling back and forth. In the melancholy vessel of time, the many silhouettes locked in memories and illusions are merely an incorrect stroke in a painting, a scar on a rose-coloured palm, or a blind spot in fractured glass. 2005 Just as now, I embrace myself. This is the body. Only the body, which recurrently lives in the world.

From 2005, Xiang Jing’s works revealed to us a series of bodies in monologue. They are no longer portraits. They belong to no one, nor do they refer to any particular scenarios or moments; their existence is independent from the reality. They are bodies without identities that perform themselves, but at the same time they represent the ‘body as self’. These bodies sit or stand, gazing into our eyes, inflicting a piercing pain through our bodies, and forcing us to reflect on our own lives and the history of the body. The Greeks portrayed the perfection and fullness of bodies. The bodies that decorate Greek pottery vases, murals and marble bases are beautiful like flora that bloom in the spring and bear fruit in the autumn. The body accommodates the unfathomable order that rules the universe and infers all living things. In early Christian doctrine, the human body is viewed as the model for the universe. Rather than based on tangible nature, this universe is result of an impeccable design by a Supreme Being. Compared to this unreachable, perfect design, everything else in the world and all other concrete entities seem incomplete or lacking. The Bible condemns humanity’s knowledge of the body as Original Sin. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Life, they begin to feel con-



Gao Shiming

scious of each others’ nakedness, and ashamed of their own, and fear God. When banished from Eden, they are no longer naked but make coverings from fig leaves. With this covering, the body becomes private. The body is no longer naked, but it is condemned by Original Sin. It becomes heavy, toiled, hungry and mortal as judged by Jehovah; aging, illness and death are introduced to the world of the body. The Greeks praised the harmony of body and soul; they bestowed the body with dignity, beauty, and vitality. In the graphic world of the Greeks, as Rilke puts it: “The naked body is all, like trees bearing fruit and blooming flowers; like the spring, when the birds sing. Then, the body was a field cultivated for a harvest; having a body was like owning fertile land. The body was intuitive and beautiful. It was a painting through which all meanings, gods and animals, and all senses of life course in rhythmic flows. Man, although in existence for thousands of years, was still too new to himself and too delighted with himself, to look beyond or away from himself.” 3

Contrary to his peers, Plato argues for the innateness and priority of the soul, which is always destined to be contaminated by the filthy morass of the body. The soul, which originally belongs to the Ideal World, becomes contaminated and deceived by the corporeal body of sensations. Therefore, Plato’s path of truth is to seek salvation of the soul from the body. More than a millennia later, however, the Neo-Platonist Michelangelo wrote: “One puts into hard and alpine stone a figure that’s alive and that grows larger wherever the stone decreases, so too are any good deeds of the soul that still trembles concealed by the excess mass of its own flesh, which forms a husk that’s coarse and crude and hard. You alone can still take them out from within my outer shell, for I haven’t the will or strength within myself.”4

Here, this most respected of sculptors points out that there are already bodies concealed in the great rocks. The artist’s work is merely to liberate them, in the same manner as one releases the soul from its fetters, or wakes up from a dream.

3 | A reference to Rilke’s “Concerning Landscape”. 4 | Madrigal, ca. 1538-114, for Vittoria Colonna.

The Politics and Poetics of the Body

THE P OLITICS OF THE B ODY After an even greater length of time, Michel Foucault, a philosopher who once shared a similar orientation to Plato, came up with a thesis that is completely opposed to that of Platoism: the soul is the prison of the body. Here, the soul is not the ethereal entity laid bare by traditional Christianity, nor is it the spectre of ideology; rather, it represents the effect and tool of the anatomy of power. This is not the soul born to be punished for Original Sin, but the soul produced through corporeal punishment, surveillance and coercion. It embodies the effects of power and the reference and mechanism of knowledge, drawing support from this mechanism so that power relations create a kind of knowledge system; in turn, knowledge broadens and strengthens power. This kind of soul resides within people and moulds humanity. Thus, the human body becomes the target and objective of power. Not only is it the object of pathology and biology, it is also the carrier of desire and injury, and the place in which both the mind and spirit take place. At the same time, the human body has been dismembered and drawn into the political arena, where power controls, trains, tortures and compels it so that it becomes a tool used in production or war. The human body is thus incorporated into a kind of diffused but simultaneously unified system of grammar, establishing a field of knowledge that relates to the ‘human body’ rather than ‘people’. This is another dimension of humanism, what Foucault terms “the political technology of the body”5 . This phenomenon started during classical times when—long ago—classical harmony and aesthetics concealed the formation, control and discipline of the body. Behind all of this lay the mastery, implementation and falsification of the body. Thus, the body became the organic site for the intervention and control of power, and the soul became the prison of the body. In every day life, the body has been constantly transformed by aesthetics of every description. Make-up and cross-dressing, keep-fit and weight-loss-indexes of the body of every kind are in constant flux, and the changing surfaces and notions of fashionable dress exhaust the body in an endless dismantling. The body no longer epitomises the harmony of the universe, nor is it the historical remains of the divinities; it is a beautiful commodity that we repeatedly package, and a tool that is used for production, consumption, display and competition; it is evidence that remains to be identified and destroyed. The body is already unbearably exhausted. This cursed and easily corrupted article has already spent its force. Similarly, in the field of art, the body is no longer the form or object of drawing and sculpture, rather it is the canvas, brush, support or material of art. This is so to the extent that the body has been confirmed as politically homologous to the artist’s self; it has become political power that has yet to be subverted 5 | A reference to Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault.



Gao Shiming

and the site of artistic activism. In the work of Yves Klein, the body is a tool with which to create images by hand; in the work of Joseph Beuys, the body is like a ritualistic implement6 that continually accumulates and emits energy; in the work of Bruce Nauman, the body is a carrier of pure matter in the processes of physics and biology; in the work of Barry Flanagen, the body is a theatre that counters the sacrifices and masochism of Christianity; in Cindy Sherman’s work, the body is continually made-up, re-written and pretends repeatedly to be someone else; in the work of Louise Bourgeois, it is the object and carrier of desire and is finally dismembered by desire; in the work of Andy Warhol, the body cross-dresses, changes sex and is reduced to a coded symbol of identity and a political manifesto. Throughout the history of art and the self, the body has been endlessly transformed into other matter and woven into meaning systems of all kinds. Because of this, the body morphs and becomes a great ‘Trojan horse’, concealing weapons in its belly—the body is defeated by grammar and kidnapped by meaning at the same time as it breaks into the city. At this point, in Xiang Jing’s most recent work, the defeated body has thrown off gender and identity and become a simple and light corporeal body. That is to say, the body itself has become the story-teller of Walter Benjamin7, the subject and object of a never-ending daydream.

YOUR B ODY 8 You stare silently with your soulless eyes open wide, like windows onto a dreamland collecting dust. It is a hollow that has been sealed by the body. You look on, stunned and ashen. A completely blank face without any usual facial expression, without hostility or adulation, that neither dominates nor grieves. This is not hollow loneliness; it is complete nihilism. Your body is an empty city after the soul has been lost. Yes. We see your body, a debauched city spread out on the table; we see innumerable empty days without pleasures, attitudes, voices, plots, or identities. Your body just emerges abruptly; it has been laid bare and appears suddenly like an empty city. Your body is a gift that corrupts easily. As a mother, wife, and daughter, or an injured deity, this ‘leather bag’ of a body has retained the traces of two kinds of injury: a scar on the abdomen that hints at an ailment and surgery; a sharp

6 | fa qi are implements used in Buddhist and Taoist ceremonies. 7 | A reference to Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolaj Leskov”. 8 | A reference to Xiang Jing’s sculpture Your Body.

The Politics and Poetics of the Body

blade gives name to the wound. In anguished pain the body begins to recover and heal, and the pain becomes one’s inner troubles. These scars, which have rescued the self, although fragmentary and deeply regretted, are still painful. And in the recollections of the body, the swollen curves, heavy fat and drooping breasts represent other kinds of scar that have been plundered by time. These scars have revealed the exhaustion of the body and the hollowness and helplessness of the body. As the body faces extended years of decay, the scars continue to grow day and night. It is important that your body does not belong to anyone. It is no longer beautiful; heavy and dilapidated, it no longer provokes desire and has been abandoned and hidden high up on the shelf, it is like an outmoded machine. But it has been meticulously formed and laid bare, and sits impressively before us. Its great length causes everything to narrow, like Pantagruel in Rabelais’ Pantagruel. This is an absurd transformation; confronting the great ugly body of Pantagruel, we suddenly become the most petty and ridiculous organism. This is because the body is more at ease than us—it should originally have been concealed, but emerges undisguised.

W HAT ABOUT YOU ? You suddenly grow up, reaching a commanding height of nearly five meters above everyone. You need no longer resemble the independent character of ‘das Man’; you are taller than ‘All’, ‘Any One’ or ‘Every One’. Thus you are amplified and overlook the life of the people. The weight of the body is the world’s heaviest weight, but you are still lithe, and your emergence is not the majesty of a monument, which wants always to appear like huge rocks in mountains that have existed since ancient times. You are anti-monument—the respect and solemnity that should be produced by weight, distance and size have been completely abandoned by you; your body has simply taken shape all of a sudden before our eyes, like Magritte’s great shower of apples in the September sunlight, your colossal body makes us feel at a loss; you are full of self-confidence, but also overly frivolous; your immense body could float off the ground at any time. You observe people somewhat provocatively, not wide-eyed but with your body. That’s right, your body observes us closely, grazing us like a sudden and unexpected prick amidst the even density of reality. From now, the body is no longer a hollow entity—it is provided for occupation and escape by the spirit. The body is like a face; it expresses feelings and narrates stories. You reveal to us the hidden narratives of the body itself, which becomes a stage for the performance of the self. The body also resembles a cinema in darkness, into which we continue to peer without ever seeing anything. All lo-



Gao Shiming

cations of the body are accessible to the world, but are closed to the self. Thus the body becomes a desire machine; it is the earth, pregnant with vitality; it is a festering wound, rotting and accumulating. “The body rocks the decadent soul.” Xiang Jing has hummed the words to Cui Jian’s song innumerable times, which can be seen as the rumbling echo of Foucault’s now famous thesis. Regardless of whether it is ‘your body’ or ‘you’, they should not simply be symbols of feminism, although on certain levels of signification they are indeed suited to becoming images of combat. Hidden beneath sexual politics is the soil and nutriment of the body. Compared with the women’s rights movement, it is more related to the punishment of the body in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the enslavement of the body in The Matrix, and the perfect design for the body in Bladerunner. The spirit is the prison of the body. In Xiang Jing’s work, we encounter the body which charges out of the prison formed by the spirit, and the corporeal body, which throws off enslavement. They are the body, the end and not simply the means to an end. They are not simply signs or symbols of meaning or the spirit; they are bodies without identity, the corporeal body that lies outside realisation, our paradise lost and regained. In this paradise, somebody whose identity is unclear sings, laughs and shouts from within your body, happy and bold. Translation: Kate Griffiths

Figure 1: Xiang Jing, Your Body, 270x160x150cm, Fibre glass, painted, 2005

The Politics and Poetics of the Body

Figure 2: Xiang Jing, Your Body (partial), 270x160x150cm, Fibre glass, painted, 2005

Figure 3: Xiang Jing, The Center of Quietude, 171x50x30cm, Fibre glass, painted, 2007

Figure 4: Xiang Jing, Are a Hundred Playing You? Or Only One? (partial), 140x240x240cm, Fibre glass, painted, 2007


A Talk with Xiang Jing Zhao Chuan (This interview took place on April 16, 2011, at Xiang Jing’s home in Beijing.) Zhao Chuan: I’m curious about whether, in your work as a sculptor focusing on the human form, if you believe in some all-encompassing concept of the body, what some might call the “elemental body”? Xiang Jing: I don’t. Actually I don’t even consciously think of what I do as sculpture so much as going about creating something ‘human’. Of course, I try to grasp something (fundamental) in my work, but what you refer to as some kind of ‘elemental body’ is not really something that consciously crosses my mind. I think what I’m more interested in, is the artistic approach, for instance: observation. The type of observation that goes into my work, is quite different from observation as we generally think of it in daily life. In my work it’s not really a matter of observing a subject in real life and then going about sculpting him or her. It’s really a process of personal, intuitive experience and understanding. For me, art raises more questions than it answers, so the concept of the artist as creator of some ‘elemental body’ strikes me as strange. For the sensitive, attuned individual, life is full of small little moments, each packed with the ability to touch and inspire the observer. Art is the vehicle by which we express and give evidence to this process. Zhao: Over the course of your creative career, what in particular has been your emotional catalyst? Xiang: I think the inspiration has come from different places at different given periods and stages in my life. I guess I’ve tended to be a little more sensitive to the female form over the years, though I never went out of my way to make it an explicit theme in my work. Usually it’s not until I’ve produced a body of work and then look back on it that I’m able to recognize certain motivations at play. Looking back over my work, the one constant that pops out is the female form: for whatever reason, maybe because of my own gender, it just speaks to me with a certain directness I haven’t found elsewhere.


Zhao Chuan

When I used to paint, I noticed that in my subject matter I was drawn to the male form, especially muscular bodies. This confused me for some time since, back then, homosexuality wasn’t as open or accepted as now; in fact, it’s not something I really even knew much about. “Shouldn’t I be more interested in the female form?”, I thought. “Why am I always painting male bodies?”, I pondered. It wasn’t until some time later that I was better able to understand the reason: when I was young, I was drawn to the concept of power. So, for me in my art, it was more an interest in power than gender. Zhao: Your work reflects an interest in female gender, but do you think you can maybe explain it in a little more detail? Xiang: I think it has something to do with the way women think. Men tend to rely on rational thought whereas women tend to know by experiencing something physically. From the time I was young, I remember having a strong desire to be wise and think critically; I was kind of in awe of male ways of thinking. But time definitely showed me that women are, generally speaking, somatic creatures, relying heavily on emotion. When it comes to making a decision, most women tend not to objectively weigh and balance all of the factors. Instead, they are inclined to make intuitive, emotion-based judgments. I think across cultures and countries, women tend to use their bodies as mediums for experiencing and validating all sorts of truths. Zhao: You mentioned observation, and how this is the source of inspiration. I’m curious as to whether the physical bodies we see in your works come from physical observation of specific subjects or from your imagination. Xiang: They come from the realm of personal experience; they’re not something I’ve visually taken in and reproduced so much as they are transformations of something that starts with my own body. I tend not to work with live models as I prefer to come up with something of my own, so that’s why I say that there is no specific visual reference point for these physical forms. They can only come as a result of some internal reflection. So, when I talk about ‘observation’, I’m really talking about a way of seeing, a state of being so to speak. Zhao: So, can you tell us in detail about the process involved in sculpting these human bodies? Xiang: Sure. I guess I could take the piece Your Body, as an example. I think this was my first piece that really took on a recognizably physical meaning and significance. My initial idea was simple. All I wanted to do, was sculpt a human body, something that, when people looked at it, they could ‘get it’ without any

A Talk with Xiang Jing

need for explanation or background in contemporary art theory to understand it. Zhao: So, did you begin working from a sketch? Xiang: It’s not that I don’t start with a sketch, but for me sketches tend to be mostly conceptual. I wanted to create a body that reflected an open and carefree spirit and body language. I began by sketching a torso, and, in this particular case, I brought in a model to get a better understanding of some technical issues. At the time, I had a really strong desire to portray a human body. Now, I believe that when it comes to a particular individual body, the real story lies in the upper body. But I didn’t want to create something that came across as artificial in any way. Plus, I’ve always thought of aiming for ultra-realism in art as more of a rhetorical ploy than anything else. So, for my approach to portraying the body, I wanted to try something different, something completely subjective. It’s kind of like if I know someone that you don’t know and I bring him or her in front of you and let you see that person. That’s one approach. But the latter way, the approach I tried to follow in my sculpture, was to describe that person to you in meticulous detail. This is a more subjective way of handling the subject and it’s the method I tried to follow. I worked away at each body part, imagining what I wanted to create, thinking, “Maybe I should add a scar here”, or what have you. For me, the process of observing should be like a journey that leads the observer from the head to the face to the hands to the stomach all the way down to the feet. Zhao: This is a large-scale work. I’m guessing that when you’re creating something of a certain size, that you can’t just simply go about creating it, that you have to carefully plan out and play around with the dimensions of each body part. Xiang: I’d say it’s more of a mental shift. For me, the technical challenges of working on something small or large aren’t especially great. When I’m working on these sculptures, conceptually, I have a very clear idea of what I wish to accomplish. But the individual details of that face or form are anything but clear to me. I might start out in one direction, then decide it’s not what I want and go with something else only to return to what I started out with originally; it’s all part of the creative process. So, for example, if I’m working on a face and I think, “No, this isn’t right”, it’s not like I suddenly have some idea of what might work better. Maybe I have to walk away from it for a while and work on another part of the piece while I wait for a better idea. There are times when I’m almost done working on a piece physically, but not mentally. I remember, one time, I came back to work on a nearly completed piece only to discover that due to the



Zhao Chuan

wet clay, immense weight and constant finessing I’d been doing, the top half of the sculpture toppled over under its own weight. Since it was such a large piece and the amount of work involved was significant, this was nothing short of a disaster. But at that moment, I actually felt a sense of joy, since I hadn’t been able to work out certain aspects of the piece initially, so, better to start over. The second time around, everything went incredibly smoothly and the whole thing came together almost effortlessly, especially the face, which had proved a major source of frustration the first time. In fact, I completed the whole sculpture in less than half a month and achieved my vision. But the process can be a slow journey. You may have things within yourself that you want to convey, but it is a slow process of observation and understanding to piece together ideas that come from the realm of imagination. That was the overwhelming feeling I came away with working on that particular piece. Zhao: Actually, it’s because of the piece you just referred to that I mentioned this idea of the ‘elemental body’ and was curious about whether or not there is some fundamental, unifying significance to the human forms in your work. But for artists, I suppose the creative process is both intuitive and particular. Xiang: Again, I’m not really comfortable with this term ‘elemental body’; it’s just not something I think is real. What I was describing just now, with reference to this particular work, was the technical process involved in portraying the body, but of course there is also the issue of what you might call artistic syntax, or what I sometimes refer to as a ‘first-person’ narrative style. So, this work is centered on the idea of the ‘self’: it’s a central concept and point of view animating the work. It was from this piece that I made a conscious decision to pursue this theme of the human body in my sculpture. There was also one other earlier work, I suppose, White Virgin, followed by a series of nudes in 2008, all explicitly arranged around this theme of the body. Sometimes it’s not easy to focus on doing just one thing in one’s work. Zhao: So, when you’re working with the clay and shaping it from something crude and coarse into something gradually human and lifelike, what does it feel like? What does it feel like to create and touch a skeleton, muscles and skin that are incredibly realistic, detailed and delicate? Xiang: I can tell you that the actual process of sculpting is anything but romantic. The only real moment of elation for me comes when it’s completed and has its final coat of colours applied. Those textural details you mention, the skin and veins, always indicate that you’re close to finishing a piece. That’s the magical moment when you see its final look really start to take shape. Even though working with the clay in the early stages of a piece is highly tactile, that feeling

A Talk with Xiang Jing

soon goes away when you busy yourself with the long, drawn-out process of creating a sculpture. Those middle stages for me are a frantic battle to peel away everything I don’t need and let the details emerge. You’ve got to understand, I’m not really a natural at sculpture. It takes a lot of skill to fashion something three-dimensionally. Zhao: So, it strikes me that there’s a paradox at work. Li Xian Ting has praised you as being a highly skilled realist sculptor, that you’re fascinated with realism ... Xiang: I think all this proves is simply that art is something that really emphasises personal experience. First off, I don’t consider myself a talented realist sculptor and I’ve never been all that interested in pursuing so-called ‘objective realism’. There’s no shortage of more accomplished sculptors than myself in this regard. Secondly, I don’t really think my works can be considered technically refined in terms of their detail. I think the detail in my works is rough. That’s why I always say that what I’m good at is paying attention to people; the detail I do well is more of an intuitive, emotive detail rather than something refined. I’m sure you could find a lot of art teachers specializing in life-like sketches, who would take a look at my sculptures and be able to point out all sorts of ‘problems’. But, at the same time, I do think that I’m quite sensitive and attuned to details that make a subject distinctly human. Zhao: Something else I’m curious about is what, if any, relationship do you feel to your work or subject when you’re about to finish it? Xiang: Well, that’s something that takes time. When I’m working with a subject, I always leave the head and face until end. The last things I work on are the eyes. As I mentioned earlier, it’s only in this final stage of completion that I feel a sense of satisfaction. Most of the time, I’m anxiously waiting, both waiting and trying to restrain my excitement at the same time. What I’m waiting for, is that moment when the piece takes on a soul and comes to life before my eyes. Zhao: Does it feel like you can communicate with the work? Xiang: It definitely does. Sometimes I have to wait until the subject has eyes it can open and see me with. Once I’ve got the face done the way I want, I can’t help but feel it’s looking back at me and there’s a communication at work. When that happens, it really feels like I’m standing face to face with a real person. Zhao: So, at that moment, does it feel more like they’ve finally come to you or is it more a feeling of imminent separation?



Zhao Chuan

Xiang: It feels more like the former. Zhao: I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, so I can’t help but be interested in these types of details. I think of these details as decisive in terms of how we understand the world around us. Xiang: They are decisive and they really help sustain you and see a work through to its completion. I’m always hoping to meet others who can look into one of my sculpture’s eyes and feel and experience the depth of things I do. Zhao: It seems to me the sexuality present in your pieces isn’t really about making sexuality an overt focus, but rather hints at the places associated with sexual desire. Either way, sexuality seems to be an obvious theme in your work and what I’d like to know more about is how deliberate that is on your part. Xiang: If sexuality is something present in my work, then at least up until now, my interest isn’t in overt male or female sexuality, nor is it in gender. Again I think back to the piece Your Body. I remember at the time of working on that piece and thinking that it didn’t really matter how many times in the span of art history the female body had previously existed; it didn’t matter if it was a subject that had been revisited time and again over the ages, I still wanted to have my own take on it. I remember thinking that, at the very least, my work will be meaningful in the sense that this female body will be its own body: it won’t exist only to be observed by others. Instead, it will be imbued with a sense of self-awareness. All of my pieces dealing with the body or female elements stem from this mindset. It doesn’t matter if I want to convey something about sexual desire or the struggles of living; sexuality is an integral part of all of this. So, my starting point for all of these topics, for all of my female subjects is simply, “I exist.” What I’m definitely not trying to do, is getting into gender issues because that leads one down an antithetical rabbit hole. As soon as you talk about female gender, then you inevitably get sucked into talking about male gender: it always leads to some form of resistance or comparison and that’s something I’m trying to do away with. All I want to explore is sexuality, in a one-dimensional sense, and avoid any traditional power structures that usually get associated with the topic. That’s the only way I know of, to move beyond the conceptual limits of gender and reach something more fundamentally human and universally relevant and acceptable. Of course, these are just my own thoughts on the matter. I don’t know that anyone is interested in the same thing, but I mention it because I don’t know if it’s been brought up before with reference to my work. So, to say it again, in my own simplistic way, I’m speaking in the artistic first person, “I”, in my work.

A Talk with Xiang Jing

Zhao: Looking at some of your different pieces, it seems that this sexuality is expressed to varying degrees, depending on the work. Xiang: Of course. Sometimes I’ll tackle sexuality head-on. But in all of the themes I deal with, including something like sexual desire, I always want to avoid any connection between these matters and the object of sexual desire. For me, the topic is female and unique to the individual, to her own body. I don’t know if this way of explaining holds water or not. Zhao: Let me see. Can you discuss any specific examples? Xiang: For instance, there’s Centre of Silence, in which a girl is masturbating: that’s one obvious example where sexuality is an explicit theme. To me, this work features sexuality in a direct, exposed, clean manner. It’s a subject that requires a female subject, if you will. What I don’t like to get into, when it comes to exploring sexuality, is the idea of male sexual dominance. Zhao: Just now you mentioned that male sexuality doesn’t really enter into your discussion, that there is no concept of a dualistic gender dynamic present. You also mentioned the idea of this being a clean way of discussing the topic. So I guess that implies that there’s also a less-than-clean way of discussing this. (Xiao Jing laughs.) How did you arrive at this idea? Hypothetically, if we were to discuss all of the things that go into your works, including male sexuality, if we were to explore some less-than-clean method of discussing the work, what do you think that would be, and how would we go about doing so? Xiang: When it comes to the topic of sexuality, the power balance is severely tilted in the male direction. The politics of male/female sexuality is all about power really, and power tends to be something of greater interest to men, including when it comes to sex. When power is involved, it’s invariably a matter of weak and strong, it becomes a matter of fulfilling practical, mutual needs or a dynamic that is mutually antagonistic and opposed. This gives way to all kinds of strange relationships. Perhaps it’s my instinct to try and avoid such kind of power dynamics altogether and let something else take form instead. There are many shades and layers to sexuality. I mean, who’s really all that interested in the type of sexuality born out of pure physical necessity? What I want to accomplish, is to point out that lust is actually something obvious and clearly identifiable. Zhao: You keep me coming back to the idea that, somewhere inside you, there exists a notion of what I keep calling the ‘elemental body’. Maybe there are some other ways to phrase it. For example, what you’re describing is a kind of way of



Zhao Chuan

resisting the typical ways of discussing sexuality that we’re accustomed to in society generally. Or perhaps what you’re talking about, is some kind of avoidance or almost utopian escape, but I mean it in the sense of pursuing truth, not avoiding it. Which of these characterisations do you think is more valid? Or is there some truth to them both? Xiang: Probably both. I think my initial instinct was one of avoidance. The instinct of someone in a position of weakness is to choose what’s easiest. But slowly, over time, as I came to better understand power structures, things became clearer and I became more focused and knew how to deal with them. What had been feelings of shame and avoidance, became resistance. At the time, I felt the need to create my own things, but looking back on them now, they seem overly provocative. I think it was a pretty open form of resistance to the fixed, established rules, an attempt to resist any and all forms of objectification. A lot of my earlier works, including Your Body and the Virgin series took overtly hostile stances. ‘Utopian’ they’re certainly not, none of my works up until now. In terms of whether or not they embody some notion of truth, it’s not something I’m in a position to say and I don’t even think it’s all that important. What I like to do and try to do in my work is create something a little textured and complicated: I think that’s something closer to truth, closer to things I’m familiar with. But I don’t think they can simply be viewed as answers in and of themselves. Zhao: The things you create, no doubt, grow out of the environment you’re in. So, what is your creative environment? What kind of influence has the larger Chinese social environment had on your thoughts, including what you just mentioned with reference to your ideas about gender? Xiang: Everyone receives some form of education. I remember when I was young, having a tough time accepting the fact that I was a girl. I grew up with a younger brother. He’s a year and a half younger than me and we were pretty close. I remember noticing that he had this ‘thing’ on his body that I didn’t have. Eventually, I came to understand that this is because there are some differences between girls and boys. With time, I came to discover even more differences between the genders, including the social norms that govern how one is taught to act and behave as a young girl. It was a painful process to accept all of this, for me, and it took some time. But over time, the point I took away was that women were indeed the ‘lesser gender’. And this wasn’t just a matter of missing anatomy. For instance, I remember having conversations with guys and being shocked at the way their minds worked. So, I came to view a lot of different issues through the lens of physicality, including things like menstruation and giving birth. It seemed that women’s bodies were synonymous with pain and suffering of one form or another. When I first started getting my period, I remember

A Talk with Xiang Jing

thinking it was normal because I was expecting it, but with time it really rubbed me the wrong way. I remember asking my mom, “Why?” I remember rolling around on my bed in pain when my period came. Later on, I found out that, if my period didn’t come, there could only be two explanations: either I was pregnant or menopausal – and both of these scenarios imply other forms of pain. It’s kind of like your life was miserable before, and then one day you find out it could even be worse. When I was young, I was pretty depressed and I remember constantly asking my mom questions like, “Do boys have periods or anything like that?” She replied something to the effect that they probably had something similar: she always skirted the tough questions with a kind of vagueness, but she did mention that boys had wet dreams. I remember thinking, “Great, that’s got to hurt.” Later on, I found out this wasn’t the case. So everything I saw and came to know led me to the conclusion that because of their anatomy, women were the weaker species. Their whole lives are full of pain and their bodies the bearers of that pain. I remember one time taking a Marxist-Leninist political studies class in university and none of us were all that interested in the course. The professor would grill us with all kinds of abstract and seemingly pointless philosophical questions. During the exam, the professor asked us to raise our own philosophical queries, the more the better. I remember welling up with a flood of questions from my past that I’d obviously kept buried somewhere inside myself. I remember filling two sheets of paper with questions all beginning with: “Why does ...?” I guess most of my ponderings hinged around: “Why a woman?” I also posed questions about life and death and things of that sort since they struck me as things beyond one’s control, things that were hard to accept and seemingly beyond rational analysis. It struck me that none of us had the right to choose these things and we’re told that we don’t even have the right to choose to die. Likewise, we can’t choose whether we are born male or female. Most of my questions were existential in nature and they left quite an impression on my professor, who remembers me to this day. Zhao: So, do you still think of the body as a receptacle or bearer of pain? Xiang: I do. This is our makeup; it’s what nature has given us. Zhao: Looking at the work Your Body, the subject appears young and physically well developed with no real signs of old age or decay, but her demeanour comes across as a bit sluggish and sagging. Xiang: I think it’s pretty normal. Zhao: The subject strikes me as sluggish and fatigued as if having suffered through many hardships.



Zhao Chuan

Xiang: You might look at a body like that and think she’s probably in her 30s, but the truth is, this is the physical reality for a lot of women by the time they reach their 20s. Zhao: Shouldn’t someone in his or her 20s be full of life? Here, I’m left with the impression the subject has suffered through a lot physically. So why do you think this is normal then? Xiang: Well, if you took 100 male and 100 female subjects in their 20s or early 30s and took their photos, you’d discover that they all would reveal physical sags and wear. I mean, it’s not like in most artistic renderings where everyone has these taut, sexy bodies. Zhao: So, what underpins this misperception then? What (mis)leads our minds to wander in that direction? Xiang: I tend to think that aesthetics are taught. It seems as if our perceptions of physical beauty rest on the whim of what those around us tell us is vigorous, sexy, charming, or what have you. In reality, we’re a lot closer to the ‘sagginess’ —you can use that word—which you see in my piece. Again, I just think that’s a normal body. Zhao: The types of bodies we see in film, television, advertising, art, and so on are something different entirely, and it seems as though fiction and reality have been inverted. In daily life we don’t generally tend to see beautiful, fully exposed human bodies. We get hints of it through artistic, cinematic and advertising representations, and our minds do the rest of the work, filling in the gaps of what we think 30 and 50 should look like physically. Even with all of the contact and interaction we have with our own bodies or those close to us, it’s still not enough to offset the powerful social influences around us that work away on our imaginations. The outcome of those influences is that we’re never satisfied with how we look. Comparatively, our real-life bodies are full of flaws and defects. All of the cosmetics, exercise and weight-loss we engage in are attempts to work towards those (learned) standards of beauty. But it’s a false, abnormal standard. Xiang: This kind of learning is a powerful force. It obscures our ability to observe the world as it really is and can even impact our values. Zhao: So, we just talked about the changes that come with age and how we interpret that physically. But what about the role of changes across different eras?

A Talk with Xiang Jing

Xiang: I think time is a key factor. Perhaps time clarifies and strengthens our sense of self-consciousness. When I was a young girl, I was different and used to ask lot of strange questions that I don’t think a child today would ask. Maybe that’s a sign that the times are evolving. Zhao: You also received most of your education during the 1980s. Ever since then, it seems that about every 10 years or so China goes through a big conceptual shift in thinking. Moreover, it seems that the directions of these changes is ever more tilted in the direction of fulfilling material appetites. These appetites have been constantly exploited and strengthened over the years. What’s the connection between this development and your meditations on the human body? You’ll excuse me if this question reflects a particularly male way of thinking. Xiang: It’s hard to escape the environmental influences of one’s era. The 1980s was a particularly important time for me. In 1984, I was accepted into the Central Academy of Arts middle school. The depression that hung over me in from my childhood years suddenly vanished. Being exposed to art and the relatively relaxed atmosphere of that middle school really had a liberating effect on me. During that time, I read a lot and was exposed to a lot of Western ideas: you couldn’t help but absorb so much. I remember Freud was one of the popular writers to read back then, and I personally found his work provided answers to many of my long-held perplexing questions. In terms of lifestyle, the 1980s had an extreme metaphysical overtone to it, and that’s something that left an impact on me. I think most people who grew up in that era were influenced in similar ways. The fast-paced changes I refer to are those in the years that followed. Truly, those subsequent years hardly left one a chance to catch one’s breath. From the time I was young, my life at home, my relationship with my parents and friends had always been about reading and chatting without any real opportunity to chance or think independently. That was just the way life was up until that time. When things changed and Chinese society entered an era of materialisation and other related influences, my instinctive reaction was to resist. I almost think in one sense that materialism was part of the political strategy of the ruling elite, but that’s not really something that I think about too much. I think the 1980s instilled in me a private sense of pride and elitism in terms of how I understood life. I couldn’t help but feel I was a special case. Zhao: Heh, especially after you got into the Central Academy of Arts middle school. Xiang: At the time, I’d be walking down the street and my whole demeanor was just different from everyone else around me. Being in that school, we were removed from popular culture for the most part and almost looked down upon it.



Zhao Chuan

But in the climate of dramatic social changes that followed, it was popular culture that actually triumphed and became the mainstream. There were so many things from that era that I had a tough time coming to terms with. But the connection between myself personally and my works doesn’t really have any strong social correlation to that time. What’s always interested me is human nature. It’s not a case of being heavily influenced by my social environment and then latching on the idea of human nature. It’s always been the latter which has interested me first and foremost. Zhao: Your handling of the human form in your sculpture strikes me as very acute. This awareness seems to play a role establishing connections with the world around you. So, when it comes to putting a private body on display in public, what kind of relationship exists between the physical body and public space? Sculpture of course is different from painting in that it’s three-dimensional. Xiang: When I’m in the act of creating a piece, I tend not to really think about the issue of some day displaying the finished work in public. For me, I’m entirely self-absorbed in expressing myself creatively when working on a piece. My goal is to express myself as clearly as possible. If it can be said that I possess a certain acuteness or sensitivity, then I hope that I can focus and let that quality shine through in the work itself. Because in the end, it’s not like you can maintain that energy and sensitivity all of the time. We all have our limitation when it comes to energy and stamina, and I exhibiting and creating a work are two entirely different concepts. Creating is about manufacturing something, about expending yourself. Once it’s a finished piece, it takes on its own language and expression. Exhibitions are even more about interaction. I always look forward to creating some sort of response from viewers: it’s almost like a performance. Creating is one stage of the transformation; going to the opening exhibition is another. Sometimes it’s interesting to see how a display piece can provoke certain reactions that I didn’t anticipate. Another way of putting it is that viewing nude bodies is not part of our daily routine, and when you expose an audience to that, you’re also exposing them to an internal part of themselves that isn’t usually on display. You’re perhaps letting them see into the recesses of their own hearts and minds. Zhao: When that happens, the ‘body’ on display is in fact every body. Xiang: If my art can have any effect at an individual level, then I hope that it can affect people at some core part of their being. I’m not all that interested in realism, social portraiture, and things like that. If I ever touch on subjects that come across as taboo, then it’s only because it’s somehow connected to the theme of human nature. I’m simply interested in exploring a few themes in my work:

A Talk with Xiang Jing

pain, distress, comfort, depression – things like that, things that you feel when you’ve lived a while. I hope these feelings come across in my work. When you’re calm and approach the works and let your feelings guide you, you actually end up observing parts of yourself. I’ve always felt that art works through the powers of perception and that it physically heightens our physical sensitivities. Most of the time, we live in a sheltered state, but sometimes something can wake you up out of that state and speak to you at an intimate, personal level. That has to be the most precious function art can serve. Zhao: I’ve never really thought of your work as dealing with anything too socially taboo. But I do hope that you’re able to continue to develop an emotional component in your work and touch the viewer a bit more. Xiang: That’s just what I think one of art’s functions is. I’m just using the body as a medium, but to talk about various notions of physicality in spoken language is no easy task. As an artist, I think of the body as simply a tool I need to make use of. The more important thing is whether or not you can create something that touches people inside, and life is all about feeling and the internal. Liang Shu Ming once said that Western culture is blindly focused on external objects. Living in money-oriented societies has scattered peoples’ hearts and joined their bodies. The body is the physical repository of our hearts, but it exerts its own limitations and barriers. The key is really about looking within for spiritual significance. I don’t want to talk about it in too grandiose or abstract a manner since I’m not in the habit of being dramatic. What I’m aiming for in my work, is something a little refined, something layered, not necessarily something overtly passionate, but something that can gradually work its influence and move the viewer from within. These days I’ve come to understand that I have a lot to learn from Chinese culture. Comparatively, I think a lot of the crises and difficult situations Chinese people face, day to day, are more painful than what others may experience. If art has the ability to reveal this kind of pain, then it is indeed meaningful. Sometimes it’s not easy to express oneself, which is why I say that I suffer from a kind of aesthetic obsessive-compulsive disorder. When the feeling strikes, sometimes I have a tough time even lifting my knife to cut away another piece of clay. Sometimes I’ll walk away and work on something else, something a little more uplifting, and let myself recover. In the end, I hope that my advancing years bring with them a certain degree of wisdom, and that I’m able to transcend my physical limits. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny


Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body” in Contemporary Chinese Photography Gu Zheng

Over the past 30 or so years, China has gone through a series of rapid changes which have not only manifest themselves socially, politically and economically, but also in terms of the relationship between the human body and society. Before China adopted its reform and opening up policy, the state maintained and exercised all sorts of controls and authority over how the human body was conceptualised. During this period, the body was suppressed and disciplined into submission. Nowadays, in addition to state control and influence, other forces such as consumerism and globalisation, have come to exert their influence and further shape our notions of the human body. Gradually, the human body and its relationship with a broader social context have become increasingly antagonistic. This relationship, with its complexity and richness, has not been lost on contemporary artists. Photographers in particular, with their keen sense of observation, have gone on to produce works and create images with a richness and significance greater than the sum of their parts. At the same time, they have managed to shift how we conceive of the state and society in general, as well as the body’s relationship to society and photography in particular, all of which represents an unprecedented transformation and reshaping of those relationships. When looking at such examples of contemporary photography, we notice that the human body is not simply an object to be casually observed in the frame; but rather, it becomes the very subject and focus of the work itself. With such a shift, the body is no longer a passive prop so much as it is an active, conceptually potent weapon. This article is an attempt to explore the body as it appears in contemporary Chinese photography from three different perspectives. It is also the hope of the author that such a discussion may lend itself to a deeper and broader understanding of, and appreciation for, contemporary Chinese art.


Gu Zheng

1. THE B ODY AS S OCIAL L ANDSCAPE : THE B ODY AND D OCUMENTARY P HOTOGR APHY Since photography lends itself so well to documentary, it’s not surprising that the body commonly emerges as something to be observed, portrayed and assigned a certain significance and meaning. All physical forms and behaviour that are captured by the photographer’s lens become both a measuring stick and evidence of ongoing social change. For some photographers, there is an imperative to capture, as realistically as possible, the human body and human behaviour in a given period, so that it might someday be preserved and serve as proof of society’s ceaseless transformation. At other times, photographic renderings of the human body adopt a documentary-like quality, attempting to express conceptually and visually the desirable body; and at other times, they express what our bodies desire. Through such visuals representations of the human body, we are able, on the one hand, to understand social change and commonly held social norms; and at the same time, through these images of the human form, we are able to gain insights into more deeply held beliefs about the nature of the human body and broader cultural views. In the post-Mao era, people’s long-suppressed desires were finally allowed to surface. During this time, urban centers became a stage where people were able to express these desires and a sense of individuality. It was in these urban streets, bustling with physical expression, that photography was able to make an early attempt at discussing human nature. As early as the mid-1980s, photographer Zhang Hai Er began capturing images of this dynamic street scene in Guangzhou. His early prints signaled a more open and highly energetic type of photography in China. Using wideangle lenses shot at close range to his subjects, he allowed viewers to both immerse themselves in the images and also get a sense of his own abrasive presence and effect on the subjects. His skillful use of flash became the trademark signature of his ‘modern’ style and a metaphor for the forceful, violent undercurrent that exists in all large cities. During this period in the mid-1980s, when photography exhibitions were typically dominated by one of two styles, either a refined exhibition-like aesthetic or a pseudo-journalistic feel, Zhang Hai Er’s work stands out stylistically from what was then a nascent scene and takes on greater significance. His early urban images are a posturing of the individual standing alone against the backdrop of the city: a city both large and overwhelming and full of all sorts of temptation. It’s especially interesting to observe his treatment of these bodies in urban landscapes reacting to one sort of physical temptation or another. You could say it demonstrates a kind of strong subjective awareness in the observer; it also functions as a sort of dialogue that engages the human desires associated with life in big cities, or perhaps it’s a form of confrontation.

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

Figure 1: Zhang Hai Er, Miss Lin from Guan Xi in Guang Zhou, 1989 In recent years, he has focused on female portraiture, where images of modern, cosmopolitan women are intentionally and symbolically used as a vehicle to explore the theme of human desire. A common feature that emerges from these photos of urban women is their seductive and suggestive expressions. Through his photography, Zhang Hai Er uses the art form to bring the viewer into close range with this theme of temptation, where he then magnifies it, and forces us to look at it straight on. By doing so, he legitimises the latent forces of desire both to observe and exhibit the human body. The composition of these female portraits is stylistically bold and striking and the colors are intentionally over-



Gu Zheng

saturated, giving the women in the photos a larger-than-life presence. As the women in these photos pose for the camera, their body language is provocative and their facial expressions flirtatious. Looking at the photos, one senses that the subjects willingly display themselves with a sense of impunity, and when they look into the camera they do so as an act of self-affirmation and self-expression. Through his unique vantage point, Zhang Hai Er seems to affirm a sense that contemporary Chinese women are willing to ‘break the rules’ when it comes to personal expression. In this case, photography, as an art form, perfectly embodies and resonates with the subject matter of the human body. The same is true of street photography. Shanghai photographer Miao Jia Xin, now residing in New York City, took on an even more confrontational and radical approach to his photos shot on the streets of Shanghai in the early years following 2000. It was with this approach that he collided head on with his subject matter: women working the late night streets of Shanghai. Most of these women came from less-developed, provincial areas in China and had come to Shanghai looking for an opportunity to make money working in the sex trade. They were both performers on the big city stage catering to physical desire, and also victims of it. Miao Jia Xin became a master of using flash photography, so that in these night images the subject was bathed in light while the background and surrounding details remained dark. His direct, confrontational approach to his subjects conveys a sense of the tense relationship that sometimes exists between the individual and the city. With the contrast of dark, underexposed parts of the female body against the bright flash of overexposed faces, Miao Jia Xin captures that sense of desire that cities are able and willing to fuel. His images of these women roaming the evening streets, as if ‘animals of the night’, in an instant caught by the unsuspecting bright flash of a camera, reveal so much with the subjects’ strong reactions to the camera and powerful body language. All of this emotion and reaction is perfectly captured in the frame. Their body language and expressions, which say so much about the complexity of human nature, are again perfectly frozen in that one click of the shutter. On the one hand, the images reveal the extent of their victimization, but at the same time, one could say they also add to it. To paraphrase Miao Jia Xin: photography is both an art form that reveals our desires, and it is also a form of desire in itself. These images not only provide a glimpse into a subculture of women within the city, but they also reveal to us something about the nature of relationships between men and women; they become a visual aid for understanding something about conflict between the genders. China’s long-running official policy of family planning (the One Child Policy) is, at its essence, about the relationship people have with their bodies, namely their reproductive systems. Such being the case, one might wonder if documentary-style portraiture has anything to say or any perspective to share regarding such a policy. Wang Jin Song, who now resides in Beijing, is the art-

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

ist behind two series of work: The Standard Family and Parents, both of which provide rich food for thought on the subject. Both of these series use the format of the typical family group portrait as a familiar medium. After taking numerous shots of different families, the artist then takes the photos and joins them together through a kind of lattice-work binding to form a cross-section of family images, all so alike, forming a powerful visual of the unique makeup that is the typical modern Chinese family. By skillfully placing so many similar images side by side, the artist is able to reveal the collectivism and state-induced, uniform expression associated with China. The body language and makeup of all these families, so neutral, objective and detached, seem spontaneous. At the same time, one wonders, how it is that photography, with its subduing effect on personal identity and physical expression, is able to capture something so elusive. And yet, these two series do exactly that. There is a double entendre at work in the piece Docile Body, referring both to the controlling influence of the state and the restraining influence imposed by photography when it comes to the word ‘docile’. Taken broadly, Wang Jin Song’s work is a reflection on contemporary Chinese society; it is also a reflection about the human body and a reflection on the craft of photography itself. Beijing photojournalist Zhang Li Jie, who shot the series entitled The View Behind SARS, brought a documentary style to his photography when he shot subjects on the front line during the fight against SARS. These were healthcare workers and nurses, who, themselves, became seriously infected during their fight against the virus. All of the photos employ a similar artistic treatment and format in that they create a serious and heavy atmosphere and point to a special group of people that arose out of sudden, unexpected circumstances: SARS patients. During their treatment, because these patients were treated with large doses of steroids, many went on to develop AVN (Avascular Necrosis). When the public had nearly forgotten this horrible attack, which went away almost as quickly as it came, they also forgot those whom the virus affected. Zhang Li Jie’s images were a timely reminder and wake-up call to the reality that had come to grip those infected by the SARS virus, namely, that these people had not gone away. The title of this series was meant to point out that what we are looking at, is the aftermath of the long shadow cast by SARS. The bodies of those photographed, bodies that were once healthy and productive, are reduced to feeble semblances of their former selves in the images photographed: bodies more or less abandoned and neglected by society. The work serves as a reminder as to how forgetful and worldly people can be with their affections, and how we are often guilty of measuring human value and worth in cold terms of utility and function. On the surface, Shandong photographer Li Nan’s portrait series, Identity, appears to be arranged in such a way that the subjects are grouped together by social status. But upon closer consideration of the intent, it becomes clear that



Gu Zheng

the uniforms and varying attire of the subjects only provide a very superficial sense of ‘identity’, even if, as viewers, we are unable to adequately grasp all the varying shades of complexity that lie behind that visual identity. Clothing masks who we are with the façade of identity. And so it is that our notions of identity and status are hard to separate from the visual forms of the body. While it could be said that, in this series, Li Nan goes about cataloguing human identities based on visual appearances, perhaps a more appropriate way of viewing the work is to see it as a commentary on the illusory nature of identity and status. While in today’s society, clothing can be a form of identification, it can just as easily be a form of camouflage: while it often serves the practical purpose of helping us identify who we are dealing with, it also shapes, and not always accurately, how we see the body. It is no exaggeration to say that there most definitely exists a relationship between clothing, the body, identity and status, as well as power and authority. Different forms of clothing, some in terms of what they cover, others in terms of what they reveal, literally shape the body in different ways, change its contours and throw uncertainty into the mix when trying to evaluate another’s status. Li Nan’s photography, as mentioned, doesn’t try to create divisions and map out divisions of identity, but rather it tries to measure the borders of those identities. It exposes the subtlety with which clothing acts as an accessory on the body and is a form of control and manipulation of true identity and status. If Li Nan’s photography exposes the complicated relationship between clothing, the body and identity, then Shenzhen photographer Jia Yu Chuan’s series, Transgender People, shows the limitations of physical appearance even for such distinctions as gender. This series highlights an individual caught between the conventional male and female physical boundaries and the choices faced regarding how to define one’s gender identity. No doubt, this kind of choice is painful in the beginning and the process is long and hard, but it is not without a sense of detachment and liberation in the end. If one chooses to view contemporary Chinese society in the same manner, then perhaps it is not a stretch to say that the work is ultimately a social metaphor: that Chinese society also faces difficult choices concerning ideology, experimentation and transformation.

2. THE B ODY AS A M EDIUM OF E XPRESSION Since the 1960s, China’s contemporary art scene has experienced something of a meteoric rise, not least of which includes the emergence of performance art, in which artists use the human body as a medium of artistic expression to carry out a dialogue on various social realities, at times challenging those realities and concepts surrounding the body, helping create a new artistic landscape in China in the process.

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

These examples of performance art, in which artists use their own bodies as part of the image, are almost always the result of deep personal reflection on a theme close to the artist’s heart, and therefore are highly expressive and conceptual in nature. It should be noted that such examples of performance art rely heavily on photography and videography. Without the medium of still and video cameras, such art faces limitations both in terms of reaching an audience as well as in terms of historical context and credibility. It is a form that depends on film, not just so that it might some day enter the annals of history, but also so that it can link itself to present reality and future possibility. In fact, this is what gives art and art history much of its value and credibility. But the very presence of photography and videography as tools for recording and transmitting such performance pieces have had an invisible hand in shaping them as well, at times both encouraging and provocative, which should not go unnoticed.

Figure 2: Ma Liu Ming, Walks on the Great Wall, 1998, Performance. The Wall: Reshaping Contemparory Chinese Art, Catalogue, 2005 The image of Ma Liu Ming, with his strikingly beautiful, feminine face set atop his otherwise male body, has been widely circulated. One of his best-known performance pieces involves him walking naked on top of the Great Wall. The juxtaposition of his transgender appearance, set against one of the great symbols of national identity, creates a striking contrast. If the Great Wall is something of a symbol of masculinity and power, then the image of a naked body which blurs the lines between male and female, passing through its arches, must be taken as something of a challenge to patriarchal power structures, both past and present. At the same time, by presenting the image of his own naked body in motion, it is



Gu Zheng

as if the artist liberates himself from the blurred boundaries of gender imposed on him and dispels any narrow definitions and concepts surrounding gender. And by deliberately positioning an androgynous human body on the Great Wall, of all places, the work represents an attempt to confront and part ways with a traditionally male-dominated social discourse. If 20th century visual art can be said to have produced any noteworthy trend, and that trend was to combine images and elements from completely different contexts, then the significance of Ma Liu Ming’s work was to link together different realities and history through his performance art. In fact, the whole idea and act of visually pairing an androgynous body walking on the Great Wall helps to form a new relationship between the individual and landscape. It speaks to the idea of new imagery, both in terms of place and person. And of course, it speaks to the idea of the body itself and represents a deconstruction and explanation of the relationship between gender and history. In his work Family Tree, 2001, Zhang Huan uses his own face as a canvas upon which he writes one name after another of his ancestors. The whole process is perhaps something of a symbolic act in which the artist acknowledges and transcribes his genetic heritage until he has literally covered and wiped out any original sense of self. By the end of the work, the artist’s face and head is so completely covered in names written in black ink that his entire head becomes an unrecognizable black ball, reflecting the outdoor light. Through this process, he shows how the human body itself can be a space for performance art. Through the process of writing these names, the artist reconnects and links himself with his ancestors. By taking numerous photos, cataloguing each stage of the process, he creates a complete photographic series of the event. By displaying the images together in one large frame, he is able to show the transformation, and eventually obliteration, of himself visually. If Zhang Huan’s performance style is about transformation, then he achieves and expresses it by literally rewriting his body, which serves as a form of self-validation and reshaping. In the years following China’s reform and opening up, as the country eagerly hurled itself down the road of globalisation, it found its values coming under the strain and pressure of such a transformation. In the series Tour Guide, artist Hong Hao casts himself as a tour guide leading Western tourists to visit various historical sites throughout the country. As it turns out, the work is somewhat of metaphor, speaking to the wish, among many caught up in the changes taking place, to transplant Western values and lifestyles directly into contemporary China. And in his other series, Successful People: Official Portrait, the artist captures images of himself doing his best to perform a laugh, the type of laugh and visual image associated with the fantasy that makes up our concept of the typical successful person, and combines it with a polished commercial photography style, in an attempt to display the shift in values that has become widespread throughout urban settings in today’s China. These works do a wonderful job of capturing, down to the detail, the visuals associated with the theme of modern lifestyles.

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

Figure 3: Zhang Huan, Family Tree, New York, USA, 2000 Of course, the type of success explored in the works is a material success and highly visual, and it is for this reason that it lends itself well to a medium such as photography, which does such a good job of capturing the appearance of things. Through his facial expression, with its forced smile and unswerving pursuit of ‘success’, we see how ideology and values quite literally shape and act as external forces on the body. In a materialistic society, the body is often callously judged on how useful it is. For one creation, artist Song Tao chose one of the busiest streets in Shanghai, Nanjing Street, as the venue for an art performance piece in which he staged his own suicide by tying the string of a floating balloon around his neck in a symbolic gesture. Choosing the busiest, most upscale part of the city, with all its hopes and dreams, to display the visual image of death by suicide and all its implied desperation, was an intentional contrast. By taking this ominous, and effectively ‘useless’ human body and placing it where he did, he forced people to think about the bizarre nature of cities and the alienating effect they often have



Gu Zheng

on individuals. By contrasting this lifeless, unproductive body and displaying it in the heart of a city full of material desire, he effectively represented how the body can be overwhelmed to a state of dire crisis when it becomes the focal point of material appetites. He lets us discover that in today’s world, the body is always judged as being between one of two states: utility or worthlessness, and that the only reason for living in a city in the first place is to be strong and productive. Song Tao’s photography shows us that when we are confronted with images of the desperate and suicidal, it presents a fundamental challenge to the values and norms instilled in us by our urban environments. Combining timely social incidents and the human body together in the form of photography is the chief aim of artist Ou Zhi Hang, as he uses performance art to magnify important social happenings that would otherwise be buried in a sea of information. In his series, Pushup, Ou Zhi Hang uses his own body to react against what he feels are significant social events. Whenever there was visually sensationalist news on TV, like the fire that ravaged the newly built CCTV skyscraper in Beijing or the large blaze that consumed the Jiao Zhou neighbourhood in Shanghai, his artistic impulse was to quickly get to the scene, remove his clothes and perform a series of pushups in front of the camera as he looked on to the scene unfolding before him. Choosing to express himself in such a ‘vulgar’ way was a form of resistance and a statement against what the artist considered symbols of an overly proud and neglectful society and authority. His hope was that through his performance, the buildings and the power structures that they symbolise, would, like the artist, bare themselves and expose their true realities. For this artist, physical performance directly became a form of personal expression.

Figure 4: Ou Zhi Hang, That Moment, 2009

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

Upon close inspection of the period following China’s opening up and reform, it is hard to see glimpses of anything resembling Western feminism, let alone a movement along those lines. Still, for a handful of female Chinese artists, there has been an ongoing effort to find a more personally meaningful mode of expression and subject matter. As it turns out, performance art often is that preferred mode because it relies so heavily on the human body to convey itself. Perhaps physical expression connects more directly with female personal experience and their interest in issues of gender. He Cheng Yao’s An Open and Free Great Wall, 2001, made use of German artist HA Schult’s Trash People installation as part of a larger piece. Once Schult had completed his setup, the Chinese artist then cast herself into the scene with a fully exposed upper body, where she proceeded to walk through the work and become integrated ‘in it’. From a gender conflict perspective, this can be seen as an attempt by a disenfranchised female artist without any resources of her own to intrude into and even seize control of the resources of her male artist counterpart. In this clever and resourceful performance piece, she was able to expose this issue of gender conflict and successfully reach a wider audience by photographing the event. In another of her performance pieces, 99 Needles, 2002 (see page 186), He Cheng Yao connected with the pain her mother experienced during the Cultural Revolution. During that time, her mother had a daughter out of wedlock and eventually suffered from a type of mental disorder due to the social disapproval and pressure heaped on her. The People’s Liberation Army proceeded to treat her with acupuncture. Herself, that very child born out of wedlock, He Cheng Yao attempted to transfer the same physical pain her mother experienced to her own body, both as a recollection of that pain and as a form of self-healing. For her, etching her mother’s pain onto her own body acts as a physical means of transplanting those memories and experiences to herself. In Forever Sweet, 2001, Sun Guo Juan uses sugar to represent and explore other connotations of the word ‘sweet’. By covering her exposed body in sugar, she points to the common female preoccupation with physical appearances and all the inherent hang-ups and sense of insecurity that accompany physical aging and decay. At the same time, she questions whether or not women must buy into the idea of beautification and the whole sense of viewing one’s body as a commodity. From these images of white sugar peeling off from the female body, we are cruelly reminded that any sense of permanent physical beauty is false. Her plan is to take one to two such photos each year as a reminder of the slow process of physical and mental change, which affects everyone. This ongoing assault on the appearance of the body, imperceptible at any given moment, is perhaps especially depressing and more of a reality for women than men. In the works of such artists mentioned in this section, we see an attempt to combine performance art and photography to reveal varying realities surround-



Gu Zheng

ing the human body. What these artists achieve by using their bodies in such a way, is to provide a rich source of material for exploring the very relationship between performance art and photography.

3. P ORTR AYING THE C ONSTR AINED B ODY Unlike the previous two chapters, the third section of this piece deals with images of the human body as deliberately manipulated for the purposes of photography. In the discussion of the works that follow, the artists have all carefully set out to craft, down to the smallest detail and arrangement, how to use the body to express a particular concept. In these pieces, we see representations of the body as it is subjected to the controls of artistic vision and direction. When it comes to talking about capturing images of the human body through photography, perhaps we should distinguish between two different forms of conceptual representation. The first uses all different types of physical subjects, including both artist as well as others, to express some highly conceptualised, broad view of reality: that is, the body acts as an abstraction. The other type photographs the body to express a more personal theme within the explicit context of photography: it is the body as a photographed object. In the former, even though photography is used to document the scene, performance art being what it is, there are a variety of factors beyond the control of the artist and the finished product that can never be fully preconceived. In the latter, however, the artist uses the camera to objectify and arrange the body with greater control and does not enter into the photographed scene him/herself. Of course, sometimes such distinctions aren’t particularly effective, especially for artists who have a clear finished product in mind (photography being the artistic medium for many such artists), and some combine the two approaches. To a large extent, such examples demonstrate a kind of collaboration between performance art and photography. In this third chapter, we will focus on and go deeper into how the body as an explicit photographic subject (though at times it may still be used as a conceptual medium as well) lends itself to broader, and perhaps fresh social reflection. Cheng Ling Yang’s 12 Flower Months, 2000 (see page 209 ff.), combines and contrasts visuals of the artist’s menstrual cycle with a particular flower in bloom for that given month. By visually integrating her own bodily cycles with the greater life cycles of nature, the artist also exposes a less visible reality and part of life for women. She does so, it seems, out of a sense that this very real part of life for women, which takes a physical toll, is often thought of as something filthy and inappropriate for general discourse and sight. In the work, she uses her own menstrual blood to make real and bring to light this harsh physical reality that all women go through.

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

Liu Li Jie’s ongoing series, spanning several years, Another Episode, displays the insecurity, questioning and even paranoia that grips women dealing with the realities of a still largely patriarchal contemporary society. In the narratives that unfold in Liu Li Jie’s photos, whether with one or two subjects in the scene, there is a strong sense of human anxiety, scheming and a restricted sense of space. In each photo, the camera reveals a critical moment or scene within a larger narrative: it hints at something about to happen next while at the same time linking it to something that has already taken place. In each of the scenes, there is an impending sense of confrontation between the sexes, making the viewer feel at once both worried and curious as to what happens next. Each of these photos, whether faintly speaking to the broken dreams of women or vaguely pointing at the controlling nature and logic of men, all display women as being visibly shaped by the forces of male domineering and as objects of male desire. At the same time, the artist does not abandon judgment of this sort of male behaviour. Despite the considerable sense of judgment and questioning of a male-centered society in these images, the photos more importantly waver between feelings of hope and desperation and point to the complex feelings surrounding the emotional lives of contemporary women as experienced at an individual level. Clearly the human body is the repository of individual memory. Rong Rong and Inri’s series, Liu Li Tun, 2001-2003, explores such a theme. Liu Li Tun was the Beijing neighborhood where photographer Rong Rong, originally from Fujian province, and Tokyo photographer Inri, resided for a period of time. Not only did it make up the living space for this married photographer couple, but it was also the physical residence of memory. For eight years, the couple made it their home, having married and started a family there. It had been a witness to their life together as artists and the changes they had gone through together until it was eventually slated for demolition. Realizing they could do nothing practically to stop external forces from moving in, the couple turned to photography to document and display the changes that took place around them and use that, instead, as a form of visual resistance and objection. The couple photographed their bodies together as a couple to capture a sense of life’s delights and passions, its warmth and romance and its bitter-sweet moments, and tied them all together into a visual narrative. The photos combine a visually stark realism of the physical landscape as it changed around them with a performance-like quality of the couple placed in those landscapes, to provide a sort of social commentary. When we make out the black contours of their bodies amidst the ruins around them, we know that, what we are looking upon, is a sort of mourning ritual at the loss of a piece of history and reality. In the final image, the couple tightly embrace each other in the middle of the wasteland around them, holding a bouquet of flowers, and become one with the scene. As they face the demolition around them, they reflect one last time on the past.



Gu Zheng

Figure 5: Liu Li Jie, Another Episode NO.16, 2007

Figure 6: Rong Rong & Inri, Caochangdi Beijing+2011+No.6

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

As a means of capturing memory, photography in this series documents both an emotional and physical landscape for the artists. By placing themselves physically in a place full of personal memories, they are able to capture and record images of the body of that place and the fate it met. At the same time they documented the changes affecting their physical living space, they were also able to capture the pervasive sense of rapid, disruptive social change at a broader level, and its effects on the life of the individual. In this sense, the photos are not merely personal mementos, but rather they take on a greater social significance. The series, blending performance art and photography as it does, is no simple attempt to preserve or present memory. What Rong Rong and Inri do, by framing these social and physical bodies together in such a manner, is create a new narrative for themselves and repair personal memories, so as to keep them from lying broken like the buildings around them. The work also provides food for thought about how best to react to overwhelming outside forces. This reaction combines personal memory, physical acts and the transformation of a physical space and brings them together visually. Through their performance art, the couple reveals their resistance and sense of helplessness at having been forced from their homes. There are plenty of examples of outstanding contemporary Chinese photography that document, in a straightforward manner, all sorts of internal realities and perspectives surrounding the human body. Even for photographers like Liu Zheng, with a work like Nationals, which distinctly embodies the qualities associated with the craft, there is an effort to add a fictional quality to the treatment of history. And in this particular case, he revisits China’s revolutionary history by using the human body as a jumping-off point. In his series Revolution, Liu Zheng employs the imaginative, creative control of a director over the subjects in his scene to provide a glimpse into the world of revolution, war and class struggle in modern Chinese history. In this re-imagined treatment of history, we see subversive scenes that vary from the traditional Chinese narrative: like one image, reminiscent of a scene from the Chinese opera, Yi Meng Song, in which a woman nurses a wounded soldier of the famed Chinese 8th Division from her breast, except here in Liu Zheng’s picture, the wounded officer from the People’s Liberation Army appears to look like an American officer. The expression of the female subject in this novel rendering of that famous scene captures a mixed sense of obligation: to save the person in front of her or turn a blind eye to him. In such circumstances, Liu Zheng seems to show us that physical, maternal instincts cannot easily be separated and stand apart from ideology. In another picture, we see a female special agent from the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, again dressed in US army apparel, trying to seduce a revolutionary (from the communist side). Like the former, this scene reveals mixed feelings of human desire and loyalty. In such works, Liu Zheng seems to be focused on exploring the fundamental forces at work in human nature and the conflict between them and the various realities around



Gu Zheng

us at any given moment. These quasi-historical images, almost subconsciously conjure up images of the ubiquitous patriotic red slogans during the Mao era, but in a subversive way. Looking at these images, it is easy to mistake lust as the driving force and conqueror behind the revolution. In these images, the body becomes a nominal sort of weapon of last resistance in the revolutionary fight. The conquered body implies obedience and submission, eventually giving way to loss and even annihilation. In one sense, while it might be said that Liu Zheng’s visual interpretation borrows from the tradition of a romanticized and grandiose historical narrative, by deconstructing the revolution through the lens of human desire, he brings a fresh perspective to the issue. Dealing with history in a similar way, artist Cai Wei Dong uses photography to represent and contemplate past events. For instance, the work 8th Day of the 12th Lunar Month visually depicts a scene from the Republic of China period, in which the military police are executing several revolutionaries. But what really captures the viewer’s eye, is the camera in the scene, as it triggers all sorts of associations: namely that the suppression of the revolution meant the suppression and annihilation of the human body. Were it not for the camera recording such atrocities at the time, in a certain sense, it would be as if they never happened. It’s hard to argue against an execution that has been recorded on film: photography gives such events a life of their own. In another sense, one might even say that in such cases the camera itself is a sort of deadly weapon because historically it was the photo that was used to authenticate and visually verify each death. What Cai Wei Dong seems to suggest, is that hidden beyond physical violence exists a sort of visual violence. Such a work speaks to the connections between photography and death, photography and violence, as well as photography as a form of power and violence in a metaphorical sense.

Figure 7: Cai Wei Dong, 8th Day of the 12th Lunar Month, 2008

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

Figure 8: Xing Dan Wen, Urban Fiction, image 13, 2005 In today’s China, consumerism has taken on a life of its own. For some white collar workers in big cities, the human body itself has fallen victim to the new set of values forced upon it with consumerism. In Xin Dan Wen’s series Urban Interpretation, the artist combines elements of beautified self-portraiture with the still-life models of buildings used in real estate showrooms to interpret China’s ongoing urbanization. By doing so, she uses fiction to destroy fantasy. That is, she works with an exaggerated, overtly fabricated and staged art form in order to address the middle class dreams of urban women, which she believes to be a sort of fantasy that must eventually crash up against all sorts of frustrations and feelings of separation and alienation. In her pieces, we see the female body as something trapped and lost in the commercial world of cities. To be assimilated into this urban landscape, women must be willing to go through a sort of physical assimilation and transformation, even if such a transformation is physically destructive. With the skyscrapers and new buildings that have flowered all over Chinese cities in recent years, so too have popped up a myriad of real estate show rooms with their highly detailed, almost artistic model renderings of the spaces for sale. These showrooms represent a sort of fantasy and reality. Visually, these to-scale models serve both a commercial purpose for promoting sales, as well as an emotional purpose for letting physical desire and dreams take root. With the use of computers to overlay images, she is able to combine all sorts of personal spaces, each representing different human desires, with a range of emotionally



Gu Zheng

expressive urban female subjects, all portrayed by the artist herself. In doing so, the artist gives us glimpses into all sorts of secret dramas playing out behind closed doors. All of the female subjects portrayed in these scenes reveal hints of smugness, pretentiousness, confusion, and entrapment. Such images stand out as ironic contrasts to the fairy tale promises of real estate advertisements. From the outside looking in, we are able to peek inside these personal spaces and witness for ourselves the eternal conflict and divide between desire and real life. In Yang Fu Dong’s work The First Intellectual, we see a young white-collar male standing on a street in Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai. The man in the photo is bleeding profusely as he holds a brick in his hand in a threatening manner. The image symbolically combines the big city and finance with a young person facing a dead-end future, to expose the violent end that surely results from a money-oriented city whose frustrated, desperate youth contemplate their present and future. In this picture, we see the image of a stressed human figure that can no longer go along with the ambitious goal of a city intent on becoming a global financial centre. With this realisation, we see an overwhelming sense of helplessness, confusion and hatred; and it is out of these combined feelings that we infer he has picked up a brick and bloodied himself. In another series, Ms. Huang, Yang Fu Dong shows us a young female subject caught up between two male admirers. As the series unfolds, we see the young female subject in upscale surroundings constantly surrounded by men. She is the centrepiece of what appears to be a complicated male-female milieu wherein her body provides the backdrop for being watched and consumed. You could say that the images provide accurate glimpses of Shanghai, even if they entrench stereotypes about the city at the same time. Artist Shi Yong’s Imagination: Does Every Chinese Person Have Blond Hair? takes a typical Chinese family portrait, consisting of two grandparents, their son, daughter-in law, and grandson, and poses them in front of Shanghai’s impressive skyline. Of interest is, however, that they all have reddish-blonde hair, which stands out all the more in this otherwise black and white photo. The artist, who appears as the son in the photo, consciously changes the physical appearance (hair) of his subjects while keeping the familiar Shanghai city backdrop. In doing so, he seems to be making a statement about the Westernisation of physical appearances, that has accompanied the Manhattanisation of the landscape they inhabit. With its juxtaposition of Asian bodies and distinctly Western hair, the photo provides a window into the complicated world of Shanghainese, who are both prone to pride and low self-esteem. By giving his subjects blonde hair, Shi Yong also hints at the lingering personality traits among some residents, left over from the city’s colonial past. Through this thoughtful manipulation of physical appearances, the artist effectively elicits an emotional response from the viewer by combining three related themes: how the Shanghainese imagination has been shaped by colonialism, how the city landscape has been modeled after Manhattan, and how even human desires have been shaped by the forces of materialism.

Portrayal, Definition and Reconstruction of “The Body”

Figure 9: Shi Yong, Imagination: Does Every Chinese Person Have Blond Hair?, 2007

Figure 10: Weng Feng, Sitting on the Wall-Haikou, 2002



Gu Zheng

In the context of globalisation, this is a critical self-portrait about the internal emotional world of the Shanghainese. From Xin Dan Wen’s images of the struggling body to Yang Fu Dong’s selfdestructive body to Shi Yong’s recomposed body, we see in each how the human form is subject to all sorts of external controls. In Weng Fen’s Wall Riding series, we see images of young girls mounted on walls looking off into the distance, where skyscrapers pierce the blue sky. By using a wall, he visually divides each image into two distinct parts. Beyond the wall is the developed, nascent world of the big city, full of opportunity. The distant city in the background provides a fictitious landscape like something out of an oil painting. In these images, the artist observes these young girls, who will one day become part of that distant urban landscape they themselves are looking at. By observing the body in such a way, he is observing the observer, observing observation itself. As he observes these young female subjects, who themselves longfully look off into the urban background, he turns the city into a sort of dream or metaphor. These young female forms are objectified in the sense that they become the landscape within the landscape. By inlaying the human body into a larger urban landscape in such a way, Weng Fen simultaneously reminds us of the aesthetic manipulation that takes place at both an urban and individual, physical level. Perhaps it is fitting to end this discussion with a work by Wei Bi, the title of which is intentionally left blank. In this work, the artist uses the body as a conceptual form to contemplate its relationship with society. The work is something of a photographic experiment in which the artist recounts his own personal experiences in prison following his release, as he conceptually presents scenes he was subjected to, depicting his various relationships (including physical interactions) and other forms of physical discipline. In these images, we see how authority exerts its monitoring control over the body visually, how physical labour exerts a form of discipline over it collectively, as well as how the body suffers on an individual, internal level. In this somewhat autobiographical work, we see the body as something exploited and conquered on a mass level, as well as something new, which emerges from interaction with others in a similar state. Regardless, in each of the images, the body is powerless to overcome its abject circumstances. Perhaps this is meant to be something of a statement about our physical helplessness in general. From the discussion of these works, it is fair to say that in today’s China, “the body is political”. The complexities of our various physical realities provide great possibilities for contemplating those realities. By capturing and artistically rendering the human body so richly, photography provides a great source of reflection on how we view that body. And it is as this reflection rubs up against day-to-day reality, that reality can perhaps be changed. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

Caught in Art’s Haze Lu Yinghua

The early 1990s was an especially vibrant period for experimenting with the human body as an artistic medium in China’s art history. Starting back in the 1980s and continuing on until now, performance art has been a common thread running throughout China’s contemporary art scene. Initially, this article set out to explore the human body as art, but gradually morphed to include observations and thoughts about the inherent artistic qualities of performance art in general. Upon closer examination of contemporary performance art, I discovered that the artists involved all drew upon one of several common features: raw physical energy, experience, emotion, intuition, instinct, and psyche. The works of such artists tend to be highly spontaneous and unmethodical, always relying on flashes on inspiration. This understanding of the artistic process, common throughout China and much of Asia, has no doubt been shaped by the influence of modernism on the region. Operating within this mindset, art is perceived to be versatile, uncontrollable, unpredictable, impulsive, physical, and something hinting at genius. The artist is conceived to be wild and defiant and his or her life and the creative process are one and the same. The artist is fully committed to art in mind and body, with the fervor of a religious disciple, and uses every ounce of energy at his or her disposal to create art. To this end, many such artists choose to abandon what they perceive to be typical lifestyles and instead attempt to immerse themselves in an artistic state, without any earthly attachments, imitating what they imagine to have been the living conditions of great artists of the past. Their attempt to live Bohemian, utopian, liberal lifestyles is a reflection of their understanding and appreciation of some of the great European and American masters. But in the process of being avid readers of the biographies of Van Gogh, Kafka and the like, many of these modern Chinese artists lacked an understanding of the greater artistic tradition at work and instead placed too much emphasis on individual artistic talent and lifestyle as determinants of artistic success. Just like all of the success stories you read about with entrepreneurs in China, or the overblown motivational audio books about personal achievement, many of today’s artists in China wish to craft their own personal myths.


Lu Yinghua

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of Chinese artists began contemplating how best to frame perception, emotion, intuition and instinct in terms of the role they played in creating art. During the mass artistic movement taking hold at the time, much of the discussion about the creative process was reduced to an oversimplified, emotional venting. It was against such a backdrop that Wang Guang Yi, during the 1988 Huang Shan Modern Art Creation Forum, proposed, “cleaning up the humanist sentiments” in Chinese art he saw at the time. This was art that was influenced by aspects of both the modern and classical traditions. “The way I see it, ‘modern art’ and ‘classical art’ are built on the foundations of classical knowledge and derive their meaning therefrom. They both stem from a tradition of passionate humanism, but ultimately lead to something that can only be deemed pseudo-natural art. All of this stems from the connections between religious beliefs and metaphysical fears, such as contemplating the similarities between man, at the micro level of existence, and God at the macro. Based on some shared, illusory sense of empirical reality, artists have sought to create their own mythology; and under such a humanist treatment, everything within that mythology has been aggrandised and exaggerated. For those completely immersed in such ‘surroundings’, it would of course be impossible not to believe such a ‘myth.’ Inculcated within such a myth, ever since the time of the Renaissance continuing up to today, has been the illusory notion that the artist somehow has a direct line of communication with the divine. Toward the end of the 20 th century, a number of European and American artists began questioning this myth; but, one and all, even avant-garde figures like Joseph Beuys, they were unconsciously caught up in the haze of that myth at times. This tragic outcome was the result of a language inertia inculcated with ‘modern art.’ In fact, ‘classical art’ and ‘modern art’ share a common vocabulary. In this sense, we should refrain from overstressing the reliance of art on humanist sentiments and on seeking answers to the meaning of art. Instead, we should focus on resolving the questions posed by art as well as establishing a logical, testable linguistic background for adopting past historical facts as experience.”1

What Wang Guang Yi attempted to do around this period, was to break down the sanctity of art as ‘religion’ and instead treat it as a formal subject and expose it to rational discussion. Around the same time, artists in southwestern China, in their own way, began raising new questions about how best to approach art. On November 7, 1990, during a correspondence with Mao Xu Hui, Zhang Xiao Gang used one set of analogies after another to describe how he wished to depict all of the details from life’s daily scenes and combine them with his own 1 | Wang Guang Yi: “Regarding ‘Cleaning Up Humanist Sentiments’”, Jiangsu Art Journal, October 1990.

Caught in Art’s Haze

personal literary and artistic forms of expression. He wrote of how he wished to interweave the aspirations of life and art, to “cherish” the “time we visited the ‘Seine’ and Nuo Hei village (in China’s southwestern Yunnan province), those crazy, lost days, not unlike ‘the nightmarish existence we are still facing’: Hesse’s collected works, the white hospital bed sheets [...], the sound of bacon cooking [...], vomiting after excessive bouts of drinking, Becker’s The Denial of Death, the shriek of the cat next door in the middle of the night, Shostakovich’s, 11th Symphony.” He goes on, “Night and day we were living in a nightmare, wearily reading works on structuralism and deconstructionism, things of that sort, everything around us being taken in and mixed into a confusing physical cocktail, the weight of the world pressing heavily on the very core of our being. We even mixed our blood and smeared it on our bodies, the atmosphere mysteriously strengthening us to go about our painting. So you see, you can’t simply dismiss the connection between these other figures and ‘art’. If art is simply some semantic representation, some kind of answer to an equation, or the result of something someone wishes to prove, if it is something utterly disconnected from individual experience and is simply cultural research, then, the way I see it, it’s really no different than kissing an attractive corpse. I believe (the former type of) art comes from lonely, individual experience, but is big enough to embrace a larger reality and various cultural stimuli; it represents our collective wisdom, imagination, and contemplates our determination to live.”2

For Zhang Xiao Gang, experiences, and especially physical feelings, lie at the core of art’s creative process. He also believes that this internal, physical force is what drives and sustains art and what also lends it a certain mystique and distinction. At the same time, because of this stance, he questioned the ability to rationally analyse art, as well as the value of studying art in order to use that base of knowledge in creating it. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zhang Xiao Gang and his circle of artist friends focused on exploring the extent to which rational analysis could be a useful tool for describing a creative process that is fundamentally emotional. On the one hand, as artists, they deeply cherished the idea that emotion and flashes of inspiration play a large role in creating art. At the same time, they hoped to discover a methodology by which that process could perhaps be mastered and identified. Regardless of how you view art, real-world feedback is a potent force. During the early 1990s, the choices and influences of important artistic bodies and events in Europe and the U.S., like the Venice Biennale and the nascent art market, essentially downplayed the urgency of self-questioning and reflection within the artistic community. Instead, they temporarily shelved these sincere, 2 | Zhang Xiao Gang: A Modern Narrator’s Multiple Worlds, Huang Zhuan.



Lu Yinghua

if sporadic, attempts to reflect on the creative process and almost went in the opposite direction, where the focus became establishing a widespread, systematic and recognisable system of artistic critique. Reading through articles written on art from the 1990s, one discovers that most of the commentary was centred on the idea of explaining the creative process through the lens of realism. Elucidation through this prism of realism certainly gained currency, especially in terms of being able to offer useful commentary on graphic illustration; though much of this commentary toward Chinese art simply echoed what commentators and critics in the West were saying. For those working in China’s art scene, both artists and critics, influences from the Western world of art were hard to miss. For example, the whole concept and practice of pop art exerted its influence and came to be interpreted as a form of critical consumerism, whereby the creation of art was viewed as a way of critically expressing social attitudes. This kind of understanding subsequently infused the creative process with a sense of art history (albeit Western art history) and seemingly forged a connection between the artists and their social realities in China. On the one hand, artists continued on with their work, following the dictates of physical and artistic instinct. But at the same time, art critiques began borrowing from different fields: psychology, sociology, philosophy, and the like. What became lost in the process, however, was a serious review of the art itself. You could say that, during this period, the creative process took on a life of its own, while the art itself did not really hold up. This proved both a source of confusion and anxiety for the artists. For them, studying art as a subject lacked the proper discourse and understanding of the inherent qualities of art. Most artists are constantly concerned with providing a reasonable sounding framework for their work or some sort of pseudo-context, but this rarely reflects their true concerns and interests. The ‘political pop’ and ‘cynical realism’ that emerged in the 1990s, did so out of the convergence of the type of art and art commentary I just described. While the art produced definitely responded to what the market wanted, it had a misleading effect on the artists’ sense of their own accomplishments. Various political slants and socially current themes defined the artistic mediums and discourse of the day. In this sense, artistic commentary fed directly into the act of creating art, which became highly symbolic and simplified in the process. In 2010, I remember reading all sorts of commentary about artist Zhang Huan’s work in Frieze. I remember a special compilation, put together by Phaidon, in particular. From the artist’s own narrative, I came to realize that the connection between the flourishing of performance art in the 1990s and the largescale sculptures, installations and performance pieces of today rests primarily on the artist’s innate ability to instinctively reflect on social reality. For the artist, doing so is both a form of challenging and expressing the self. Regardless of how

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artists wish to describe themselves, outside, interpretation of their work is often largely filtered through the lens of politics and ideology. Nowadays, as critics no longer tend to employ some form of larger social criticism to interpret an artist’s work, the focus has shifted to criticism of the scale and means of production of that work. This is the result of an often-dualistic approach to understanding art. The same was true of many performance artists at the time, such as Li Yong Bin and his video series Face (1995 to present). In Zhang Huan’s early performance art, the body is used as a creative medium rather than a means to express some form of social criticism or narrative. This sort of paradigm is useful in helping us evaluate and discuss the artist’s work without having to give too much consideration to outside factors. It allows us to discuss, in a fresh way, both any grander meaning the work aspires to, as well as the vital role the body plays as an artistic medium. For many years, Li Yong Bin has worked with video recording and the physical body, especially the face, as a means of personal expression. The scale of his work is determined by either the length of the recording tape or the physical limits of his body in the performance. For instance, there is one work in which the artist took a series of self-portraits in a darkly lit room on a summer’s night, capturing flashes of his face as lightening intermittently lit up the night sky. Another time, the artist captured images of his face reflected in the blade of a butterfly knife that he repeatedly played with until his fingers were numb and could no longer move. In almost all of his works, the artist himself does the recording, employing a very minimalist approach, while at the same time performing in the work. The result is highly effective. By featuring himself in his own works and so thoroughly pouring himself into the pieces as he does, Li Yong Bin’s accomplishment is really a sort of self-mastery, whereby he produces something visually simple, yet intense, for his audiences. In Li Yong Bin’s work, the physical body plays a crucial role: it unifies the artist as an individual and his work as one. However, more often than not, when it comes to the relationship between the artist and the art world, the latter usually chooses the former and then defines and expends him or her in due course. In such cases, the artist never truly participates in the process. When it comes to what the art world fancies, it tends to be based more on perceived ideas rather than real, personal experience. As a result, it becomes easy for those in artistic circles to build up the importance of art criticism with all sorts of reference to external factors affecting the work and choices made by the artist. At the same time, they may downplay and even neglect the individual forces and initiative operating within the artist. Inside this dynamic, even artists who view themselves as bringing their own unique approach to art are trapped within the confines of type, form and certain modes of production. What is more, when those types and forms have saturated the market and run their course and the market demands something different, the artist is left scrambling to come up with some new technique to put a fresh face



Lu Yinghua

on an old form, to seek outside stimuli. When art critiques began focusing on the lack of understanding and appreciation many artists have for art and the art scene, it was perhaps inevitable that many artists’ work began to stagnate. As a result, many artists sought whatever means necessary to achieve some sort of physical or emotional breakthrough in the hope that it might benefit their work. Recently, some have even gone so far as to live the life of ascetics, wandering from one location to another, intentionally seeking out physical hardship in the hope that such experiences might lead to a deeper understanding of life and thus allow them to continue their work as artists. When artistic works migrated from a climate of openness and exploration to habit and eventually inertia, when the goal became to satisfy the demands of the market and art critics, the art suffered from a lack of intensity. The works lost the aesthetic beauty of what Austrian philosopher Diedrich Diederichsen described as the qualities of “free jazz”, “rock’n’roll”, and “electronic pop”, and the heightened emotional sense they evoke. In the same article, Diederichsen also mentions another approach to creating art: “intention”, a process he likens to listening to classical music, which requires a certain degree of focus. For classical music, he argues, when the audience is familiar with a piece, what the audience will focus on is not what the next note will be, but rather, how the artist gets to that next note, which is a much more subtle thing. Many artistic works begin with an intensity only to become weighed down and stagnant over time. They do so because, when the artist lacks an appreciation for the sentiment, “how do I transition to the next note”? Such works fail to ever reach any true state of “intention”. Diederichsen attributes this “intensity” in some artists’ work to the prevailing spirit of hedonism that reigned in cultural circles in Europe and the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. China, too, underwent a similar social current during the 1980s and 1990s. But as the art market grew in China, the approach to creating art led to the establishment of an industrialised framework, and clearly this “intention-based” work led to greater demands from the market. The ideal state for an artist is one in which his or her “intention” can naturally take form and maintain intensity when it comes to creating and reflecting on the work. But in real life, creative intensity becomes diluted when an industrialised approach to art takes hold. As a result, artists and art critics, lacking any proper artistic dialogue, are unable to fully recognise this “intention” within various works and instead focus on “how to display these works”. To emphasise again, a rational, discipline-based approach to studying art should be careful not to turn creating art into something overly stylised or mechanical. It should, instead, return to a better appreciation for the nature of art. In China, during the 1980s, as art was experimenting more with the physical body as a medium, some of the works with the greatest mobilising overtones came from small groups of artists. Often their performance pieces took place

Caught in Art’s Haze

in very specific contexts with the aim of providing food for thought about what art is all about. In June of 1986, in Hangzhou, China, a group of performance artists under the name, Pond Society carried out the project Exhibit 1 – Yang Shi Tai Chi Series. Using scrap newspaper and working from a school gym, within nine hours, the group had cut and formed 12 three-metre high figures performing tai chi poses. On the second day, the artists assembled their work outside the Academy of Fine Arts, located along Hangzhou’s famous West Lake, in an alley next to Nan Shan Road, now called Lu Yang Road. The set-up took place against the backdrop of a brick wall some four metres high and 60 metres long and lasted until 4:30 in the morning. Along with the figurines made from the scrap newspaper were written various tai chi mantras. The Pond Society was initiated by Zhang Pei Li, Geng Jian Yi, Song Li and others in May of 1986 and took as its mission statement: “The Pond Society shall not make mastery of skill its main objective; too often we place painting on a pedestal, but it is not the medium for expressing ideas. What we hope to do, is break through the barriers of conventional artistic language and begin something new, something perhaps not clearly defined, but something that nonetheless can create a sense of excitement among viewers, something that can truly be called an ‘art movement’. For us, painting, performance art, photography and the natural environment (our conceptual mediums of choice) all employ a very strong visual awareness and create a sense of organic unity.” This sort of collective effort allowed the process to become the creative act in itself and was in keeping with the participants’ aims of reflecting on art’s insistence on the end product, be it a painting or sculpture or what have you. For those involved in this project, the idea of art as an end product had reduced art into nothing more than a tool and made it overly goal-oriented, instead of giving equal weight and consideration to the creative process and artists themselves. “I don’t need something blatantly utilitarian or that caters to specific wants. If we abandon, or at least weaken, the importance of the finished product, then the process of creating the work takes on meaning. In fact, as far as the artist is concerned, art is really an attitude toward life; or rather, it is an autonomous lifestyle and nothing else. It is one choice made out of many.”3 In Shanghai, 1986, Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts students Ding Yi, Zhang Guo Liang and Qin Yi Feng wrapped themselves in bright cloth and put themselves on display in some of Shanghai’s busiest areas, including Nanjing Road, outside restaurants, near train and bus stations, and in front of art galleries and billboards. At the time, the group came to be known as the Streetside Cloth Sculptures. In December of 1986, a show was put on in Shanghai’s Hong Kou district, at the No. 2 Worker’s Stadium, entitled Concept M Artistic Show. 3 | Lu Yin Tong: “Remembering The Pond Society: Interview with Zhang Pei Li,” March 22, 2007.



Lu Yinghua

The show was a collaborative effort by Yang Hui, Song Hai Dong, Li Zu Ming, Gong Jian Qing, Shen Fan, Tang Guang Ming, Yang Xu, Zhou Tie Hai, Wang Gu Qing, Weng Li Ping, Fu Yue Hui, Qin Yi Feng, Yang Dong Bai, Hu Ri Long, and Zhao Chuan, more than a dozen performance and mime artists in total. Some 200 people attended the event. The show lasted about an hour and a half, the climax peaking around a somewhat masochistic scene in which Yang Xu violently bloodied his back with a seven-pointed star blade. December 1988 saw Li Shan, Wang Jing Guo, Sun Lang, Zhou Chang Jiang, Song Hai Dong, Xiao Xiao Lan, Wu Liang, Li Xian Ting, Mao Sen, Yang Zhan Ye and Pei Jing unveil their work, The Last Supper – The 2nd Annual In and Out Exhibition, at the Shanghai Museum of Art. Using bamboo and cloth, the artists created a corridor some 33 metres long and placed in it a long table with food and drinks. The 11 artists, dressed in robes and gloves, then proceeded out single-file and took their places at the table. Within 20 minutes of beginning, however, the exhibition was shut down under the pretext of fire safety concerns. The show’s opening act was also its closing scene.

Figure 1: Group picture in the site of M Collective Conceptual Performance Art Exhibition, 1987

Caught in Art’s Haze

Figure 2: Collective performance and installation work The Last Supper, 1988 In 1986, the so-called, “Xiamen Dada” group of artists incinerated all of the works displayed in a particular show, including a sign that read, “This concludes the Dada exhibition.” Huang Yong Ping first drafted what came to be known as the “Incineration Declaration”, which read: “If an exhibition’s works are its vigils, then their incineration is its cremation. Vigils are somewhat repressive; cremation, on the other hand, is something that excites. Artistic works are to the artist what opium is to the masses; if you do not extinguish art, life cannot be peaceful. But not being at peace is truer to the nature of life. Dada is dead; fire beware.” In December, these members of “Xiamen Dada” launched “The Incident that Happened at the Fujian Academy of Fine Arts Exhibition”. The exhibition featured a series of fixed works and also incorporated all sorts of scrap building material from the surrounding area into the exhibition hall. This waste material was photographed before the exhibit opened and the photos were incorporated into the overall show along with written messages like, “Be careful, these exhibits are bait” and “I spent five years learning how to be an artist but it will take me 10 years to quit.” In the same year, Wang Du planned an experimental exhibition, “The Southern (China) Artists’ Salon”, in Zhong Shan University, Guangzhou, China. The show included various performances and artistic mediums from some 10 members and marked a notable departure from previous painting and sculpture exhibitions, giving audiences something truly novel. Collaborative performance art exhibitions started to take hold during the 1980s. By making use of the public nature of such exhibitions, artists were able to draw greater attention to their work than at any time previously. Of course,



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such efforts arose out of reflection on particular social and historical contexts and carried with them a certain force. These exhibitions were also highly self-descriptive, self-generated works on the part of the artists. By seeking engagement with a broader audience, these artists attempted to delineate the very boundaries of art. These experimental undertakings reflect early concepts and attitudes toward, what was then, a still fairly nascent sense of a larger art scene. Among these sentiments was the idea that this new scene should be something separate from the formal art world, associated with museums and galleries. It was to be different both in terms of how it chose to exhibit itself, as well as in terms of its ideas surrounding how art should be studied. The art scene of 1990s China saw the human body feature prominently as an artistic medium, especially for artists such as Ma Liu Ming, Zhang Huan, Zhu Ming, Wang Jin and others. In the works of these artists, the body became an important means of self-expression and release from the challenges facing them in their daily lives. It should be noted that the artists working during this period were faced with pretty extreme material living conditions and were operating in a still relatively closed-off ideological environment. A number of these artists, such as Ma Liu Ming, Zhang Huan and Zhu Ming, had settled in Beijing and were facing somewhat similar plights, yet all shared a strong desire to change their fortunes. With no other resources at their disposal, the physical body became a natural outlet for these artists to find a voice and describe their difficult living conditions. For instance, Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Metres is a great portrayal of the artist’s dire living circumstances, both physically and emotionally. In the piece, we see the naked artist surrounded by a swarm of flies and mosquitoes in the public bathroom that was, at the time, his home. In order to condense and bring home the extreme nature of his plight, the artist covered himself in honey and soy sauce to attract more flies than normal, lending a heightened theatrical sense to the work. For the artist with little resources at his or her disposal, one’s own body is indeed an immediate and effective medium that lends itself well to reaching a larger audience. Such artists can perform anywhere: so long as there is a journalist or a camera to record it, the work stands a chance of spreading to the outside world. But the creative process for these artists was not so calculating or goal-oriented: it was really a matter of instinct, an internal drive to express something from within. Looking back on the performance art (in China) from the 1990s, it is hard not to be moved by the intensity of artists from the period, nor notice the lasting impact they made. Perhaps what stands out most importantly from that chapter is the complete commitment of the artists toward life and toward their various difficulties as well as their strong desire to transform those circumstances. This desire is something integral to art and to life itself. This appetite, that so often accompanies youth, is hard to suppress. The achievements of these various works using the physical body also reflect a directness: with the artists literally

Caught in Art’s Haze

Figure 3: Zhang Huan, 12 Square Meters, 1994 exposing their naked bodies to the audience, there is no way to avoid the work. Their work did not attempt to forget life; in fact, quite the contrary proved true. Their work was an honest attempt to use art to express their own real life stories, desires, discontent, and unruly energy. This sense of realism and directness, derived from emotion and instinct, is the product of a unique set of circumstances that all artists experience at some point in their careers. In this sense, they are works that cannot be replicated. These works involving the human body, characterised by particular life and career circumstances and often involving personal hardship, changed over time as the lives and careers of the artists gradually improved and there arose more opportunities for collaborative shows among contemporary Chinese artists. While works from this period went to take on seminal importance, they lost a sense of urgency and instinctual drive over time that characterized them initially. Eventually, these works became things to be discussed and observed within a critical discourse. Around the same time, in the early 1990s, facing a tense social atmosphere, performance art was banned when perceived to be imbued with subversive social overtones. It was subsequently branded as being



Lu Yinghua

synonymous with resistance. As a result, any consideration of the artist’s angle, as an individual, went out the window. By the late 1990s, performance art had shifted to become quite extreme, with the artists often engaging in physically harmful acts, like planting grass on their bodies and even eating dead fetuses. It was against this antagonistic backdrop that performance art continued to evolve. Most of the work of artists from this period stagnated with time. On the one hand, this might partially be attributed to there not being a better critical environment to discuss their achievements. The conditions that allowed these works to be noticed, interpreted and consumed are closely connected to the overall stifling atmosphere and artistic low tide of the time. Another factor has to do with the material improvement in living conditions of artists following that initial period, which had the effect of diminishing any sense of artistic urgency and necessity. Also during this period, artists began exploring other artistic mediums, making it difficult to achieve the same explosive sense of creativity that once defined them. At the same time, these works didn’t lead to any breakthrough in understanding art more rationally, nor was the underlying impetus behind these works fully appreciated. Instead, with time, most of these artists chose to abandon using their bodies as artistic mediums. To generalise, many of the performance works from the early to mid 1990s were instinctive and born out of desperate and limited circumstances. As a result, artists responded by creating highly independent works with the only tool at their disposal: their bodies. Since 2000, China’s art scene has begun to really take form, especially with robust market forces to support it. During this time, creating art has taken on more of a professional look and is more clearly defined than at any time previous. And while a booming market has let loose artistic impulse, ambition and energy, with artists creating ever-larger scale works, it has also led to an overinflated sense of confidence throughout the industry. Such works abruptly appeared out of nowhere in all sorts of spaces, showing themselves off like some nouveau-riche, but without the integrity and desperation, nor the courage and determination that defined them when they were poor. Nowadays, art is more or less manufacturing and artists are one and the same as entrepreneurs. One observation that especially stands out when surveying the new direction of the industry is that we no longer see any emotionally potent, engaging works involving the physical body. Perhaps this is owing to the fact that for many creatives, like the rest of us, life has been a relentless externalisation and outward expansion of ambition with little or no sense of self-reflection. In the meantime, art continues to suffer from being over-interpreted, over-simplified and underappreciated. One might say that today we find ourselves trying to navigate our way forward though the haze of not only an art tradition, but also an art market. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

Physical Odyssey Zhao Chuan

During the late 1990s, in Shanghai and other cities in southern China, there emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, a new group of female literary talents, referred to as the so-called ‘Beauty Writers’. For a short period, they formed something of a trend in the literary and commercial-press world. This trend spread north, where it developed into something subsequently referred to as the “Lower Body” literary camp. These writers’ works were all characterised by a common focus on the human body as a subject matter, even if their approaches varied greatly. As I see it, while this movement introduced the physical body into Chinese literature to an unprecedented extent, it quickly stagnated and was really nothing more than an exposé of pent-up physical desire. Following China’s rapid economic development in the 1980s and 1990s, the country’s youth sought to escape long-running national precepts surrounding the physical body, and instead find greater individual freedom in the forms of desire-centred narratives and consumer culture. By the end of the 1990s, this mindset combined the newfound interest in consumerism with a market-driven economy; and in the process, the physical body was endowed with an unprecedented sense of power, which, in the case of this new group of youth, was often interpreted as eroticism. On the surface, what appeared to be freedom in the form of erotic or individual expression, was in fact the discovery that freedom (seemingly) came in the form of consumption, being able to usurp the suppressive nature of national ideology in the process. This was true not only of writers at the time, but also in the case of the avant-garde art exhibition, “Supermarket”, which was banned as soon as it opened in 1999. It was during this exhibition that a large number of this new breed of artists first emerged on the scene. The exhibit was arranged by the artists themselves and in it, their own creative works appeared on shelves as consumer products in a not-yet-opened supermarket, thus taking on the name, “Supermarket”. The (perhaps misguided) belief that commercialisation somehow brought an equality with it, was the organising mantra behind the exhibit. But all of that was short-lived and the so-called Beauty Writers were too caught-up in the pre-occupations of youth to have a lasting impact. As a move-


Zhao Chuan

ment, they came across as superficial and never regained any sense of originality. Their attempt to explore the physical body became nothing more than a physical collision with consumerism; and so, what temporarily embodied an important source of social tension, soon became a thing of the past. Eroticism and consumerism were reduced to nothing more than cynical lifestyle choices before either had developed any sort of resistance to political spin. This whole market mindset and strategy was nothing new to the West, which had entered China in a largescale way during the turn of the century. The concept of physical freedom that accompanies consumerism does not take long to expose its true self; it is part of the trap which capitalism sets. Consumerism and choice come off as something fresh and new until the whole society operates on those principles. But with time it becomes clear that under such a system, the body does not actually achieve any greater degree of the freedom it desires: it simply gets weighted down with new shackles. This ‘Lower Body’ camp, while insisting on an uncompromising, truthful account of sexual realities, was guilty of setting a low standard for itself. By focusing on instant gratification in their work, these writers were too quickly satisfied with their accomplishments, much to the detriment of the work itself. It has been said that one time, Chairperson of the Shanghai Writers’ Guild and well-known author Wang An Yi, when asked for her thoughts about the whole ‘sensual literature’ trend, is reported to have responded very matter-offactly: “Actually, I’m not that sensually inclined.” For many years, including several generations of Chinese intellectuals, a majority of Chinese felt some form of this sensual or ‘physical’ deficiency. In fact, for more than a hundred years, ever since capitalism took the world hostage under its global spread, and especially since its forceful entry into a historically isolated China, many Chinese have lived with a sense of frustration and defeat, attributing this setback, in part, to some kind of ‘physical’ deficiency. In the fall of 2008, I was in Shanghai, busy working on putting on the play Lu Xun, 2008 (and subsequently, Lu Xun, A Madman’s Diary ). One evening, after a long day’s work, I was having a drink with the Japanese director I was working with, Hiroshi Ohashi. At one point, the subject of one of our actors, Taiwanese performance artist Watan Wuma, came up. Watan Wuma had served in the military for some 10 years and as we talked about him, Ohashi suddenly had an idea. The next day, during rehearsal, he asked Watan to walk among the other actors and perform a military drill and line salute, the kind that had been part of his training years before. Watan had served in the Taiwanese military many years before, during a period of martial law, though he physically bore little resemblance to his former self. But the moment he performed that military salute, it was as if he reclaimed his personal, physical history. The rhythmic succession of his marching steps, the crisp snap of his military salute, and suddenly solemn expression instantly depicted this man’s historical reality. Watan’s body had so clearly been physically shaped by a particular social context and the set of circumstances into

Physical Odyssey

which it was born. In that one theatrical moment, without fabricating any sort of script or story, it was as if a chapter of East Asian history presented itself onstage. My background is in the arts, and from what I can discern, the whole Western artistic tradition is fundamentally a people-centric one. It revolves around the casting of a human subject, be it from the annals of folklore, religion or everyday life. The whole intellectual construction of Western art is founded on the relationship between man and the world around him, a tradition very much at odds with China’s art history. In the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, China’s cultural and artistic high watermark, it was landscape painting which featured prominently. In this tradition, the individual never became a focal point worthy of attention or elevated to such an extent so as to become the subject of philosophical or artistic endeavor. Such domain was left to Nature alone, and in the Chinese concept of the word, Nature includes man, but only as a small constituent. In ancient Greece, we see the human body and its detailed contours celebrated for its strength and beauty. In the Chinese artistic tradition, on the other hand, man’s body is always concealed under clothing. If one studies the Yun Gang Grottoes or other ancient paintings featuring the human form, one notices how the clothing and other external details and markers of identity are what feature prominently, rather than the physical body itself. In such a tradition, the human frame and muscles are always concealed from view and considered peripheral to the overall whole. Occasionally you will see strong-bodied figures, but they are almost always of low status, carrying an altar or guarding a gate, things of that sort. In the Chinese tradition, the human body is only featured in acts of backbreaking labour, revealing that even in ancient times, there was a clear distinction between mental and physical toil. For ancient Chinese intellectuals, the ideal body was always something implicit rather than explicit. Their chief concerns, instead, centered around discussing the essence of reality, cultivating proper behaviour, mediating, drinking tea and discussing virtues: all of which were forms of retreat and thought to be far removed from anything physical or bodily. And so the physical body was neglected in favour of dwelling on matters of metaphysical experience. However, starting from around the time I learned art in school and continuing on until today, that tradition has changed. Nowadays, classes on ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, for example, are compulsory for Chinese art students. With the fall of the Qing dynasty, China experienced a major setback under the invasion of Western military forces, having to cede territory and pay war reparations to the Allied powers. By this time, Chinese people’s sense of their own cultural traditions began to be challenged, and in the process, it would seem as though concepts surrounding the physical body were altered. Chinese in the late 19th century inhabited another world entirely. In the late Qing period, the relationship between the individual, one’s region and the governing system were not the same as the modern relationship between the individual and the state. Instead, they were relationships influenced by patriarchal



Zhao Chuan

systems and family lineage. While the country had been battered militarily, for the average person on the streets or in the fields, more contemporary notions of statehood had not yet fully formed. During that period, the social conscience and collective driving force came primarily from the intellectual class. Some went so far as to put forward the idea that in addition to lagging behind the West in governing systems and technical achievements, Chinese people also fell short physically. It was out of such sentiments that Cai E, Jiang Bai Li and others put forward an idea of an Armed National Movement, demanding strong, warriorlike physical bodies amongst the citizenry. Following this, Liang Qi Chao proposed the New Nation Movement; then, the beginning of what has come to be known as the Republic of China era, as well as the New Culture Movement and Civic Education Movement. Such movements inculcated various views, including opposing early marriage, demanding strong physical fitness, promoting a militarization of mind and body amongst the citizenry, as well as advocating a sense of civic mindedness and national sovereignty, as well as patriotism and an appreciation for evolution and the concept of survival of the fittest. Essentially, these values came to completely encompass the general public, as they dealt with the very real anxieties and pressures of national survival. In addition to a very conscious decision to literally change people’s bodies, the beginning of the 20th century also saw other notable changes take place in China: changes to the legal system as well as changes to time-keeping took hold at different levels. For example, during the period of foreign concessions, Qing dynasty laws were abandoned out of a growing sense that they were too barbaric, which forced the late Qing dynasty to amend its laws and restore legal rights. But once the changes began, it opened a Pandora’s box. Previously, under the patriarchal system, punishment was based on seniority or rank, whereas the new laws regarded all people as being equal individuals. Such changes had implications for people’s concepts about their own physical status and in the process, people’s bodies and physical sense of identity were incorporated into this new order. Then there were the changes surrounding people’s concept of time. In the past, Chinese people did not strictly keep time. Later on, as factories, schools and other such institutions began to appear in large number, new forms of collectivist behaviour, including the Western tradition of keeping time, gradually began to take hold. Soon, people began talking in terms of weeks, hours, minutes and seconds. Breaking time up into such partitions was an especially rude adjustment for the Chinese body, which, historically, had been an agrarian body that looked to the sky to decide when to eat. As well, the body had to adjust to changes that resulted from all of the physical activities in public spaces. For instance, during the late Qing dynasty, when the educated wanted to get the attention of the court to amend the law, they did so by kneeling on the ground in public. In 1919, during the May 4th Movement, university students stood up straight and marched in the streets, where they even set fire to the

Physical Odyssey

Zhao Jia building in a rather famous incident during that movement. This kind of confrontational behaviour, which was a direct affront to the public system, also helped shape the political implications of public spaces. This physical occupying of public spaces, this bringing together of body, mind, and the fate of the nation, was the result of the Armed National Movement and New Nation Movement among others. In the process, our bodies were seized and lifted out of an unorganized, disorderly agrarian setting and forged into a new, national body. The new ideas and discussions that emerged at the same time, as well as the new forms of education, changes to the legal system, time keeping and concepts of space, all played a role in this reshaping; they all helped shape the citizenry into the type of national body that intellectuals had longed for. From the changes that started in the late Qing dynasty through to the revolution, Chinese people had, on the one hand, opposed feudalism, the cutting of men’s long braided hair and foot binding and embraced the ideas of free love and non-arranged marriages. It seemed as though the body enjoyed freedom as never before. But at the same time, one cannot avoid the fact that this new body also belonged to the new state. So, even up until now, these changes were and are part of a process whereby the individual’s body has slowly been claimed as part of state domain. And so it is, that over a century later, after all of revolution and change that has taken place, one cannot help but have mixed feelings about the extent to which our concept of the body has progressed. By forging this national body and identity, China was able to take bold steps toward modernisation as a country. But as physical rights ceded to national interests over time, those in charge politically became the chief manipulators, spokespersons and enforcers of those minds and bodies. Watan, the middle-aged aboriginal Taiwanese man I mentioned earlier, does not go by any Han Chinese name. Instead, he simply named himself in the language of his native Atayal people. From a young age, he entered the military academy and trained as an officer. His story, as a man trampled under a military upbringing, is much like the broader narrative affecting the physical reshaping that affected China and much of East Asia after contact with the West. Watching him perform that military salute, I was palpably reminded of the plight that had come to affect our physical bodies. From 1949 onward, public spaces have been a tightly controlled domain in China, serving only national ideological or political interests. In the 1970s, a majority of drama majors went on to be cast in one of several main roles: labourers, farmers and soldiers. As fictitious representations of leaders in these various fields, pleasing physical appearances were paramount: big eyes, masculine faces, broad-shoulders and strong voices became the order of the day. But the resulting physical standards that this industry inculcated was at odds with the day-to-day reality of appearances most people experienced and somewhat blurred the lines between reality and fiction. What is more, the performance stage had the effect of making the average person feel ashamed of his or her



Zhao Chuan

own appearance and adding to the pressure to change that appearance. Starting in the 1980s, commercialisation and capitalism began to take hold and engulf that public space, which had once exclusively served ideology and politics. Sensing the shift, drama students welcomingly played along and physically remade themselves into the merchandise that the market wanted. So by this time, public spaces came to be monopolised by two main standards: one was a fictional ideological standard, the other commercial. Someone once remarked that a people who cannot express themselves freely onstage is an oppressed people indeed. In the fall of 2004, I met with Chang Soik of the Korean People’s Theatre. At the time, he jokingly commented on how, when he visited the People’s Performing Arts Theatre in Beijing, it did not seem like it was the ‘People’s’ in any sense, with its hierarchical atmosphere. Upon his invitation to put on a play in Kwangju, Korea, I began work on a series of plays in Shanghai and started a community theatre group under the name Grass Stage. In the end, with the help of actors from Mainland China, Taiwan and Korea, we performed our play, 38th Parallel Still Play, in Korea and Shanghai. Basically, the play made use of all sorts of gesture and body language to metaphorically and ironically explore the cruel divisions imposed on peoples living in North and South Korea as well as on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. It poked fun as much as it lamented the politics that had led to such an outcome. At one point during the preparation and rehearsal for 38th Parallel Still Play, I remember having the sense that somehow using professional actors was keeping us within a bubble, and made the whole thing come off as unauthentic. So, I made the decision to seek out more ‘common’ people to work with. Soon, a group of interested individuals came forward: people without any professional theatre background, who subsequently began training themselves together and working on their first performance; and thus was born Grass Stage.

Figure 1: Grass Stage, 38th Parallel Still Play, theatre, Gwangju Korea, 2005

Physical Odyssey

I threw away the script, got rid of any professional actors and had no fixed roles; and what was left on stage was a collective body not unlike the audience. I also made a conscious decision to abandon all of the typical business and commercial models for this play; it was not going to become a commodity. In hindsight, I think it was because of this departure, that our ‘common’ man actors were also able to escape their everyday pressures and give the performances they did. Throughout 2006 and 2007, we again worked as a group to create A Madman’s Stories, which was the story of a zookeeper incited to sell his own bodily organs: the whole thing being a metaphor for how capitalism stirs up material appetites to the point of mental anguish and madness. At the beginning of one performance, I remember noticing how the performers became physically agitated when asked, in a condescending tone, by Beijing critic Tao Qing Mei, “Why can’t you just quietly go about your business onstage and tell everyone clearly what you’re trying to say?” Later on, I came to the conclusion that, “No, we could not.” I certainly would not hesitate to sacrifice a dialogue and storyline to let this group of performers let loose their unbridled energy so visibly and unmistakably in plain, public sight. For our Grass Stage group, the only thing we had was this raw, physical energy: an energy that ignored the rules; this was the only appropriate way to validate this newly found sense of freedom of expression and confidence. Those performers took charge of their bodies and temporarily escaped the oppression of the mainstream stage in the process. During the performances, the participants would walk downstage toward the audience to let them see they were just regular people. This recognition became a means of showing respect toward real life. At the same time, it also allowed those onstage to gain a certain degree of comfort and energy exposing themselves as they did in a public space. This was one of the real and relatively quick accomplishments of Grass Stage. What came as a surprise, however, was the chord these performers struck with the audience, especially with their posture, gestures, body language and vernacular way of speaking. As a result, often at the end of a performance, there would be numerous people from the audience come up asking if they could join the troupe. Through the play, these amateur performers had made audiences believe that the untrained body and voice could also have its share of brilliance and expressiveness, and could touch people in no less a way than professional actors. The theatre is most certainly a public space. But for the participants, performing onstage was no simple task. In addition to performances, everyone had a hand in creating the work offstage, and this process is one which begins with the self, with each individual. When we would sit around discussing some social issue, we would always try to frame it by asking each other, “What’s the connection YOU have with this issue?” “This kind of theatre, in its own way, had a way of pressing to the core of who we are as individuals and as a social community; and this process of pressing and questioning is what theatre is all about. It became a way, for those involved,



Zhao Chuan

of reflecting on life and a means of exploring any and all its related questions. If one wants to ask: “Who is the audience?”, before reflecting on the external ‘he’ or ‘she’ in the audience, the performer must begin by focusing on himself or herself. This kind of theatre is a strict and rigorous process; it is not putting on a performance so much as it is a matter of coaxing a performance to happen.”1 Overcoming the daily barriers to physical expression in public spaces is a process that begins with ourselves. During this kind of theatre, a certain tension develops, and it is precisely then that one’s bodily sense of spatial existence begins to take shape. Those bodies that made their way into Grass Stage abandoned any sense of fictional ideology or commercial standards and, instead, attempted to write the story of their own personal dignity. Someday, if we manage to keep our public spaces free of the types of suppressing influences I just mentioned, we will take a step toward improving the relationships between people in real life. The accomplishments of this type of theatre, no matter how simple or rudimentary, have in fact already given birth to all sorts of possibility and symbolism: by giving way to physical discovery, exploring different performance modes and by challenging conventional aesthetic constructs, be they national or market-oriented. During a class I taught at the Chinese Academy of Arts, I asked the students to feel their own bodies and tell a story related to their physical figures. One male student exclaimed, “Who knew I was so fat?” even though he had long since stopped touching his own body and had moved on to touch the person beside him. Still, whether we are aware of it or not, our bodies are our own. In China, our ancestors first used bones to record the earliest written characters, and the character for ‘person’ is in fact the side profile of an erect body in which you can see the head, body, hands and feet. It was an early attempt to single man out from the rest of Nature, and ever since we first found our bodies, we became able to define our existence. In Chinese culture, this confirmation of personal identity had its origins in physical representations. The body is the physical residing place of life: not only can it be analysed and its origins traced far back, but it is also the source of power behind external change and creativity. The body I described in our theatrical work was not some post-modernist concept of the word, some ambiguous thing with no inherent meaning. Nor is it simply the residing place of personal experience, which contemporary art seems so keen on displaying. Neither still is it some highly evolved, ultra-artistic, aesthetic form of entertainment or physical performance piece. A young vibrant body is a blank slate waiting for its story; but for a body getting on in years, wrinkles cannot be rubbed away, and the posture and physical expressions are an inseparable part of the person. As the body ages, it visibly carries and tells the story of the individual’s life experiences. I hope that my theater is able to let each personal odyssey stand alone as a visual reference point, help the silent find a voice, reveal that we 1 | Zhao Chuan, The Questioning Theatre, 2006, Read Magazine.

Physical Odyssey

are not alone in our frustration, and uphold a sense of determination. Beyond this, I also hope that it may at times comfort and console us, and when needed, defend us; and may it act as a release from the pressures of daily life. This type of theatre re-evaluates life experience and invites the viewer to consider his or her own relationship with change. The two concepts ‘body’ and ‘theatre’ both imply physical and mental discipline, and serve as a bridge between imagination and social initiative. In this context then, the body is elevated beyond its normal dimensions: here, it is a unified whole connecting understanding and practice. In 2007, I visited Jiang Nan Li Guo, a slender, middle-aged man who was putting on theatrical shows in the small bar he operated. In a space less than 10 square metres large, he put on a series of well-known plays like Teahouse and Sunrise, with collaborators spanning all fields and backgrounds. They also performed their own material. Their performances elicited conflicting emotions, at once crude and impromptu, the language coarse, yet with themes deeply humanistic. If nothing else, it was certainly a place for civic gatherings, discussions and entertainment. In such a space and atmosphere, removed from the confines of the outside system, one gained a certain sense of ease and contentment. One evening, I watched as Li Guo crouched on a chair on stage, pointed to the audience less than a stone’s throw away, and said, “You don’t get it? You don’t think I’m forced to be like this? Okay, then I choose to be like this. If I could choose one position, then I’d choose to crouch like this. This isn’t something that happened overnight, this is my job; it’s what I do. You think I can come up with some other way of being when I’m thinking? A posture is a way of thinking; different postures reflect different thoughts ...”2

Figure 2: Grass Stage, Squat, theatre, Shanghai China, 2008 2 | Li Ang: Crouch, 2001,



Zhao Chuan

In the following year, 2008, I adapted Li Ang’s script for a new performance of Crouch. The word ‘crouch’, the name of the main character in the play, not only refers to an ideological stance, but also a physical one. The character’s preference to be physically hunched over, rather than standing up straight very much reflects a sort of worldview. It is also a question of personal preference and a form of opposition to the people around him. And of course, crouching is a physically demanding act. There is an old, often criticized concept of the body that goes like this: those who rely on their brain to live are at the top; next are those who rely on their hands to make a living; and finally, at the bottom of the social heap, are those who rely on their feet, and this is why the head physically sits atop the body and the feet at the bottom. What my theatrical piece set out to do, was to approach all these physical parts: the feet, the hands, the torso and the head, as equal. I had a strong desire to right, what I felt, was a historical wrong, regarding the connections between these physical parts and their perceived social status. It goes without saying that this sort of approach to theatre was a radical departure from the traditional practice of elevating the ‘dialogue’, with its focus on the mouth and torso. This traditional approach represents the same kind of artificial treatment that plagues everyday reality and obscures a multitude of other perspectives in the process. What is more, it is incredibly difficult to use “words” to represent behaviour and movement. But the hunched-over man in Crouch visually embodies his behaviour and does not shrink away from being thought of as base or low-minded. He combines body and mind into a worldview and way of being. The crouching body represents something past and present; it is both a goal and process. The dramatist Antonin Artaud, commenting on the relationship between breathing and physical exertion, once remarked, “Breathing is the fuel of life; under our control, we choose how to burn it.”3 The physical body is the point of interaction and frontline between ourselves, as individuals, and the outside world. In the rampant series of forced evictions that have plagued contemporary China, some have poured gasoline on their bodies and lit themselves on fire as an act of resistance. Even well-known Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, always revered as being of considerable social standing, following being beaten by police over his conflicts with the state on freedom of speech, eventually established his physical relationship with the state in flesh. What all of these and other examples prove, is that only through physical acts are we able to achieve truths in all those fictitious or self-claimed social relations. And these physical acts are the only way to begin the hard journey on a corrective, progressive course. What our Grass Stage troupe did, by engaging in various local, social realities and reflecting on broader social changes and entanglements, was to essentially throw ourselves in with the downtrodden and become a theatre that probed and 3 | Antonin Artaud: Le Théâtre et son Double, Beijing, Chinese Theatre Press, 2006, p. 124.

Physical Odyssey

provoked. From A Madman’s Stories, which portrayed the body and its struggles in a materialistic society, to The Little Society, Volume 1 in 2009, which dealt with the joys and sorrows of those from lower rungs, what we set out to do, was explore a responsible social role for the arts. At the same time, we tried to build up a new ‘body’ for theatre and its aesthetics, which would be able to focus on facing the various hardships in our reality. The work The Little Society, Volume 1 was born out of these observations from cast and crew. We set out to identify who represented the lowest on the social ladder and hash out the questions of “Why?” and “What was our connection with them?” in workshops held at the theatre. At the same time, we worked hard to study their language, behaviour and physical gestures. Through a collective process, we arranged and refined the work until we had an accurate portrayal of those on the lowest rung of the social ladder, with all their conflicting feelings and expectations, a group that had been more or less ignored in the mainstream social discourse. In the summer of 2009, Grass Stage took this play on the road. The performances adopted a flexible platform in which we took on some different members along the way, making necessary adjustments to the story and length as needed. Within a month, we had performed in six cities and in venues ranging from library halls to campus classrooms, to bars, to the Centre for Contemporary Art, to a folk museum, to a rock’n’roll bar, to a creative research park, to a tent theatre, and to a proper theatre for the performing arts. In 2010, we came up with The Little Society, Volume 2, based on the 1847 Communist Manifesto, and drawing on our previous social observations, dove deeper and broader into reflecting on contemporary Chinese society, peeling back the layers to probe the country’s future. In 2011, Grass Stage came out with a compilation, The Little Society, Volumes 1 and 2, and once again took our show on the road.

Figure 3: Grass Stage, The Little Society (Volume 1 and 2), theatre, Huai Hua China, 2011



Zhao Chuan

Figure 4: Grass Stage, The Little Society (Volume 1 and 2), theatre, Shanghai China, 2011 As it moves and interacts with the world around it, the physical body follows the contours surrounding it and proves its own inherent worth. In 2008, collaborators from Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, Hong Kong and other places gathered in Shanghai to form a theatre festival centered around 20th century Chinese writer and thinker Lu Xun’s influence on the greater East Asia region. At the same time, we collaborated to create Lu Xun, 2008, which we then went on to perform in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. Through our ongoing cooperation, we developed a greater geo-physical energy and unity and ushered in a new sense of commonality in the face of globalisation. In late 2009, with the addition of members from Afghanistan and India, we produced the work Lost Home, as part of the Unbearable Dreams Series in Tokyo. The play dealt with the common sense of displacement throughout Asia, as it deals with the disruptive impact of globalisation: from the war and terror of Afghanistan, to the story of lost Asian refugees and immigrants, to the young Thai girls taken by the sex trade, to the voiceless elderly in Japan’s nursing homes. These theatres, which had been left out of the performing arts mainstream and marginalised, through the con-

Physical Odyssey

structive, mobile interaction they nurtured, gradually became public spaces for exploring themes around the physical body. The next year saw new collaborators from Iraq, Thailand and other countries join in and help complete the works Return and Hope, also part of the Unbearable Dreams Series. The rehearsals incorporated elements from the common fate suffered by our members in their respective countries and presented a diverse, realistic mosaic of that group. It was symbolic of the struggles and resistance of many throughout Asia. Through these collaborative encounters, we were able to examine the theme of the body in a broader dimension and help chart a new course for the body going forward. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

Figure 5: ‘Asian Meets Asian’ international collaboration project, Lost Home, theatre, Tokyo Japan, 2010


The Physical Body on the Grass Stage Li Yinan

Even in ancient times, China’s educated and literate classes tended to look upon the human form with a certain sense of disdain. Confucian thought set all sorts of governing norms for how to properly conceive of the human body: “The wise and benevolent know how to restrain their bodies; whether moving or still, they are centered on being righteous.” Another way of saying this is that the educated should be careful to control their actions and refrain from being too casual. The Chinese philosopher Meng Zi thought that the mind (“the major body”) was responsible for contemplation and that only by controlling sensual desires could one achieve clarity. The eyes and ears (“the minor body”), he thought, could easily be deceived and blinded. It is easy to see from such distinctions between mind and body, which was valued more by the ancients. Across all artistic disciplines over the ages, the body, as portrayed in Chinese art, has been excluded, denigrated, obscured or distorted under the influence of orthodox Confucianism. Traditionally, those performing on stage were thought of as not much different from prostitutes, since they too had to shamelessly expose their bodies to a viewing public. Add to this the heavy makeup, exaggerated gestures, the feminine appearance of male actors with their red lips and high voices, and the fact that many of these dramas dealt with sexual themes, and it is not surprising that many ‘actors’ became social focal points and their behaviour considered normal (according to social conventions) over time. To push the comparison, actors also took great care to train their bodies so that they were marketable: something considered beneath the behaviour befitting the literate classes. Since most people did not much value taking care of themselves physically, these fit, healthy actors stood out all the more. So much was the body generally neglected in ancient China, that one historical commentator disdainfully wrote: “Compared to Westerners, the average Chinese body appears sluggish, coarse, vulgar and wild. It is either lean and yellow, fat and sluggish, or withered and hunched over, though there is dignity in such distinction.” With more than 100 years passing since Tan Si Tong wrote those words, many changes came to pass in China: the Qing dynasty fell, imperialist pow-


Li Yinan

ers invaded the nation, the country was gripped by successive years of war and there had been a proletarian revolution. With all of this volatile change, China’s literate classes also experienced something of a revolution themselves and their thinking changed radically. One thing that didn’t seem to change, however, was their ideas surrounding the weak body. As Chen Du Xiu described the appearance of China’s educated class: “Their arms are too weak to hold onto the birds they raise; they are pale with slender waists; they are as charming as young children; they are so vulnerable to both chills and fevers and are constantly in a weakened state, as if patients.” Clearly not much had changed. What is more, the greater one’s learning, the worse one’s physical condition was expected to be. For instance, someone with hunched back would, in the Chinese mind, be synonymous with a Ph.D. If, on the other hand, a professor were some physically fit, impressive physical specimen, his or her academic qualifications would almost certainly be called into question. A muscular body became a mark of the uneducated. The literate and uneducated became readily distinguishable by their distinctly different physical appearances. Against such a backdrop, artist Zhao Chuan came up with the idea of using the human body as both a prop and a theme for his politically potent drama. Zhao Chuan is, in every sense, an intellectual. Born and raised in Shanghai, he is both a painter and writer and after a period of living away from his native city, eventually returned to work in theatre. Since 2005, the artist founded and has focused on developing his own theatre troupe, ‘The Grass Stage’. The Modern Chinese Dictionary defines “grass stage” as “a troupe made up of few actors with crude and simple props, costumes and staging, largely performing in villages and small towns”. In pre-1949 China, such travelling troupes were a common sight. They were made up of the types of colourful ‘actors’ mentioned earlier, who hit all of the local spots, often performing in public lanes and alleys. Because they were often performing for the illiterate and lower classes, they typically relied on sexual jokes and physical talents to entertain the viewing public. But when the Communists took power in 1949, things changed. Mao Ze Dong introduced a policy of “Drama Revision” and initiated a special bureau within the Ministry of Culture to oversee this project, headed by intellectual and dramatist Tian Han. The mandate of the bureau was to change the types of plays produced, the performers and the theatre companies altogether. Almost overnight, the regional and local grass stage troupes became extinct. The independent acting troupes that had been likened to prostitutes were now replaced with state-run guilds. Actors became state employees. The profession experienced a “180 degree turn around” from what it was. This “turn around” that came to define performers was in fact the integration of a previously marginalised group into the larger social mainstream. Along with this transformation from ragged performers to ‘artists’ were a series of

The Physical Body on the Grass Stage

external and internal changes that came with the standardisation of the profession. Gone was the impromptu charm that once characterised the physical presence of actors on stage. In its place came something heavily shaped by the overarching forces of socialist morality and realism. These forces drastically remolded and standardised the various social strata portrayed on stage: namely peasants and labourers. During the Cultural Revolution, there were model operas; after the Cultural Revolution, there emerged the State Actors’ Guild and drama schools, breeding a new cast of actors that lived up to state notions of what ‘New Society’ performers should embody. During all of this, actors were forced to endure all sorts of physical limitations, parameters and norms of acceptability. The result was something that came across as highly contrived and packaged. Traditionally, the working class had always been portrayed as physically strong and fit without any strict adherence to convention or acceptable social norms. But when the working class seized power following the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic, all of that changed. The actors that came to dominate the stage around that time (post 1949), Li Yu He, Li Tie Min, Yang Zi Rong and others who portrayed these workers, peasants and soldiers on stage, were the same physically frail types similar to the intellectual class from the Imperial Age previous. Their performances and portrayals were more ‘emotive’ than physical. Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise: after all, with a new ideology comes the need to reinvent standards and norms that govern the physical body. During this time a number of such standards were adopted from classical operas and dramas and subtly tweaked to meet the needs of dramas of the day. And so it was that China ended up on the path towards its modern notions of what the new physical body was and how it was to be portrayed. One other factor that combined with the forces mentioned above was the influence of the Stanislavski method from Russia, with its emphasis on emotive acting. Together, these forces strongly influenced concepts surrounding the human body and its representation on stage. After several decades of such standardisation emerged a clear, definite concept of ‘the new society artist’. Actually, such performers came to develop a unique physical stage presence, often referred to as ‘negative space’. What these actors thought of as creative ‘realism’ was in fact considered by most to be a highly stylised, rehashed acting style. Because of this, the craft fell into the trap of becoming highly ‘formalised’. The Peoples’ Theatre in Beijing, when it put on so-called ‘classic’ plays like Thunderstorm, mandated that young actors study and imitate each exact movement of the previous generation of performers. This is one example of the ‘formalism’ I just mentioned. While many of these on stage performers had great voices and solid physical attributes, none of that genuine physicality came through in their performances. Instead, their performances shifted the audiences’ attention to the story or, at most, to what



Li Yinan

their body language symbolised (some kind of ‘emotional’ or ‘mental’ state). As German drama scholar Antje Budde described it, this had the unintended consequence of letting audiences not in the inner circles of performing arts feel removed and uninterested. Another chapter of this story though involves the developments that followed the surging ‘economic tide’ following the reform and opening up policy. In recent decades, as the country has turned its attention to making money, so has returned the concept of traveling groups of performers. Nowadays it is not uncommon to read about acrobats, animal trainers and so forth putting on shows in all sorts of public places as cohorts sell tickets. Mixed amidst such performances, it should be noted, one also finds shows with sexual content and nudity. There was even one incident that captured public attention in which, during a TV programme, three men invited their wives on stage to perform a strip dance. In an era where the ethos is all about getting rich and expressing oneself, state television (CCTV) has run no shortage of segments showing how a class of Chinese nouveau riches are doing just that. In the wake of all of these recent changes, the human body has unreservedly become a commodity to be bought and sold. It is against such a social backdrop, that Zhao Chuan put together his Grass Stage. The type of physicality he wished to express, however, was intended to be a form of resistance to the overtly capitalist overtures that have come to define modern Chinese society. Actually, he was reacting against two distinct things: one was the highly stylised, formalised conventions that had come to grip stage acting; the other, the commoditisation of the human body, which followed the large influx of capital into society from the 1980s onward. Zhao Chuan has described his project as ‘public theatre’ though in reality it resembles something closer to intellectual theatre. His aspiration was to achieve similar things to what Jean Vilar did in Avignon, Romain Rolland did with his popular theatre, Mnouchkine did while living in a munitions depot on the outskirts of Paris or the performers sent out into the Chinese countryside to entertain the masses did in the 1940s. He was responding to the social commoditisation he saw unfolding all around him, the connections between authority and money, the way the interests of common people had been neglected or betrayed altogether, and the misery that followed. Feeling he had to do something, Zhao Chuan put together a group of like-minded ‘young artists’ from Shanghai and, in the true communist spirit, formed a communal group. This group, however, was to be non-profit and entirely collective in its collaboration and creations. Together, they developed and rehearsed their own material through a series of workshops and brainstorming sessions. The Little Society has been an ongoing project ever since the Grass Stage first took form. The work has undergone a series of revisions and versions while making its way across various cities and provinces in China. Actually, Zhao

The Physical Body on the Grass Stage

Chuan refers to this series of travelling performances as ‘drills’ – a word with intentionally strong communist and military overtones that reveals the artist’s chief hope for the project. Zhao Chuan’s main concern is not with the performance per se; to him, it is more about the process of creating and adapting the work and the day-to-day collaborative efforts of the group. Soldiers train and do drills so that they are in peak form when they need to do battle. Similarly, Zhao Chuan and his group of anti-bourgeois, young artist intellectuals train to do battle in their own sense. Being young artists in cosmopolitan Shanghai, none of those involved needed to expose themselves physically on stage. Even bodybuilders do most of their training in private. But this group laboured together as a collective day in and day out, fine-tuning their bodies and movements for the stage, so that they might more accurately portray the labourers and other roles in their plays. In their fight against the forces of consumerism, capitalism and state authority, the Grass Stage found its greatest weapon in its realistic portrayal of the human body. Their efforts took a lot of people by surprise. Two years earlier, I watched Zhao Chuan and his group perform the first version of The Little Society in nine different theatres across Beijing. Even though the performers did their best to portray something that reflected the hopes of the masses, being young bourgeois artists, their appearance and stage presence somewhat betrayed their aspirations. It was readily clear that the roles they played (prostitutes, scavengers, war veterans and the like) had absolutely no resonance with their real lives and social backgrounds. They viewed ‘experiencing’ these various roles as some sort of task to be carried out, the aim of which was to express some sort of sympathy in the hopes that it might evoke a similar reaction in the audience. But this topdown approach to conveying emotion came across as shallow and ineffectual and failed to achieve the pointed political criticism they hoped for. After watching the performances, I spoke as candidly as I could with Zhao Chuan, pointing out my observation that the performance style and overall goal of the project seemed at odds with each other. Unfortunately, I was at a loss to provide any possible way of resolving the dilemma. At the time, I remember thinking they would have to make a choice. Either they should abandon the idea of community theatre and just focus on creating ‘art’. Or, they could abandon the idea of producing something refined and polished, abandon the idea of coming up with a finished product and instead think of their work as a social project, some kind of community workshop. But what happened over the next two years completely took me by surprise. By changing their approach somewhat toward the human body on stage, by establishing a professional work ethic and through relentless training and refinement, they were able to move beyond the ‘young artist’ image that plagued them earlier. Their physical presence on stage became realistic, full of energy, and controlled without seeming constrained or manufactured. In the process, the actors shed



Li Yinan

any and all signs of their own personal class or background and lost themselves in the working class roles they played. In The Little Society, Volume 2, there is an impressive scene with two construction workers tossing bricks back and forth. The scene stood out because the actors were able to achieve something physically demanding and visually impressive while at the same time remaining true to the real life roles they were playing. The scene was so impressive and physically demanding that the tension in the audience was palpable. These audiences, it should be remembered, were sophisticated white-collar types used to refined forms of entertainment. The fact that the experience was such a visceral one, especially considering that the types of roles portrayed were pretty far-removed from their own lives, says something about the force of the performance. In that moment, the audience was able to directly experience a certain amount of the danger facing such workers in real life (and I am not just talking about some symbolic sense of fear). The result had the effect of drawing the audience in closer to the real lives of such workers. In the face of such realistic and compelling onstage portrayals, the audience was not able to simply experience emotion in some removed, superficial sense. The performance had the effect of moving beyond the typical sort of object-oriented viewing experience that you get in Hollywood movies and the like, and instead crossed over into something more directly experiential. The whole theatrical experience, with its staging, lighting and unique acting style was novel and at times unsettling for audiences. The shows were not something simply to be ‘consumed’ nor were they exercises in semiotics; but rather they moved the viewer into a more intimate and meaningful social interaction. Also worth noting is how the Grass Stage went out of its way to resist any and all forms of commercialisation of the physical form. Compared with performance artists in the ‘old society’ who effectively sold their physicality to make a living, this troupe made a point of avoiding makeup and anything kitsch that might be considered some commercial ploy. They also made a point of not falling into the trap of relying on overplayed, overstylised forms. In one scene from The Little Society, there is a scene involving a prostitute. Originally, this role was to be played by a male actor, but at the last moment, a female performer took up the part. In a patriarchal capitalist society, it is incredibly easy to commercialise the female form, which is why many feminist performance artists feel a sense of paradox. The Grass Stage, however, was able to work around this problem entirely by rotating the various roles and engaging in collective physical training and conditioning. The female form in these productions (despite some partial nudity and symbolic reference to genitalia) firmly rejected any forms of commercial exploitation. The show ingeniously conveyed lovemaking without being graphic or distasteful. Throughout, the performance made every effort to avoid exploiting the physical body and in the process succeeded in offering up a serious social critique. Another distinguishing mark for the Grass Stage lies in the fact that its members do not belong to any particular theatre company; nor do they rely on the

The Physical Body on the Grass Stage

Figure 1: Grass Stage, The Little Society (Volume 1 and 2), theatre, Guang Zhou China, 2011

Figure 2: Grass Stage, The Little Society (Volume 1 and 2), theatre Gui Yang China, 2011 state to make a living (which has important implications when it comes to the constraining influences within the industry). Free from any particular ideology and cookie cutter approach, the actors operated within an extremely open environment. For example, there were performances from The Little Society: a female actor playing a beggar and one with a male actor portraying a disabled army veteran, that stood out as being physically demanding yet at the same time free from any sense of rigid compliance to the old rules. These performances blurred the lines between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ and instead left audiences feeling that they were watching something incredibly true to life unfold before their



Li Yinan

eyes. These real bodies on stage are truly what contributed to an overwhelming sense of ‘Realistic Drama’. By using the body as a weapon, the Grass Stage was able to provide a fresh form of social criticism and carry out nothing short of a sort of physical revolution. They were able to break away from the vain imaginings that had plagued intellectuals dealing with the subject of the human body and instead boldly connect to their audiences. As a close friend to the project and those involved, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of appreciation and respect for the accomplishments they have made. Watching them overcome all sorts of difficulties along the way, perhaps what impresses most is the organic quality of the group. Throughout, Zhao Chuan has no doubt been tempted to systematise and refine his production and training methods. The way I see it, making things systematic is a step that every intellectual has to go through sooner or later. But at the same time, just because we had the Enlightenment, it does not mean we can go about systemising the world around us. Nor, however, should we completely discredit the contributions of systems or the Enlightenment just because of the connections between money and power or the rigidity they often inculcate. Through Enlightenment dialectics and rational criticism of systems, humans are able to make social progress. If one’s approach to combating the constraints of a given system are simply to rely on intuition, emotion and things anti-intellectual, then we are left in a quagmire of relativism. To put it another way: Why can we not have physically strong and mentally nimble intellectuals? Using the physical body to combat conventions does not mean that we only have to be left with something only physical in nature. At the same time, why can ‘the people’ not be the main constituent element of the Enlightenment? As Kant remarked, everyone can use his or her intelligence to reach an enlightened state. In the case of the Grass Stage, not only was an intimacy reached between the actors and their roles, but, based on Zhao Chuan’s stories from their traveling performances, there was also a unity forged between the troupe and their audiences. This is the reason why one eccentric performer decided to leave behind his identity as a marginalised (or vulnerable) individual and instead step onto the Grass Stage and lay bare his real life (as a young father with no fixed income living in Shanghai). I remember once asking Chinese filmaker Wu Wen Guang whether or not he deliberately made a point of focusing on vulnerable subjects in his works. His response was simple: “I number myself among the vulnerable.” In his stage, productions Zhao Chuan has made a similar statement. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

Physical Rebels Li Ning (Excerpts from a conversation with Li Ning at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, December 2010.) I can’t help but feel intoxicated by sculpture when I was at the Academy of Fine Arts. I remember there was a time when I wanted to be the next Michelangelo and a time when I thought I was Van Gogh. I did my best to paint away and copy some of their works but eventually came to the conclusion that there was no way I could surpass the great works of the past. Eventually, all I could do was join the ranks of other admirers. In that particular field, there wasn’t really any room for me to come up with something original or better. I remember feeling frustrated and even bitter at how these masters had left subsequent generations of artists so little room to work with. In the winter of 1996, when I was in my third year of university, I happened, by chance, to see a performance by Kim Sung’s modern dance troupe. Taking in the show, as a beam of sunlight poured through a window onstage illuminating a couple dancing, I couldn’t hold back my tears. That afternoon changed my life forever. From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to be involved in something similar, and so I abandoned painting and took up dance ... For me, it’s not dance that I’m interested in so much as it is the different forms of existence within life. From the very beginning, I made a conscious decision not to follow the path of a typical performance dancer and cling to the conventional stage. Instead, I thought of dance as art. At that time, dance was almost always relegated to the role of an inferior art form: no doubt this was entirely the result of Chinese dancers back then, who had tarnished the word ‘dance’ altogether. I say this because dance predates any spoken human language and represents “the highest form of expression in life”. Nowadays, contemporary China is overrun with second-tier, entertainment-oriented stage dance majors. So, from the very beginning I didn’t really want to be associated with dance, which in my mind was a degenerating art form. At the time, Kim Sung’s dance troupe represented nothing less than a revolution in the world of dance, even if they only played to small, inner-circle crowds. Still, it was the


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beginning of something different. I remember feeling different from my peers, dissatisfied with the status quo and even harbouring a sense of disdain for what they were doing. After all, I was an artist. (Laughing) I know that’s a pretty audacious statement, but it’s how I felt, and I wasn’t going to be confined by others’ notions of ‘dance’. But as it happened, tragedy turned into an opportunity. 1997 definitely marked the beginning of things taking a turn for the better. That year, my father passed away and I, being the only son, had to stay in the city of Jinan to work and look after my mother. At the time, it was pretty depressing. Removed from Beijing, I felt that my life was pretty much over. Jinan didn’t really have much going for it, as far as I was concerned. There was no one at all to work with in terms of contemporary dance, let alone any theatre or spaces where one could stage work of that kind. The only things facing me in that environment was a tedious life and dreary streets filled with trivial people. At that time, despair began to set in. But I didn’t want to ‘go out’ like this; I wanted to burn brightly. It’s hard to suppress the impulse to create, which I suppose is what gives rise to phrases like ‘the starving artist’. I started networking and making use of the resources around me: arts students I was teaching, friends, shop owners, construction workers, even disabled people with nothing but time on their hands. With some reluctance, we began working together that summer on the roof of a neighbourhood building, which offered some security and isolation. I referred to this rooftop work area as our urban island because it gave a space to look out on the world below while the rest of that world didn’t know we, a crazed group of dreamers, existed and were working on our craft above. We began rehearsing and performing on that rooftop, but also made use of public squares and abandoned buildings. We continued like this for three years, which turned into five years and then eight years, before realising our greatest value lay in forming a group called Soaring Flames (Li Ning’s performing troupe). We weren’t a professional performing troupe going around copying rustic, vulgar pieces; we were trying to carve a new path entirely! We were trying to create something novel; much like a beggar’s tattered jeans eventually becomes something fashionable that takes off. Even though we knew we might not succeed, we continued along our path. We didn’t have a proper theatre space, so we performed outdoors. We created and performed based on the local conditions and the resources available to us. Since there were no professional dancers among us, we decided to let each member become a stand-alone performer; essentially we decided to “magnify individual characteristics”. I should point out that at the time, I wanted our performers to be as professional as possible, which meant training day and night. But what I did not want for them, was to become career dancers. Western critics and commentators used their own tags to describe us, referring to us as a “site-specific performance”, “physical theatre” and so on.

Physical Rebels

During those years, year in and year out, I was in search of some sort of method that would allow my ‘performers’ to stand onstage and perform on their own and receive their due share of respect as actors. During this search, it suddenly came to me, almost instinctively, to borrow one of the most fundamental training methods associated with art: sketching. Initially, I used this analogy on my performers, some of whom came from a painting background, and told them to use their bodies the same way one goes about sketching and to use that mindset to try and better understand theatre and physical movement and principles. As it turned out, it needed to be the other way around. What I needed to do, was pioneer a new approach to physical training using an artistic mindset. Performances go by in the blink of an eye and they can never be relived. Our chances to put on shows and accessibility to appropriate spaces were extremely few and far between. Sometimes, the only audience we played to was a lone camera. Not being one to miss out on an opportunity to self-promote, back then I sometimes filmed our performances and, in 2000, I got my hands on our first video camera. Once I had access to this little device, I was able to really pay attention to improving our visual impact. Some people used to say, “Put Soaring Flames onstage and they only perform up to half of their potential; put them in a natural environment and they twice exceed their potential.” No doubt, real-life environments brought out the best in us and ever since we had access to a video camera and computer, we were even more on top of our game. It wasn’t just a matter of getting better a little bit when we put ourselves in front of the camera; it was an exponential improvement! Just like a sperm and egg combine to form a new life, so was this union between the physical and film greater than the sum of its parts. When we combined the camera and the physical, we didn’t just end up with a live recording, we came across an entirely fresh way of approaching our work. It felt like discovering an entirely new artistic language. Of course, for many years previous, there existed ‘dance pictures’ or ‘dance films’ in China, but that wasn’t something that struck me as particularly meaningful. It was either a matter of the camera serving the body or vice versa, but nothing resembling a symbiotic relationship giving birth to something truly independent like what we discovered. [...] China is not without its own sense of the ‘physical’. But it is worth pointing out that the body does not need to be naked to be ‘physical’: a fully clothed body is still just as ‘physical’ as a bare one, and in some ways even more so. The English word to describe this concept is ‘physical theatre’. In this context, the word ‘physical’ describes something that fits that category of physics and marks a departure from more traditional types of performance. So in this sense, ‘the



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body’ becomes an artistic medium. The word ‘theatre’ is also not simply confined to refer to a physical space; it takes on a broader dimension in this context. These explanations you offer could be the result of a translation mistake or cultural differences or perhaps refer to China’s theatre history during the past 100 years. In fact, I feel that China has always had a sense of the ‘physical’ and ‘performance’. Just think of all the Chinese idioms that involve physicality: if they’re not considered ‘performance art’, then at least they are classic. Viewed dispassionately, China’s sense of the ‘physical’ doesn’t denote quite the same thing as the Western associations of exposed flesh—which to me is only a superficial aspect. In the ancient traditions of Chinese medicine, Qigong, martial arts, witchcraft, dance, and even calligraphy, everything is connected to the physical body and everything exerts an external and internal influence. It goes much deeper than any Western notions of the term and it’s difficult even for science to touch on. If you trace this notion of the ‘physical’ back to its early social contextualisation, you’ll notice that each of the ‘Six Arts’ mentioned by Confucius touches on ‘mastering the body’. This has to be considered one of the earliest examples and lessons in how authority rests with the individual. On the other hand, China has never really had anything approaching an academic discussion surrounding the concept of the body. At a time when China finds itself in the position of having to learn from the West and when Western-style education has become en vogue and we are in a so-called age of post-colonial discourse, being Chinese, one can’t help but feel a sense of denigration. Sometimes I wonder if anyone has sat down and researched all of the imperial court morning ceremonies from all of the 24 dynasties, the physical gestures of subjects, the various greetings between civilians, or the greetings between men and women, not to mention those gestures across different regions, different dynasties and different ethnic groups. The way I see it, we shouldn’t always rely on Western systems of theory. That said, we can see that until now, China’s approach to understanding and presenting a different approach to the body has been superficial at best and even careless. What we really need to do, is follow the example of Chairman Mao when he decided to break away from the dogma of Soviet Communism and rely instead on firsthand experience of reality in China and go from there. If we can do that, we’ll be able to achieve our own physical revolution. That’s why I established our ‘Soaring Flames Physical Rebels’ to take the nation by storm. (Laughing) First, our goal is to unite cities, counties and second-tier towns as a base and use the surrounding countryside to secure those cities. Of course I’m speaking metaphorically, so no need to go into debating Mao’s specific merits and shortcomings. [...]

Physical Rebels

Actually, in the context of contemporary Chinese art, ‘folk’ refers to a specific point of view: namely, a point of view that is outside the official state narrative. In Chinese, the word ‘folk’ is an inseparable part of such concepts as: social voice, civil society, non-governmental exchanges, images, poetry and social thought. It’s quite clear that what our work aspired toward, was ‘folk dance’ and not ‘contemporary dance’! At a time when many groups and organisations labeled themselves as “avant-garde”, “contemporary” or “pioneering”, we thought of everything we worked toward as ‘folk dance’. We used this word deliberately and accurately, when considering our spot in the historical scheme of things. [...] Our ‘body sketches and regeneration’, ‘unorthodox movements’, ‘spontaneous exercises’ and other unique methods were designed to break each performer from the habit of dwelling on the abstract concepts of ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’ and any associated judgments. By doing so, we hoped to turn our members into artists, both in body and mind. We wanted to take untrained, everyday people and get them deeply involved in the (so-called ‘upscale’, though properly viewed as ‘normal’) production of contemporary art and to let them draw on their own senses and creativity. Our view was that each body was already a complete work of art: something sculpted by years of life and society. This kind of raw material was something that needed to be preserved! If we subjected (though in my vocabulary ‘tarnished’ might be more apt) our performers to ballet and other contemporary dance training methods, we would have ended up with an ‘aesthetic’ entirely soulless and mechanical. Those traditional types of training would have been utterly useless for this project. “The body is a language unto itself.” When a phrase like this catches on, you know it’s either hearsay or has artsy cachet on. In the end, all it means is that people are stuck on the surface, on the superficial. When it comes to talking about the specifics of grammar, paragraphs, sentences, words, letters, as well as expression and narration and even more fundamental aspects like pronunciation, sound, intonation and so forth, the question then becomes: do we have the depth to use that language well? When we put our stage together, we were an open book to audiences. But is the body a book reflecting different states and words or is it a blank sheet of paper? Or is the entire body a tongue, a tool that allows us to express and narrate our stories? Or perhaps the body is best described as a vehicle that takes us on a journey. Recently, I feel that chanting is the ultimate state, when there are constantly new things entering your sight and physical domain, constantly fusing your environment with yourself, everything constantly speaking its mind. No matter how you describe expression, performance and the like, you can talk



Li Ning

about it only on the surface. How can we be sure that the tongue, that helps us form our words, is one and the same as our true voice? Are we to use English (the equivalent of contemporary dance) or Mandarin Chinese (the equivalent of orthodox learning) to express ourselves? What I hope for is that everyone uses their own voices, their own dialects—imperfect but unique, to express themselves boldly, to curse, to shout. And your body is okay? I’ll use it boldly and not worry about any conventional standards. You are your own standard! (Excerpts from a conversation with Li Ning at Sohu Entertainment, October 2010.) In 2005, my artistic discoveries entered a new stage when I tried, for the first time, to find some regular folks to participate in a performance. I soon discovered that dancing was just too difficult for them, so I decided to abandon my role as director and instead help them release the energy and capacity they had within. I didn’t want to change them and turn them into a work that was ultimately mine. A typical case of how we went about our rehearsals might involve a member in our troupe, who had been working at a job for several months, coming back and telling us about his or her experiences. For instance, the cashier in Ready involves a woman simultaneously talking about her experiences at work and dancing. We rehearsed her movements, talking and doing it at the same time and eventually we ended up with a dance that was ready for the stage. So it’s not a matter of me making up some material, it was all based on what she, our performer, did. None of our works have explicit themes. If they did, it would really just be a matter of each person playing a part and that’s it. I’ve always believed that each person’s body is a complete work in and of itself. The challenge, of course, is how you get that body onstage so that it can stand-alone on its own terms. With this kind of approach, you can’t really force the audience to sit there and watch something the way you might with performance art. It’s really a matter of establishing a certain stage presence so that, no matter how you change the backdrop, the audience is still captivated by that physical presence. What I try to do, is help bring out the potential within our cast members. The process is similar to drawing or painting, which is why I use the term ‘sketching’, in the sense that you are looking at the world around you from your own point of view. ‘Sketching’ involves study; it’s inseparable from nature and life and not something that can be copied. [...]

Physical Rebels

I came up with a method I refer to as ‘body sketching’. In drawing you’d use a pen or pencil and paper; for my purposes, we use the body. For instance, we might use the body to express a bottle. You can capture a bottle’s texture, for instance, shiny and smooth, or some other physical attribute. If you try to use your body to literally ‘paint’ a bottle, you might as well forget about it because it can’t be done. The body just isn’t like a bottle. When faced with these kinds of situations, it really comes down to how you observe and represent something. Some of the themes in my work, a belt, a drawer, a brick, these are all objects. They are inanimate physical materialisations and equivalents of human genes. I’m more interested in material objects and props and animals than people. I guess you could say I’ve become categorically disappointed in people. In 2005, I began work on a ‘tool’ series and this made up part of my larger ‘physical sketching’ series. When it comes to this ‘physical sketching’, I did come up with a master plan of sorts. The main exercises consisted in methods aimed at honing observation and representation. When I talk about ‘sketching’, of course, I’m not talking about it in the same sense one does when referring to painting. Here, I’m referring more to a process whereby the individual communicates with objects and the world around him or her. With this approach, the creative process becomes something involving each individual, something belonging to him or her alone. You can’t just replace that person without changing everything. So our theatre troupe wasn’t like others at all: there was no director to keep everyone in line and tell people what to do. The process was much more self-driven. In terms of different ways of representation and expression, there were no rules: body language, being still, being active—anything was possible. Again, I come back to this example of that bottle onstage. Of course, a bottle is a still object but we can animate it, make it have movement. It’s just like when you see a plastic bottle that has been scrunched up and thrown on the ground. You can visualise the three steps that resulted in it appearing as you see it. In fact, any still object was, at one point, moving, and you can use physical movement to portray that. I refer to this as ‘regeneration’, which is something a little different and even more advanced than ‘sketching’. I’d say that art really comes down to these two aspects of how you observe and how you represent something. All we’re doing is using the body as means of observing and representing. [...] Actually, I’m not a big fan of the theatre. Starting from my time back in Jinan, my performances were all at street level and our rehearsals on a rooftop, which functioned as a kind of creative island. I like any and all kinds of environments, but especially something that’s true to life. Once performers occupy a space, they instantly put their own stamp on it. And when performers set themselves in motion,



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it’s not just they themselves that change, but rather the whole environment. Every movement of the performer alters the whole and so it’s a constantly redefined, surreal space. But this type of surrealism is in fact quite real. It might be literal or it might be abstract; it might be absurd and exaggerated, but its existence is nonetheless real. It is reality itself. You don’t need any special lighting so long as it makes use of the physical body. So, my definition of performance goes something like this, “It’s the process of using the body to rearrange a real space into a new reality.” The real issue has to do with the connections between the creative individual and his or her natural world, the connections between life and society. I’m particularly sensitive when it comes to environment. In Western performance circles exists the concept of ‘site-specific works’. It started in the U.S. in the 1970s, and by the 1990s, it had taken over northern Europe. This idea is not quite the same as ‘environmental theatre’. It actually bears some similarities to what I have tried to promote and named ‘landscape sketching’. In addition to what I have called ‘physical sketching’ there is ‘landscape sketching’ where the idea is to choose a specific environment and discover its implied meaning and attributes. It’s not about choosing a place to passively serve as a scene. The physical and environmental are parallel concepts defined within a particular work. At such moments, public spaces take on multiple meanings and significance; but on the other extreme end, they are nothing more than private spaces. This type of theatre represents a crossover or collision between the two. (Excerpts from a discussion following a Soaring Flames rehearsal, June 2011.) You don’t need to express anything like sorrow or perseverance or fantasy or reality. We don’t really consciously consider any of these things. What we aim for, first and foremost, is to uncover our true selves, to respect the bodies we’ve been given, even if it’s a body that speaks with a dialect or thick accent and not English or standard Mandarin Chinese. Everything needs to be built on this kind of foundation, on the foundation of a big and clumsy tongue. You don’t need to worry about expressing something. But it’s a long and slow process to build up that kind of stable foundation. Because, you see, each of our rehearsals is about respecting each person’s own unique way of expressing himself or herself physically, forcefully, through breath and even an individual sense of rhythm. Our nation really does a poor job when it comes to artistic education. I mean, even someone like you, who clearly has had no exposure to an artistic education, can come in here and tell us what we’re trying to express. I think this approach is absolutely poisonous because, first of all, you abandoned any sense of emotive feeling and went directly to thinking about what you saw. What we value above all else, is feeling and experiencing something, not judgment. Compiled by Zhao Chuan; Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

Physical Rebels

Figure 1: The Freeze, Satellite, 2011

Figure 2: Tape, 2008



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Figure 3: The Hidden Landscape, 2010

Female Memory Begins with the Body Wen Hui

Ever since I hit my 30s, I’ve started paying more attention to women’s issues of one kind or another. Probably starting from the time I was young and athletic, I tended to possess a certain sensitivity toward my own internal physical changes. From a female vantage point, it’s something of a natural instinct to pay attention to life. When it comes to relating to other women’s bodies, I’m just like a pot of boiling water that can well up and spill over at any moment, until some unseen hand puts the fire out. This is a feeling I’ve had for years. Beginning in 1995, I started interviewing women mostly about physical issues and certain bodily experiences. Our conversations touched on everything from puberty to sexual awakening to menstruation to first-time sexual encounters to giving birth to menopause and so on. Removed from these conversations was anything related to romantic love or involving men. One woman related experiences of having to secretly wash her sanitary napkins in the river behind her home, as well as how to dry them in a discreet manner. These sorts of personal accounts struck me as quite fantastic. But what really shocked me the most, were the stories about giving birth. Everyone who shared their experiences on this topic was totally immersed in recounting the details, as if it happened just yesterday. Everyone had their own specific details they would recount, even what smells were involved, the sounds, the colours, the feel of the skin. In recounting such scenes, it was as if everyone were a master storyteller. After hearing a dozen or more such accounts, it suddenly began to dawn on me: for women, memory begins with the body. Giving birth really showcases and embodies the painful life journey of women. For women, physical experience acts as a springboard that launches them into the realm of memory. It doesn’t matter how high or low the springboard is, once on it, the words flow. This is the beginning of how I came up with the work Birth Report.


Wen Hui

Figure 1: Given Birth, Beijing China, Nov. 1999 From the very first day of rehearsals, Birth Report was a highly physical affair. Four women stood to form a horizontal line, closed their eyes and began to breath deeply in order to experience a sense of internal bodily change. After about 10 minutes of this deep breathing routine, one particular actor, Feng Dehua, the only one there among us to have given birth, suddenly began talking about her own birthing experience. Her voice was soft and calm, like a feather floating in the air. In the middle of this breathing exercise, the four of us, without any conscious effort or coordination, clutched each other’s hands, as if in an effort to keep each other from falling. Within moments, none of us were able to hold back our tears, and the intensity only grew as the sharing continued. I just tried to relax my mouth and not hold myself back from being caught up in their tears. This exercise carried on for about 45 minutes and in the end I don’t think anyone among us really knew why she was crying. It was just a natural, unrestrained progression from something emotional to something expressed physically. It was just that simple. And like that, a sense of trust was formed among us.

Female Memory Begins with the Body

From that day forward, Feng’s memories formed the basis of our rehearsals. Typically, after some warm up exercises, we would feed off of Feng’s memories and improvise from there. From her own body, Feng was able to dig back into all kinds of memories, and from her memories the rest of us were able to find a sense of release and liberation within our own bodies. The space we rehearsed in was a large, open room and during our practices, there was no sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, only a feeling that we were all co-creators. As we all brought with us our unique physical histories and experiences into that space, nothing about our movements needed to be staged or choreographed in advance. Instead, the range and possibilities surrounding how we chose to express ourselves in movement was determined by our physical experience. In this space, our bodies and memories were given a place to grow without constraints. Reflecting back, I think all of our productions at Living Dance Studio began with the body, with a very physical component. Our 2002 work, Body Report, explored physical desire and our 2005 piece, 37.8 Degrees Report, dealt with the physical side of fear. Recall, our 2008 production, had its origins with the physical component of memory, the personal connection between body and memory we all share. Our rehearsals began by recalling personal stories that in one way or another contained a bodily connection. From the body’s own memories, we explored personal as well as social histories. Memory is the body’s mark of experience. Within these experiences, who can say how many socio-historical marks and influences have been imprinted? We believe that each stage of our personal development leaves a corresponding physical record, but most of us are not in the habit of consciously recognizing and experiencing this record. Through our work as dancers, we explore how the body records not only individual histories, but those involving change in the greater social arena as well. I remember once hearing a joke that went: why do men in Yunnan province walk with their hands clasped behind their backs? The answer: because their ancestors were criminals once banished to that region, so their hands were tied behind their backs and ever since, men from Yunnan have walked that way. Of course, this is just a metaphor. During our rehearsals, I began tracing back my own steps to find out why and how it was that I first became involved in dance. I traced it back to my childhood, where I first remember performing “The Loyalty Dance”. My personal dance history definitely didn’t begin with any formal lessons in a dance school and that was something that I hadn’t really reflected on before. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a common sight for us kids to express our admiration and appreciation for various political leaders through our bodies; it was even a source of pride. As a kid, I remember, in our yard each morning and evening, young and old alike gathering around a portrait of Chairman Mao to pay our respects. After we gathered in front of that portrait and reflected on all the bad things we had done that day, we would then perform an affection-



Wen Hui

ate song in Mao’s honour. And that’s how I began dancing, with this “Loyalty Dance”. At that time in China, everyone danced more or less the same type of dance; there was no real distinction between the individual sense of body and the collective body. At that time, almost everyone followed the same set of guidelines: stick your chest out, raise your head, make a fist, straighten your collar, and so on. In other words, any sense of an individual body vanished. Another one of the dancers in my group, a woman also named Feng, told me that, when she was younger, she grew up with a sense of shame around her body. She told me, “When I was young, I wanted my body to disappear—there was nothing I enjoyed more that making my body shrink and go unnoticed.” These physical memories are what guided us in our performances and later on, we developed Feng’s experience into a dance exercise. Below are a series of exercises we used when rehearsing Recall. • • • • • •

A collective life has influenced me and is reflected in my body. What are the memories of my body? What is the public body and what is the individual body? Begin with your own body and recall the stories associated with it. What parts of my body do I like? What parts of my body do I dislike?

So how does one go about connecting an audience with their own physical histories? It’s not really something that can be done intellectually. And yet, the body’s sense of memory is unavoidable. Even when your brain is not conscious of some memory, its existence is nonetheless real and resides somewhere in the body. It’s utterly impossible to avoid such memories. Let me give you an example: it involves the connection between my generation and my parents’ generation and the fear of going hungry. I remember one time getting set to go on a trip to Laos with an American friend. When my friend saw how much food I prepared to bring along, she was shocked and asked, “Why are you bringing so much stuff. Are we really headed into the wild or something?” It wasn’t even something I was aware of, but I had in fact brought enough food to last several such trips. Even now, when I leave the house, I’ve always got a supply of food with me. Obviously, I don’t need this food, but it’s proof of the memory of that fear of going hungry that resides somewhere in my body. It’s completely unconscious and unavoidable. I’ve talked to others around the same age as me and they all report similar experiences. Ultimately, what we’re trying to figure out as performers, is just how many social and historical experiences reside within each of us. In the end, the body is that threshold we must cross in pursuit of the memories within. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

Theatre: Memory in Progress Wu Wenguang

“Remember ... remembering ... can’t remember ... trying hard to remember.” This was the opening line projected onscreen from the work Memory. The line more or less cuts to the core and sums up everything about the piece, starting from its search for a working theme to the rehearsals and all the way to the performances themselves. Namely, it is a search for memories and within those memories an attempt to reveal something about reality. Memory was created in 2008 by the Living Dance Studio and marked for them a turning point as the piece went on to become an iconic work. It adopted this theme of ‘memory’ as its jumping off point and in the process abandoned more conventional notions of onstage ‘performance dance’, taking things in a different direction. It moved toward something more closely connected to the body’s natural state, something where the body could find expression that more closely resembled its everyday reality. Previously, Living Dance Studio had created and performed more than 10 unique pieces altogether since its founding in 1994. Well-known among these previous works was the Report Series featuring: Birth Report, Physical Report and 37.8 Degrees Report, and these works more or less portrayed the various realities associated with the themes in the titles. They also employed a certain recognisable ‘dance language’. This piece, Memory, however, marked the beginning of a stylistic departure from more conventional performances. The creative impulse behind the central theme of ‘memory’ came from its director, Wen Hui. Accompanying her onstage was Ma De Hua, a collaborator the same age as Wen. Together, the women wished to recollect the places and events associated with their youth in the period spanning 1960s to early 1970s China. An important part of effectively staging this key concept of ‘memory’ involved an enormous mosquito net, some five times larger than one in real life. They chose such a prop since it was an essential household item for all families in China in the 1960s and 1970s, and not just in terms of serving its obvious purpose. Back in those days, mosquito nets stayed up in homes year-round. Back then, it was common for families to sleep in the same room. In the case


Wu Wenguang

of my own family, we all slept in one room and there was one large bed for my parents and two single beds, one of which was shared by my older sister and me. In such conditions, one of the important functions of this mosquito net was to provide us each, especially as we grew older, with a shred of privacy to cling to. Another important prop in the staging was an old sewing machine from the 1960s or 1970s, and this too had a particular historical significance. Back then, a sewing machine was a ‘luxury item’ and together with a bicycle and watch formed ‘the big three’ household items. For a family, to have all three was a symbol that they were quite affluent. It’s comparable to Chinese families today wanting to own a house and car. The performance involved the narrated memories of Ma De Hua (who is also a writer) as well as the expressive body language of Wen Hui to convey a shared recollection of the past. Projected on the mosquito net was a documentary, which I put together myself, including clips and photos from Wen Hui’s childhood and family as well as the iconic communist slogans from the 1960s and 1970s. Within my documentary, 1966, My Red Guard Era was an interview with an old man who had previously served as a Red Guard, as well as an animated section named Wind, put together by Hao Zhi Qiang. The original version of the performance lasted about an hour and our first planned performance was at the 2008 Perpignan Dance Biennial in France. After returning to Beijing, we planned our next performance, and first in China, to take place at Caochangdi, which was to stage the October cross-arts festival. As we prepared and laid out all of our material and video footage that we had collected and used in our rehearsals, it became clear that, what we had in front of us, was in fact one long, connected memory. “Why not turn it into an eight hour performance?” Wen Hui proposed, and everyone agreed. After all, the performance was to take place on a grass field, on our own turf so to speak, and we were free to do whatever we wanted and make it as long as we wanted. Considering what that might be like for audiences, however, we let them know in advance that this was to be something of a unique performance due in part to its length, and that they were free to sit and take in as little or as much as they wanted. This first eight-hour performance took place in Beijing and started at 2:00 in the afternoon and ran through until 10:00 that night without any intermissions. Our onstage performers consisted of Wen Hui and Ma De Hua, both born in the 1960s, and me, the only male onboard for this performance and a few years their elder. Being so close in age, our goal was to attempt to create and showcase a shared memory. This was an unusual performance in more ways than one. We had an exceptionally large space to work with and free license to choose from the wealth of material at our disposcal and use it as we wished. Ma’s and my shared memories from the 1960s and 1970s touched on things associated with growing up during that period: a historical stage that paralleled the events of the Cultural

Theatre: Memory in Progress

Revolution. Part of this story had to do with how we were educated during that time, namely, how we were expected “to be the next generation of torch bearers for the revolution”, how we were to learn from revolutionary heroes, how to be loyal to the Communist Party, loyal to Chairman Mao, loyal to the nation, how to demand a lot from ourselves and how to be open to self-criticism. These were the requirements the Communist Party demanded of its young revolutionaries. Comprising part of the performance was my documentary, 1966, My Red Guard Era, which ran two hours and 20 minutes and was divided into seven parts, which were played at various points throughout the larger eight-hour performance. As part of the documentary, I included the memories and tales of five Red Guards, recorded them with a video camera and then used that video to bring them and their stories to the stage. But with eight hours to fill, we also created another completely new video piece, which captured the atmosphere of that period with all sorts of slogans, songs and images and projected them onto the silver screen created by the large mosquito net onstage. Through all of these different techniques, perspectives and content, we were able to give memory a space to make itself manifest. All of this set the stage, so to speak, for the three of us to attempt to let individual memory seep through the previously solid walls of historical narrative. For me personally, there were many things about this performance and its creation that were special. These are a few of the things that made it stand out in my mind. 1. When it comes to remembering things from the past, there is always the issue of what can be recalled and what can’t. I came to discover that memory is no easy matter and that forgetting things is probably our more natural tendency, especially when it comes to unpleasant or outright painful things from the past. “Imprint it on your bones and in your heart”, might be a Chinese idiom used to describe the concept of memory, but in everyday life it’s in our natures to avoid pain. However, we’re all too eager and willing to remember those things from the past that are pleasing. Unfortunately, these types of memories only take up a small percent of the events and experiences in our lives. And so it seems only natural that we are bound to forget a good portion of the things from our past. 2. There is a difference between collective and individual memory. This ‘collective memory’ almost always dominates the narrative when it comes to significant historical events. It’s much harder for individual memories to survive and get passed on. This ‘collective memory’ is very much connected to media; it’s something that’s public, official and has widespread recognition. Usually, when we talk about the past, we begin by saying something like, “Back in those days we used to ...” We hardly ever hear, “Back in those days I used to.”



Wu Wenguang

The different subjects, “we” and “I”, reflect this collective versus individual distinction at the level of language. But with the absence of ‘individual memory’ there also disappears a corresponding sense of personal responsibility, which seems to be most people’s preference. 3. Once you begin to open up memory, it can expand into an almost never-ending continuum. It has many lives and you can constantly discover different things within it. Another way of putting it is that you can discover all kinds of interesting things once you start playing around with memory and continuing to probe it. For instance, ‘memory’ is a general topic that can be explored from different angles and in different ways with different content. Originally, we planned our performance piece, Memory, to run about two years and then come up with something new along the same thematic lines. Then two years after that we would again come up with a new ‘memory’ so that, eventually there would be a ‘memory part 1’ and ‘memory part 2’ and so forth. 4. Undertaking an eight-hour theatre performance piece is indeed an interesting task. It’s sort of like a large pocket that you can stuff with whatever you want. It’s obviously not your typical theatre production and audiences naturally came and left throughout. The important and more interesting thing, however, is the process of ‘trying to remember’ during a live performance. It’s not a matter of performing memory, but of actually trying to remember. This type of theatre very much embodies a present tense notion of time. 5. And finally, there was the whole approach to theatrical style, which we tried to make as relaxing, free and improvisational as possible. We also used a variety of multi-media and gave performers every chance to perform in as unhindered a way as possible. Anyone with even the slightest grain of a memory could come onstage and even someone who came onstage without any explicit memory per se, became part of the overall memory. In this eight-hour version of the performance, we did everything from editing on the spot, playing film, doing live video installations (in a toilet bowl), speaking onstage, rediscovering the revolution era dances of 1960s China, giving Wen Hui a massage and sneaking a peak into Feng’s diary, which was also projected onto the screen formed by the giant mosquito net. On October 1, 2008, we began our outdoor performance at the Caochangdi theatre at 2:00 p.m. and ran all the way until 10:00 that night. During that whole eight hours, audiences were free to sit as long as they wanted, leave if they wanted, and return again if they so chose. Some 200, in all, entered our theatre, including overseas visitors as well. Most of the Chinese members of our audience were themselves born in the 1970s and 1980s and most stayed until the very end. Those who stayed around after the performance were interested in all sorts of details surrounding the memories showcased in the performance: events and stories they had all heard about before, but that they were unfamiliar with first-

Theatre: Memory in Progress

hand. This period from the 1960s and 1970s had been sidelined and avoided altogether in the official, state-approved narrative without anyone really getting to the bottom of events from that period. At both a cultural and individual level, people had chosen to forget the memories from those years. It’s indeed a scary outcome when both the state and its citizens choose the same way of dealing with something of this importance. Perhaps one performance isn’t capable of changing what people are so good at forgetting, but at the very least, it has the power to challenge. And art should always try to challenge the status quo and what people take for granted. Memory was an attempt to challenge what we remember. As our Living Dance Studio continued to adapt Memory, we were simultaneously forced to establish a workstation at Caochangdi. Until then, we had always been faced with the problem of not having a proper theatre space of our own, but in 2005, Wen Hui and I changed that. Our goal was simple: in addition to creating a space where we could create new works and put on performances, we also wanted to create a space for other independent theatre groups, especially those comprised of young experimental performers, a place to interact with others and stage their work. As things developed and we put on a series of workshops, lectures and the annual ‘May’ and ‘Cross-arts’ Festivals, the Caochangdi workstation gradually became an important base for young creatives to interact with one another. And so, in an effort to create a lasting ‘memory’ of sorts, we laid the foundation where more creatives could get involved.

Figure 1: Memory, Beijing Caochangdi Work Station, China, 1 Oct. 2008



Wu Wenguang

Figure 2: Memory, Beijing Caochangdi Work Station,China, 1 Oct. 2008

Figure 3: Memory: Hunger, Beijing Caochangdi Work Station, China, 1 Oct. 2008

Theatre: Memory in Progress

Two years later, in 2010, we began work on our second ‘memory’ project. This time, the focus was on remembering the mass famine that occurred in China between 1959 and 1961. The official title of this second piece was Memory 2: Hunger. Unlike the first work, Memory, this second piece not only looked back at different historical events but also differed in terms of how it explored and presented them. From the very beginning, this piece involved numerous contributors including makers of documentaries, theatre directors, visual arts students and even people from the countryside with a background in making documentaries. We had people as old as 60 and as young as 19, and for this project, some were charged with the task of returning to a village associated with his or her family or personal past (in my case, this meant returning to the village I was sent to 40 years previous as part of the youth-led rural reeducation movement). Each of us used video to record a series of interviews with locals still alive today, who had gone through those years of famine, in search of memories from “the most typical, common villagers”. What came as a surprise during the process of putting together this piece, was that initially we had made going back to these villages to gather interviews voluntary, but by summer, when we all gathered to share our material, everyone came back with incredibly vivid and memorable accounts. For instance, a lot of people approached for an interview expressed fears around “saying something bad about that period of history” and refused. Others, like parents or elder family members approached for interviews, felt that “doing this was a mistake” and refused to be involved. A lot of our people charged with carrying out the interviews, themselves strangers to that particular chapter of history, found themselves completely at a loss as to how to carry on with gathering material. Another issue came from the fact that many of the participants in Memory 2: Hunger were born after 1985 and by digging around in these villages where there families had roots, they were in fact digging into a past that many of them had done everything possible to distance themselves from and forget. In some cases, they found out truths about their personal family backgrounds and the places where they came from. These sorts of experiences formed the core of the narration behind this new ‘memory’. As it turned out, the goal ended up not being about uncovering any particular memory but, instead, became the process of what happened along the way. If anything, the undertaking proved the extent to which that period of history had influenced a generation. The outcome of all our workshops and rehearsals was 16 people standing onstage to narrate and perform the stories they had uncovered. With the exception of one 60 year old, the rest of the participants were all born after 1965 and, save for one professional dancer, the rest had not real connection to theatre and were ‘amateurs’ appearing onstage for the first time in their lives. They brought with them countless stories captured in video interviews from a number of villages and, after a series of rehearsals, staged all of that material from events some 50



Wu Wenguang

years prior, during our first performance on October 1, 2010. This performance also lasted eight hours. Everything about the staging and physical performance was kept as basic and real as possible, as was the emotion and narrative style. After completing our performances, an unexpected ‘continuous memory creation’ impulse took hold, and it turned out that those in our troupe had more ‘personal’ themes they wanted to explore that were still ‘connected to memory’. Basically, they wanted to create work that was truly their own. And so began plans for a new theatrical production that was also in keeping with the general theme of ‘memory’. The idea among those involved was to create something along the lines of ‘a one person show’ and that’s exactly what they began doing. Preparations began in the winter of 2011 and rehearsals got underway by spring of that year, so that we were ready to perform at our Caochangdi workstation for the ‘May Arts Festival’. All together there were some 10 new pieces performed, but they all had two common features: they were to be created and performed by the artist him/herself and they were to remain connected to the theme of memory. There were works touching on ‘the history of famine’ and ‘counter-realism’ such as Zou Xue Ping’s Family Opposition, Luo Bing’s Me and Ren Ding Qi, Tang Zhi’s Beggar’s Road and Wang Hai An’s The Road Home. Other works dealt with the historical period around the Cultural Revolution (such as Jia Zhi Tan’s piece on ‘a case of counter-revolution’ from the 1970s in his own village, Jia’s Revised Investigation). And there were other pieces dealing with memory surrounding families (such as Li Xin Min’s Return to the Flowers and Forest, Jia Nan Nan’s, My Father, Jia Fu Kan, and Lin Tao’s Missing Father.) Another key work worth discussing along these lines is Zhang Meng Qi’s, Self-Portrait and Sex Self-Education. What makes this work worth discussing is not that it is a professional dance theatre piece, but rather that it continues to develop the theme of ‘memory’ through theatre. To this extent, it is also quite representative of the newer breed of theatre creatives’ attitudes toward history and their approach to exploring the meaning within memories. This particular piece is part of the artist’s ‘Self Portrait Series 2’, which followed the artist’s debut work, ‘Self-Portrait 1’ featuring the work Self-Portrait and Talking with My Mother. The piece begins with the artist’s formative experiences growing up, covering everything from ‘being born’ to the first time her mom prevented her from dating a boy to her written ‘criticism’ of her mother to the discussion with her mother about what grounds she had for being criticised (the mother’s face is projected on to the bodies of the daughter and other performers onstage for this part and her voice is heard with the voices of the performers onstage, creating the impression of a ‘dialogue’). We see the mother as a figure who brought her daughter into the world and raised her, but also as the ‘destroyer’ of her daughter’s first romantic relationship, revealing the at-times-conflicting dynamic between ‘raising’ a child and ‘educating’ one. One theme that emerges from the work is that ‘a cruel environment’ gives way to ‘a cruel childhood’. But in the

Theatre: Memory in Progress

second half of ‘Self-Portrait’ it is the daughter who is ‘criticised’ by the mother as she tries to educate her child about the cruel nature of the world that awaits her. This kind of ‘compassion coupled with force’ lends the work a certain sense of profundity. The artist’s second work, Self-Portrait and Sex Self-Education, continues along the theme of ‘memory and the search for self-identity’, probing deeper into it. If it can be said that this work deals with ‘growing up and the cruelties of youth’ then this work represents a greater investigation into the breadth and depth of this topic. It asks questions like “Why is youth so cruel?” and “Why do youth revolt?” and “What comes after revolt?” Just like the previous ‘Self-Portrait’ work, this performance employed ultrasimple and minimalist staging, with the only light coming from flashlights carried by the performers and the only prop a suitcase filled with clothes. The show begins with the actors pulling the suitcase onstage in the dark, the flashlight lighting the way forward (something of a metaphor for journeys). They then stop and open the suitcase and, after looking through it, one character puts on an item of clothing, thus triggering a memory. After the memory runs its course, the performer goes through the suitcase and puts on something else, again prompting a new memory. A track suit elicits the memory of getting started in dance; a bra comes to symbolise the beginning of womanhood, a revealing skirt given by a classmate sparks all sorts of imaginings of becoming a woman; a sweater knit by her mother triggers memories about the mother and grandmother; there are memories of love and marriage and all of the happy and unhappy times; a white veil reminds her of the ‘race’ to get rich; and there is also a recollection of the time she performed onstage with ‘showgirls’ and so on. All of these past memories are linked together like pieces of a chain. The performance employs a language and series of movements in keeping with the familiar and everyday (walking, opening a suitcase, putting on clothes) and is then combined with dances to express various emotional states. These are the movements associated with memory, the ‘dance movements’ associated with ballet, with training, with folk dance, classic dance, auditions, and even burlesque, all mixed together. As a whole, they form a portrait of the girl progressing through the various stages and experiences of youth. This type of artistic language is very much a spoken one, combining self-questioning and self-investigation, each dance raining down one after the other like a trail of bullets. In the end, past memories give way to maturity and growing up and fade away into the distance. What emerges is that it’s easy to stand up to your mother or grandmother, but what do you do after that? How do you go about charting your own path when you discover the world can be a cruel place and you need to stay vigilant? The cruelties of youth and feelings of helplessness that follow breaking away from parental control, I think these are the ideas explored in ‘Self-Portrait 2’. These are problems that must be faced head-on, but for which there is ultimately no simple solution.



Wu Wenguang

These thoughts more or less cover what I wanted to discuss in this article. I think what gives me the greatest joy looking back is that two years ago, when we began creating Memory, I had no idea it would end up being such a rich and rewarding experience. When an artist’s work expands to include and bring into it other artists’ contributions, the whole process snowballs and takes on new dimensions, new stories and new creative inputs about “memory”. What I find exciting about all of this is that so many young people were involved in creating this work. I think the significance of this fact outweighs the performance itself because through our theatre we were able to let a new batch of youth gain a lasting sense of “the responsibility of memory”. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field Three Stages of Practice and Progress, from Martial Law, Abrogation, to the Post Martial Law Period Amy Cheng

“I consider the body a medium […] You have to have something to broadcast through the body, especially today when we cannot trust television, newspapers or even language.” —Wang Mo-lin1

O RIGINS The body is hardly an unfamiliar topic in Taiwanese art, and when discussing artists, their practices, or the development of theories of bodily perception, it is a notion with a specific local context arising from historical and social factors. Looking at the mid 1980s, a time of social unrest as Taiwan transitioned out of martial law, art was a strategy employed in a wide range of cultural fields, and discussions about living conditions, subject formation and cultural practice all arose from the body and its concepts. Along with this, various notions and discourses of body politics quickly spread through various cultural fields, which included sensory politics, the sociology of the body, gender politics, queer theory, the use of the body as a medium or vehicle for performance, theatre, and conceptual art practice. Within these evolutionary strains, leftist theories and practices of the body as they appeared in Taiwanese culture are aspects worth pursuing and contextualizing. They came into being along with the re-evalua1 | Wang Mo-lin is a pioneer of Taiwan’s little theatre movement. The quote is taken from a conversation between Wang Mo-lin and Amy Cheng which took place in March of 2012.


Amy Cheng

tion of social and cultural consciousness and Taiwan’s many social movements of the 1980s, developing in both interlocking and parallel fashions within society and various cultural discourses. Specifically, the phenomena ‘medium function’ (of the body) and ‘site’ were developed by a handful of artists and Taiwan’s Little Theatre Movement in the 1980s through their practices of intervening on social space and texts with bodily action and performance. In the early 1990s, the eruption of the Wild Lily Student Movement followed (a large-scale student movement calling for democratic reforms), as well as the subsequent Noise Movement, which defined an era of the body as cultural battle field. These movements started on the fringes of society and formed leftist culture in Taiwan. Although the forms of each phase and movement may not seem to be directly related, their critical content and ideas share a similar orientation, which is the start of subjective consciousness in Taiwan, critique of institutional mechanisms, and bodily practices aimed at self-empowerment.

THE B ODY AS S TR ATEGY FOR A CTION As Taiwan transitioned from the martial law period, all its people underwent physical and spiritual strife regardless of whether they were immediately aware of the process’s significance. Furthermore, while notions of freedom were spreading through many levels of culture and society, these notions were still subject to manipulation by Taiwan’s ruling political party, who worked to deliberately simplify ideologies of subjectivity and create a singular notion of national politics. In the cultural realm, however, explorations of alternative subjective consciousness and bodily politics were concurrently underway. If we wish to look back and revise the written record of this period in order to extend its significance, we must return to a persistent core issue, namely the significance of the body in Taiwanese society. Along with the historical background and issue consciousness described above, the essay will focus on Taiwanese society, how the body became a strategy for activism within the arts, and the connection between bodily actions and society. In other words, the intention is not just to explore individual perceptions of the body, but perhaps more significantly to explore how the body became a product of society and culture, thus exploring the definition of the body, or the social body, created by societal mechanisms, and conversely how individuals expressively deployed their own bodies with respect to these societal mechanisms to produce deeper introspection or subversion. Furthermore, the text will also discuss social intervention or social engagement through art, while exploring its unique significance in Taiwan. After a period of colonization and many years of martial law, art had become alienated from society in Taiwan, suggesting that art had become de-

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field

tached from reality, and furthermore that the connection between the Taiwanese people and reality was somehow obscured. Prior to 1987, Taiwan endured 38 years of martial law, the longest period anywhere in history, at the hands of the Kuomintang Government during the cold war era. Based on resisting communism and launching a counter offensive against the mainland government, the Kuomintang national discourse completely dominated public memory in Taiwan, disciplining bodies, and cutting the people off from the land beneath their feet and its history. Culture was also carefully controlled during martial law, and if art or literature came too close to social or political reality, then it was deemed taboo, if not declared illegal. In this atmosphere of control, artists were encouraged to leave reality and the social body behind as Taiwan underwent its own version of modernism. Encouraged forms included abstract ink painting and various forms of formalism translated from Western (particularly American) avant-garde modernism. The cold war ethos was one of closely controlled culture and promoted the systematic indoctrination of society’s members, such that discussing social characteristics of art led to an ideological morass concerning art’s social function. The fact that Taiwan had recently endured Japanese colonization for over 50 years made the situation even more complex, since society was meeting new oppression while struggling to disentangle itself from colonial consciousness. Thus it is not difficult to understand why, as social consciousness awoke during the post-1980s period, artists would need to find a way of putting this consciousness into practice that could transcend mainstream language and formal abstraction. The body and its actions offered a means of countering spoken and written language, and subjects who were able to reinterpret experience and site through the expressive body were also able to cast off or transform modalities already assimilated into given discourses.

THREE -S TAGE P ROCESS As stated above, key events and art contexts will be observed from three periods: martial law, transitional, and post martial law periods. Respectively, events or artworks from these periods discussed here are: body politics in Chen Chiehjen’s video art from the perspective of his guerrilla action Dysfunction No. 3; Wang Mo-lin and his 1988 political-action theatre Driving Evil Spirits off Lanyu Island; and the 1990s counter-culture student movement referred to as the Noise Movement.



Amy Cheng


Figure 1: Chen Chieh-jen’s 1983 street action Dysfunction No. 3. Chen and four friends performing the art action on a Taipei street, and leading one another in ‘blind leading the blind’ fashion. (Photo courtesy Chen Chieh-jen) In 1983, Chen staged a performance entitled Dysfunction No. 3 with four friends on a street in Taipei. Donning black hoods and tied together at the ankles in chain-gang fashion, the five participants suggested a situation of the blind leading the blind. This landmark martial law period work was the first of its kind for Chen Chieh-jen and the start of Taiwanese artists consciously using the body to stage interventions in social space. Discussing this performance in an interview, Chen commented, “This was perhaps the first street demonstration since the Kaohsiung Incident.2 Of course these kinds of street actions were banned at the time.”3 Today, street demonstrations and performances are not unusual, but in the early 1980s, Chen’s action was a brazen challenge to current laws. In the same interview, Chen stated, “I still feel this demonstration is very significant 2 | Kaohsiung Incident (Formosa Incident): On December 10, 1979, in commemoration of International Human Rights Day, core members of the political opposition working at Formosa Magazine organized a demonstration demanding freedom and democracy. The initial confrontation devolved into violence between police and demonstrators, leading to a crackdown by KMT military police. 3 | For a Chinese transcript of the interview, see the Taipei National University of the Arts, Department of New Media Art projects website at: tw/~gmyuan/mediaart/?p=123; Interviewer: Chou Yu-ling.

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field

because all people have a drive to exist and to find a way out”; he continued: “This action wasn’t just an artwork, but even more, grew out of a need to resist the oppression of that time.” Discussing interventions of that period, theatre director Wang Mo-lin has noted that their significance was to “smash the stability of a public space with action”.4 Even though Chen Chieh-jen later switched to video as his primary artistic medium, we can still see this kind of body discourse and action in his works. After Dysfunction No. 3, Chen staged another public action in 1986 entitled Explosion in the Womb, A Test, and in the next phase of his career in the mid 1990s made Revolt in The Soul & Body 1900—1999, a series of digitally manipulated photographs. At this point, Chen started inserting his own image into historical photographs, creating linkages between the body and history, as well as using bodily intervention in texts created in social space and formed by history, images and narratives as a strategy for reclaiming historical subjectivity. It could be said that this new way of working was an extension of his body-based performance art of 1983. Chen felt that the historical imagery he was using in this new phase of political action art was not necessarily part of a dead and immutable past, since by inserting his body in these images, he could present an allegory of returning or reclaiming historical subjectivity. Chen was excavating and revealing what was seemingly frozen by history, as well as experiences of bodily oppression, and this method became a distinguishing feature of his video narratives. In a paper about Chen’s work, art historian Wan Pin-hua wrote about the significance of Chen’s art practice of action, stating his bodily interventions “are not an attempt to attain immortality, but rather to use images of his body as conduits that convey viewers to historical space, thus allowing them to reinterpret complex historical content”.5 We can also see how Chen united bodily intervention with his action-art videos, thus drawing a continuous line from Dysfunction No. 3 to his projects Factory and Ba-De. These later works were about the plight of labour as Taiwan transitioned from the world’s factory, during the cold-war period, to off-shoring in the period of globalization that followed. For the filming of Factory and Ba-De, Chen illegally entered factory spaces that had been sealed by court order (pending bankruptcy proceedings), weaving his narratives and performing his artactions by intervening in these abandoned spaces with his performers’ bodies, and then having them work, roam, look around and pace as he filmed. 4 | Taken from an October 2009 interview with Wang Mo-lin in: Cheng, Amy: “Forming a Latent History: Finding Words for a History Deprived of the Right to Speak.” Cheng, Amy ed. Art and Society: Introducing Seven Contemporary Artists. Taipei Fine Arts Museum: 2009. p. 35. 5 | Wang, Pinhua: “siwang chang jing zhong de shenti yingshang—Chen Chieh-Jen de chuangzuo lichang” (“trans. Image of the Body in a Death Scene”—Chen Chieh-jen’s creative force field), ACT Magazine, Vol. 41, 2010.1. p. 149.



Amy Cheng

Instead of hiring professional actors, Chen invited specific groups of people to maintain their true identities and participate in his videos. He invited labourers for Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph; women factory workers laid off when their employers feigned bankruptcy for Factory; temporary and unemployed labourers for Ba-De; unemployed workers, homeless people, foreign workers and social activists for Military Court and Prison; Kaohsiung longshoremen for the simulated strike in The Route; and foreign spouses to tell stories of unfair treatment in Empire’s Borders I. Chen constructs unique narrative spaces in his video projects with participants and their experiences by asking them to return to scenes, either real or constructed, of his narratives’ genesis. These scenes include abandoned factories, a military court and prison about to be transformed into a human rights park, privatized piers in Kaohsiung, and the airport customs office where foreign spouses enter Taiwan. Chen has said that his aim is not to re-present these historical and social spaces in his videos, but rather to make present historical subjectivity at the sites through filming.6

Figure 2: Still from Chen Chieh-Jen’s 2008—2009 video Empire’s Borders I, 35mm transferred to DVD. Image from Chen’s video work exploring the Taiwanese government’s unfair treatment of foreign spouses which is also based on the artist’s online blog protesting discriminatory attitude of visa processing division of the American Institute in Taiwan. Foreign spouses who participated in the film are pictured here. (Photo courtesy Chen Chieh-jen) 6 | In this interview with Chen Chieh Jen, Chen discussed the significance of creating the right to speak through the occupation of a site in his videos, see: Cheng, Amy: “zai wufa you dangan de shijian zhong, shengchan xingdong he dangan” (trans. “Producing Action and Records among Incidents without Records”). An interview with Chen Chieh Jen in: Cheng, Amy ed.: Art and Society: Introducing Seven Contemporary Artists, Taipei Fine Arts Museum: 2009. p. 88.

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field

Chen goes on to explain the difference between body politics in the real world and the constructed one of his videos allegorically: his strategy is to compare the two to extend significance, and also use fiction to improve the real world in which we live. This suggests that even though his videos are fabrications, they maintain political relevance by revealing what is hidden in reality and encouraging consideration and political action through the action of filming. Therefore, the significance of the reality he refers to in his videos does not lie in its degree of resemblance to historical authenticity, but rather, as Chen has often stated, lies in how it overturns or sees the position of the subject in the course of history, and how it reveals actual power relations. In this sense, Chen feels neither historical interpretation nor historical revision is the point of his video work.

W ANG M O - LIN AND HIS 1988 D RIVING E VIL S PIRITS OFF L ANYU I SLAND Using bodily action in critical discursive fields, Wang Mo-lin took a different approach, becoming Taiwan’s most representative theorist and practitioner in the discursive field of the body. His practice is based in theatre directing, cultural criticism and performance art, and he is also considered the pioneer of Taiwan’s Little Theatre Movement, which came into being in the 1980s. In 1981, Wang went to study in Japan, where he encountered leftist ideologies and local social movements. Returning two years later with these experiences, Wang faced a Taiwan roiling with new social movements in opposition to national mechanisms and quickly joined in the struggle. Wang engages with social and cultural discourse through theatre and performance art, not merely reflecting on the meaning of individual existence or aesthetic forms, but also, and more importantly, mounting resistance to mainstream institutional power. In 1985, Taiwanese author Chen Ying-zhen established Renjian Magazine, which, as a critical instrument exploring society through photojournalism, news reporting and literature, provided an important window on a new and developing vision for society. In the same year, Wang Mo-lin joined the magazine as reporter, prompting his reflection and practice regarding relationships between art and society. In 1988, Wang, together with others working in a variety of cultural milieus, launched Taiwan’s first political action theatre production—Driving Evil Spirits off Lanyu Island—an anti-nuclear protest. Wang Mo-lin and Chou Yi-chang (director of the Gang-a Tsui Theatre) were the main strategists of the Driving Evil Spirits off Lanyu Island protest, the cultural significance of which was a concrete action exploring the possibility of art, in any form, to reconnect with local history and society. The protest combined people of the Tao aboriginal tribe residing on Lanyu Island, a traditional exorcism rite, a carnival-style parade and a contemporary protest against the dumping of



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nuclear waste on the island. Wang and other participants felt the event was not only a political protest, but also a cultural action possessing radical aesthetics, which turned out to be an action that established a tradition of political action theater in many of Taiwan’s later social movements, as well as a model for art as social practice. Artists involved in the protest on Lanyu Island devised a slogan for Taiwan’s political action theatre: “Current events write our scripts, the people are our actors and society our stage.”7 Driving Evil Spirits off Lanyu Island was considered radically transdisciplinary and proactive in terms of aesthetics, form and content in the early post-martial law period. Discussing the group’s attitude toward avant-gardism and modernity around the time of the event, Wang stated, “We were all faced with the same problem, and all wanted to create avant-garde/radical art forms. What was the most radical aesthetic? Summing up discussions we were having at the time, it seems one could not ignore social issues and politics and still expect to create a radical aesthetic.”8 The importance of Wang’s practice and discourse formed by bodily action has never lain in individual perceptions and concepts of the body as revealed through aesthetics, nor in the traditional definition of performing arts prevalent in Taiwan. In a 2000 historical overview, Wang included the practice and discourse of Taiwan’s Little Theatre Movement of the 1980s in Taiwan’s performance art context, thereby expanding the social and historical significance of performance art. He believes that the primary motive in clarifying what performance art is as it has occurred in Taiwan should be to cast off the discursive framework and forms of Western modernism fostered by local institutions. His strategy is to make this distinction by recreating the discourse and context from the perspective of the body and its social characteristics. Taking this as his fundamental point of departure, Wang has always focused his performance and theatre art on behaviour commonly seen in society and connections between memories, as well as reflections on martial-law period bodily experiences. He uses this method to explore how to describe and construct power relations between the subject and its environment (which includes people, things and spaces) through the performativity of behaviour, and uses this sociopolitical quality as the basis for aesthetic development in his art.

7 | Cheng, Amy: “Forming a Latent History.” p. 36. 8 | Cheng, Amy: “Forming a Latent History.” p. 44.

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field

Figure 3: A Murder in the Armed Forces Museum, a work by Wang Mo-lin produced at the Experimental Theater of the National Theater, 2006. Stage design: Chen Chieh-jen; sound design: Lin Chi-wei; photography: Hsu Ping. Image provided by Wang Mo-lin.

THE 1990 S S TUDENT-L ED C OUNTER -C ULTUR AL N OISE M OVEMENT The 1990s Noise Movement formed in an atmosphere marked by a high point in the development of Taiwan’s social movements, an anxious search for a means of rebellion through art and, broadly speaking, the thorough critique and overthrow of the island’s official version of modernism. The so called Noise Movement was not just about being anti-music; the movement employed the notion of noise versus music metaphorically to completely deconstruct, or even destroy, the notion of the body disciplined by social systems, as well as the aesthetic order established by official mechanisms. In 2012, Lin Chi-wei, one of several people at the heart of the movement, published an article meticulously describing its early evolution on college campuses. Discussing the large-scale student movements of 1990, Lin claims “on the contrary, after being occupied by student movements, these anarchic spaces maintained a high degree of martial law body politics”.9 In contrast to the antibody, anti-pleasure, mysophobic politics of these mainstream student activists, a counter culture of transgressive dissenters formed who stridently criticized 9 | Lin, Chi-wei: “Taiwan dixia zaoyin—xueyun fanwenhua zhi sheng” (trans. “Taiwan Underground Noise—the Voice of Counter-Culture Student Movement”), ACT Magazine, Vol. 9, 2012.1. p. 53.



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the martial law body by practising almost completely uninhibited bodily action. This faction, which was an alternative to, or perhaps on the fringe of the March 1990 student movement culture, was designated the counter-culture student movement by Lin Chi-wei.

Figure 4: Poster announcing the second Broken Life Festival in 1995 (also entitled Taipei International Post-Industrial Demolition). Designed by organizer Wu Chung-wei. As part of this counter-culture faction, the Noise Movement pursued bodybased actions that were sexual, violent, unreasonable, out of control, and anarchic. The movement was self-organizing and implemented a comprehensive strategy including theater, performance art, music/noise, writing, painting, installation, video, mainstream and underground publishing, and guerrilla action. At the onset, the group’s noise performance and non-mainstream, artbased events were held purely to rebel against discipline, taking place solely within a network of university students. Later in the mid 1990s, the events started migrating from college campuses in the form of guerrilla actions invading social space, temporarily occupying urban margins and turning places under bridges, riverbanks, abandoned buildings or old factories into performance bases. One such event held in 1994 and 1995 and entitled the Broken Life Festival (the 1995 event was also called the International Post Industrial Art Festival), together with the 1995 Looming Breakdown Festival, was the culmination of action and performance for the movement. Activists’ body-centred performances incorporated aggressive, destructive and anti-intellectual extremes such as “arson, the plundering of tombs, theft, nudity, public disturbance, vandalism and the distribution of perverse artworks”, which was a form of self-demonizing in defiance of elitism and designed to challenge society’s deeply entrenched stan-

The Body as Strategy for Action in the Taiwanese Cultural Field

dards.10 The Noise Movement can be seen as an outlet for the dissatisfaction, uncertainty and anger of educated youth, and notwithstanding Lin Chi-wei’s opinion on the matter, its extremely provocative and destructive activism did not immediately solve society’s problems, but rather was more akin to succès de scandale, as it drew attention to the movement itself. From today’s perspective, the movement’s practice of body politics is still considered a distinct dialectical process in terms of consciousness raising and resistance, which formed a relationship with mainstream art.

C ONCLUSION : THE P OLITICAL D YNAMISM OF THE B ODY Reviewing these three stages in relation to Taiwan’s broader social and historical context, allows us to understand the progression and dialectical significance of art intervention in society, and also the role bodily practice has played in this intervention. Important issues raised here are: after living through an era with multiple restrictions and long-term discipline, how do we liberate the subject from martial law bodily memories and then re-establish its link with society through concrete practice? How do artists from different eras choose which strategies and actions to adopt? The purpose of this paper is not only to look back at history, but also to sustain reflection on the significance of the body in society, discover what political momentum the body-subject can produce in contemporary society, and also to establish a context for reflection in our culture. This paper started with Chen Chieh-jen’s martial law period work Dysfunction No. 3, and continued with Chen’s self-empowering action videos, Wang Mo-lin’s practice of using the body as both critical and discursive fields, his use of collective transdisciplinarity methods to construct aesthetic considerations linking society with art in his Driving Evil Spirits off Lanyu Island, and finally moved on to bodily rebellion in the 1990s counter-cultural youth movement, the Noise Movement, which took on the deconstruction of societal norms. The attempt here was to re-evaluate the impact of cold war and martial law thinking and the limitations this thinking placed on art and culture. This paper has also explored how artists destabilized power relations between the individual and society through the expansion of the site of practice and discourse. In exploring these processes, the goal was not to merely locate points of potential transformation in those established power relations between the body and society, but also to develop progressive ways of thinking in the arts for contemporary society. This suggests that art and society must always maintain an anxious, self-reflective relationship in order to dialectically produce significance. 10 | Lin, Chi-wei: “Taiwan Underground Noise.” p. 56.



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Just as Wang Mo-lin suggests, martial law bodily memory did not actually disappear with the conclusion of martial law, but rather, the martial law period has left both visible and invisible scars on the bodies and memories of the Taiwanese people, and today there still exist unresolved or neglected aspects of our history that must be faced and understood from different perspectives through living practices and behaviours. Martial law was lifted in Taiwan just as the world entered the post cold war period, such that Taiwanese society was once again remade as it was subsumed in the rising tide of globalized capitalism. Because social, bodily and subjective awareness were only just taking root during this tumultuous period of receding martial law and approaching of neoliberalism, and also because an expanding middle class exerted conservative and stabilizing forces in society, the media and consumer era was quickly assimilated in Taiwan. Nonetheless, if we wish to examine our present age, situation and society through the body and its politics, we cannot separate out cold war and martial law influences and evaluate contemporary phenomena independent of them. Following martial law, Taiwan’s media ban was lifted, democratic reforms were enacted and society became more open. Nonetheless, as so many forms of social organization and management continue to change today, how should we re-envision the existence and non-existence of the body in society? The concepts and political momentum Chen Chieh-jen continues to invoke in his video action art are possible answers. Furthermore, Wang Mo-lin points out that when facing historical memory, bodily action serves a purpose for exploring “the relationship between the self and history, or the self and society”, and from these relationships we can know and describe the state of the body, spirit and world as within human social existence.11 Standing on this foundation and looking back at the three stages of social change, we can clearly ascertain their radical and enlightening power. Translation: Chih-Wei Chang

11 | Cheng, Amy: “Forming a Latent History.” p. 41.

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond The Lifework of Hsieh Tehching, Hsieh Ying-Chun, Wu-Chong-Wei,Graffitist Huang, Dino and Tsai-Show-Zoo Lin Chiwei

This article attempts to introduce six Taiwanese artists all working in one way or another with ‘the body’. However, at the outset, we should point out that we should refrain from using the Western definition of conceptualising the human body when it comes to describing these artists’ work. In the context of the modernist framework, the body represents the frontline in the dialectical relationship between nature and civilisation and has, as a result, become an extremely sensitive subject when it comes to creating art. And one of the tasks of avantgarde art is to take that starting line and push it as far into ‘enemy territory’ as possible, to expand its borders and gain as much secret information as possible without ‘going missing’ while deep in this ‘enemy territory’ or going mad (like Antonin Artaud) or dying (like Lautréamont) or being on the move (like Rimbaud). Internally, it is a movement that uses rationality to illuminate the world whereas externally lay darkness and taboos that language cannot penetrate. And so it is, that only the bold and daring, who press to the margins with a sense of discovery, have a chance of being rewarded in this quest. Of course, the cultural contexts of these artists and the modernist framework I just mentioned do not really exist, even if museums, galleries, art academies, art media and other art institutions give the impression that it is all readily available. Since Taiwan’s indigenous culture is built on the foundations of the post cold war and postcolonial eras, it can only borrow concepts (outdated ones at that) from the West in order to understand itself. It seems completely at a loss to use its own cultural experiences to form a cultural dialectic system. This article will attempt to show how the voices of the Taiwanese artists mentioned in the title have all been silenced within their own cultural circles, and how this reveals a common phenomenon throughout the third world: that “there is no avantgarde art”. At the same time, the accomplishments of these six artists vis-à-vis ‘the body’ show the limitations of the word’s connotations in Western art and


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reflect problems with the concept of modernism itself. The goal of this article is also to daringly look beyond this ‘front line’ and into the decline of modernism as a credible concept. When these six artists’ works dealing with the body spill beyond the bounds of systematised religion (the pulse of traditional art) and institutionalised art (the pulse of modern art) and all other conventions of what is acceptable, then it seems inevitable that these six artists can no longer be regarded as artists, regardless of whether they have been silenced by the system or are viewed as social problems or regarded as criminals or ‘fake prophets’.

H SIEH TEHCHING Taiwanese artist Hsieh Tehching, four years after illegally immigrating to the United States, made his way to New York City where he began a series of oneyear projects. In 1978 to 1979, the artist limited himself to living within the confines of a wooden cage for a full year without any contact with the outside world, writing or art. In 1980, he began another project where, once every hour for a full year, day and night, he punched a time card in his workspace.

Figure 1: Hsieh Tehching, Performance with the Time Card, 1980-1981

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

In 1981, he embarked on his Outdoor Piece, also lasting one year, during which time he refrained from entering any enclosed space, building, tent or vehicle. In 1983-1984, he collaborated with female artist Linda Montano on a project in which the two artists joined themselves with a 2.5 metre rope, and remained joined uninterrupted for a full year. In 1985-1986, Hsieh Tehching announced his No Art Piece during which time the artist refrained from observing, reading about, and creating any and all art. During the 13-year period from 1986-1999, the artist continued to make art but not display any of it publicly. By December 31, 1999, Hsieh Tehching’s artistic circle of influence had all but vanished, though it emerged once again after he displayed his work, naming it I Survived. Hsieh Tehching’s earliest performance art began in Taiwan (with pieces such as the 1973 work Jumping Off a Building, which was not really ‘shown’ since there were no avant-garde art spaces at the time). But it is safe to say that during this cold war, martial law era in Taiwan, while Hsieh Tehching’s art might not have landed him in jail or resulted in any personal attacks during a performance, his work was tough to stomach for the conservative Taiwanese art circles of the time. Even though there existed in Taiwan at the time a so-called ‘modern art scene’, it was not so much a grassroots subjective cultural force as it was an objectification of the Chiang Kai-shek regime and cold war era culture. This scene was at a loss when it came to trying to use Western art history as a context to place and understand Hsieh Tehching’s work, and even more ineffectual at establishing Hsieh Tehching’s identity as a primarily Chinese cultural artist. More accurately, the foundation for Hsieh Tehching’s modern artistic identity was really laid during his time in New York. Within the context of the New York art scene, the value of Hsieh Tehching’s work lay in its heterogeneous nature. Compared to other conceptual performance art in the West, the intensity of Hsieh Tehching’s work resides more in the execution than in the concept itself. In the context of Western performance art, much of a work’s life is manifest in completing its conceptualisation, and the actual execution is really just a technical procedure. Whether someone else is commissioned to produce the piece or whether it is simply a matter of sketching out a plan for the work: neither of these fundamentally determine whether a piece is considered a success or failure. In the case of Hsieh Tehching’s work, however, by engaging the body physically for such long periods of time, the artist essentially implodes any conditions attached to ‘conceptual art’. And the eventual outcome of this implosion is not something outwardly new or novel, not some new school of artistic thought, but rather a black hole, a dynamic arena of silence. It is a process of constantly engulfing everything it produces or that could be reproduced. And so the art establishment is completely unable to profit from Hsieh Tehching’s work because the artist refuses to provide anything physical or concrete to it, and thus achieves a sort of permanently dark and sombre quality that seems more a fixture of Eastern philosophy. His life’s work embodies the borders of modernism as well as what



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lies beyond: what has even been referred to as ‘non-modernism’. Ultimately, his work naturally reflects a chaotic, silent state. In terms of technical achievement, Hsieh Tehching’s feats bear some striking similarities to the lives of vagabonds or monks (Sufis, Hindu ascetics and so on all adopt similar practices as Hsieh Tehching: not entering any structures, not wearing clothes, following strict precepts, deliberate inaction and so on); the only difference being that Hsieh Tehching chooses to refer to himself as an artist. Hsieh Tehching’s time and experience in Taiwan did provide something of an elementary background that would serve him well for his later artistic endeavours, as he had produced large-scale conceptual paintings and short performance art pieces. But as far as the art establishment was concerned, these were hardly credentials to qualify him as an artist. In the establishment’s mind, Hsieh’s art needed to find a more specific connection with modern art. A closer look at Hsieh Tehching’s artistic execution, however, reveals three interesting junctions: 1. A systematic record of the performance—such as observations open to the public, video recording, film, voice and text. 2. The artist obtained legal witnesses (notary publics) to sign documents testifying to the various feats, even though they were contracts signed with himself. 3. The choice of venues is significant, since Hsieh chose to carry out his life’s work in New York City rather than his native Taipei. When the modern art establishment (such as New York’s MOMA) recognised Hsieh Tehching’s work as art, a paradox began to emerge between modernism and non-modernism. This paradox rests primarily on the three points of convergence just mentioned. The sense of legitimacy that the modern art establishment enjoys is founded on modern art’s framework and the principle that it must constantly expand, constantly ‘discover’ new frontiers, implying a new sense of ‘otherness’. But if Hsieh Tehching did not meet the three conditions mentioned above, then he ‘could not become’ an artist and would not be considered a vagrant, someone crazed, a criminal or a monk. Such behaviour would be incomprehensible: to not be seen would be to ‘not exist’. On the other hand, new frontiers and a sense of otherness are the ‘creation’ of this framework. That is to say that to not be understood, to not be seen, to ‘not exist’ are the types of performances that cannot be counted and measured, except for some designated times and spaces when they can be connected to the context of modern art and considered a part of it. Just considering China’s cultural context alone, there have been countless figures from the third-century dynasty, that bear resemblance to Hsieh Tehching, who were better understood when placed in the context of Daoism or Buddhism, like the Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove or the

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

Zen Koans. But of course the cultural background and knowledge necessary for such an interpretation is hard to find in contemporary society. The whole Western modernist framework relies on the artist pushing the envelope and bounds of that framework, which in turn leads to innovation. This dialectic obsession with ‘new’ has been a tradition of the avant-garde ever since the end of the 19th century. But Hsieh’s lifework does not really draw on this modernist dialectic as a focal point. When a given project can last some 13 years, any ‘concept’ that is based on real life experience is bound to be spent up. Such a physical ordeal does not really make it a point to resist any notions of things that are ‘old’. While at first glance, it might appear to be a conceptual art performance, it is in fact a long and gradual physical removal of conceptualisation. If you take the epitome of expressiveness in Western art, the prototypical hero, like Jesus, to the East and replace the prototypical hero there, like Buddha, then in the eyes of Western art, as long as you have created something different, then you can authenticate Hsieh Tehching’s identity as an ‘Eastern’ artist. While Hsieh Tehching may reject the idea of any religiosity attached to his methods, even he cannot deny that it changed the nature of karma yoga performances in theatres. By engaging in the three points mentioned earlier, he is in fact placing himself within the framework of Western modern art, for without such an apparatus, he would be unable to create (in Taipei, for example). But at the same time that he made use of this framework to authenticate his work, he simultaneously used his (Eastern) body to contradict the legitimacy of the Western art establishment. This legitimacy marks a kind of rupture with traditional Chinese cultural thought. The paradox is that Hsieh Tehching’s influence on subsequent generations of Chinese artists is undeniable: many subsequent artists directly employed an intentionally Eastern stylisation to the physical body, using their Asian skin as a sort of currency to gain access to Western art circles. It is hard to imagine what Hsieh Tehching’s work would look like, had he not left his native Taiwan, which lacked a modernist dialectic culture, and created the specific works he did in New York City in the years that followed. Of course, one can only imagine the outcome, since no one can turn back the clock. But if we take Hsieh Tehching as a sort of special case prototype, then perhaps he can help us gain an understanding into how an outsider functioned in a Western modernist system and how, even today, Third World artists continue to take different approaches to their art. These physical acts go beyond traditional local culture and context (such as religious systems) but at the same time do not really fit the mould of the Western art framework either. As a result, the post-colonial cultural establishment has had a tough time accepting such artists into the fold. To this day, many are still not regarded as artists and have virtually no opportunities to hold gallery exhibitions, not to mention that most have been neglected in the annals of art media. So the question then becomes, if these physical works are not generally considered ‘works of art’ then in what sort of social state do



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they exist? By examining the real life examples of an architect and four ‘underground artists’, this article hopes to move toward an answer to this not entirely unobscure topic.

H SIEH Y ING -C HUN Architect Hsieh Ying-Chun has stood on the front lines of construction projects for a long period of time, leading to an entirely different outlook and philosophy than many of his peers who sit behind office desks. A large earthquake on September 21, 1999, that struck the central, mountainous areas of Taiwan, and most acutely affected indigenous people in those regions, marked a turning point in the architect’s career. Following the earthquake, indigenous tribes were so seriously affected that they faced a crisis nothing short of existential and cultural extinction. Based on the capitalist apparatus of private land ownership, were the government to come in and carry out a reconstruction project with steel and concrete structures, it would mean that those from within the tribe willing to stay would be stuck with lifelong debt or face the prospect of abandoning everything and being exiled from their native area. To Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, people used to living in a clan culture, any plans for mass relocation would be tantamount to extinction. With no sense of urgency for state aid forthcoming, the Thaw people sought out Hsieh Ying-Chun. After considerable meetings and feeling each other out, Hsieh Ying-Chun and his team began construction on a non-commercial model of architecture for the affected Thaw tribes people.

Figure 2: Self-Help Houses

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

Figure 3: Self-Help Houses This type of architectural model used uniform light steel rods as the frame and primary building material for the project. And just like modular furniture, assembly and disassembly were made easy with screws and simple construction. One of the advantages of light steal rods is that they are very anti-tensile and their vertical weight is very much capable of being used in combination with other materials such as earth, wood, stone, grass, bamboo and so forth to support and distribute pressure from the walls. The lightness of these materials also helped reduce the overall weight of the finished structures. These kinds of homes required no large, specialised tools nor teams of builders. Instead, with simple training, everyone from the young to old could help out in the construction of these homes. Since the costs were kept to a minimum, people were able to work together and help out other victims in the rebuilding. In Hsieh YingChun’s words, “We’re not in the business of building completed homes and then giving them to refugees. We provide part of the help. In addition to design and a professional finish, we put the buildings in the hands of those who are going to live in them. So, they have to put in the labour to help build what eventually will become their homes.” Perhaps this whole ‘Work Relief’ and ‘Self-Help House’ system’s greatest attribute is how it leaves a certain amount of room and flexibility for changing the space if needed. Even the pre-drilled holes for the screws on the steel beams allow for the inhabitants to change the dimensions to suit their needs. And the houses themselves are designed so that they can even be relocated if necessary or desired. This type of open design approach takes into account the specific lifestyle considerations of the inhabitants (for instance, the Austronesians like to eat by the door). Within one or two years of completing the project, local inhabitants were able to adapt their living spaces to suit



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their own particular culture and needs. With time, more and more novel design ideas emerged. In the intertextuality of today’s indigenous people in Taiwan, this means taking into account religious culture (such as totem poles), traditional building materials (such as black stone tiles, bamboo and so on), modern life amenities (parking lots) and incorporating them all into the model provided by using a light steel construction. This ‘Self-Help House’ model, whether from an economic, cultural acceptance or humanist ecology standpoint, is able to accomplish something that a modern architectural model is not: to prevent these indigenous people from stepping into another world and losing their own native land. Since most of these indigenous people never grew up with the concept of land ownership, most live today on land they do not own. With no resettlement programme in place, the colonialist government has taken a position of more or less turning a blind eye to the situation. But when disaster strikes, local government is sure to exploit it as an opportunity to reclaim the land. And those architects proposing all sorts of emergency plans, whether consciously or not, often play the role of government accomplices. There is a comparison to be made between the methods of modernist architecture and those of Hsieh Ying-Chun: mass production, prefabrication, on-site assembly and cost control. Of course, such methods are not entirely novel. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, America had introduced standardised production techniques for building structures made with wood, such as George Washington Snow’s balloon frame system. This approach introduced the concept of preproduced wooden beams, reducing the need for mortises and making assembly much faster and simpler. In the avant-garde tide of the early 20th century, the Bauhaus movement set out to design with individual utilitarian concerns in mind and launched a simple, industrial design ethic in the process which went on to shape residential design in Europe for years to come. Examples of this influence include France’s rent-controlled housing (HLM), Germany’s welfare housing (Sozialwohnungen) as well as the Soviet-era prefrabricated housing (Khrushchyovka). All of these examples showcase prefrabricated structures based on using concrete as the primary building material. The inherent design problem, however, is the rigid design platform, which essentially regards inhabitants as something to insert into a structure; under such a conception, the body is nothing more than a higher form of livestock. Another aspect has to do with capitalist societies, where land is a commodity that can be bought and sold, something that can be commercialised in such a way that it fundamentally subverts the natural relationship between people and that land. When architecture becomes a luxury item, buying a home becomes a major struggle for many, while others fork over as much as half of their monthly incomes toward rent. Under such circumstances, only those with considerable financial means can continue to choose places that meet their own criteria. But the current reality for most consumers is that the homes they end up inhabiting ‘have been chosen’ for them. Usually it is a

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

matter of commercial spaces changing the inhabitant’s lifestyle and habits rather than the other way around. The resulting conformity and uniformity result in a puzzling aesthetic which is especially common in the developing world. Hsieh Ying-Chun’s Self-Help Housing series provides a model for possibilities that go beyond the limitations of modern architecture. In this model, the architect provides a basic design and basic know-how to the inhabitant. It breaks away from capitalist economics and instead works within the economics of the local tribe or region—even though many of Taiwan’s tribal economies have been engulfed by capitalism. Still, the tragedy of this earthquake in Taiwan provided an opportunity to reinvigorate both economies. Based on the foundation of this local, tribal economy, inhabitants were physically able to detach themselves from the industrial division of labour so common in capitalist structures—from planning to construction to modification to maintenance. All of this led to an increased sense of physical initiative and creativity and restored a sense of the power of poetry, song and myth. With such an approach came the realisation that the individual is not simply some factory machine or some card-swiping consumer. In the words of Hsieh Ying-Chun, “No architect is capable of creating the perfect home for its inhabitants. All we can do is provide a framework and let those living in that space fill it with whatever they wish to fill it with.” The ‘Self-Help House’ series transformed the traditional ‘print literature’, ‘visual’ and ‘consumer’ centres of modernist architecture into ‘physical’ ‘tactual’ and ‘life’—oriented centres, creating a new type of Third World approach to architecture. Hsieh Ying-Chun and his partners effectively liberated the architect from such concerns as ‘haute technologie’ and instead turned attention toward ‘technologie générale’. At the same time, in the general approach to construction, he opened up the possibilities of bricolage. Hsieh Ying-Chun’s ‘Self-Help House’ approach differs from modern architecture in two significant ways. The first has to do with who the end product is designed for: largely mountain-dwelling indigenous people and peasants on the one hand, and politicians and businessmen on the other. The difference could not be greater. A second point of divergence is in that, outwardly, Hsieh YingChun’s work could hardly be called ‘avant-garde’; in fact, it is almost without any regard to rigid form at all. As a result, Hsieh’s work is not easy to replicate. Just as it is true that the man makes the clothes and not the other way around, so with Hsieh Ying-Chun’s ‘third structure’ does the dweller, after living in the space for some time, leave his or her own mark on it. That is to say that, bit by bit, as part of a process, these structures ‘become’ a physical extension of the inhabitant’s body. This is a physical practice drawn out over time which forms a sort of ethical relationship between the individual and the building. It is the sort of thing that is hard to sit down and design with paper and colour. The nonmodernist values underpinning this approach make it hard for the mainstream architectural world to engage with head-on.



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W U -C HONG -W EI Wu-Chong-Wei was something of a legend within Taiwanese art circles in the 1990s. And yet, his ‘performance art’ is nowhere to be found in galleries and he hardly wrote anything at all for the art world. One of the reasons for this is that he refused to produce anything that had to conform to any exhibition guidelines. At the same time, the artist continued to destroy his original works and any recordings of them. So not only was collecting his work impossible, but the very act of describing the work in any organised fashion also became incredibly difficult. One of the ways in which Wu’s approach differed from deconstructionism is that the artist never publicly announced these destructive acts, nor was he systematic in carrying them out. But the intentional blotting out of identity is itself a reflection of a belief system, just a non-social contract is a reverse engineering of sorts. We see similar attempts by artists to erase their identities such as in the cases of Orlan, the music group Throbbing Gristle, Genesis P. Orridge and other radicals in the way they manipulated their bodies and dealt with the media. But in the context of modern culture, the very act of wiping away one’s identity is, by default, also a validating framework of sorts. To be an ‘anti-artist’ one must first be an artist. Before changing my identity, I must first take on an identity. So, it is only by engaging in identity, power, interest and a message, that cultural resistance can take hold. Wu-Chong-Wei appears suspicious of this claim and his approach is, from the beginning, a bit vague. In fact, he almost provided nothing material to the art world, save for three instances when he made a record: a film and written record, a performance contract and a New York background. This is like Marcel Duchamp’s No More Art resistance to the art establishment which ultimately reveals a kind of paradox. But as something of a radical Buddhist, Wu-Chong-Wei is able to leap this logical gap rather effortlessly, since the source of his mental outlook comes from a milieu entirely outside of modern Western art. His body is not the vessel of ‘conceptual art’ as it were, but is more akin to the at-once creative and destructive powers of an active volcano. On the one hand, he allows things to spring forth from within, while at the same time reclaiming those things and any would-be derivatives. What he aims for, is realistic intensity that goes beyond language. One day in 1982, as a student in junior high school, Wu-Chong-Wei had a sketch book confiscated by his classroom instructor. Inside, the pages were filled with sketches and designs for all sorts of homemade weapons. The sketches themselves were beautifully drawn, but included things like a homemade gun with sharp arrow like projectiles meant to stick in the backside of whoever the weapon was aimed at. But these being aesthetically-rendered drawings having an artistic quality were byproducts, and Wu-Chong-Wei drew them primarily because he planned to build these small weapons. As a result, he was subject to

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

strict punishment typical in an era of Martial Law and received a severe beating and had his sketches confiscated. Not particularly taken with his studies, Wu-Chong-Wei was sent to central Taiwan by his family where he was to study sculpture and spent several years working on Buddhist images. After leaving Changhua, he worked as a labourer in a shipwrecking facility and later became a master fiberglass modeler. He resided in the attic of a traditional market building on Shui Yuan Road. Over a period of several years, this cramped, confined two-story space served as both residence and workspace for Wu-Chong-Wei and his female friend, Su Qing Qing. It is almost as if this fantastical space existed solely in the minds of the two of them. Most of the material items in the space were piles or mountains of debris they found from scavenging around. There was everything imaginable from pre-World War II reading materials and documentaries to fragments of historical ruins to military items from half a century previous to medical journals to Kuomintang propaganda materials and every sort of weird contraption imaginable from the Qing dynasty to the end of the war. As for Wu-Chong-Wei’s own creations, he blended stylistic elements of Chen Hong Sou (1598-1652) and modern Taiwanese puppet theatre into his sculpture, and allegorical elements into his sketching and oil painting. All of these old things were chosen because of certain artistic values they contained, and they were then arranged organically and put into that room so that the whole apartment felt like a large collage or some kind of Baroque altar. It was also a little like some work by Giuseppe Arcimboldo or Kurt Schwitters. It at once contained a sort of magic realism and chaotic feeling as well the simplicity of folk art. Everything in that room felt diverse and unique. In 1993, this collection of items found an ideal destination when Wu-Chong-Wei rented a small shop nearby in an alley behind the Tien Cultural Institute, and borrowed the name of an underground magazine at the time, Sickly Sweet, where he opened his Sickly Sweet eatery. In 1993, as the energy from the social movement began to gradually dissipate with the formation of a two-party political system, mainstream intellectuals made their way into the political apparatus via one of the two parties. The more keen-minded counter-cultural youth, however, found shelter in Wu’s Sickly Sweet eatery, much like Cabaret Volatire during World War I. The establishment became something of a post-student literature and arts base for young Bohemians to congregate. There was underground literature and music, experimental theatre, dance, videography, and documentaries, as well as multimedia performance art shows and Taiwan’s first Noise Movement performance. All of these different communities gathered under the same roof. However, none of the patrons of Sickly Sweet ever entered the same place twice, since Wu-ChongWei was constantly carrying out renovations and changes to the space. As a tide of avant-garde experimentation became a part of daily life for those exposed to that scene, anything and everything could happen. You had social activists,



Lin Chiwei

professors, thieves, labourers and artists literally all eating from the same table. It was a place where the bizarre and surreal played out as part of daily life; it was something never really seen before by the more prudish Taiwanese cultural mainstream. And at the eye of this storm was Wu-Chong-Wei, taking part in all different types of artistic productions. During the whole Sickly Sweet period, Wu-Chong-Wei continued to produce work with original artistic qualities and eventually garnered the attention of the Taipei County Cultural Centre. While the centre did not really see any ‘Merzbau-esque’ value in Wu-Chong-Wei’s work or that which was being produced in Sickly Sweet, they did invite the artist to produce a series of paintings for an individual exhibition. Within several short months, the artist produced an incredibly large lithographic print of a backhoe as well as a series of paintings of irregularly shaped wood and painted pictures. The works were rough and unrestrained on the surface, but also contained a memorable expressiveness with an eye toward wide-angle composition. Through these works, Wu was able to communicate his vision of a contemporary fairy tale, and the margins of the works were formed by cutting pieces out of a large board. These works marked what would come to be the artist’s two defining characteristics in his later work: a fixation with myth as well as the idea of removing borders and margins. This expansion toward reality through art would become more clearly articulated in his later works. This particular occasion was also Wu-Chong-Wei’s only exhibition within the art establishment. But the limited space of the restaurant eventually could not satisfy WuChong-Wei’s needs, and eventually he and Su Qing Qing closed the space and moved its surreal environment to a public, outdoor venue. Wu-Chong-Wei, along with Ma Hui Zhong, Chen Jia Qiang and others illegally organised the first Broken Life Festival on the banks of the Yong Fu Bridge. This arts festival brought together resources from across Taiwan’s underground art scene at the time, including the nascent queer theatre scene and queer installation art, Taipei’s alternative rock music scene, noise music performances from Japan, as well as underground cinema. All of these circles found a stage and home in this festival. Seven years after moving out of Martial Law, this event marked the first interdisciplinary cultural gathering in Taiwan. The festival lasted three days and nights in Dionysian-style indulgent reverie, smashing the lines between those onstage and offstage, and challenging all sorts of taboos of acceptability. There was no legality to this citizen-centric festival: instead, the audience became direct performers and played a part in creating something non-governmental and utterly novel and unseen before in Taiwan. Without any government support or sponsorship, resources instead came from enthusiastic volunteers. Wu-ChongWei took direct responsibility for driving a supply truck in and out of the venue, disposing of all waste as well as doing the carpentry, metal and electrical work needed for the project. He also set up large technological capacity for disposing

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

of rubbish that lent a particular artistic foundation to the event—a foundation which has become increasingly evident with each successive year of the Broken Life Festival. In 1995, the North County Cultural Centre sought to use the DanShui river area as a test spot for an installation. Wu-Chong-Wei put forward a rather bold proposal in which the gray area between North County and North City be used to construct a residential village of sorts. He proposed that in this spot be erected a flesh-coloured human balloon more than thirty feet high, and that each day at fixed times, all sorts of objects like televisions, fridges, radios and personal memorabilia be lifted up to it as ‘offerings’ and then dropped from the air to form a mountain of trash below. This became known as the Breaking Life Festival and, to everyone’s surprise, it was approved by the local government. This utopian project at once harnessed the resources of Sickly Sweet, which had been disbanded some four years earlier, and at once there appeared a batch of Bohemian youth pitching in. Bit by bit, each day they went about constructing their ‘village’. What emerged, in the end, was a Merzbau style aesthetic in which bits of urban scrap and waste were pieced together to form a sort of fantastical village. From Monday to Friday, it was a place of life and work, but on the weekends, it became the playground for friends and relatives of those involved in its construction. It became a place where underground rock music shows and Taiwan’s first raves were held. It was a place for all types of non-typical cultural events to be held both day and night. And, one month after its completion, it even began to produce vegetables from the garden that had been planted around it. The Second Annual Broken Life Festival was held in September of 1995 and marked the peak of Wu-Chong-Wei’s large outdoor events. The festival lasted four days and nights and included ‘industrial noise’ performances by no less than seven groups, avant-garde theatre, rock performances, and raves—one leading into the other. The real performers of the event, however, were the army of volunteers and audience who attended. We saw the audiences themselves use the discarded material from the site to make their own art, much in the style of poverty arts master Mario Merz’s nomadic dwelling piece, and actually live inside what they had built. Others took turns throwing stones at the television suspended more than three stories high from factory beams. There was public nudity and pubic sexual acts of all kinds—anything and everything imaginable from the annals of fiction taking place in the most natural of ways. Of course, Wu-Chong-Wei was not the only ‘producer’ of the Second Annual Broken Life Festival, but he certainly was unique in his ability to openly bring together and welcome all different types of chaotic energy.1

1 | Parts of the performance can be seen here: jXZbCb_OYH0.



Lin Chiwei

1993-1995 marked a decisive shift, however, in Wu-Chong-Wei’s creative direction. From Sickly Sweet to the solo exhibition in North County to the Breaking Life Festival and Broken Life Festival, to the counter-cultural student movement that had lost its home and sought an external social battleground and place to vent its energy, Wu-Chong-Wei turned his personal works of sculpture into social sculpture and used that energy to push a sort of cultural revolution. But just as his cultural revolution ideal began to take shape, the Broken Life Festival found itself scandalised by the media, due to its radical performances. This underground cultural scene suddenly found itself subject to an unprecedented level of exposure. This was to be the first and last time it received such attention. By the time Taiwan entered into a two-party parliamentary system, the countercultural movement had peaked and effectively ended, and Wu-Chong-Wei’s creative external resources dried up. There was nowhere for this struggle to go next and so it turned inward on itself. In 1996, Wu-Chong-Wei found a factory (some 500 square metres large) in Taoyuan county, Guishan town, and, together with a few friends, turned it into new workspace, naming it Guishan Factory. In his private notes, Wu-Chong-Wei described the Guishan Factory as “a place of internal learning. Even though it’s a model factory, it’s very much a real model. It’s like a foundation of bedrock: for any sort of problem you need to begin with a model and a concept. Whether you’re conceptualising Asia, the current state of affairs or any issue or any aggregate state of order, you can’t escape conceptual modeling. It’s a necessity.” In his notes, he went on to sketch out the top 10 problems with building a factory: “1. having an incomplete internal structure; 2. awareness among coworkers; 3. awareness of labels; 4. economic disconnectedness; 5. a sense of time and connection with surrounding social phenomena; 6. an incomplete map of reality; 7. the amount of trust in any given command; 8. poor nutritional absorption; 9. cohesiveness; 10. a sense of hope toward the cycle of survival”.2 At the beginning, Wu-Chong-Wei and his friends were quite ambitious and intended to build a recording studio, gallery, promotional centre, meeting room, production facilities and so forth in an effort to have the factory become a lever of cultural revolution. But this beautiful blueprint never fully became realised. As Wu-Chong-Wei dealt with the rejection of organisation, he began to question his own identity, which made itself manifest in how he went about renovating the factory. As the physical facilities in the factory continued to develop, new ideas continued to spring up. Once the initial concept had been overturned, the architectural structure also underwent major changes. The never-finished Sickly Sweet had also essentially been an unfinished rough draft, a constantly modified and updated model that changed with the mindset of the owner. The most radical 2 | Note: This excerpt comes from an interview with Meiya Cheng http://news.etat. com/etatnews/980904-2.htm.

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

form of revolution happened inside the factory, where even the people working in the factory on any given day were totally different from the next. And within any given 24 hour period, there were always people simultaneously working and sleeping. Yesterday’s meeting room could be transformed into today’s snake observatory (Wu-Chong-Wei raised a bunch of wild, venomous snakes). A rain observatory or bedroom could become part of the factory and a recording room could be converted to a bedroom attic and then become a storage room the day after. For two years, walls were constantly moved and modified to suit varying needs. Within the factory, any imagined utility far exceeded the actual production in the space, and the layout of the factory became more of a reflection and recording of varying states of mind. It was as if this architectural structure became something resembling Chinese calligraphy or improvised music in terms of how it was treated. And all these changes were dependent upon Wu-ChongWei being able to get his hands on cheap (free) building materials: metal, wood, electrical and so on. Skilled hands and the passionate support of friends made sure that those materials were put to good use. A year and a half passed by and the factory continued on in this half-finished state, and with time, Wu-Chong-Wei discarded any and all preconceived ideas of what it was to be. From this experience of working on a factory, he came to understand that environment is something highly personal and individual, that a person can embody a whole world and that interpersonal relationships are in part defined and expressed through environment and space. Once again, the idea of creating a collective workspace was abandoned and Wu became intensely suspicious of the value of all his previous work. Eventually, he destroyed all of his work and abandoned his Guishan factory altogether. In the years that followed, however, his revolutionary spirit accompanied him wherever he went. He almost entirely abandoned anything concrete or that could leave a physical trace, which added an air of mystery to his persona. He focused his energy instead on the environment around him by promoting his concept of cultural revolution as well as tearing down and obstructing all types of ‘normal’ artistic events. He employed an almost Zen-like approach to his daily life and continued to be provocative and create for himself a constant state of crisis and tension between himself and others. In 2006, Wu-Chong-Wei and a group of youth occupied the Wai Cheng construction zone on the outlying northern edge of the city, establishing the Treasure Hill Commune.3 This marked the beginning of a tug of war with Taipei police, as the group of artists made a series of modern looking, yet primitive weapons: things like a large stick that resembled a carrot, and concrete grenades. Their intent was to engage in some sort of standoff with police. Many of these weapons were just like the sketches that had been confiscated by Wu-Chong-Wei’s teacher during his youth. They combined a sort of folk art aesthetic with a mod3 |



Lin Chiwei

ernist sculpture sentiment. At the same time, they also embodied the threat of force associated with weapons, though the overall appearance and substance of these pieces generally evoked amusement. As an alternative artist, Wu-ChongWei had a certain sensitivity when it came to social and media perceptions of his various occupy movements. He was aware of the lopsided relationship between ‘quasi-aesthetic’ art and that of his commune members and the symbolism it enshrined, as well as the significance of how the media would expose the juxtaposition of his own homemade weapons and the sophisticated gear of the real riot police (The Treasure Hill Commune was already something of a major news story at the time in Taiwan). It was a shame that the plan came to naught, however, as a pre-emptive dawn raid was conducted by local police on the commune, in which some 200 police officers were sent in, including a special anti-terrorist unit. The area was sealed off and the media were not allowed on site to conduct interviews. Some 10 or more members were quickly whisked away before these artistic weapons could be deployed. It seems that any attempt to describe Wu-Chong-Wei with words falls short and is counterproductive because in the end, he is ultimately more of a movement. His use of scrap material and marginalised peoples is really just the superficial appearance of his work, and this appearance resists the usual distinctions and names. It is like a regenerating tail that gets bitten off and leaves no trace of itself. His work lives outside the usual confines of art schools and the commercial art world and, precisely because of this, is not limited in how it expresses itself. This sort of cultural mode is really beyond the reach and grasp of art criticism to properly apprehend and, as a result, it does not really belong to Wu-Chong-Wei exclusively. In fact, properly understood, his role is more that of a shaman or medium who guided that energy in Taiwan’s chaotic post-Martial Law era, and he infused that energy with a unique sense of expression. This, in part, helps explain why the underground cultural and arts scene received the attention it did and rarely received artistic criticism that was not abusive in tone. The glaring silence that surrounds Wu-Chong-Wei and all of the cultural movements and projects he was involved with gives us great insight into the inability of art scenes to develop in the Third World more generally: the local art establishment is unwilling or unable to provide local artists an appropriate modernist framework from which to be valued.

G R AFFITIST H UANG 1. No one can survive By writing words I’m telling you all

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

Such people will be professionally framed and imprisoned All will be killed 2. The world the United Nations the European Union Mainland China, Japan England Taiwan each and every one are terrorists There are historical skeletons in their closets Lies and murder foreigners’ lawsuit 3. Immortals jump coup training Evidence the devil’s global strategy will succeed Evidence uncontrollable abbot of the ungrateful The Pope, the bishop, the principal all have criminal records Nuns Pastor Father liabilities Royal family President Prime Minister coup

Graffitist Huang got his name in 2009 after he was arrested and the media used this title in the headlines to refer to him. The man is his own media machine, with his work covering all corners of Taiwan. His individual style and wild, easyto-recognise writing dot electrical boxes, bridges, viaducts, street lamps, traffic lights, road signs, concrete walls, underpasses and all types of public facilities. Throughout the artist’s work appear several recurring words and concepts like, ‘global’, ‘conspiracy’, ‘abetting’, ‘cover up’, ‘collusion’, ‘cheat’, ‘coup’, ‘kill’, and ‘borrow money’. All of these words stick out like a signature and make his work instantly identifiable. The sheer volume and coverage of his work reveal that it is anything but a one-time venting. Instead, it’s more of a professional calling, something carried out with the spirit of freshly renewed vows. Only someone truly focused on this craft and working away at it day and night could cover so much ground and achieve the sort of volume Graffitist Huang does. Reading the content of his graffiti, one discovers that the slogans are anything but simple; nor do they fit the often-associated hip-hop and pop conventions nor the angry venting of youth. Instead, it is highly political graffiti. It is not something that has been given an overly-done artistic treatment: just black, scribbled characters. In this sense, graffiti is an incredibly economical art form, able to achieve its aims with the simplest of means. His tag lines read like newspaper headlines, though they hardly come across as news-like. It is as if the content of his graffiti is exposing some conspiracy that only the artist himself is aware of. What he is



Lin Chiwei

after, it seems, is not the conventional sorts of stories one generally sees in the news. What he writes is something void of any specific details, yet ringing with a sense of corruption and a common universal landscape. The corrupt world he refers to is one in which everyone seems to play a part: presidents, prime ministers, ministers, royalty, bishops, principals, clergy and terrorists—they all have hidden and secret organisations, all have legions of enthusiastic common followers who join in the festivities. The goal of the graffitist is not to add anything to the corruption and personal lusts, secret thoughts and individual stories and interests of those involved. In short, this theme of powerful criminals is anything but clear (This being the case even though the arresting officers from Kaohsiung felt Graffitist Huang had slandered the powers that be and insinuated political problems. The official charge officers brought against Huang was “damage to public property”.) His complaint clearly was not simply some overly-descriptive narrative, though this exaggerated distortion gave his writing a certain Marquis de Sade-like sense of surrealism. All of the evils outlined in Graffitist Huang’s work were pure and isolated, with no sense of past or future or fixed place. When it comes to place, some of the artist’s favourite words include ‘the whole world’ and ‘global’. The corrupt world that Huang talks about is one with a special and unknown purpose, one whose methods are irrefutable and the operation of which is cold, systematic, conspiratorial and beyond the reach of fixed space and time. There is a sense of fatalism like the sort revealed in Greek tragedy, but without the graffitist providing any way out, without any sense of relief or humour or design. Compared with Taiwanese graffiti artists, well-known Hong Kong graffitist Tsang Tsou Choi, known as the ‘King of Kowloon’ is considered as representing the old-school Hong Kong—Taiwanese way. Compared to Tsang Tsou Choi, whose work centers on family blood lines and Hong Kong history, Graffitist Huang’s narratives are more secretive and deal with science, international media and economics. His world of science fiction deals with chaos theory and cybernetics, but not everything happens in this plane alone, and the influences of any given event are far-reaching. Corruption is a non-static plot among a few, but indirectly involves many in its carrying out. The whole world is a criminal body, a place filled with unpredictable, complicated and at times contradictory behaviour. And it exists in a state of incessant fracturing that no one is able to deal with, and combat. People are constantly swallowed up by this hellish fracturing: Taiwanese, Chinese, English, Americans, people from all over the world are accomplices in these machinations. People are inevitably connected with the system to create something that cannot be mastered by anyone. What Graffitist Huang shares in common with Tsang Tsou Choi is that he, too, lost his sense of home and continued to ‘live in exile’. But here, the word ‘home’ does not just refer to Taiwan, but rather the whole ‘world’. For Huang, only within the context and foundation of a ‘world’ can there exist his ‘Taiwan’,

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

and only by rebuilding the world can he hope to piece together his road back home. What his work goes about doing, then, is to develop a sort of way back home via witchcraft, a sort of anti-enlightenment, guerrilla tactics for combating the brain-washing methods of media. Only by engaging with his graffiti can the artist come to terms with the fragmented, hard-to-understand nature of things. If everything is lies and deception, then he must make a choice, and his choice, is to look outward until his very body has become a sort of centrifugal force. Given such circumstances, Graffitist Huang really had no other choice. His interest is not in who is corrupt or what is the outcome of that corruption (perhaps death?); his only concern is with the propagation of ‘lies’ that these various roles engender and the mutually reinforcing effect they have on creating ‘false images’. His energies are focused on one thing alone, “to denounce the loss of reality”. This idea of resistance in art and literature is hardly a first, with Pu Songling’s Strange Tales, Li Ruzhen’s Flowers in the Mirror, Francois Rabelais’ Giant Legend, Kafka’s The Castle and Orwell’s Animal Farm all following along a similar vein. But Graffitist Huang’s medium is not the novel or poetry or calligraphy or ‘public art’ for that matter. His approach is beyond the reach of any systematic support or recognition and he truly stands alone and stands outside the generally commercial arts and cultural scene in Taiwan. But even without any refined polish, his work has come to be viewed in almost every corner of Taiwan, uttering a wild scream from a sole fighter, an outsider. It is a body of work that exists outside the ‘fabricated meaning’ of an otherwise industrial society.

Figure 4: Dino in concert



Lin Chiwei

D INO Dino (Liao Ming-He) began conceiving of his noise music back in 1996. In the post-student movement culture, the noise movement swept Taiwan almost overnight and, during this time, Dino was able to get onstage early in the movement. Using a crude and basic microphone, an effects machine and mixer, he was able to create an electronic circuit that really had no musical source per se. Using feedback and line noise he was able to collect and sample all sorts of sounds that could be used in subsequent performances. Dino’s ‘music’ does not really have any fixed or permanent motive: as soon as anything resembling a motive begins to emerge, it is instantly replaced with something completely unrelated to what came before. Simply put, there is no real form to his music, just pure and simple sounds woven together, changing, overlapping and disappearing. The music constantly consumes itself and what has come before, so that there is no clear structure. This type of music has no clear beginning or ending; it has no past and, of course, has no predictable future or direction. Underlying the foundation of Western logic and metaphysics is the concept of ‘différence’. Based on this foundation of ‘différence’, modern Western music often attempts to subvert musical rules and principles, the most extreme example being the Fluxus Movement. This approach relied on removing as many elements as possible from the music and taking complicated musical rituals and reducing them to their simplest elements, while also adding a sense of systematic observation and distinction. Such an approach was thought to be what gave a piece of art its value. In the context of modern music, this notion of ‘différence’ has its roots in Solfege, which allows a musical score to become music and vice versa. This transformability is a defining characteristic of Western music following the Renaissance and symbolises the method behind ‘différence’. And the concept exists not only when writing music, but also at the level of performers who also have to deal with ‘différence’. And yet, the concept does not really make its way into modern art criticism or musical commentary. Consider what happens, for example, when musical historians try to apply the concept of ‘différence’ to interpreting and understanding traditional Chinese watercolours. The result is something completely askew and off-point. No doubt, ‘différence’ can uncover all sorts of valuable clues for understanding a work, but to subject Chinese watercolours to such sort of analysis is to betray the visual senses of the historical figures who produced them. Of course, any approach has its limitations. So, the real question is not really about the limitations of ‘différence’ as a school of thought, but instead about how the Chinese language has yet to develop an adequate vocabulary and ability to interpret its own culture. The result is that Western concepts are still often relied upon to fill a void that has been there ever since the collapse of the Qing dynasty, which previously had supported a sense of inherited traditional culture and shaped cultural values. Once that system col-

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

lapsed and nationalism became the new modern paradigm, it swallowed up all cultural resources and traditional culture lost its voice. In order to continue, it was forced to take on a more obscured existence in underground culture. By referring to ‘tradition’ here, is not to imply that Dino is in any stylistic or other sense aiming for something ‘retro’, since such stylistic preoccupations are usually traps that produce nothing but kitsch. In fact, the entire content of Dino’s noise music is a rejection of ‘retro’: one need only think of the visual dichotomy between an ancient musician and a noise musician to get the idea. That said, if one did not begin with some kind of ‘classical meme’ there would be no ‘classical tradition’ to speak of. Ultimately, Dino’s music represents a desperate attempt to break past this paradox by giving a facelift of sorts to ‘old-fashioned’ things and injecting them with a new sense of cultural relevance (In Chinese, another connotation of ‘old-fashioned’ is ‘simple’). Just as Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) remarked, “Nothing is new. Even old things vanish.” The question of ‘classical heritage’ is not so much a question of whether or not you can come up with people dressed in ancient garbs playing traditional instruments, but rather, whether or not you can effectively combat cultural alienation, whether or not you can transcend the conventions of the musical establishment, whether or not you can transcend social norms, whether or not you can transcend desires and fears and let the power of ‘truth’ spill over into your work. In this sense, ethics and beauty cannot be separated. Nowadays, however, traditional culture finds itself running up against the establishment of post-colonialism and ‘classical style’ has become the domain of bureaucracy, academies and capitalist systems. What Dino’s noise music does, is break through that fake veneer of traditional culture and let ancient things spring up and find renewal in the modern world.

TSAI -S HOW -Z OO To simply use the phrase, ‘performance artist’ to describe Tsai-Show-Zoo would be like using the word ‘musician’ to describe Dino or ‘general artist’ to describe Wu-Chong-Wei: it would fundamentally miss the mark. Despite spending four years in an art and design college, the artist somehow avoided being trapped by broader conventions and mental outlook, with her work taking on a distinctly art naïf quality. Upon closer study of her limited number of shows and installations, we recognise something unrestrained and beyond the typical modernist framework. In the basement of the Jia Taipei East bar is an installation piece, White Holes. Each viewing is limited to one member at a time and on any given day, the five or so visitors who come to view the installation are requested to book a time in advance. The physical space that hosts the ‘White Holes’ show is a narrow, slit-like passageway filled with balloons, rubber cushions and elastic Laika cloth.



Lin Chiwei

The space is lit on the far side of the room as light passes through the white balloon and the visitor is forced to really exert him or herself to enter the congested space. The strong smell of balloons and the tight constraints of the space give a sense of asphyxia for those passing through. About 10 metres into the room, most guests pause and hesitate before pressing onward, and usually right around the time they are tempted to turn around and come out, they are suddenly grabbed from figures beneath the cloth, forcing them to fall to the ground. The surprise attack catches people off guard, most usually do not know how to respond and interact with the veiled figures clutching at them. This precarious situation continues for some time and no matter how one struggles, there is no escape. The humidity and sense of asphyxia only build as the minutes go on and the experience carries with it a certain sense of absurdity and fear of death. Even as the fear and panic grow, the clutching hands still do not let go. Usually after about 10 minutes or so, most people learn to relax their bodies and as they do so, the performers also begin to loosen their grasps on the audience member. This usually continues for some time until the audience member begins to resist again. The more the audience tries to free themselves, the more involved the performers become. Eventually, usually anywhere between half an hour and an hour, the audience member is released and free to exit the tight space. Regardless of whether it takes place beneath a table at the Yuba Fair, in the narrow confines of White Holes (2008), in the large white cloth from Dreams and the Winter Sea (2008), a collaborative piece with Tsai-Show-Zoo, Wan-Shuen Tsai and Yannick Dauby, or the tea room in Offered Advice (2010), the artist always seems to employ an element of counter-attack on the canonical. The audience is always made to experience some form of physical violation, and while they are indeed conceptual performance art, they are perhaps better described as something resembling some tribal rite of passage. In these performances, the ‘audience’ is put into an extreme situation and made to experience feelings of death, intimidation and sexual enticement. The performances create a dominatrix/dominated (S/M) type relationship where the audience is either resisting and fighting for survival or surrendering to some death-like experience or sexual pleasure. In these spaces there is no way out and no haven left for cultural rhetoric. Such performances go beyond the traditional framework of artistic ethics and morality, and instead operate more on a reactionary level of physical sub consciousness. In such instances where the ‘audience’ experiences a high degree of both physical and emotional danger, they are in fact no longer an ‘audience’ any more than the ‘artist’ continues to be an artist. In this sense, these exhibitions disrupt any fixed definitions of ‘physical art’.

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

C LOSING R EMARKS Viewed from a Buddhist perspective, there is a kind of dubious, conspiratorial nature to the relationship between the artist and the art establishment. Personal interest and materialism tend to destroy the purity of the relationship and lead to bad karma. As Taiwanese novelist Wu Wan-Ling once commented, “Employment is manufacturing.” In Chinese, the character for ‘profession’ and ‘karma’ are one in the same, meaning that if art becomes one’s profession, then there is no real difference between the artist and the labourer and the merchant. They all work within the capitalist framework to produce things and keep the system going. Since contemporary art is at the front line of modernity, its systems of production represent, in fact, the innovative laboratories of capitalism. The idea that there is no end to innovation within modern art has become a sort of repeating logical loop. This mantra bears out both in contemporary art and music and exposes what must be viewed a massive sense of boredom. Nowadays, this so-called innovation is nothing more than a technical or intellectual rearrangement following a division of labour. Dialectics are good at dealing with issues of alienation that arise from the mechanisation of human labour. Yet, when it comes to dealing with human desire and this resulting alienation, contemporary art offers no solutions. Artists and curators alike are caught up in a vanity fair of sorts that ultimately lead to self-alienation. And this ‘movement’ or trend also has implications for the artistic work itself, which becomes a collectivised, unconscious, atomised message as art devolves to the micro level of capitalist reproduction. Even though many of these works have the appearance of a certain ‘liberalisation’ or ‘centrality’ or ‘subjectivity’, the ‘criticism’ they flaunt is nothing more than a deformation of unchecked ego on the part of the artists. In the context of modern art, this notion of ego somehow has come to be regarded as the source of creativity. The final five ‘artists’ this article refers to all lived lives that essentially cannot be reproduced or imitated. Their lives and their work are an inseparable one, yet this oneness is quite different from Western concepts like ‘professional artist’ and ‘a creative life’. It even differs from Jean-Dubuffet’s notion of ‘artist d’art brut’. This notion of the professional artist refers to working to expand the framework of modern art and ‘artist d’art brut’ represents something passive and on the margins of the art establishment. The work of the last four artists covered in this article on the one hand all reflect a very strong public dimension and a strong degree of mastery of modern media. But at the same time, they all operate outside of the establishment mainstream and, more importantly, their work does not correspond to Western notions of material art or art as process or physical art or performance art. These artists are not concerned with records and recognition or going beyond the realistic physical limits of ‘artistic conception’. At times, they make use of the art establishment and yet they leave no



Lin Chiwei

real record for it; they work not to create ‘works’ and leave nothing for capitalist systems to reproduce. And so, this type of art gives rise and presence to a new category of Third World national culture, even if local art circles turn a blind eye to it. This Third World national culture still falls within the control of national politics and borrows from the Western art system to create an ethnic art system. It takes this so-called ethnic culture and strips it of tradition and context, and then reintroduces it into the globalised system of specialised reproduction. This sort of half-baked modernism can be seen when looking at how Third World music is made. Many such music schools and academies infuse a Western research approach to understand indigenous music traditions and they then take the results and apply a modern, symphonic treatment to them. The musician are then trained in these institutes and eventually sponsored by the State where they go on to play in concert halls. In this systematised process of “localising modern art and modernising local art” all ties with tradition and context are severed. Traditional context is cut up into some superficial elements of appearance and traditional culture becomes a mere figurehead. At the same time, the full force of Western art’s modernist dialectics are not applied because it infringes on the interests of post-colonialism in an age of globalised labour and production and threatens its legitimacy. So, at that same time that post-colonial governments replicate Western culture, they must also castrate it of its dialectic ability. The result is that Third World art establishments lack the ability to find suitable themes and subject matter within their own cultures, let alone the ability to revitalise their own traditions. What is more, when interacting with the outside art world, the art establishment often demonstrates an inability to properly differentiate between non-Western artists. This is why Third World art circles always look to the West with envy and why Western art circles always think the Third World art scene is lacking in one way or another. Nowadays, when Third World art is viewed by the outside world, it has usually gone through various channels of curating and brokering so that it fits within the post-colonial apparatus and Western norms. Within this normalised body of work, only a handful of artists and work can escape the trap of post-colonial reproduction and reflect a nonWestern way of thinking, as does the work of Tsai Ming Liang or the success of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s movie. Such works reflect an Eastern subjective culture within a post-colonial modern system and point to an ‘unseen other’. This is true for both Westerners and Easterners alike. However appalling the title of this article may appear, it is unable to escape the paradox that was raised many times in its discussion of Hsieh Tehching: whenever we raise the issue of ‘body politics’ we are in fact retreating into the framework of modern criticism. This article has, on the hand, used this framework to view this ‘Eastern’ other and yet this ‘other’ is also the writer himself. And so, in the end, this article help but in some sense serve this modernist structure.

Edges of the Modernist Framework and Beyond

As for whether or not these five artists could exist without this imperial context is hard to say. All I can attempt to do is, “Je fixais des vertiges”4 . As for whether or not this implies, “Il faut etre absolument modern!”, I cannot answer this paradox. In the end, all this article can do is raise questions in the hopes that those who get it, get it. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

4 | Arthur Rimbaud, “Alchimie de verbe”, Une saison en enfer.


Picture Essay Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

I MAGES —B ODIES —R EL ATIONS Pictured in this essay are body images that we found particularly striking in the course of our research, inspiring us to comment on them from various perspectives. The experimental way in which they bring ‘bodies’ into play, the media conditions of art, the potential of taking a subjective stand and cultivating, idiosyncratic display, the production and involvement of the public arena and, finally, the diversity of political contextualizations—all this is investigated and put up for debate in these works. The body aesthetic transmitted in these pictures advances fruitful diagnostic implications for the perception of contemporary life in China today.

JH: The scientific image promises authenticity and provides evidence: the trace of violence, the ‘internal view’: The problem lies in the fact that we must believe the image, since we are unable to ‘read’ it. ZC: After Ai Weiwei received this blow on his head, the iridescent aura that surrounded his person—son of a renowned Chinese poet in the days of the Republic, consultant to the construction of the National Opera, extremely influential contemporary artist, etc.—was shattered. His relationship to the state devolved to the level of tangible, physical relations between the people and the state. It was the end of showing off, of financial flamboyance, of bluffing—only the ‘true face’ of this relationship remains.


Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Ai Weiwei: Brain Inflation, 2009, Poster, 200 x 100 cm MRI image showing Ai Weiwei’s cerebral hemorrhage as a result of police brutality in Chengdu, China, August 12, 2009. (Photo: Ai Weiwei)

Picture Essay

Gao Brothers: Sense of Space—Prayer, 2000. (Photo: Les Frères Gao: Un Autre Monde, exhibition catalogue, Les Rencontres d’Arles, 2007) JH: There is a series of images that shows naked men crammed into some kind of a cabinet (with the two artists in the middle); they each revolve around such notions as prayer, waiting, anxiety and pain. These stagings produce still-lifes as existential images, which, to me, as a Westerner, are reminiscent of altarpieces. They evoke a strangely ambivalent mood, as if the figures had fallen asleep and were waiting—for what? For better times? For Godot? ZC: People squeeze into the confinement of cramped spaces as best they can— the tangible reality represented here becomes an image with a classical touch, its theatrical effect enhanced by the illumination of carefully held candles.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

He Chengyao: 99 Needles, 2002. (The artist’s mother was ostracised for not being married and went crazy. The artist pierces herself until she faints.) JH: Aesthetics of pain (cf. text by Jin Feng, see p. 217). A biographical picture, a social body, a body of memory, of gender history; acupuncture not as healing, but as a reminder and a warning. Passion. ZC: He Chengyao wants to transform the body into a place of ceremony in order to invoke the ‘historical pain’ that once affected her mother’s body. This pain, imposed on her by history, enriches her life experience. But, once again, that serves only to bury her mental illness in the course of time. Art can layer memories but it can’t extinguish them.

Picture Essay

He Yunchang: One Rib, Performance 2008. (The artist had a surgeon remove one rib from his body and used the rib to make a necklace.)

JH: The body as a venue of genesis—or: musculine fantasy of creating art. ZC: A person who has the courage, insight and imagination to pit his own weak body against sunlight, mountains, rivers, a jet of water, ancient symbolism and myths. He works in a fashion that is archaic and direct, as in wondrous legends.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Huang Kui: Probability Turn Right, 2010. (Photo: Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai) JH: Standing in front of this large-format picture, I was impressed by the presence that the body acquires through the radical framing, the perspective and the organisation of colour spaces. A body-image, an image-body. Painting. ZC: The artist enlarges one particular as if an illness I don’t know about defines his existence.

Picture Essay

Liang Shaoji: Self-roped/Nature Series No. 31, Performance, Silkworms, Female Body, 2000. JH: A body, spun into a veil of silk worms; the performance creates a poetic figure of time, duration and stillness; a sculpture that touches on a tactile form of seeing. ZC: Has the relationship between human and nature always been the same as it is in art? Or, on the contrary, never the same as it is an art? Liang Shaoji has found a mediator capable of spinning literary ideas for endless periods of time, just like the interpretations of others spin threads around work until it turns into a cocoon—although, in the final analysis, it is almost impossible to grasp the life it contains. The caterpillars make a qualitative leap when they complete the process.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Lin Yilin: One Day, 2006, video still. JH: This performance provoces a discriminating gaze: an ‘other’ walks through the streets, and everybody stares at him: he could be a migrant worker or a disabled person, a stranger, an abnormal person... (or an artist). (NB. Text by the artist: One day I came to Haikou. When I was passing by an old, crowded street, I was shocked by a scene. A young man was bent over and had a difficult time walking; his wrist was handcuffed to his ankle. He was followed by a man resembling a policeman in plain clothes. I deduced that the young man was probably a thief who had just been caught and was en route to the police station. As an artist, what can I do, except to re-enact this incident?) ZC: Lin Yilin takes inspiration from what he sees on the streets and turns the street into a stage for his performances. His art reveals the violence that is latent in society, allowing it to surface unvarnished—it comes from a violent machinery, but also exists in society itself.

Picture Essay

Shi Yong: Continuous, 2004-2005, 31 pcs 75x50cm each. (Photo: Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai) JH: Technical reproducibility as image: the cloning of fashions and branding— or: How much does the individual count? ZC: Shi Yong uses himself in this work. “When the false is taken for the real, the real also is false. Where non-existence is taken for existence, existence is also non-existence.” This quotation from the classical novel The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin1 is not only appropriate to Shi Yong’s work, but also to the artist himself.

1 | Cao Xueqin: The Dream of the Red Chamber, transl. H. Bencraft Joly (1891), Book1, Chapter 1,



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Sun Yuan/Peng Yu: Civilisation Pillar, 2001-2005. (Photo: Mah-Jong, exhibition catalogue, Bern, Hamburg; Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 309. Sigg Collection) JH: Ideal of beauty: the imperative of the anorectic body; the body becomes thinner and thinner until it is on the verge of disappearing: the drained fat congeals to form a pillar: a sculpture of contemporary civilisation! ZC: In the eyes of the Chinese, only wealth is civilisation, not poverty. And ideally, there should be so much wealth that the fat is voluminous enough to overflow.

Picture Essay

Wu Meng: The Clown, performance at the World Expo in Shanghai in front of the German Pavilion, 2010. (Photo: Zhao Chuan) JH: Art and order(s): a constant back and forth, against each other, within each other: who wins? One does not know whether to laugh or cry—ridi pagliaccio! ZC: At the 2010 Shanghai World Expo: there is an invisible dividing line between artist and military police; it forms a border between the area of the German Pavilion and the public. The clown has hung her ‘views’ of society on a pole. Whether art or police—boundaries are about to be crossed.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Wang Qingsong: The History of Monuments, 2009/2010. (Photos: Les Rencontres d’Arles, exhibition catalogue, 2011, p. 34ff) JH: A 42-metre-long relief formed out of clay, modelled after countless real people and animals. A sort of historical image with representations of generic values. Chinese art of the past 20 years abounds with instances in which artists (mostly men) play generals and stage huge, elaborate battles or celebrate triumphs in XXXL formats—a gigantomania that I find a bit difficult to relate to. ZC: According to the artist, about a fifth of the subject matter for this work is drawn from the history of Chinese art, but by far the greater part comes from the history of Western art.2 What kind of history is this frieze actually about? What approach to history does it represent? Or is it the irony of history?

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Picture Essay

Liu Xiadong: Xuzi at Home, 2010. (Photo: Liu Xiadong, Hometown Boy, exhibition catalogue, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2010, p. 56f) JH: Painting with a classical feel (in the Western sense), which renders the body of the worker and the farmer with great immediacy and turns it into an image, without pathos or sentimentality. Physical presence as the confirmation of an individual. The painting as the document of an existence in all its dignity and simplicity. ZC: Liu Xiaodong’s art is firmly rooted in the tradition of genuine Socialist Realism. His bodies are robust, whether people are working, enjoying themselves or relaxing—they are clearly earthbound bodies.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Yan Pei Ming: Landscape of Childhood. (Pictures: exhibition catalogue, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2009. Photos: André Morin/Yan Pei Ming, Paris) JH: I was in the exhibition hall. Deafening noise from the air jets that move the flags; the forest of flags with the faces of children stirring in the wind as if they wanted to convey a message. These are children who have no place in life. Orphans. A powerful experience of abandonment. Noise can be infinitely still, and stillness infinitely noisy. ZC: Yan Pei Ming characteristically works his material in order to render a certain ‘craziness’ in his pictures. When the portraits of the children move in the wind, they cannot help but transmit a distinctive presence marked by estrangement and an uncertain future.

Picture Essay

Yue Min Jun: 2000 AD, 2000. (Photo: Mah-Jong, exhibition catalogue, Bern, Hamburg; Ostfildern-Ruit, 2005, p. 139. Sigg Collection) JH: A variation of the famous terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an; the grinning, which the artist repeats in infinite variations, is probably intended to place a layer over bitter experiences in politically difficult times: ‘cynical realism’ is the term used within the guild. But it seems to me that, in this case, irony and affirmation are two sides of the same coin. It is remarkable that countless versions of grimacing people haunt Chinese contemporary art, grinning optimistically, gesturing wildly, distorted as in a comic book, with strange affectations: the idea seems to have appeal and enjoy success. ZC: Hey, don’t act as if things which have been deprived of meaning like that are interesting.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Zhang Dali: Offspring, 2003-2005. (Photo: Gao Minglu, The Wall, exhibition catalogue, New York, Beijing, 2005, p. 325) JH: A kind of mobile of naked bodies. The artist supposedly used migrant workers as models for the figures. Now they are hanging there like pieces of meat, suspended on ropes from the ceiling of the monumental factory exhibition hall. It is one of countless attempts to make art that comments on social injustice as memorable as possible. But it runs the risk that a metaphorical approach which is at the same time ‘realistic’ leaves the audience clueless. ZC: Refers to the lower classes—the associations triggered by this work, namely ‘overthrown’ or ‘hanging upside down’ (living in abject poverty), are, of course, extremely provocative. However, when I was standing under these strung-up sculptures, the simple idea seemed pretty expressionless to me.

Picture Essay

Zhang Ding: Next 2, 2010. (Photo: Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai) JH: Men and machines interact and merge increasingly: Today, the human body is pervaded by elements of technology and machinery, and machines begin to feel and talk. Man-machines, machine-men. A techno body that evokes the impression of a 3,000-year-old mummy. ZC: Although without flesh and blood, it is still a body. But it is sitting there without its feet touching the floor. All the wiring must be connecting up some kind of power or linking information, but maybe not… Actually, it’s not just the feet that have no firm stand, but also the (idea in the artist’s) head. And who’s next?



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Zhang Peili: Happiness, 2006, video installation. (Photo: Zhang Peili: Certain Pleasures, exhibition catalogue, Minsheng Art Museum Shanghai/Hong Kong, 2011, p. 82) JH: The heroic body as the embodiment of political ideologies. Gestures, glances, attitudes and emotions form the rhetoric of these dispositives of power, which, decades later, seem rather strange to us—even though, today, similar pathos formulae predominate in the image overload of consumer promises. ZC: In his youth, this artist, born in the 1950s, became acutely aware of the discrepancy between socialist mass propaganda and the ice-cold hand of violence, hidden away behind public life. Seen in that light, the body has become nothing but an absurd, vacant object.

Picture Essay

Zhao Bandi: Bandi-Fashion, 2007. (Photos: Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai) JH: Body-art and fashion-body: fashion-art and art-fashion; catwalks of attitudes and postures: after a gallery tour through Zurich or Shanghai, I wonder whether any distinctions can still be made? ZC: Commerce is not bad by definition, but its goal is, of course, sales.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Tang Dixin: Reed, 2009. JH: The absurdity of the situation and the image are fascinating—one is reminded of summer games at the beach and at the same time of traditional torture practices. ZC: The artist has just made the acquaintance of a young man from Japan and can barely communicate with him. He takes him to a deserted patch of reeds on an island outside the city. There he asks the young man, who does not know what is going on, to permit himself be buried. In our age of consumption, Tang Dixin repeatedly engages in acts of physical provocation that are related to feelings of brutality and absurdity.

Picture Essay

Liu Yi Qing: Picture up: “Blue 13”, 2005, Picture below: “Red Jam”, 2004. (New Photography in China, ed. by John Millichap, Hong Kong 2006, p.109) JH: The snapshot; the anonymity of the figures and, at the same time, the intimacy; the artificiality of the nighttime colours; the glaring flash; the gestures of exhibitionism: the aesthetics simulate intimacy, closeness, touch; it’s an aesthetic event. ZC: The body consists even more of a combination of countless intimate moments, in the midst of which people breathe.



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Chi Peng: I Fuck Me, 2005. (New Photography in China, ed. By John Millichap, Hong Kong 2006, p. 51) JH: Is this demonstrating the secrecy of something that is (still) illicit? Or the device of duplication? Or the disconcerting cleanliness of a photograph that is ultimately solely self-referential? ZC: This may make some people feel physically exhilarated, but for us, it has become commonplace. How do you become an artist and not just a sex artist?

Picture Essay

Zhang Qing: The Peoples Secretary, 2010, video still. (The video shows an official inspecting a village; the pictures are shot by surveillance cameras.) JH: The technological scrutiny of supervision is omnipresent. Big Brother, constantly watching you, is himself being inspected and watched here on his inspection tour; the dramaturgy of the Moebius strip. ZC: It’s ridiculous to think that surveillance cameras can produce such highgloss pictures. Is this making a mockery of a kind of Leni Riefenstahl-style propaganda aesthetic? Or is it meant to challenge the aesthetics of a new generation of surveillance cameras?



Jörg Huber, Zhao Chuan

Zhu Yu: Eating People, Performance, 2000. (Fuck off, ed. By Hua Tianxue, Ai Weiwei, Feng Boyi, Shanghai, 2000, p. 193) JH: Cannibalism art. Protest of dispare—radical chic of the avant-garde—looking back perhaps only. THE scandal in Chinese art history (for Westerners). ZC: One of the most extreme works from those days, a little over-the-top…

Picture Essay

MadeIn Company: Physique of Consciousness, No.1, 2011. (Photo: Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai) JH: A tableau of rituals, religious practices and gymnastic exercises in globalised consciousness: a post-modern celebration of everything as equally valid and equally irrelevant, and an irony that ultimately chases its own tail. ZC: The MadeIn Company, run by Xu Zhen, has supposedly made a list of all the religious and cultural movements in the world. These movements form the basis of a ‘Physique of Consciousness’.3 The idea is to probe the possibilities of integration or conflict among cultures as well as their influence on the body, etc. But what I wonder is whether the boss and employees of this company engaged in these gymnastics themselves? And what kind of spiritual elevation have they themselves experienced in their work, from creation to distribution? Translation from German: Catherine Schelbert

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Twelve Flower Months Chen Lingyang

(Written internet conversation between Zhao Chuan and Chen Lingyang, April-June 2011) Zhao Chuan: Twelve Flower Months is a work of art made up of photographs taken from the end of 1999 up to December 2000. A photo a month for 12 months, the main contents of the pictures being a fresh flower in full bloom that month, a different antique mirror each time and, in the mirror, your genitalia in menstruation, some of the photographs using a leg with blood running down it to show the menstruation. The forms of the pictures suggest the shapes of windows and doorways in Chinese traditional gardens. The flowers you have chosen seem to correspond to the 12 flower months in traditional Chinese folklore. In your Twelve Flower Months, why did you choose to portray the female body and menstruation amidst classical decor and then use the shapes and unfamiliarity of the objects you included, as well as the handling of the light, to give it such a highly aesthetic form? You said jokingly that when you were a student in Hangzhou, the town’s ancient Southern elegance ultimately influenced your aesthetic appreciation. But how do you see the position and function of Chinese classical ideas of beauty in the context of contemporary art? Chen Lingyang: I created Twelve Flower Months by combining a vein of thought in Chinese traditional village Taoism with my own cultural interpretation. Our ancestors had a crude saying: “The Tao is (everywhere, even) in excrement.” But I used the motif of menstruation. The fact that I’m affected by the physiological phenomenon of menstruation is of course related to the gender I was born with. That is also the main reason why, since its first exhibition, this artwork has been considered a feminist work of art. Therefore one can say that, although my point of departure was not feminism in this case, nevertheless my reflections and forms of expression are naturally affected by my individual personality, and so the work bears the marks of feminist art. My choice of medium, form of expression and style was determined by the requirements of the artwork. Since


Chen Lingyang

this piece of art is based on tradition and also concerns women’s very intimate experience, I set up a classical Chinese environment, exaggerating the beautiful, confined boudoir atmosphere. As to the place and function of the Chinese classical idea of beauty in the context of contemporary art, you still have to consider very carefully whether a certain artwork requires this element to be employed, and also if your adaptation is appropriate.

Figure 1: Chen Lingyang, July of Twelve Flower Month, 1999-2000

Figure 2: Chen Lingyang, December of Twelve Flower Month, 1999-2000

Zhao: What you’re saying is that you’re not particularly partial to classical beauty—and in fact there’s not much of it to be seen in your subsequent work. Chen: I used elements of classical beauty because they were what the artwork required. Zhao: On a certain level, menstrual blood and human excrement have much the same significance. Doesn’t avoiding these ‘substances’ mean that women and people in general are incompletely presented? In other words, doesn’t bringing up these things lead us on the way to a full presentation of woman or people in general? On the other hand, by bringing together menstruation, the reproductive organs during menstruation and the beauty of Chinese classical objects, doesn’t the central thrust of the artwork lie in its visual irritation? That’s why, on the one hand, I feel that this series of artworks vehicles an attempt to open up a new field of vision, but very soon, I also suspect that what it actually produces is the pleasure of voyeurism. Chen: Contradiction and contrast are methods that can be used by artists. The placing of menstrual blood and the reproductive organs during menstruation

Twelve Flower Months

in a setting conforming to Chinese classical ideas of beauty is so unusual and unexpected that the picture is all the more intense. I hope that the strong visual provocation caused by this artwork will set viewers thinking. When the work was first shown to the public, it served as a kind of lead-in; what was important was the things it initiated—the mirrors in the picture are an attempt to understand the self, a simile to help understand the true situation. And again, because glossy paper was used and the background in many of the photos was black, when spectators looked at the artwork, they could very indistinctly see their own reflections. As a matter of fact, the spectator’s reaction is like a mirror, and what it mirrors is precisely the spectator him- or herself. Zhao: Mirrors have a magical effect. See and be seen, peep at and discover, the other and the self, the body and the mirror image—in Twelve Flower Months, everything has become an artificial image, the mirror throws back another seemingly real, magically changed world corresponding to our existing one. But a mirror placed at a fixed angle shows only a cut-out section of the world. As those partially visible organs which bring forth blood are of unkown origin, and nothing is known about the person to whom they belong, they seem all the more to be just ‘objects’ together with those other objects displayed there. Now that the body has been sectioned, the part is seen as the whole and becomes the focus of attention. But in Twelve Flower Months, the parts do not gain freedom through their separation from the identifying attributes of a particular body or of society. Framed in those shapes, constrained within their entourage of aesthetic tricks, some of them even seem simply to express hidden bitterness and slight cruelty. It seems that the body wants to plead its cause, but it remains imprisoned. Chen: Your description is very subtle. Zhao: At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, China had a number of female writers and artists who started out from their own bodily feelings and knowledge to explore and seize the world and to express themselves. What are your views of this period, the period you grew up in? What kinds of changes did the Chinese body, particularly Chinese women’s bodies, go through in that period? Chen: Since the end of the 1990s, works by female writers and artists relating to their own bodies and intimate experiences, to their experience of sex, have emerged in large numbers, and the theme is continually being expanded. Public reactions went through a step by step process from being shocked to acceptance, gradually becoming more and more tolerant. Society has indeed become more and more open-minded in regard to sex, but this does not imply that the body is treated with increased respect. While society makes women more and more



Chen Lingyang

reliant on men, and men reliant on other more powerful men, it’s not only Chinese people’s bodies, even Chinese people’s souls, that have become a medium displaying the relationship between privilege and profit. Zhao: Can you say something about your general view on feminism in China? Chen: A convenient way to gauge the cultural level of a society is to see how it deals with disadvantaged social groups, marginalised groups, groups from other places or nonconformist groups. The feminism which originated in the West certainly testifies to mankind’s progress. At present, the situation in China is as follows: the strong count most; everyone strives for power and profit with no questions asked about the background or methods of the successful ‘heroes’. Individual rights and interests very often have to give way to policy decisions by the state and the government. If you want to apply a binary analysis to present day China, an apt division is between the powerful and the weak, not between male and female. In my opinion, there’s no doubt that it’s very meaningful to talk about feminism in China today, but unfortunately such talk is still limited to the university campus and a small exclusive group. Zhao: In the course of their exhibition, the pictures in Twelve Flower Months received a lot of publicity. Because of the amount of publicity, they undoubtedly posed a challenge to social taboos. If it had been ten or eight years earlier, a thing like that would have landed you in prison or ruined your reputation. And even at the time of the exhibition, something like that could have happened. What led you to create such a work at the end of the 1990s, what made you dare? What is your message? What kind of reaction did you expect from the public? Chen: Perhaps it would take a psychoanalyst to analyse clearly why I wanted to do that kind of thing. At the time, I felt a compelling need to create. I had to do it. Moreover, the intensity I wanted to achieve with this artwork absolutely required me to use my own body. The reason I dared to do this kind of work was first of all because I understood I was doing art and nothing else, secondly I had already talked with teachers and friends in artists’ circles and they showed great understanding and gave me support. Before the exhibition of this series opened, I was aware that questions would be asked and that the show might also cause trouble. Well, it’s better to be active than passive—I used the identity of Chen Lingyang No.2 to create Chen Lingyang No.2 interviews Chen Lingyang, 28.4.2001. I imagined the questions the public might ask me and, in this simulated interview of myself, I gave frank and honest explanations. The interview was prominently published in the brochure accompanying the exhibition of Twelve Flower Months in May 2001; right from the beginning, it helped spectators understand the background and motivation

Twelve Flower Months

of my work and dispelled some unnecessary misgivings. Furthermore, if an artist uses her own body in her art, it must be seen as something quite apart from the way the artist deals with it in everyday life. The two may be connected, but they may also be unconnected. I am absolutely clear about this, and it is also what helps me meet with equanimity the curiosity and doubt I am confronted with after exhibitions of this artwork. As to public reaction, by providing the picture and the text for Twelve Flower Months simultaneously, I hoped to stimulate the viewers’ thoughts. Depending on their individual identities and backgrounds, different spectators react differently, review the work differently. Of course, the public is free to understand the work in their own way, just as I have the right to create my own work freely and interpret it frankly.

A DDENDUM : C HEN L INGYANG N O . 2 I NTERVIE WS C HEN L INGYANG , 28.4.2001 Chen Lingyang No.2 (C2): I’m happy to have this chance to interview you so as to reach a better understanding of both yourself and your art. Chen Lingyang (C): Thank you. C2: Now that we’ve looked at Twelve Flower Months together, I’d like to know what inspired you to create this work? C: It’s hard to tell you in so many words exactly why I did it—it’s something psychologists or some other specialists might be better qualified to do. C2: But there must have been some specific thing that drew your attention to this topic. C: Well, yes, you’re right. Following my graduation in 1999, I found myself in a period of withdrawal. I had no job and very little contact with friends. I just stayed at home all day. This continued for several months, you might say I totally removed myself from public life. Under such circumstances, one tends to become very aware of one’s body and one’s physiological reactions. For example, hunger, cold, and more particularly menstruation and the pains that accompany it, feelings of nervousness, etc. I observed the daily cycle from dawn to dusk, I noticed the slow growth of plants, and I paid attention to the gradual changes in the weather—but I can’t say that this experience is the reason why I created this artwork. It only provided the spark that ignited my interest in the subject of menstruation. And then, I discovered that I was completely engrossed by the



Chen Lingyang

subject, I couldn’t put it out of my mind. I considered it could convey strongly enough and aptly enough what I wanted to express. And so I used it as the theme of my artwork. In October I did Scroll, and in November I started taking those photos. C2: Your work seems to be strongly emotional. C: Oh yes! But it’s not something I myself want to talk or write about, I want to leave it open to the spectators. Of course, I’m glad to have others publish their opinions or carry out discussions about it. C2: Some say that your works are rather private. When such works enter the public arena through exhibitions etc., it’s hard to predict or to control what will happen. C: Whatever way you look at it, the work needs to be seen in the public space. Let’s start out from the background of this work. We all know that, in traditional Chinese culture, there is the notion of harmony between heaven and man (tian ren heyi). It is said that those who have reached a high level of (spiritual) cultivation feel themselves at one with all things in the universe, and that they’ve completely lost their individual selves within the realm of mystical aesthetic philosophy, have become free of all human emotions, are beyond right and wrong. To my mind, ‘heaven’ has to do with the laws and rhythms of the universe. And these laws and rhythms often relate to ever recurring cycles. As a woman, one observes this in one’s own body with the monthly recurrence of the physiological (and psychological) changes during menstruation. When this work is exhibited in public, it may give rise to different kinds of ideas. But the work itself also furnishes the possibility of clearing up these ideas—thanks to the traditional elements I referred to earlier. Provocation and clarification go together, they are reciprocal. It’s precisely through the interplay of provocation and clarification that new possibilities emerge. C2: Twelve Flower Months takes a year as its unit and there are 12 photographs. Was this something you wanted to emphasise? C: Yes. The 12 photographs are presented as one work. As I’ve just said, this work is associated with the laws and rhythms of nature. A year is the basic, full cycle of time, and in fact, wherever it starts or ends, it just goes round and round, but not a single moment can be repeated. It is one year on the surface, but actually it suggests a boundless concept of time.

Twelve Flower Months

C2: I understand that you used to do installations. Why did you choose photography as a medium for this work? C: I choose the techniques demanded by my work. Photography can show a precise moment in time and can best convey the impression of being a genuine document—although photographs can also deceive. The reason why I didn’t choose digital photography is that I didn’t want people to think the pictures had been ‘digitally improved’ or were ‘digital collages’. C2: Some of the photos directly present female genitalia. Didn’t you have any misgivings? C: It’s an artwork. The question of the human body in art was settled by Chinese art academies decades ago. Of course such works are not suitable for the eyes of young people. C: Another thing I’d like to know is: where did the idea for Chen Lingyang No.2 come from? C2: Oh, that’s a long story. As a matter of fact, I’ve always had this kind of feeling of being split in two. For example, when I’m working on my art, it’s as though I’ve entered a secret chamber where all communication with the outer world is cut off, where I’m completely inside my inner self—and when I go out and get into contact with the outer world again, especially when I’m chatting about my artworks, it’s as though I’ve become some other person who has nothing to do with them. It’s very disturbing. On New Year’s Day this year, I happened to meet Wang Xingwei and he told me that he intended to change his name to Wang Xingwei 2. In that way, although he’d still be one person and he’d be doing the same things as before, he couldn’t be held responsible for Wang Xingwei’s things. Because he wasn’t Wang Xingwei but Wang Xingwei 2. At the time, I thought that was very funny. Then we went together to look at Andy Warhol’s pictures of himself dressed as a woman. For the Spring Festival, I returned home to Zhejiang Province. In the presence of my parents, my role was that of a well-behaved daughter; there seemed to be no connection with what I was doing in my art. It was only when I phoned my Beijing friends and we started talking about art, that I linked up again to my role as a Beijing artist. The feeling was so strong that it made me understand suddenly that it’s an elementary fact that a person acts out different roles in different situations. It was then that I decided to create another series of artworks; so, as one person, I’d be able to assume two roles to create two differently orientated works at the same time.



Chen Lingyang

The fact that I chose Chen Lingyang No.2 as a name for my second role makes it seem very similar to Wang Xingwei 2, superficially anyway. However, in reality, they’re not the same at all. It’s just a bit of fun, with best regards to Wang Xingwei. C: What will be the orientation of your work in the future? C2: Everything that Chen Lingyang No.2 does, will be involved with Chen Lingyang. It might be to give Chen Lingyang ‘publicity’ (laughs), believe it or not. If everything goes well, she’ll do an interview with Cheng Lingyang and use it as a preface to the catalogue for Twelve Flower Months. C: Really? (laughs) C2: Why do we have Chen Lingyang and Chen Lingyang No.2? C: I think the artist doing her artwork and the artist out in the ‘system’ of the artworld are related, but they’re not the same. Therefore, the basic foundation of my artistic concept is: I’ve got the two roles of Chen Lingyang and Chen Lingyang No.2 both doing art at the same time, but each with a different orientation. Chen Lingyang corresponds to the role of the artist as the creator of the artwork, Chen Lingyang No.2 corresponds to the role of the artist within the ‘operating system’ of the art world. There are two guiding principles for Chen Lingyang No.2’s art: 1. It is related to Chen Lingyang. 2. It establishes contacts with the outside world. For example, it makes statements, it provokes, it responds, etc. Chen Lingyang and Chen Lingyang No.2 are not equivalent. Chen Lingyang No.2 is an extension of Chen Lingyang. Translation: Helen Wallimann

A Talk with Jin Feng Zhao Chuan

1 Jin Feng: Earlier this year, because the activity they’d organised was to take place on 2 June1, the three organisers of the Beijing Incidental Art Festival all got taken into custody. They were not released until 5 June—the time around ‘June 4’2 is very delicate. When the three came to talk to me about this I criticised them. “You’re not fighters for democracy”, I said. “Since your medium is art, your work should reflect your artistic identity. If this is not the case, what exactly do you think you’re doing?” Zhao Chuan: There are some interviewers who ask questions about censorship in China. I tell them that it’s what forces you to be an artist. Jin: Curators, critics and artists all have to be constantly on the lookout for creative ways to circumvent censorship. When the system is open, you can work in a free way; when the system is harsh, you have to be rigorous in your methods. These days, artists still have to know how to protect themselves. Art doesn’t require you to give up your life. A good artist has to improve himself in every way, he can no longer think that understanding art history and mastering the techniques will be enough to solve art problems. The true skills required to deal with art problems are to be found outside of art itself; sometimes breadth of mind and tolerance are the most important requirements.

1 | The artists showed a blank wall to which was appended a tag with the name of Ai Weiwei. 2 | Date of the Tian‘anmen Incident.


Zhao Chuan

2 Zhao: How would you characterise our current day and age? Jin: I think China today is already in a state of cultural chaos. Looking back on history, I think you could compare China’s present situation with that during the Warring States period3 because people all seem to have their own individual standpoints. But people today are not as courageous as those of the Warring States, the intellectuals are overcautious, they can’t compare with the various schools of thinkers of that period. For instance, although intellectuals have plenty of different opinions, the government manages, with very little funding, to get all the intellectuals at China’s highest seats of learning fixated on ‘projects’. Once a project subject has been accepted, you have to go and do research on that subject. So at very low cost, the government manages to get each intellectual to concentrate on his own subject to the exclusion of all else and in isolation from other intellectuals and the outside world. It’s only when they’ve said something true, that intellectuals become figures of public interest. The present situation is far inferior to that of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods. But since these are troubled times, to my mind, there are also a lot of variable factors. History gives each one of us the chance to understand past and present problems in our own way and at the same time express our own attitude towards them. It’s a precious chance. Zhao: Could you describe the persons you refer to in your artworks. What kind of people are they in your eyes? The persons and the circumstances that figure in your art are rather special. They’re part of our tradition, part of our blood; people foreign to our culture and country can hardly understand them without research. For example Qin Hui. Jin: Starting from 2005, a change in my working methods resulted in a shift in my interests and this in turn enlarged my field of vision. Formerly, we all used to start out from Western art history; we turned to the West for our study of art. We made much greater efforts to understand Westerners than they ever made to understand China. Since the 1980s’ ‘New Enlightenment’ movement (xin qimeng yundong), we’d read masses of Western theory, but we had little opportunity to see Western art in the original. We studied Western art through masses of reproductions in artbooks, with the result that we turned into bogus Western art workers—because our artwork was dictated purely by questions of form. Our persons and our art were two separate things. After several years, I began to find the situation most unsatisfactory. From 2005 on, I changed my approach, I took 3 | About 475 BCE to 221 BCE.

A Talk with Jin Feng

myself—in person and in spirit—to the scene of Chinese problems. This new way of experiencing problems gave me enormous breathing space. A lot of my creations are inspired by the internet. The advantage of the internet is that much of what is talked about there is unsophisticated, fresh and lively stuff. In recent years, netizens have made great progress and what they say about society in their internet language has become as good as a sociology course at a university. Many of their brilliant discussions can be thought through again in art. Qin Hui is the first of my works of that period. In Chinese history, Qin Hui is the standard model of the evil man, he is the treacherous Song dynasty court official who betrayed his country’s interests, the worst of the worst. In the Ming dynasty, his statue was cast in iron and he and his wife were shown kneeling in front of the temple dedicated to Yue Fei, the Song general he’d persecuted to death. The purpose of the statues was to have people revile them, to remind people that evildoers would be cursed by posterity to all eternity. In 2005, there was a lot of heated discussion on the net about the kneeling statue of Qin Hui having been set up again next to the tomb of Yue Fei’s mother in Jiangxi Province. Everyone suspected the people there of using the historical figure for commercial purposes. Which goes to show that a certain understanding of human nature is already beginning to develop on the net. My work Standing Statues of Qin Hui and his Wife showed the figures of Qin Hui and his wife erect. Due to the disseminating powers of the net, this piece of work attracted an enormous amount of debate at the time. 90 percent of the people found it unacceptable; basically they rejected it. But there were a few intellectuals who approved of the idea behind my work. For so many years most of the products of Chinese contemporary art have been limited to a small coterie and hardly any works of art are discussed by the general public. But because my artwork was based on discussions that had already taken place on the net, as soon as it appeared it got onto the net. So the goal of getting art to leave the gallery and find a place in society was easily attained. After the completion of that work of art came Wordless Petition in 2006. I’d invited one hundred people from petitioners’ villages in Anhui and Henan to Shanghai. Each of them was given a blank paper board to hold, the props and people were all sprayed with gold paint and then displayed at the exhibition as living statues. Zhao: So these people weren’t locals from Shanghai? Jin: No, they came from Anhui and Henan countryside. Because there are certain questions that can’t be settled in the place where they live, many villagers spend years in their provincial capital seeking an audience with the government officials. Consequently their villages there are called petitioners villages. This work of art was also one of the reasons why that exhibition was closed down. In the face of our censorship rules, art of this kind has to lend itself to two kinds of



Zhao Chuan

interpretation to make it acceptable: on the one hand that resulting from honest discussion in academic circles, on the other hand that coming from the institutional media and censorship. For example, I could explain that those peasants were actively involved in the construction of Shanghai and yet, when it comes to the scale of Shanghai’s development, they are at a loss for words.

Figure 1: Jin Feng, An Aborted Project: My name is Sun Jixiang, Living Sculpture Later, I also created another living sculpture: My Name is Sun Jixiang. Sun Jixiang is a legless handicapped man from Tianjin whom I consider to be a true Chinese National Model Worker, as opposed to one who only goes through the motions. I came upon Sun Jixang’s achievements through the web. He worked for two years building a 500-meter-long road for people with legs to use. I flew to Tianjin to seek him out and took photos of him at work on the road. I wanted to exhibit him as a living statue at the exhibition’s inauguration ceremony. The project gave rise to heated discussion with the curator who felt that the idea of exhibiting a person with such a serious handicap was really too cruel. I replied that I wanted to show something else with this artwork; even though it might be rather cruel,

A Talk with Jin Feng

it would be sacrificing one person to achieve something great. If there was a private understanding between me and Sun Jixiang, if I could justify myself in his eyes, then it was a matter that concerned only us two. At the beginning of such projects, a lot of matters have to be dealt with in a businesslike way. Ultimately, whether it’s by way of connections or by way of money, you always have to find a way to make the project acceptable to the other party. But finally this project fell through. I changed the title to An Aborted Project: My Name is Sun Jixian. After it had circulated on the web, it received a network prize that same year. The real reason the man didn’t come was because of his religious beliefs. He’s a Buddhist and at the time he was on a religious fast, he didn’t eat or drink. He said that when he’d finished his fast, I could feel free to place him anywhere I wanted. The Ma Jiajue of Ashes of MJJ are buried in Binyang Rd, Shanghai was the murderer in a Chinese campus killings case. He’d killed four of his dormitory mates, was arrested and condemned to death. The reason I created a work of art in connection with this case is because of an American campus incident. A Korean foreign student shot dead 36 Americans. At the commemoration service, the Americans mourned 37 victims—they also included the murderer. At the same time, there were people on the web who said that Ma Jiajue’s ashes were still at the undertaker’s, and that nobody had dared go and fetch them. As soon as I heard this, I got together a group of people and contacted the place to say I’d come and collect the ashes. I went to Guangxi and met Ma Jiajue’s father. They gave me some of the ashes—some of them had already been scattered in Beihai before I came. His father placed a note in the casket they’d given me. Because Ma Jajue was 13th in seniority in his generation, his father wrote: ‘13 will always be my son.’ I took the ashes back to Shanghai, and buried them in the exact centre of the Fei Contemporary Art Center (FCAC). On leaving, I’d exchanged a few words with his father and given him a sum of money. I said that with the money I was showing him filial respect in lieu of his son, and that Ma Jiajue had never been to Shanghai during his life, so now I was going to Shanghai in his place. I invited the family to a meal. The atmosphere during the meal was very constrained, in fact after we’d finished, hardly anything had been eaten. That kind of feeling makes you realise that the creation of the work of art is not very important any more, the important thing is what you’ve learnt in the process. Moreover, I couldn’t deal with the local government as an artist, but only as a staff member of the FCAC. I explained that it was the wish of some art organisation. By a coincidence, the road next to the FCAC has the same name as Ma Jiajue’s hometown Binyang. I signed a contract with the family stating we would not work with the media. For Ma Jiajue’s family had been quite grotesquely pursued by the media, they’d had quite enough of it; it was very difficult for them to settle back into normal life. After I’d completed that piece of artwork, the material sat in my computer for about two years before I showed it at my solo exhibition in 2008. For a long period of time, it had only been around as an artwork through word of mouth.



Zhao Chuan

Behind each of those works of mine, there’s a story. Wu Youming, the man in An Imitation Policeman, was a police officer within the public security system; he has also written poetry and a novel and has edited a magazine. His principal business was the continuous publication, via his blog, of information about the negative sides of public security. For a very long time, he was a permanently annoying troublemaker in his department, recently he was given the sack. Afterwards he went to Songzhuang4 where he knew a lot of people in artistic circles. After he‘d been forced to give up his job, he continued to write about the way the public security system had got rid of him. He wrote with great elegance of style, it was like an absurd novel. I contacted him and told him I’d like to do an artwork with him. He understood me and chimed in easily. An Imitation Policeman is also a living sculpture: I made a hole in an exhibition plinth and had his head poke out through it, then I put a police hat on his head and a glass case over the lot, so that people thought it was an imitation sculpture made of rubber. The day of the exhibition, it was very hot, there was only a fan near the exhibit which blew a little wind through a crack; the man inside the glass case started to drip sweat. A lot of people said that today’s sculptures were very lifelike, they could even sweat, but actually it was a real man. He stayed inside there for two hours.

Figure 2: Jin Feng, Fake Cop, Living Sculpture (Steel base plate, ERP, Wu Youming), 2007 4 | An artist village in Beijing.

A Talk with Jin Feng

Afterwards he wrote a very long article in which he explained that, for him, the event had also been a process of self-reflection. This artwork, thanks to his participation, also made me aware, while using him as my material, of the relationship between myself and society. If excellent material can be transformed by an artist, perhaps the result is not an object but a long chain of questions, a whole questioning process. That’s what gradually came to light through this way of working, what really attracted me, what made me ever more capable of facing squarely that I belong to the lowest rung of society in China, and also made me see the slow process of change in our system. The country’s economy as a whole is developing very fast, but there’s an overwhelming force that is in actual fact hindering this country from making any real progress. It is its extreme unwillingness to change and improve its political system. Our problem, actually, is not modernisation, but modernity. How can we make China excel in terms of modernity? In this respect, we’re all just pawns in the system. I, too, am one of those pawns, impelled forward by the structural changes, transformed by ideas. For my father’s generation, ideology provided the guidelines throughout their lives. But once you’re able to think out things for yourself, you may start thinking about how to convey your own ideas about life. If you’re an artist, art will be one of your forms of expression. Zhao: What about Sun Zhigang, the man who brought about the transformation of Chinese justice? Jin: Sun Zhigang was beaten to death5 because he didn‘t have a residence permit on him. His death finally led to the abolition of the ‘Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars’. That was a big thing in China at the time. Sun Zhigang was a designer who’d graduated from Wuhan University. I went to meet his father, thinking of organising and curating a solo exhibition of his work. But because the subject of the exhibition was too delicate at the time, it wasn’t accepted. Later, the material was exhibited at Biljana’s Rejected Collection exhibition.6 Zhao: Would you like to talk about Old Mrs. Wang Six? And also that ‘extraordinary demon’? Jin: The old Mrs. Wang of Old Mrs. Wang’s File is from Danyang in Jiangsu Province. In 20 years, she took in and brought up more than 200 foundlings. In China, there aren’t any very good charities that take care of foundlings, particularly not in small localities. If this kind of problem arises somewhere or other, 5 | In 2003. 6 | Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts, Shanghai, September 1-10, 2007.



Zhao Chuan

ad hoc arrangements might be made for some family to take the child in. The first foundlings were children Mrs. Wang had found herself, but after the local people heard about her, they kept bringing her more children. Most of them had been abandoned because of some physical deformity. Once the children had grown up, the government usually took them away. Mrs. Wang didn’t know where they were taken to and never asked. Children kept being brought, kept being taken away. And of course the local government provided some very basic subsidies. After 20 years, three of the children were still living with Mrs. Wang. She’d brought them up and they didn’t want to leave her. One of them had deformed hands, the other two had harelips and still bore the scars of the operation. After I heard this news, I bought all the family’s things, and told them to use the money to buy new articles for daily use. I also invited Mrs. Wang and the three children to my exhibition and displayed them in a glass case together with their family belongings. Head Statue of an Extraordinary Demon was first shown at the 2008 Beijing 798 Art Festival, curated by Wang Lin. In November of the same year, I was to have a solo exhibition in Shanghai, so after finishing the work in Beijing and exhibiting it there, I moved it to Shanghai. The Yang Jia case was a hot topic at the time. Because he was angry at the Shanghai police, he had charged into a police headquarters killing several policemen. For this, he was sentenced to death. I made a head sculpture of him, using four tons of clay; I worked hard for a week but the result didn’t look very much like him. In September, Yang Jia had not yet been executed, he was executed on 6 November. My solo exhibition opened on 10 November. When the sculpture arrived back in Shanghai and we opened the packing case, the clay of the sculpture gradually crumbled away; the derelict model that now remained looked very much like him. But when it was shown in Shanghai, however closely they looked, none of the people from the board of censors noticed it was Yang Jia. Since the reason one does art is to enter into dialogue with society, self-preservation becomes extremely important at times. ‘Extraordinary Demon’ was Yang Jia’s blog name ...

3 Zhao: For the artworks in this series you mainly used real people and things as your material. But although authentic material plays an important part in this artwork, I think the significance of your work is not to be found merely in the materials and their background. Your re-creation of the scenes makes the spectators approach these things in a new way and, moreover, be present at the scene. Originally, Ma Jiajue was very distant from us, just a shocking news item. But through your artwork, the affair came closer, it became very concrete. Could it be that he is laid to rest beneath some nearby street, some place, or some concrete ground in the town we’re living in? In a lot of your works, you use living

A Talk with Jin Feng

statues as a mode of expression—the possibility of physical presence, of seeing with one’s own eyes, even of dialogue, makes things inescapable and moving. But besides these kinds of living sculptures, things like Yang Jia’s head sculpture or Ma Jiajue’s ashes also aroused in us the feeling that taboos were being challenged. The faint sensation of physical tension in the air leads you on to the question of remoulding values. The use of the body in performance art at the end of the 1990s, when things like extracting human fat from a corpse were in vogue, has nothing to do with the significance of the body in your work. Your bodies, from Qin Hui to Yang Jia, from the village petitioners to Old Mrs. Wang Six, are not simply physical material or abstract human beings, they are social bodies. They were chosen as material because of the pronounced social nature of their bodies. When looking at those bodies, I can sense the sensitive moral concern with which you approached them. At times, their actual bodily presence on stage was not possible, for example you didn’t succeed in inviting Sun Jixiang. But the actual presence of a body on the stage—a living sculpture—whereas formerly it was only ‘persons of quality’ who were made into statues—that is part of your moral concern. If you want to place these persons before our eyes, it is to make the spectators ask themselves some painful questions. It’s not your intention to create a new hitherto unpublished item of news or to create a rumour; you hope, by means of the exhibition, to set the stage anew. I’d now like to ask you what is the shape of your moral concern? Jin: The wish to bring things out into the open might be called moral concern. To my mind, the human body bears the weight of many things from the past which sometimes, because of the pace of our lives, have faded from memory— we seldom take the time to think about this. Why is it that a number of things come up for heated discussion, why do they become topical? Without us realising it, our attitude here is influenced by elements from our own personal bodily history. In consequence, we are led to painful self-interrogation: Do they exist? Is it really like that? In my work, I transform issues that might spark off some rethinking; I set them up for scrutiny. Zhao: Judging from your artworks, it’s apparent that you saw there were flaws in the views and opinions of mainstream society. For example, when they said that Ma Jiajue’s ashes could not be properly buried, you buried them in your own manner; as to Mrs. Wang Six, although she received praise from society, you created that work of art because you saw that the praise was flawed. Jin: If you go further in your analysis, you’ll see that my stance is one of equality. That is, I carry on a dialogue with those people on equal terms. I use the methods of an artist and the conduct of a common man to try to ‘tie up the loose



Zhao Chuan

ends’ of those affairs. This modified approach I now use results in my being very relaxed in my work. If I felt morally involved, I’d be much more nervous. I know that there are things that can go wrong, but I don’t take preemptive measures. And then, they’re really connected with the place where they happened. That is why I put many of the things I create into the context of social problems, because I myself am in the midst of them. Zhao: Actually, ‘moral concern’ is an expression that I use as an outsider, it’s not one you use. If you use it yourself the situation is changed. You say you use the attitude of an ordinary man approaching an ordinary matter in your approach to an exceptional person or an exceptional matter. Well, that holds water. Or we could turn it around by saying that if those things in their general context are treated as something special, because of their particularity they will be distorted and morality will suffer. Jin: That implicates two aspects that came out in our deliberations. On the one hand, my work is perceived from the outside as being very weighty, it’s interpreted as a strong criticism of society. But actually, through our discussion, you might discover another thread: the work also contains self-criticism. I strongly want to increase my capacity of self-criticism; it’s so important these days. Usually, it’s very easy for us, in our function as intellectuals, to criticise things from outside; on the other hand, when matters concern us ourselves, it often happens that we leave it to others to help clear up the situation. The logical way to proceed is to view things with detachment and restraint, and then you’ll be able to get into dialogue and exchange views with others. Zhao: A moment ago, we discussed the case of Sun Jixiang. You said that others had said that placing a handicapped person on a plinth and making him stay there for several hours was too cruel. You explained the matter. Generally speaking, considering works like Wordless Petition, Old Mrs.Wang’s File, etc., what were your relations with those people? How do you look upon the relationship? Jin: As I’ve already mentioned, there are three principles underlying my creative work. The first is that I should be drawn to the topic. The topics do not originate in my mind, most of them come from the internet. And then, when I encounter a topic, I involve myself completely, so I very seldom have to create my subjects out of nothing. Secondly, there’s the question of how I select my topics. They have to have something to do with my own preoccupations. Thirdly, can these preoccupations be converted into art? There are some affairs that have already grown very big, have very much become art objects, however they are not labelled as works of art. There is material that, precisely somewhere in the process of conversion into a work of art, gives me a great amount of information

A Talk with Jin Feng

that has bearings on my own reflections. By transposing this material, I turn it into an artwork perfectly expressing my ideas. I also have this ambition that my ideas should be expressed not only adequately, but also in a unique way. But if you want to do things like that, when the work is presented, it may cause the other party distress. However, I believe that if the other party can put up with a certain amount of distress, it will give the spectators more space to reflect on the problem, it will enhance the understanding of these matters. In that case, I’ll certainly do it. If we don’t resort to powerfully intelligent provocation, people will continue to look upon these things in the usual way. As to finding the right balance with respect of art, I’m still practising and gathering experience, my work is not necessarily always successful.

4 Zhao: A core problem in performance art is how the artist deals with his own body. In your artworks, for example in Insult Art, this is not a key problem. After the work is finished, you do not appear in it in person, you watch from the wings, like a producer or even a spectator. For example, in that art piece where you got Yang Xu to perform Lu Xun, you were not the focal point of the performance, your person wasn’t important; what was important was the mind lurking behind the curtain. I’d like to suggest that we may already have found things in aesthetics that can allow us to move on a bit from the kind of art formerly shown at exhibitions, art in which the focal point was the artist’s person. For example in Beuys’ social sculpture: the majority of the things still focus on his own activity, his conversation with his students, himself in the exhibition hall … Jin: I really don’t like to use the term ‘aesthetics’ because I feel that contemporary art ought to be anti-aesthetics. Mainly as a result of our Chinese education system with its emphasis on ideology, our understanding of aesthetics is still based on very old-fashioned ideas of beauty. If you absolutely have to use the vocabulary of aesthetics, however, you can use ‘aesthetics of pain’ to discuss my art. Viewers do not go away from these works feeling happy, but rather with an undefinable feeling of pain and irritation. There are people who say: “Jin, regarding your artworks, the thing that happened is more important than the things you do. When you reproduce those incidents, where’s the art?” My answer is that I feel a sense of pain when reading about these things, I want to pass this pain on. Especially these days, a good piece of artwork demands sensitivity to pain. First, I feel the pain myself, then I pass it on to other people.



Zhao Chuan

Zhao: It’s clear that I’m not talking of aesthetics in its narrow sense as the appreciation of beauty. We’re discussing aesthetics because we hope to discuss form in a much wider perspective. After so many years doing art, so many years in pursuit of meaning in art, the time has now come for some research and discussion on the formal aspects. Your art gave me a lot of ideas about the ways art can be created; that’s what I want to say with regard to aesthetics. You said art was a way of life; can you go into that a bit further? Jin: Formerly, we looked upon art as a religion, but actually that was a big mistake: it meant we considered the person to be of no importance. The result was a paradox—how could a tremulous artist who looked up to art as something sublime create work that was sound? The cruel result of this is that, because we want to be artists, we change ourselves as artists. When we create art, we feel that we’re being artists; but actually the real ‘person’ of the artist cannot emerge. And that is why we seldom give things thought from the human point of view. Consequently, let’s put aside our artist’s identity for a moment, and tackle the problem as ourselves, as real persons. That might put us in an awkward situation, because it’s a big issue. If you want to be an artist, your first step must be to become a good intellectual. To become a good intellectual, you first of all need to set up a framework of reflection for your study of man. Once you’ve really started to think, you may consider settling down and getting on with your lifework. Perhaps we can never really settle down and get on with our lifework; right up to death’s door, we have to continue with our task of studying mankind. Once you’ve set out in this direction, your mind will be broadened, and then, only then, will you be capable of creating good art. Formerly, we used ‘Art’ with a capital A to explain the human world. That was wrong, it needs to be turned around. Art is my way of life, a way of life that makes me ‘human’, a human in the midst of humankind; it is a very small but very important driving force. Zhao: What you say is very close to traditional Chinese thinking about humanity. Jin: Perhaps I still haven’t been able to leave it behind. Zhao: So I’d like to ask, what’s the train of thought behind your art. We’ve discussed some artworks, we’ve explained the turning point, and your world view, lots and lots of things, but what is it that lies at the root of your main ideas? Jin: Perhaps art is my lifelong way of sorting out my life. Perhaps through art, I’ll have been living all my life for that one last word just before my death. I don’t know what that last word will be. The moment you know what your final word at life’s end will be, art will cease to be important. But art helps you to reach that

A Talk with Jin Feng

stage. That’s my way of life. Therefore I’m on a level with art, I don’t stand above art, and art doesn’t stand above me. Whether I’m working as an artist or simply living as a person, what I’m actually doing all the time, is seeking new methods that move me. Whenever I find a new method, it brings a slight advance in theory … Recently, I’ve started working on a sculpture. Before that, I’d already created two works using historical characters, one on Qin Hui, the other on Confucius. Both of these historical characters are controversial figures. If my inspiration continues, I think I’ll do several, one after the other. The third historical figure I’m working on is Sima Qian, the most famous historiographer in Chinese history. I want to open up Sima Qian’s clothing to show his body. It’s the shockingly ugly body of an old man. His breasts hang down, the lower part of his body, where he was castrated, is covered with a small white cloth bearing the following text: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”7 The socle of the statue will be a display light box with writing on all four sides. The writing in the front panel says: “Letter to Ren An”, the letter in which Sima Qian wrote about his bitterness at his castration. The other three sides will contain all the 500 and 20,000 of the Historical Records, in microscopic carving. Seen from afar, those characters will look like myriads of tiny spots of light. Why do I want to portray Sima Qian? At the time, the Emperor Han Wudi gave him three choices: the first was to be executed, the second was to pay 500,000 to save him from the death penalty, the third was to be castrated. Because he wanted to continue writing the Historical Records, he chose castration.8 But after his castration, he completely changed the style of the Historical Records. That’s why this first general history of China contains criticism. The Emperor Han Wudi only sanctioned it as an unofficial history, not as the authorised history. However, researchers in Chinese history still set great store by these historical records because they contain a lot of truth. I’ve taken Sima Qian as the subject of a work of art in today’s context because, the way I see it, intellectuals are still not treated with real tolerance in this country. The present day system that rules over us as it sees fit is very brutal. Times in which people are not treated as humans are very backward, feudal. I seized on this old story to talk about today’s problems: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.” What Confucius said 2000 years ago, is still extremely important. The messages these three historical figures carry are not all the same. But they are relevant to this day and age, to my way of life and the questions I ask myself. When we discuss human nature, we generally do so very superficially, without things really taking root and evolving within it. If something really does start evolving inside us, it’s inevitably frightening. So we also have to seek ways 7 | Analects of Confucius. 8 | The work, the first general history of China, had been started by his father.



Zhao Chuan

of overcoming that feeling of fear, to safeguard our own lives. This life is yours, if you don’t take human life seriously yourself, how can you expect others to show human respect towards you! Translation: Helen Wallimann

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

In 2008, Zheng Bo was a PhD student at Rochester’s Institute of Visual and Cultural Studies. During the summer break he returned to Beijing where he busied himself with the project Ghraib Islands. It was during this time, that he became acquainted with Yang Guang (he goes by the pen names Yang Zi Guang and Yang Zi), who had just graduated from Nanjing University’s Philosophy Department. Yang Guang had just begun working at the recently opened “Beijing LGBT Centre” and, at the time, was its first and only employee. In 2010, Yang Guang left his work at the centre and began focusing his career on becoming an art critic. Toward the end of 2011, the two men sat down in Zheng Bo’s home for the following discussion, touching on the connections between art, homosexuality and the physical body in the works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing.

Figure 1: Xi Ya Die at the opening of “Difference • Gender”, Songzhuang Beijing 14 June 2009


Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

D ISCUSSING X I YA D IE ’S W ORK Zheng: “Difference · Gender”: The First Chinese Art Exhibition on Gender Diversity in 2009 was the first artistic show of its kind in China to deal head on with the theme of homosexuality. You were the curator of the show. I think what left the greatest impression on me from the entire show, was Xi Ya Die as an individual, and his Chinese-style paper-cuttings. Actually, I took the photo above (Figure 1) on the opening day of the show. After the MC invited Xi Ya Die to say a few words, the artist excitedly struck the pose you see in the photo: his arms hoisted high, stomach exposed, the whole image conveying a strong sense of physical presence. Could you please maybe begin by talking a little about the artist’s background? Yang: Xi Ya Die is a middle-aged man from the countryside in China’s Shaanxi province. He was previously married and had a daughter who was mentally disabled. In 1998, he moved to Beijing, where he experienced a series of unforgettable loves and relationships. I’d describe him as bit fragile, a kind man, who used his art, Chinese paper cuttings, as a means of dealing with life’s various pressures. As more and more people began to appreciate and take notice of his work, he began considering a career as an artist. It was around this time that his work began catering, somewhat, to what those around him wanted. That said, with a life as difficult as his, no one really has a right to judge his choices as an artist. The works from “Difference · Gender” are relatively among his earlier pieces,

Figure 2: Xi Ya Die, Paradise Series #2, paper-cutting, 2008-09

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing

many of which focus on the body and sexuality. They are also highly narrative and full of wit. Around this time, one admirer of Xi Ya Die’s work helped him find a job as a doorman, allowing the artist to move to a deserted mountain area on Beijing’s outskirts, during which time his boyfriend would occasionally come and visit. This image (Figure 2) captures an outdoor scene inspired by real life, when one time the artist was outside washing dishes in the yard, and his boyfriend was joking around and made a playful gesture of urinating. The piece really has a strength and force about it, as if the two fluid bodies are about to explode at any second. For Xi Ya Die, Chinese paper cutting is almost like a form of writing a diary, allowing him to record his emotional states much like the way someone like Frida Kahlo went about her painting. But eventually, the artist wasn’t able to continue producing these sorts of works, since his approach paid so much attention to capturing the present and because of the close connection in his works with personal experience. Generally, when we evaluate an artist’s work, we need to observe a continuous body of work to get a sense of the big picture, so that we can then appreciate each work on its own. But for me, with reference to Xi Ya Die, even though some artists have a short shelf life, the significance of the work can’t be diminished. Zheng: True. In terms of that entire exhibition, I thought Xi Ya Die’s work really stood out in terms of its unbridled sense of joy. There were other works in the exhibition that also touched on the subject of the human body, but they tended to be quite repressive. I think this is because Xi Ya Die didn’t work with documentary style photography and the like, but instead chose Chinese paper cutting: a highly-stylized artistic medium. But when it comes to depicting the human body and appearance, it’s also a highly direct form. In other works from the show, physical features had a vague, indefinite quality about them. Yang: Traditional Chinese-style paper cutting stresses a common understanding that bridges and transcends culture. This paper cutting has its origins as a rural art form with the themes usually reflecting the artist’s surrounding environment. They sometimes take on stereotypical elements, also adding to their accessibility. But in the case of Xi Ya Die, the work depicts highly personal moments from his life, yet is still able to connect with an audience. I think this is what really sets him and his work apart. Zheng: With his paper cutting, there’s really nothing masking the physical features displayed; you get the sense that nothing is taboo. Yang: These clearly depicted human figures represent the artist’s own rejoicing and relief at coming out of the closet. You see, previously, he lived in a pretty



Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

suffocating environment. For years, he’d been living in desperate state in an impoverished mountain village where he had been looking after his daughter and dealing with an unhappy marriage. After many years of this life, he eventually found himself inhabiting a much freer existence where he began to live for himself and for his art. While he didn’t have a lot of money when he first moved to Beijing and had to deal with being alone, he discovered a newfound freedom of choice and was finally able to unwind a little. This was a luxury he had never before experienced and it energised him. And so, it was under these circumstances that he felt the desire to come out and, through his art, reveal his face and body in one big act of celebration. Zheng: Most of his works employ Chinese paper cutting and traditional (Chinese) patterns. For instance, he turns urine into a twisting spiral design and hair into something resembling teeth. One also notices that in all of his works the human figures are always portrayed from a side profile, allowing the artist to clearly render those human forms. I’m curious, have you ever considered the relationship between his works and the context of the exhibition? Even though the displayed pieces were created in Beijing, don’t you think they might come off as something almost a little exotic to a modern, urban audience? I mean, nowadays, you’d think this kind of folk art tradition must come across as a bit novel to those living in cities. Yang: Well, he has a mentally disabled daughter and during the time he looked after her in Shaanxi; he used to make a lot of paper cuttings to narrate events from their time together. Actually, what I’m curious about is the reaction to his highly personalised work among Europeans, since his work was exhibited there. What’s especially surprising, is that no one thought it strange when his works were displayed in a transgender exhibition. I think in the contemporary art scene, just as Danto said in After the End of Art, there really is no formal distinction between ‘passé’ and ‘novel’. Zheng: Well, one thing to be sure of is that it’s almost unheard of for paper cutting to make its way into a contemporary art exhibition. If Xi Ya Die’s work appeared in an exhibition in his hometown, I’m guessing that audiences would probably respond more to the homosexual themes in the content rather than the medium, with which they’re very familiar. But, put those works in a gay art festival in Beijing and the art form becomes the talking point. But the artist’s choice of artistic medium also has to do with his social status and economic condition as a middle-aged migrant worker in Beijing. Amongst the artists present at the exhibit, he stood out; but then again, all those within the gay rights movement community stood out in their own right.

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing

Yang: Once you know an artist’s personal story, you can’t help but see his or her work in a different light. Amongst all the artists in those circles, I think it’s fair to say that I best understood Xi Ya Die’s personal relationship to his work. Initially, he happened to be in Peony Garden, a frequent gathering point for gays, when he noticed volunteers giving out copies of Gay Spot magazine. Soon after, he called the magazine and spoke with the managing editor, Zhao Ke. Since I was writing columns for the magazine at the time, Zhao Ke asked if I would meet with the artist who had called and take a look at his work. I remember being moved the first time I saw his work. I should emphasise that it was only after looking at his work that I came to know about his life experiences animating the themes in it. So it wasn’t the stories that initially made an impression. The feeling I got from the work reminded me of the scene from Bel Ami, when Duroy catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror as he puts on a dress for the first time and embraces his gender, his body and the beauty within his life, and the joy that comes from being able to share that beauty with others. But I’ve never really sat down and thought about what it was about the work itself that moved me initially. Zheng: Most of the artists attending the LGBT exhibition were well educated and young. I think that’s another reason why it was important for Xi Ya Die’s work to appear in such an exhibition. As he clearly explained, being gay is not simply a young people’s affair. A lot of times, when we talk about the LGBT crowd, we treat it as one homogonous community, forgetting that there are shades of difference involving status, region, age and so on. Yang: I never really gave it that much thought. The subtitle of this show was “Art Exhibition on Gender Diversity”, and I think it goes without saying that the real draw was gender diversity. But I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the show to take into account that topic in its entirety in terms of class, region, age and so forth. For those especially vulnerable within an already vulnerable group, any kind of social activity is bound to suffer all kind of scrutiny when it comes to political correctness. I think if there wasn’t a shared sense of experience among those involved, there’s no way the work of a provincial artist would have the immediate reception that it did. It’s quite rare. So, I think ‘diversity’ was a consideration in terms of choosing a variety of works to include in the exhibition, but I also think that Xi Ya Die has wide appeal even to the ‘twenty-something-yearold artists’ crowd; otherwise his work wouldn’t have been as well received as it was. And, in fact, the first time I saw his work, I felt a really strong connection between it and my own life experience. Zheng: This paper cutting reveals a scene that takes place in an outdoor courtyard with a fountain, a dog and two naked bodies. One male figure stands be-



Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

hind the other, urinating, while a vine grows out of his fence-shaped head. This rural kind of scene conjures up distant memories for me. I remember up until I was about six years old, we lived in the suburbs and had a common courtyard with our neighbours. I remember there was a fountain, like the one in this work, and I remember my mother crouching over it as she washed our clothes. But since that time, I never really had any exposure to those kinds of surroundings, let alone have my boyfriend come up from behind me as in this work. Yang: I never really knew that kind of rural life, but I do feel a connection between his works and my own life experience. I think this is because the issues he tackles in his work have broad significance to many gay men. For instance, there’s that moment when every gay man struggles with a sense of confusion and dilemma: should I go on living or just end it now? Presumably, this is something that many gays and lesbians go through. On the one hand, the artist feels constrained, but at the same time, there is a strong desire to have what he wants. For example, take a look at this image (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Xi Ya Die, Torrid series #3, paper-cutting, 2008-09 Zheng: It appears to be a man masturbating, his feet planted on the ground, his body arched back, and his hands abstractly becoming birds in flight. In fact, his whole body is incorporated into the circular, winding motif of the work, while at the same time being trapped within a yellow, caged border.

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing

Yang: Actually, when I first looked at the image, I didn’t realise the figure was masturbating; I simply thought he was struggling in some sort of pain. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, at the time, I was going through my own painful struggle. At that moment, I just felt that the figure in the work was myself. It just hit me out of nowhere. It was quite a strange sensation. I don’t imagine you had the same feeling. Zheng: I think his works really made an impression on me mostly because he’s so different from me. He has such a relaxed approach to expressing sex in his work. The way he depicts sexuality and genitalia is so full of life, with an almost palpable strength about it. Yang: I don’t think it’s really so much that his works express sexuality exactly. Instead, I think it’s more that his art expresses a strong sense of life. You can tell from the work that the artist has a love for life and that he seeks passion to keep on living. I think that sexuality is just the means by which he conveys that passion. Even though I realise most of his works include some reference to sexuality, sexuality can mean many things to different people: it can also be something cold and repressive. Xi Ya Die’s natural desires toward sex are connected to his well-known desires to create a better life. What he wants, is for people to know themselves, whether that means wanting more money, living forever, having many lovers or desiring happiness. In some ways, this shift in thinking was something of a breakthrough for the artist, a really explosive leap forward. I’d say it even touches on morality and ‘justice’. I mean, for someone who was suppressed for so long to finally have a sense of hope and harness a desire to keep on living and pursue happiness, that in itself is a sort of morality. Whether or not there is value in the things he pursues, I don’t think that’s really the point. Looking at Xi Ya Die’s work, you can’t help but feel that the people around you in real life are comparatively living half-dead, mediocre lives. But when I actually spoke with the artist and he would tell me his stories and anecdotes, I could only listen for so long before losing interest. Still, you’d look at his works and you could instantly feel it. I think art like this, that speaks to you more profoundly than words, has got to be considered something of a rarity in the contemporary art world. Zheng: I think what you just said is interesting. On the one hand, his works display a visceral sense of life and energy; but on the other hand, listening to the artist talk about his life in Beijing, his sexual encounters and relationships made you lose interest. Well, either way, I think you have to admit that the strong sense of life that infuses his work is expressed through sex and sex seems intimately connected to his daily life. When I look at that one paper cutting, I don’t really get the sense that one figure is his boyfriend or that that they have a close relationship



Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

or anything along those personal lines. Instead, what I sense, is the artist’s fascination with the human body more generally. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what was going on at the time and your own views toward sexuality at the time. Yang: I think at that time, what I desired most, was finding a boyfriend and having a safe and stable life. I had just become involved in the gay rights movement at the time. Social responsibility aside, just in a personal, selfish sense, I suppose there were a few reasons why I chose this path. First, it was an opportunity to come to Beijing. Second, I thought this type of work would be personally liberating. And third, in terms of how it might benefit me personally, I thought it would provide more chances to meet the right guy. At the time, I was pretty apprehensive about the idea of experimenting with different sexual partners and was afraid of being hurt. During this time, I really felt vulnerable without any sense of individual dignity and so I was looking for someone I could lean on. So, I guess it’s not surprising that any sense of courage or curiosity was kept in check by an almost paranoid fear of being hurt emotionally. But the kind of idyllic sexuality that Xi Ya Die’s work represented really opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about sex. To him, sex was a completely enjoyable, beautiful thing, and any notions of control or violence were unimaginable. It reminds me a little of the atmosphere surrounding the ‘sexual liberation’ movement in Los Angeles in the 1960s, where people were experimenting with multiple partners without living in a state of anxiety or possessiveness. You simply can’t find any trace of control or anger in Xi Ya Die’s pieces. In his world, any sense of moral repressiveness surrounding sex was a ‘thing of the past’ that he left behind before moving to Beijing. He was full of tolerance, wisdom and kindness when it came to dealing with others, and adopted a stance of sexual liberation to keep his distance from unpleasant forces when necessary. Zheng: I don’t think you can separate his ability to idyllise sexuality from his use of Shaanxi paper cutting as an artistic medium. I think the surprising thing for me is how, by using a traditional artistic medium, he’s able, to some extent, to deal with the effects of modern power dynamics. It’s hard to really say that Xi Ya Die’s work is directly related to gay rights, gay marriage or other such social movements. But by using these traditional paper cutting techniques to portray the human body and the vitality that animates it, he’s making a statement on popular social morals, albeit unconsciously. Drawing on the inherent force of these traditional techniques and forms allows the artist to essentially deflect any sense of ethical oppression. Yang: Before leaving Shaanxi to begin his life in Beijing, Xi Ya Die honed his craft from an elderly female artist. That woman encouraged him to make sure he rendered the genitalia as erect as possible in his works. This, she said, would convey a sense of boldness and vitality. Even though Xi Ya Die didn’t exactly

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing

carry out his teacher’s suggestion, one does notice a deliberate effort to enlarge and enhance the human genitalia. The one limitation of Xi Ya Die’s work is the fact that he sticks to a traditional, highly stylised artistic medium. I suppose this is the main reason why his work has hit a bit of a bottleneck. If you wanted him to do a paper cutting of a skyscraper or something, it wouldn’t work. And of course, that’s not the kind of things he cares about.


Figure 4: Yan Xing, DADDY Project, performance and video installation (exhibition view, “You Are Not A Gadget”, Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing, 2011) Zheng: This year, Yan Xing’s The DADDY Project attracted a lot of attention. Can you tell us a little about it? Yang: So, this work is made up of both a performance component as well as a video installation that initially was exhibited on January 15, 2011 at Pékin Fine Arts. During the show, Yan Xing turned his back to the audience and proceeded to narrate some of his painful childhood stories involving his father. His father was convicted of certain crimes and sent to prison. At the same time, his mother went through one boyfriend after another and made her son (Yan Xing) call each one “Daddy”. Later on, he found out that the man in prison who he thought was his biological father, was not his dad. In an instant, he realised why it was, he



Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

had never received the love he had longed for growing up in that environment. When the previous father figure was released from prison and returned home, he suffered from drug addiction and took it out on the family, holding a knife to his (Yan Xing’s) throat on numerous occasions as well as threatening his mother and pressuring her to buy him drugs. Yan Xing himself went through a period where he constantly switched boyfriends, looking for some semblance of a father figure in a blur of male figures. It was a chapter filled with betrayal, cold indifference, drugs, violence and sex: ultimately a pointless series of struggles. At the time, it seemed as if there was no way out. After narrating the painful tale, Yan Xing suddenly turned around, his face full of tears, to enthusiastic applause. Later on, the artist made use of a looped video recording of the show to exhibit it for other audiences. Zheng: Lu Ying Hua, curator of this show, said of this exhibit, “It’s a highly personal and autobiographical work.”1 What do you think? Yang: Actually, I don’t think Yan Xing’s work necessarily comes from his own life experience, but rather, I think he uses personal narrative as a technique to animate the work. The DADDY Project is really about the relationship between the artist and the audience: after all, he narrates the performance in front a video camera and live audience. But at the same, he intentionally turns his back on the audience during the performance, as if in some gesture of maintaining a degree of privacy. But through this gesture, he also effectively holds the audience’s attention. Zheng: So what do you think is the function of his body in this work? Yang: I think the connection is that he distinguishes, albeit inaccurately, between the ‘real’ body and ‘fictional’ body. Accepting this distinction, the body with its back turned on the audience, facing the wall, is the ‘real’ body. At the same, his story evoking horror and sympathy represents a ‘fictional’ body. This latter body is indeed a powerful one, as many in the audience, halfway into the performance, were moved to tears. I think perhaps a more appropriate distinction here is a ‘front profile’ of the body and ‘back profile’. In a cynical kind of way, you could say his ‘front profile’ is laughing at his ‘back profile’. I think the idea of two bodies is a fabrication; it’s employed to create a sense of theatre. Maybe the back profile is a necessary device for the artist to tell his own story of being gay, even if it stigmatises, labels and feeds into the stereotype that all gays were abused in their childhood. I think he uses this back profile to comment on 1 | Lu Ying Hua: “Realism: Evaluating Yan Xing”, Yan Xing: Realism, Exhibit Catalogue, Urs Meille Gallery, Beijing-Lucerne, 2011.

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing

his sense of ‘gay identity’ as well as the other, unrelated core parts of who he is as a person. There is no more effective means for the artist to convey this sense of secret, non-verbal, deep emotion. The only way for that to happen, of course, is through making use of his front profile. Whether or not this represents something more profound, doesn’t really matter though. What does matter, is that we can’t see the face saying the words we hear; we can never see those words being spoken. We can discuss his anecdotes and perhaps feel a sense of satisfaction, but in the end, we don’t really know that much about him. Similarly, the term ‘gay’ is a meaningless label, a non-substantial face. The only thing is that, by presenting that face in the novel way he does, the artist entertains his audience with a kind of ‘quick consumerism’, leaving them wanting more. Zheng: The way I interpret it, the sense of identity that goes along with being ‘gay’ isn’t really that related to this ‘front profile’. Rather, it’s a ‘label’ that’s tacked on the ‘back profile’. This is a label that everyone can see and that’s the way the artist wants it. He’s able to discuss the issue of labels associated with being gay by showing that he no longer lives in fear of such labels and by publicly displaying his work in a Beijing art exhibit in 2011. Yang: Without a doubt, gays in the past faced more repressive environments than today. Under the (Chinese) law, ‘homosexuality’ is defined as a crime under hooliganism and is not a visible part of daily life for most. But times have changed, and Yan Xing’s works really focus more on the atmosphere of ‘the moment’. Also, as Heidegger said, most people’s lives are dull, in need of excitement and entertainment. Meeting this basic human desire is a lot more pressing than any government policy designed to shield the topic of ‘homosexuality’ from public discourse. Zheng: One of the main aims of the gay rights movement is to nudge society along to acknowledge, head on, the existence of gays and to make it face what it was previously unwilling to face. Yan Xing’s work is a step in this direction. He seems to be reminding us of two impulses underlying the labels surrounding homosexuality: one comes from curiosity, the other from acceptance. I think your interpretation of the artist’s work focuses more on viewing it through the lens of the curiosity impulse. Before the show opened, Lu Ying Hua wrote of Yan Xing’s project that it “raises questions like the following: Where is the line between our private and public lives? How open should we be? What can we hope to gain from all of this? How much of all of this information, online or offline, is credible? Are we victims or accomplices or both?” 2 But after the show, most of 2 | Lu Ying Hua: You’re Not a Little Plaything, bae0100ocvk.html



Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

the critical commentary didn’t focus too much on the relationship between the work and reality, but instead noted the courage it took to challenge mainstream moral views. I think this is quite significant. Zheng: So, what you’re saying is that while the way the show makes use of family drama, the way it uses homosexuality to arouse curiosity among the viewing public, it also reveals something about people (or things) even if we can’t be sure how true those details are. While Yan Xing’s emphasis may not be on homosexuality per se, his performance is effective mainly because it rouses our curiosity about sexual relationships, morality and violence. Yang: Curiosity enhances perception; it’s a driving force. I mention this because the artist also went out of his way to install a video camera facing his back, recording his every move during the show. The artist makes use of what Foucault emphasised about ‘observation’, with the relationship between the ‘observable’ and ‘unobservable’. Zheng: Another way to see it, is that the work explores the boundaries between curiosity and perception. Or, to take it one step further, the relationship between morality and perception is essentially intellectual. Yang: I think you’re interpretation is spot on. But when it comes to me, I find the whole question of the ‘unobservable’ far more enticing than issues around ‘morality’ or ‘intellect’. Zheng: So, I think there are two questions to deal with here. The first is, what are we referring to when we say ‘front profile’? It is something that exists, but it exceeds the limits of perception. The second is, what’s the significance of the fact that we’re aware that there is such a thing as this ‘front profile’? Yang: The front profile has to do with honor, and sanctity; it’s something inviolable, even though in today’s world, it seems like nothing really fits that category. I remember discussing the work once with Yan Xing, telling me that it allowed him to express some individual sense of value. I understood him to mean that hiding certain parts of ourselves is in fact a form of sanctity. Zheng: You take an opposing view to most people. What you seem to be emphasising, is that no matter how much the artist lets us observe, there are some things he keeps hidden from our view, whereas most critics celebrate the work as being a brave confession, an exposé of something most people don’t normally see or aren’t willing to see. To put it another way, most people think this work expands the boundaries of observation.

Discussing the Works of Xi Ya Die and Yan Xing

Yang: Actually, I wasn’t really all that drawn in by the story he related. Zheng: In a certain sense, I suppose one of the goals of the gay rights movement is to push the boundaries of what people are willing to observe and to give a little more breathing room to the gay and lesbian community. Yang: I’m not overly concerned with expanding circles of influence. What interests me, is the question of limits: going beyond the limits is what really separates Yan Xing’s work. Viewed from a social movement perspective, Yan Xing’s ‘front profile’ represents a kind of negation, something contemporary society lacks. What contemporary society also lacks, is an agitating force that can stir things up and validate their existence. Such a force can only come from outside the circle, not inside. Zheng: So, I think this point touches on the significance of the gay rights movement. Yang: I think that the world beyond boundaries can be a meaningful source of social change. And yet, social movements have to exist within certain limits, so there are things that the movement itself can’t really accomplish. When it comes to advancing gay rights, I think the movement can, at most, only add fuel to the fire. Zheng: You could say that this limit is the boundary between private and public domains. The unobservable ‘front profile’ belongs to the private self; and the observable ‘back profile’ belongs to the public. When it comes to the limits and boundaries between private and public, there are two main views. According to liberals, establishing clear boundaries between private and public affairs is an important means of ensuring that personal liberties are respected and upheld. Feminism, on the hand, adopting a more radical stance, is skeptical of both private and public domains because their intersection precisely defines morality. For example, a heterosexual couple walking down the street holding hands is considered romantic. A gay couple holding hands, however, might very well prove a source of censure: “Make out at home, please.” Yang: I’m a little pessimistic about the idea of transcending social boundaries in real life. At this point, in practice, it seems impossible. And this is precisely why Yan Xing’s work excites me: because he uses metaphor to at least imagine a new landscape beyond these conventional boundaries. While it might be difficult to describe clearly what that landscape looks like, I think Yan Xing’s achievement lies in his ability to show that it probably exists.



Yang Guang, Zheng Bo

If something is unobservable, then that is its nature: no one can observe it. Observable things, on the other hand, over time and with improvements in human knowledge and technology, can find expression. But if something is unobservable, it must remain so. So I remain skeptical about the idea that everything has the potential to be discovered and somehow mastered by man. Zheng: I don’t see it that way. I think what we’re able to see really depends, to a large extent, on social institutions. It depends on what we’re willing to look for, on what we think is observable in the first place and on whether or not we even have the appropriate discourse to describe what we observe. So, today we only discussed two artists’ work, which of course is by no means entirely representative of contemporary gay art in China. We didn’t really analyse other works from the show “Difference · Gender”, nor did we really touch on works from the 1980s and 1990s dealing with the issues of body, gender or sexuality. Based on these two artists’ work, though, I think there is something worth noticing. Xi Ya Die’s paper cuttings have an almost ‘pre-modern’ unrestrained feel, whereas Yan Xing’s performance has a ‘post-modern’ uncertainty about it. Both artists escape the confines of ‘modern’ and both were created in the last few years, so ‘pre’ and ‘post’ in this sense, don’t refer so much to a time period, but rather differences in technique. Yang: I never really thought about that kind of distinction between these two artists before. But the art scene in China definitely is this kind of mix you mention between ‘pre-modern’, ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’. I think many of the works related to homosexuality exhibit this type of microcosmic reality. As a result, it is easy for the physical body to take on myriad different forms. Xi Ya Die’s approach to the body is simple, direct and even a bit wild. It should be pointed out that the body itself is silent and to some extent needs ‘intellect’, ‘language’ and other such mediums to give it expression. Xi Ya Die uses a simple approach to animate this silent body, filtering out any complicated mediums. This approach strikes me as similar to Gaugin’s, however, in this case, I suspect it’s unconscious. It’s also what lead to only fleeting moments of inspiration in the artist’s career. Yan Xing’s work, on the other hand, with its strict sense of staging, represents a more ‘intellectual’ body. This type of body is structured and constrained; it is surrounded by language, a live audience, video equipment and the white walls of a gallery. Such a body ‘shies away’ in a quiet form of protest to show its true self. In both cases, the body seeks liberation and affirms the value of such liberation, regardless of whether it comes off as optimistic or pessimistic. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny

My Art and the World Lu Yang

Growing up hasn’t changed me much; I don’t feel in the least bit more mature, it’s just that I give questions more careful thought. Although many of my works use a wide array of media and use different approaches, they’re just a continuation and extension of my deliberations on the same questions. This persistent reflection might be considered rather rigid and stupid. For example death, life, suffering, faith, the body, the soul, religion, science and technology, control etc. might all be considered to be very grand concepts. The words are weighty. Yet, I can’t help wanting to think about them, to probe them. I’m convinced that in my short time on earth there’s no way I’ll find the right answers. And besides, 100 different people can have 100 different answers. But as far as I’m concerned, this unending, seemingly pointless musing is also nothing more than a kind of creature instinct, instinctive activity individuals can’t refrain from engaging in, as natural as breathing and the simple reflexes. My major at university was new media art. I remained in this field for fully six or seven years. In my third year, there was a course on installations using motive power: you had to create artwork powered by machines. I made a simple bionic human face which twitched. I named it Ghost Bed (2006). What gave me the idea was a problem I have: when I’m half-woken from sleep, I can’t move. Those moments when your mind wants to control your body but the body is unable to move can cause the body to twitch slightly. For example, if I want to open my mouth to say something, I only feel a slight twitching in my face, a physiological phenomenon resulting from a kind of struggle between my mind and my body. However because of the frequent ties between this kind of phenomenon and ghosts and spirits, this—the first mechanically animated art piece I created at the technology course—is dedicated to popular ghost theory. Ghost Bed enabled me to take part in an international exhibition for the first time during my undergraduate studies. Although my major was new media art, what I did after graduation was a low-tech photographic installation: A Part of a Cupboard (2007). It’s a series of photographs of different people lying on a bed above close-ups of different soles


Lu Yang

of feet. By turning the camera lens, I got different photographic angles, but everything was exactly calculated, and afterwards, with the carefully calculated arrangement of the photographic perspectives, I created a sense of space. Of course, when looked at from a distance, those people seem to be lying together —they look as though they were in a cupboard, which is frightening. At that time, most of the things I did were very negative and gloomy; moreover, they were presented with similarly negative and gloomy techniques of expression. I took part in a rather large number of exhibitions during my fourth year as a postgraduate student. As my major was new media, my main accent was on technology, but I was also fascinated by biotechnology, experimental psychology, medical science etc. I don’t know if it’s because I spent a large part of my childhood in hospitals, that I really like hospital environments and feel quite at home there. When I was a child, I was afflicted with asthma and other illnesses for a long time. When I was taken to hospital after an attack in the middle of the night, the smell of antiseptics there immediately made me feel well again. It was a very strange self-cure method. Besides, the experience of life-and-death emergencies in the depth of night, together with the sight of people suffering serious illnesses, disabilities etc., left behind many thoughts and feelings. While I was at junior secondary school, as teachers and pupils had been moved by articles I’d written about those personal experiences, I even had the illusion for a time that I’d been born to be a writer, but let’s get back to the point: I was fascinated by those fields of science from the beginning and spontaneously read a few books about them. Later, I was considered to be representative of this trend. Moreover, what I’m just producing at the moment is The Project of Seeking for Cooperation with Scientific Teams (2009- ). The project has five small items so far, and here is what I wrote in a certain journal1 concerning the stages of the overall plan: “Each of the art works contained in this project requires very long preparation, the nearer it gets to the last stages, the more doubts arise concerning the proposed experiment. In the course of the production of my first project, Kraftmaus Mouse Desire Orchestra (2009), I anonymously rang a certain renowned professor of neurobiology to inquire about a related technological problem, but I was given the cold shoulder. Moreover I registered several fake IDs on the internet and brazenly downloaded data on scientific experiments from abroad in order to get a better grasp of the problems. I also purchased all manner of experiment-related educational material which I then read from cover to cover over several months. My second work, Reverse Bionic Tendon Carnival (2009) was simple. All I did was buy severed animal limbs and then do traction experiments and at the same time take copious notes; besides this, I went to a number of amusement parks in Shanghai and Hangzhou to surreptitiously take pictures of the mechanics of their recreational appara1 | Peckham, Robin: “Tortuous Visions of Lu Yang ”. Digimag 52 (March 2010).

My Art and the World

tus. The third item was Zombie Music Box – Underwater Frog Leg Ballet. Although I‘d found plenty of videos of related experiments I still wanted to try them out for myself before transforming them. So I took dead frogs and did the experiments, taking notes at the same time. The experiments provided conclusive evidence which allowed me to complete the artwork in all repose. If anyone suspects the feasibility of my plan, I‘m confident that I have ample proof to refute them. I approach each of my artworks with meticulous care! Since 2007, I’ve been harbouring my rat plan and meeting with repeated failure— I’ve experienced live the weakness of Chinese bioart inter-disciplinary cooperation and the near impossibility of cooperation with other scientific domains. Actually, I don’t really have any hopes of getting a scientific team to help me, especially in China where it would be very difficult. So as far as bioart in China is concerned, you can’t expect anything better than low-tech bioart. Artists don’t have labs. As long as there’s no access to labs, naming such plans probably amounts to nothing but a satire on the stagnation of Chinese bioart. Besides this, these works of mine come up against ethical boundaries. If they could be shown purely superficially under the banner of ‘art’, they might have more chance of being exhibited for longer without undergoing ‘harmonisation’2. All the same, thanks to improvements on previous installations where animals were harmed, the above artwork marks some progress. Broadly speaking, how far do I want to go with my artworks in end effect? I don’t know myself, all I know is that I want to go on working on the things I’m so passionate about.”

As can be seen, I was very persistent about those artworks at the time. However, because for a long time I never got any help, I also gradually lost all hope of being able to realise them. While I persisted in my attempts to get them shown, I also became the butt of a lot of ridicule and mockery from viewers and new media artists: because they only looked at my works on the experimental and superficial level, they felt they were not ‘new media art’. However, in 2011, I finally found a place that was willing to help me realise one of the works in my series: the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. In my two and a half months in Japan, I managed to almost complete my 2009 project Zombie Music Box—Underwater Frog Leg Ballet (2009). I named the new artwork Reanimation! Underwater Zombie Frog Ballet! (2011). This restored my confidence a little—my almost fatuous persistence had finally been rewarded. I feel even more confident that in 2012 I’ll be able to realise another of the works in the series. In my opinion, the medium is only a means for me to put my own ideas into effect. I’ve never seen myself as any particular kind of artist. Defining people is something only certain critics and the media like doing. I myself get classified under all kinds of names without rhyme or reason, the most unaccountable being ‘feminist artist’. I don’t 2 | I.e. government censorship.



Lu Yang

deny I’m a woman, but none of my work has ever had anything to do with feminist themes, it just doesn’t go together.

Figure 1: Reaimation! Zombie Frog Underwater Ballet!, installation, programme, HD music video(06:06), HD document video(14:01), 2011

Figure 2: Zombie Music Box – Underwater Frog Leg Ballet, graphic digital print, 2010

My Art and the World

One thing that is very controversial in my works is the ‘violence’, and of course, in this respect, Happy Tree (2009) is the most controversial. I have already made it abundantly clear that I will no longer be exhibiting this work. The procedures I used were wrong. What can be seen from this work, is that I am generally very careful not to kill any living things, not even annoying insects etc. But for the sake of that artwork, I madly indulged in harming those animals—which just goes to show the great effort I put into my work. It’s only by relying on his superior power, that man can tame nature and conquer the rule of instinct over animal bodies. I can use electric current to coordinate animals’ movements; it’s an extreme kind of power. Cruelty and torture are negative. Dictator-E (2009) is something I completed after I couldn’t exhibit Happy Tree any more. I’d decided myself never to show Happy Tree again, so I needed to find another way to complete the work. At that time, to my mind, Happy Tree still had a lot of potential and had to be completed, so I decided to do a video. The music in this piece was done by the sound artist Wang Changcun. Music plays an important role in many of my works, and I also believe that it’s a form of art I can’t do without in my own life. In most of the works using video that I subsequently showed, music is of course an essential element. Naturally, the public reaction to my work is extreme there are people who love it and others who detest it. Abuse is frequent. I need not hide that I once maltreated animals for my artwork. However, as far as animal protection is concerned, I don’t know of any ethical system in the world that considers animal life to be equal to human life. Not to mention that attitudes to animals vary in different parts of the world according to the environment and the different kinds of animals that live there. Doesn’t the moral concept that pigs, sheep and cows should be killed for their meat, but that pet cats and dogs and animals living in the wild should be protected, simply stem from the concern to protect human interests? Those who use human-animal relationships like this to exhibit their own morality, who flaunt themselves as the standard-setters of social morality, are just cheating, covering up the hidden guilt deep inside them that they’re perhaps even unaware of themselves. Speaking in general, we can say that it’s the same everywhere in the world. Innumerable animals have been sacrificed in experiments for pharmaceuticals; high-class skin care products and cosmetics have all been tested on animals; and then there are furs etc. Another example is opening a monkey’s skull to eat its brains. This seems very cruel, but the monkey only feels pain while its skull is being opened; in scooping out the brains with their spoons, the eaters in fact destroy the nervous system and therefore the monkey feels nothing. Compared to being skinned alive, this way of dying might not seem to be particularly painful; and it’s less painful than having one’s brains dashed out or being hacked to death. When the fine brain tissue is locally damaged by shock, if perchance another sensory nerve is touched, wouldn’t it make a creature die of pain? God planned the mechanism



Lu Yang

of pain to make people avoid harming their bodies, and thus to protect life. But if you inadvertently come upon this secret, you might consider that this marvellous plan is extremely painful. I consider that, while showing a certain degree of compassion for other species, subconsciously humans are only interested in their own welfare—but this is not something that appears on the surface. I’m also very interested in pathology. A work resulting from this interest is Krafttremor, which I completed in 2011. This piece—an extended reflection on Parkinson’s disease—is made up of various media like diagrams, electronic music clips or video installations. It continues my exploration of the question of the automatic control of the body. Many of my works involved the question of control. The control discussed there was for the most part not control exercised by the mind, it was a corporeal function. Persons afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, however, lose the conscious control over their bodies and their movements. This is an extremely uncomfortable situation. The main symptoms of this pathological breakdown of the central nervous system are muscular rigidity, tremors, slowed movement, even the loss of the ability to move. But the most disturbing symptom for sufferers is that they can’t consciously control their movements. This is the dichotomy between the power of the human mind and corporeal restrictions, the inability to control the movements caused by that particular pathological condition. My own will cannot control my body. Here, I might mention that this artwork has affinities with Ghost Bed (2006) mentioned above, and in fact, it is a question that has never ceased to preoccupy me. Although these two artworks are very different and were created at very different times, the question they focus on is much the same: the inability of the mind to control the body. The blocking of normal neural signals is apparent in the tremors. The illness causes the sufferer to make rhythmical movements day in day out like a metronome. Rhythmical movements—whose frequencies can be precisely calculated, thanks to technology—can be produced which are almost the same as those of the sick body. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is the key to this work of art. It is a kind of surgery that treats the uncontrolled tremors symptomatic of Parkinson’s disease. It can relieve patients of their trembling, but on the other hand, it can control their behaviour. It manipulates the body through manipulation of the living person’s brain—something that opens up horrifying visions! For the music video to Krafttremor, I invited patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease to have their pictures taken. To preserve their privacy, the faces in the pictures were afterwards manipulated to make them unrecognisable. I composed the music in the video myself because I couldn’t find a musician able to work with me for whole days at a stretch. To coordinate the music with the visual impressions, I used strong contrasts between high and low frequencies, thus creating a resonance between visual impressions, oral impressions and the spectator.

My Art and the World

Figure 3: Krafttremor – Parkinson’s Disease Orchestra, graphic digital print, 2011

Figure 4: Krafttremor, HD music video (04:32), 2011 Although one can say that Krafttremor is a single complete project, and in spite of the interconnection of the work in its entirety with each of the works it contains, each item can also exist on its own. If you skim off the other items of the work and separate off the question of technology versus control, various reasons why this artwork uses MTV become clear. The first one is that parkinsonian behaviour provides a particular visible sensation. The brain lesions cause the body to tremble according to particular frequencies which cannot be controlled.



Lu Yang

It is as if there was a metronome inside the brain. You will see that different patients’ movements have different frequencies. So they are similar to rigorously calculated computer frequencies. Moreover, electronic dance music also depends on digital music produced by computers. So, I combined parkinsonian tremors with electronic music. And this also rather cruelly makes people experience how the illness causes old people to lose their dignity. So by using a kind of musical trick, you make people look more closely, but in fact the hidden cruelty is actually much profounder and much more brutal than what you see. This advanced technology can help Parkinson’s sufferers control their tremblings, on the other hand, this technique can be used as a means to manipulate the body. This element of the artwork resembles Mouse Desire Orchestra in my 2009 Plan for Cooperation with Science Teams insofar as both are based on Deep Brain Stimulation technology. As shown in the illustrations to the installation, the music in Mouse Desire Orchestra is random music created using mechanically induced addiction (electric stimulation). Perhaps the music is not pleasing to the ear, but its starting point is the mechanically manipulated physiological structure of the mammals. Is the mechanical stimulation of desire wrong, or does the fault lie in the human body? The artwork tries in an entertaining fashion to cover up this problem which exists within ourselves. In the opinion of certain psychologists, human and animal bodies are nothing but a heap of neurons. Is behaviour determined by physiologically stimulated desires or by conscious will? Certainly, human will is a result of subjective initiative, and in this aspect, animals are generally weaker than humans. Yet human will is also conditioned by the body. But basically, even without a thinking mind, the body can function and continue to exist and work. At the end of 2011, with the help of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Krafttremor, Ghost Bed and Mouse Desire Orchestra could all be exhibited along with the MTV artwork Reanimation! Underwater Zombie Frog Ballet! and others, most of which concern the question of ‘control’. My research into this question hopes to get to the bottom of the problem of instinctive versus conscious control of corporeal functions, or more precisely, the occasions when the mind loses control over the body. In this context, I’d like to quote what my teacher Yao Dajun wrote in 2009 in an introduction to one of my exhibitions concerning this question: “The status of controller and controlled and power structures is really not as simple as it appears on the surface. There really is no true control or power — in the long view, control or power will inevitably be lifted. It’s like the unlimited capacities of the boundless universe of Buddhist learnings lying beneath layers and layers. It’s also like the behaviour of the psychologist B. F. Skinner: after he had succeeded in equally controlling pigeons and gamblers using what he himself considered the devilish hand of logical science, the ethologist himself was quite unexpectedly in-

My Art and the World

fected by the behavioural patterns of his subjects, and was for a while driven by monetary rewards.”

At the time I’d quite fallen in love with Skinner. In many respects, he was a ruffian, at least in many people’s eyes, he himself completely lacked percipience, and verified his various theses with total coolness and callousness. In my view, this is another degree of pureness of mind. In interviews, when I’m asked things like which artists I like best, I feel at a loss for an answer. I don’t know why, although I’m nominally an artist, I seldom consider it as my real profession; I just do what I want to do. In the process of my work, the new things I learn and, as I step into new territory, the people of different trades I get to know etc. all make me aware of my own weakness. With my superficial knowledge, all I can do is what I’m doing now. I feel ashamed of my inferiority, but I also delight in it. As a matter of fact, it’s very difficult to find a source of inspiration in so-called contemporary art. To tell the truth, psychology offers more. In a blog, I mentioned ‘human irrationality’ and ‘human heartlessness’, the first being Festinger’s standpoint, the second is Professor Skinner’s. The two seem to contradict each other. If as they say scientists are also irrational when doing research, then there’s no reason why I can’t heartlessly continue my own creative work. I don’t want to remain confined within a single so-called branch of learning; such branches are simply man-made divisions of knowledge. Although I’m constantly pondering these questions, I still continue to present work with powerful logic, coldness, observation and satire. My optimal experimental and technical skills do not seem to be affected even in the slightest by my individual subjective emotions. I repeatedly ask questions, but without coming to a conclusion, I reflect in order to get rid of the questions. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all I can do. Therefore, people get the impression that I belong to the logico-technological artists’ fraction. The question I have is: does the present age want to see technology as something distant, completely isolated? Is it the idea that there are two poles: nature versus science and technology? As far as I can see, the particular outcome of past times and of our times is the present day natural world. All the things we can touch and reach in the physical world can be used as a medium for art. No one can rule that the medium used by an artist for his work must be quite separate from science and technology. And one mustn’t consider the media one uses oneself as something superior, or consider that therefore one’s art is avant-garde. The medium is the medium, full stop. What is important, is the indefinable idea it contains. Although I myself am negligible, not worth mentioning, in relation to nature and the universe, isn’t human science also negligible, easily wrecked? All we are is creatures amusing ourselves on our star amid all the stars in the universe. I always imagine that if we could survey all the happenings on earth—in economy, politics, art—from



Lu Yang

a parallel world or star, we’d see that everything only has meaning or value for human beings down here. My habit of displaying my artworks in a rational way does not imply that my starting point is rational. Perhaps it’s just my own performance technique. I hope that, by using repressed and hidden methods, I might increase the power and extremism of my thinking performance. To find self-consolation in actual life, a way to continue to live, you have to make great efforts to become psychologically strong, or at least to imagine you have become so. This is a very depressing, yet exciting feeling; it allows you to scorn your own situation and become king of your own world. This feeling extends into my creative work it has become a kind of habit, as good a treatment as sexual stimulation. Now I use rational ideas to suppress my own insane reflections, to increase the power bursting out from inside me and thus achieve a pleasure as ‘high’ as sexual stimulation. In the second half of 2011, I produced Wrathful King Kong Core. It is a work made up of a combination of the Buddhist god of wrath and brain science. The following is what I wrote for an exhibition at the Beijing Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art: “In Dharma-ending times, when all living things are unruly, afflicted with hubris, kindness and morality fade, evil and sin prevail, and none comprehend their true nature. The wrathful deities, beholden to their duty, shall vanquish all demons, and with their merciful fire, destroy all evil beings, leaving none behind. Though their wrathful visages may terrify, they are an expression of the Buddha’s infinite mercy. When the dead look upon them, they need not fear, for they are not corporeal, and no harm can befall them. When the first signs of anger reach the human brain, the information is first transmitted to the hypothalamus. This activates the amygdalae to carry out certain processes, which in turn set off a chain reaction by activating a number of other structures in the brain. These structures are responsible for transforming nerve signals into visible expressions of anger. This project is a foolhardy attempt to superimpose religious concepts of wrathful deities onto scientific theories of the brain’s anger response mechanisms.” 3

The plan for this is quite old. It always takes me quite a long time to realise my artworks; my work can’t keep up with my ideas. I first thought about creating this piece round 2008; it took three years for me to realise it. In 2008, I was quite obsessed with brain science and I read a lot about it. When I started reading the section about the amygdalae, I suddenly had a vision of the god of wrath super-posed on the amygdalae. After I had made a print of it, I painted colour 3 | (Translation:

My Art and the World

over the amygdalae and stuck the picture on the wall. Perhaps I might still find a photo of it. Emotions are a physiological, psychological reaction to stimuli coming from outside. Anger is thus a negative reaction. What I’m interested in, is what reflex actions can emerge in the physiological structure of the human body. Although the idea of seeing human beings as ‘bodies of reflexes’ is rather extreme, one can ask why ‘God’ produced such mechanistic creatures. If the human race has original sin, what is the source of greed, anger, insanity, hatred? If the human nerve structure was a bit less developed, could ‘sin’ be avoided? I wonder how we, as natural living organic mechanisms, should live in this kind of natural system, accept its control. If the source of suffering is desire, why do we have desires? If there is a Creator, why create that thing called the body, the fountainhead of desire? And then also all the ‘evil paths’ produced by this living matter operating under the regime of desire, classified as this living matter’s crime? In my opinion, the living body is to a certain degree a toy of its own natural rules and there’s no escape from that. The background music to the moving picture at the heart of the Wrathful King Kong Core series was produced by my teacher Yao Dajun. A large section of this music is similar to the chanting of Tibetan lamas; it sounds like the uninterrupted, continuous hum of the universe. Yao Dajun used computer hardware to exaggerate the effect. So it’s an artwork made up of the melodious combination of religion and digital technology. I felt honoured and very much motivated by being able to work together with Yao Dajun. These last years, he has given me enormous psychological support and encouragement on my road as an artist. I won’t expound in detail on my many other works. I’m in the habit of dividing my artworks into sets or series, and each set or series represents one branch of my thoughts. By referring to the different artworks created at different periods, you can roughly find some of the points I am always thinking about as well as a clue to my thoughts, and the relationships between the different works. People might seek cognitive self-identity. It is characterisitic of human physiology that in their everyday intellectual activity, people ignore thoughts that do not accord with their own will and just identify with those that do. But to be able to match up self-cognitive people with routine matters is trivial. I really would like to rig up a perfect tally, but that is absolutely impossible. The individual is always alone, that’s a fact. Different artistic works suit certain people. And, whichever way you look at it, a certain number of the people attracted by my work have mixed feelings concerning cognition. Translation: Helen Wallimann


An Interview Cao Fei

Q: Could you talk about the ‘urban youth body culture’ in China today and share some of your own experiences and observations on the matter? A: I was born right around the time of China’s reform and opening up policy in 1978. I grew up in Guangzhou in southern China, which was really on the cusp of that opening up and, as a result, had greater access to the outside world and information than people in most places from China’s interior. Toward the end of the 1980s, when I was about 12 or 13, I became increasingly interested in Western culture, especially break dancing, pop music and MTV, these all had an element of physical participation and performance. I secretly went against my parents’ wishes and would sneak out at night to learn from breakdancers on the street who were older than me. Around that time, as I minor, I also used to dress myself up as mature looking as possible, and with my older sister’s ID, sneak into clubs. I loved that feeling of being surrounded by others and just dancing my heart out. You see, I didn’t grow up under the yoke or shadow of the Cultural Revolution, so I felt comfortable with my body. In fact, I craved physical openness and living under the public eye. I was completely drawn in by Western culture and did my best to imitate the pop culture icons of the day and adopt what I thought to be a Western attitude. Basically, I flung myself into the embrace of consumerism. Q: What do you think is the significance of ‘the body’ in an era of self-branding, image obsession and consumer fantasies? A: Well, the body is sometimes held hostage by the desires of consumerism. In this context, each body essentially becomes nothing more than a tool of transmission, the lead actor in a consumerist landscape. And all of these entertainment programmes, shows decided by audience voting, the Internet, blogs, the media, movies and television, commercial advertisements and pop culture have become factories where these consumer fantasies are manufactured. At the


Cao Fei

same time, any sense of a struggle for equality and justice, morality and beliefs, has grown weaker by the day: free markets and consumerism have essentially swallowed them up. And so it is that consumerism has come to exert an omnipresent form of control over the body and soul. Q: You have personal experience and many observations into these various ‘realities.’ I’m sure this contemporary cultural background is no doubt important in your own art. But in what sense does this urban youth body culture inspire or even provoke and enter into your work? A: Well, I’m both a participant and an observer. As an observer, of course I will pay attention to the various people and places that reflect particular aspects of contemporary life. At the same, I participate in life with these various groups. Q: Your work focuses a lot on virtual spaces, second lives and avatars as well as aesthetics coming from video game culture. But there are also elements that take on a more everyday kind of feel through cosplaying and role-playing, in works such as Whose Utopia, Hip-Hop Guangzhou, PRD Antiheroes and so forth. So, what’s the importance of ‘the body’ in such contexts?

Figure 1: Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, My Future Is not a Dream 04, 2006 A: My understanding of ‘the body’ is that it is something uniquely our own, whether that be as a virtual avatar, something we dress up as, or as we appear in real life. In my mind they are one and the same, and yet different; they represent parallel realities between the physical and the conscious, however the body

An Interview

might be spread across various spaces and dimensions. And yet no one is able to escape the ‘panopticon prison’ Foucault talked about. Our desires and imaginations, our ability to endure and resist, are all various forms of response to reality and existence. As society is made up of all sorts of scenarios and realities, these ‘bodies’ (through all sorts of alternative identities) are able to insert themselves into those various milieus in order to observe, discuss and measure the contours of our existence. Q: In a ‘virtual life’ it’s possible to take on the identity of ‘another’. You can change your appearance, personality, gender and so forth. Is this individual multiplicity something associated with the dreams of youth? And what sort of role do you see this trend playing in terms of our social lives, social development, politics, culture and so forth? Is it an opportunity or something that could lead to a form of (social) ‘crisis’? Are these signs of self-determination and physical autonomy or alienation? A: This is the predominant physical experience of this generation, the physical autonomy of this generation (physical political autonomy, physical economic autonomy, physical desire autonomy, physical cultural autonomy) and an expression of the creative drive associated therewith. Today’s reality of multiple identities includes avatars, online consumer accounts, anonymous online comments and posts, personal blogs (Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Google+) and so forth have already became different platforms for our real identities to participate in the world around us. At the same, we have to deal with more than one life space (both online realities and real-life) and pay attention to all sorts of activities: social, political, economic and cultural life, across these various platforms. I don’t think this individual multiplicity is only something associated with the dreams of youth, nor is it their special domain. In my work, i.Mirror, the lover and real life person behind China Tracy is a 65-year-old American. Actually, from what I’ve come to understand, a lot of middle aged and older Westerners enjoyed playing Second Life. Some of them use a fictional platform to kill time, chat with friends or even realize unfulfilled dreams like founding a political party or starting a business or gambling or even playing out sexual fantasies. So, I think we have to be careful when saying that adopting various identities is strictly the pursuit of young people: if anything, it’s part of all of our makeup as humans. On the positive side, I think this individual multiplicity has the potential to lead to greater civic participation and breed democratic values. At the same time, it’s bound to have an impact on our reality and sense of ‘the first person’.



Cao Fei

Figure 2: Cao Fei, A Second Life City Planning 04/2007 Q: Do you think of your work more as cultural criticism or as taking on a more of an open, playful approach to new media and aesthetics? A: By adopting an embracing, joyful, immersive approach and through all sorts of observation, cooperation and experimentation, I think the work ultimately achieves a kind of critical cultural function. Q: So, how did you go about conceptualising and developing the body of China Tracy and other virtual figures like Yammy and Bunny in Cosplayer and Hutong War? A: In late 2006, after experiencing Second Life for the first time, I came up with a concept for creating China Tracy. Later on, she was entered in the 2007 Venice Biennale in the China pavilion as the main character in the game documentary i.Mirror. In virtual worlds, an avatar is nothing more than a shell without any real consciousness; it depends entirely on the gamer to imbue it with a sense of form and existence. Whether it’s the character Yammy, in the video Cosplayers (2004) or the Storm Trooper in Hutong War (2006), all of these physical forms draw from animation and pop culture worldwide. I guess you could say that through all sorts of transformation and conflict, I bring them into the real world.

An Interview

Figure 3: Cao Fei, Cosplayer Series, A Hutong War/2006

Figure 4: Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series, A Mirage/2004 The body is the physical host and residing point of our minds, and regardless of whether you’re talking about something virtual or role-playing, our bodies are also the products of our rich imaginations. The body touches upon the connection between consciousness and identity and seeks multiple forms of selfidentity in the process. Roles have no soul in and of themself and are incapable of directly resisting reality. But through modifying these roles and placing them in all kinds of mult-dimensional worlds, we can touch upon all sorts of experiences that are not actually present and achieve a degree of free expression. Translation: Kirk Douglas Kenny


A Concept of Beauty Yang Fudong

Yang Fudong’s photographs and films have been the subject of much international debate. He addresses such subject matters as the role of intellectuals or city versus country; style and aesthetics are also crucial to his work: the aesthetics of black and white, a meditative treatment of narrative, the poses and gestures of his figures, the significance of their so-called inner life—feelings and thoughts—embedded in the concept of the films and figures. No wonder, then, that his work often inspires comparison with film noir, nouvelle vague, nouveau roman and Zen philosophy. To a certain extent, this aesthetic also applies to his documentary work, though the genres inevitably overlap. It is therefore only logical that Yang Fudong has repeatedly enlisted his style and skills to make (commercial) films/photos for international brands. In the present context, the concept of beauty merits consideration for it figures prominently in Fudong’s imagery. People are profusely beautiful: their poses, gestures, gazes, clothing and attitudes; their often curiously dreamy appearance, frozen in timelessness as if their bodies were not really real, as if to represent the polished surfaces of grand feelings, of past or future worlds. The pictures themselves, the rhythm of their movement, their composition, the treatment of space are also of exquisite beauty. However, in contrast to the official world of advertising, these figures and pictures are neither alluring nor seductive; on the contrary, they escape us, withdrawing into an unfathomable world beyond grasp and comprehension. The term ‘inner film’ is often used in connection with the artist’s work; Fudong himself speaks about ‘abstract film’. In a variation on this theme, one might describe the aesthetics of these imaged bodies and bodily images as the abstraction of beauty or the beauty of abstraction. A few fragmentary thoughts noted down by Yang Fudong follow.


Yang Fudong

Figure 1: Yang Fudong, Film Still from Dawn Mist, Separation Faith, 35mm B&W Film, installation, 2009

Figure 2: Yang Fudong, My Heart Was Touched Last Year, 2 screem, no sound, 35mm film to dvd, Black N’ White

A Concept of Beauty

Figure 3: Yang Fudong, Don’t Worry

Figure 4: Yang Fudong, Honey Photograph



Yang Fudong

Figure 5: Yang Fudong, Honey

Figure 6: Yang Fudong, Ms. Huang at M.

A Concept of Beauty

Figure 7: Yang Fudong, Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest

Figure 8: Yang Fudong, Ms. Huang at M.



Yang Fudong

There is no absolute measure of ‘beauty’. Beauty is a sensation and it has something to do with our childhood experiences, in other words, with intuition and, of course, with our education, the way we were raised. Beauty is a vital part of emancipation, of growing up and becoming a person. Subjectivation occurs when we begin to have independent experiences and to decide for ourselves what is beautiful, even if it contradicts convention. That was decisive for me. Beauty is what stirs the heart. For example, to me, a woman I encounter en passant is beautiful not because she corresponds to an image, but because I am moved by a gesture, a look, a smile in a certain light. That can surface again as a memory: the memory is beautiful, stirring—even though it is not even certain that the encounter actually took place. The memory may just be a fancy. That’s also the stuff of art, and at best its emotions will stir the thoughts and memories of viewers as well Art has a lot to do with capturing sense and meaning intuitively. Art touches the spirit, the soul, the mind. The way in which someone is touched by art is what you might call beauty; it doesn’t necessarily relate to external, physical beauty—a figure or a landscape. In my film Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, consisting of several parts, the first part works with offscreen voices, the second with the voices of the actors and the third with practically no speech at all. The first two parts are like ordinary films, but in the third part, there is no conventional narration. It’s the bodies, the movements and the behaviour of the actors that begin to ‘speak’. At one point you see girls working in a rice field and their work is wordlessly demonstrated by their bodies, gestures and movements. Things themselves—for instance, work—are shown directly, become visible. Not talking, but sensuality, emotion: that can signify beauty. Film happens. When you want to start filming and you just have a very general idea/memory that is not yet clearly defined, it’s like a strange overall fabric. Filming then follows a kind of fateful destiny. Seeing things in that way may sound a little strange. It’s almost as if it were predetermined, for example, being together with the seven people in Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest: I’m being driven by something, hands behind or in me, leading or pushing me here or there. There are things that are invisible and you don’t know exactly where they come from or what makes them surface. Sometimes, as I said, it’s a memory of some childhood experience. For example, in the third part, there is a picture of a girl in an interior with a water buffalo standing in the door. Living in the country as a child, I had the feeling that animals are immense and frightening. So I gradually came up with the idea of a water buffalo walking into a room from outside. Or I photographed buffaloes tramping along a mountain path at three o’clock in the morning—a strange feeling! In the third part, a buffalo is also slaughtered. At the same time, there are pictures of weddings and funerals.

A Concept of Beauty

Those are images of death and images of life. The pictures of a cycle. What I’m saying, is that beauty is inevitably bound up with fear and death. The great challenge consists of not being able to hold anything up, to arrest anything in films. Nothing can survive in and through a film, even though it is precisely in this eternity that beauty lies. You cannot capture the scent of the air that you smell and feel in the autumn even if you want to shoot a film exclusively about the onset of autumn. When you see a ‘picture’ and you photograph it, that does not mean that it actually exists in reality; you take it for the sake of a photographic image. And then there are those situations where you don’t even know why you’re taking a picture and things disappear in front of your eyes—which doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. In Dawn Mist and other films I used up to nine cameras and repeated certain scenes 20 to 30 times—I wasn’t looking for the best version, though, but for repetition as such and for a kind of ‘wrong beauty’. Mistakes are also important and they have an aesthetic of their own. I did a short film for Chanel. It consists of two projections in extreme close-up, each of a dramatically illuminated, closely cropped woman’s face with makeup. They both appear frozen, not moving for three minutes. The title reads My Heart Was Touched Last Year The work takes its cue from my memory of small pictures that we used to exchange as children, sometimes with something written on the back. When a girl gave you a portrait of herself, you had a picture that was fixed, that no longer moved and remained forever. In the Chanel piece, after a short time, a tear runs down the cheek of one of the faces, which makes a powerful impact but without any content, without a ‘message’—it just happened, it was a ‘glitch’, maybe, because the spotlights were so strong. An event of exquisite beauty. There is another work of significance in this context that I shot with seven different cameras, different lens, various scenes and wide angle. The figures drift and glide about without knowing one another; they’re all strangers. The unexpected has an extraordinary beauty that means a great deal to me: the beauty of a chance encounter, a slight touch, a brief glance. The beauty of something that happens. You harbour certain things in your heart and mind for a long time without specifically acting on them and giving them expression. And suddenly there they are… When I start shooting a film, I’m restless and anxious, that’s important. Something is going to happen, to take place. And when the film is finished, I don’t want to see or hear about it for a while. Translation from German: Catherine Schelbert


The Authors

Cao Fei (*1978) is a Chinese artist based in Beijing. She is known for her multimedia installations and videos, and is acknowledged as one of the key artists of a new generation emerging from Mainland China. She mixes social commentary, popular aesthetics, references to surrealism, and documentary conventions in her films and installations. Her works reflect on the rapid and chaotic changes that are occurring in Chinese society today. Her recent project RMB CITY (2008-2011) has been exhibited in Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, (2010), Shiseido Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2009), Serpentine Gallery, London (2008), Yokohama Triennale (2008). i.Mirror by China Tracy, 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), Chinese Pavilion; RMB CITY—A Second Life City Planning has been exhibited in Istanbul Biennale (2007), Whose Utopia, TATE Liverpool (2007), Nu Project, Lyon Biennale (2007). Cao Fei also participated in 17th & 15th Biennale of Sydney (2006/2010), Moscow Biennale (2005), Shanghai Biennale (2004), 50th Venice Biennale (2003). She also exhibited video works in Guggenheim Museum (New York), the International Center of Photography (New York), MoMA (New York), P.S.1 (New York), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), Musee d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris (Paris), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo). And Cao Fei is the finalist of the Hugo Boss Prize 2010, and won the 2006 Best Young Artist Award by CCAA (Chinese Contemporary Art Award ). Chen Lingyang is a Chinese artist, born in 1975 in Zhejiang Province, China. She now lives in Paris, France. From 1991 to 1995, she studied in the Attached High School of National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, before moving to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. She graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1999.  In January 1999, she took part in the exhibition “Post-Sense Sensibility, Alien Bodies & Delusion” held in Beijing. Around this time, she joined the Chinese contemporary art scene. In November 2000, she took part in the “FUCK OFF” exhibition held in Eastlink Gallery (Shanghai). From November 1999 to December 2000, Chen Lingyang accomplished her work Twelve Flower Month. In May 2001, when this work was first publicly exhibited, she published a catalogue including “Interview of Chen Lingyang and


The Body at Stake

Chen Lingyang NO.2 2001/4/28”, which explained her work’s starting point: Chen Lingyang and Chen Lingyang NO.2, with two different roles, advance in separate directions at the same time to present this work. After that, she took part in several domestic and foreign exhibitions, in particular: “Alors la Chine?” at Centre Pompidou (Paris) in June 2003, Rencontres d’Arles (France) in July 2003, “Between past and future, new Photography and video from China” at ICP (New York) in 2004. Her works are conserved in different collections all over the world, including: Three Shadows Photography Art Centre (Beijing), Taikang Life Insurance Company (Beijing), Collection Centre Pompidou (France), Uli Sigg Collection (Switzerland). Around 2005, she started enjoying art as a purely individual research and stopped publishing new works under the name of Chen Lingyang or Chen Lingyang NO2. Amy Cheng, Independent curator and art critic Amy Cheng (b. 1970) lives and works in Taipei, Taiwan. She received an MA from the Graduate Institute of Art History at National Taiwan Normal University (Taipei), and from 1997 to 1999, served as a lecturer of the history of Western art at Fu Jen Catholic University (Taipei). From 2000 to 2005, Cheng lived in Vancouver, Canada, and served as a feature writer for Taiwan’s ARTCO Monthly Magazine, where she currently works as a lead feature writer. Her art criticism has appeared in Chinese- and English-language journals including Modern Art, YiShu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, and Contemporary Art & Investment. Cheng has curated numerous exhibitions, including: “Invisible City” (2003) and “THTP/Phase Five/Oversight/2008” at the Vancouver Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Ruins and Civilization (2004) at the Eslite Space in Taipei, the 2004 Taipei Biennial: “Do you Believe in Reality?” (co-curated), “Altered States” (2006) at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, “Traversing the Fantasy” (2010) and “Re-envisioning Society” (2011-2013) at Taipei’s TheCube Project Space, “The Heard and The Unheard Soundscape Taiwan”, Taiwan Pavilion at the 54th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia (2011), and “Melancholy in Progress”, The 3rd Taiwan International Video Art Exhibition at Hong-Gah Museum of Taipei (2012). In 2009, Cheng undertook the one-year project Critical Political Art and Curatorial Practice Research, for which she established a website and contributed to and edited the publication Art and Society: Introducing Seven Contemporary Artists. With music and cultural critic Jeph Lo, she founded Taipei’s TheCube Project Space in 2010, which aims to explore local culture, establish long-term relationships with artists, and promote contemporary art exchanges between Taiwan and the international community. Cheng has co-organized the series panels Sound of the Times.

The Authors

Gao Shiming is a curator and critic based in Hangzhou. He is currently the director of the School of Intermedia Art, China Academy of Art. He is associate professor of contemporary art theory and curatorial studies. As a curator, he has organized many exhibitions, including: “The Migration of Asian Contemporary Art and Geo-politics, 2002-2003;” “Techniques of the Visible”: the 5th Shanghai Biennale, 2004;” “Asian Time”: New Media Art Exhibition, 2005; “The Yellow Box”: Contemporary Art and Architecture in a Chinese Space, 2006; “Alchemy of Shadow”: the Third Lianzhou International Photography Festival, and “Revival of the Countryside”: Special Project of Sao Paulo Architectural Biennial, 2007; “Farewell to Post-colonialism”: the Third Guangzhou Triennial, 2008; “Rehearsal”: the 8th Shanghai Biennale, 2010, etc. Curatorial practice for Gao is a kind of critical-creative action. He believes in the contemporary significance of bringing together action and subjective knowledge. He also firmly believes in curatorial practice as a form of ‘Book in Action’ within the dark room of history. Dr. Gao is also the founding chair of CAA’s Curatorial Studies Department, which is the first curatorial practice programme in China. Dr. Gao is editor of many books, and catalogues include Visual Thinking: Intangible Dialogue between Art and Phenomenology, 2002; A Visual Report: Migration of Contemporary Art and Geo-politics in Asia, 2003; Farewell to Post-colonialism, 2008; Rehearsal, and Ho Chi Minh Trail, 2010; All things Lethal Remain Unutterable, 2011. He is the fellow of Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (2011), and his research project at Clark is titled Rehearsal, or Art without Artwork. Gu Zheng, born in Shanghai in 1959, is currently a professor at Fudan University’s School of Journalism, a member of the university’s Information and Communication Research Centre and deputy director of the Visual Culture Research Centre. In 1998, he graduated from the University of Osaka Prefecture, earning a doctorate degree in Comparative Cultural Studies. His academic interests include: 20th century modern art, contemporary Chinese documentary photography, visual culture and image communication studies and photographic history. His works include 150 Years of Human Photography, 1999; Foreign Post-Modern Photography, 2000; The Maze of Self—The Artist’s “I”, 2003; Urban Expression—20th Century Urban Photography, 2003; A History of World Photography, 2005; Breath Like You and Me—A Century of Photographic Legend, 2006; The Sixth Face of Modernity—Contemporary Visual Culture Studies, 2007; Block and Penetrate—Contemporary China’s Photography Scene, 2008; Conceptual Streets, 2010; Contemporary Chinese Photography, 2011 (Chinese and French editions). He also served as editor of A Selection of Western Photography Literary Theory, 2005; China’s Cutting Edge Photography, 25, 2010, and Photography, Society, Space, 2010.



The Body at Stake

Exhibitions he has overseen include: The First Asian Photo Biennale, “Living in the City”; (Chinese Curator, 2001, Seoul), “Recording China—Contemporary Photography and Social Change” (2004, Bates College Museum of Art, China Institute, 2006, Smithsonian Museum); “Between Reality and Memory—Photography in China’s Social Life and Memory” (2004, U.S. New School University, Parsons School of Design); “City, Focus—2005 Guangzhou International Photography Biennial” (Guangdong Museum of Art); “Revealed ‘Hidden’—20 Years of Contemporary Chinese Photography”—(Nanjing Square Gallery of Contemporary Art, 2006) and On Top of Shanghai” (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Epson Square, Shanghai, 2010). He served on the editorial board for the publications of Chinese Photography and European Photography (Berlin) and served as a contributing editor of the American magazine Aperture. He also served as a judge for the First Annual L’Oreal China Photographer Award at the Pingyao International Photography Festival (2000). He was also involved in the Houston Photography Festival of Experts (2006) and the 2008 Daegu Photo Biennale. Gu Zheng was also a recommending judge for the Harvard University Pi Bodi Anthropology Museum of Ethnology Robert Jia Tena Award, the Second Shafei Photography Award (2009) and served on the France Silva Rotorua Photography Festival jury (2010). He was also on the Shafei Photography Award jury for the First, Second and Third Annual Houdeng Ke Documentary Photography Award. He received a Chinese Photography Award (for theory and commentary) (2001) and an Academic Award at the First Annual Shafei Photography Awards (2007). Jin Feng, born in Shanghai in 1962, graduated from Nanjing Normal University in 1992, majoring in Fine Art. Beginning in 2005, Jin Feng’s work underwent something of a seismic shift and began focusing on various social issues. “Themes are not original; choice is an attitude; focus on the conversion”, are the fundamental conceptual precepts underlying the artist’s work. Currently, Jin Feng lives and works in both Beijing and Shanghai. The following works have all been displayed in exhibitions: 3+1 Respective Interpretations, Beijing, 2010; Soft Power—The Asian Approach, Poland, 2007; The First Annual Montpellier “Contemporary Chinese Art Biennale”, France, 2005; Lu Xun Entertains the Intellectuals, Shanghai, 2009, and Problem Scene: The Jin Feng Case, Shanghai; 2008. Li Ning is a theatre director, film director, sculptore, physical performance artist. As more and more of his works receive awards from and invitations to leading art and film festivals, 40-year-old Li Ning has already become one of China’s leading figures in experimental film and physical theatre. After entering the sculpture programme at Shandong Art School in 1993, he began studying Modern Dance and Performance with renowned choreographer Jin Xing. In 1997, he founded his own physical arts collective “J-town Physical Guerrillas”, which

The Authors

has performed throughout Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, among others; and for the past 12 years, Li’s “Made in J-town Film Lab” has led the way in pushing China’s boundaries of exploration in film and performance. Li’s creative works as well as his critical analysis about art have circulated widely among and made a significant impact on the younger generation of China’s creative community. As part of his long-term creative development, Li is developing ways to interweave three strands into an entirely new pedagogy and curriculum of physical training, which he calls “Drawing Life Theatre”: researching new ways of training the body, creating work based on one’s personal background, and visual arts theories of observation. The goal is to create a training method that would allow non-professionals to quickly enter the realm of performing arts as performers while also being useful for professionally trained artists. Currently, he is practising this training method in various schools and community centres throughout China in order to build a bridge between average citizens and the contemporary arts. The end of the year, he received the support of the International Foundation, to complete his work. Such as: “Doen Found”, Netherlands, “Young Choreographers’ Project”, “Chin-A-Moves”, The European Union cultural project support, “Indie Cinema Fund”, Beijing, China Li Yinan, born in Beijing, studied Theatre Arts, Chinese Literature, and German Literature at Peking University, Columbia University in New York, University of Hamburg, and University of Munich. He taught and teaches at the University of Frankfurt, the Central Academy of Drama, China, and the University of Munich. Major works: Postdramatic Theatre (translated by Hans-Thies Lehmann, Peking University Press, 2010), An Introduction to Contemporary German Theatre (2011). Research interests include Dramaturgy, Adaptaion and Contemporary Theatre Arts. Lin Chiwei, born in Tai Pei in 1971, works in the field of arts and culture. She studied French literature at Fu Jen Catholic University, folk art theory at the National lnstitute of the Arts Research Institute of Traditional Art as well as media art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art Studio. Since 1992, she has busied herself with all sorts, creations involving sound, including audio video installations, audio recordings, as well as live performances accompanying paintings. She has written a book on music, Beyond Sound Art—Avant-Garde Musical Instruments and the Modernisation of Hearing, 2012, and also has plans for translating ancient Chinese sound music culture. She currently resides in Beijing.



The Body at Stake

Lu Yang, received a Masters’ degree in 2010, from the China Academy of Art focusing on new media art. The artist’s works deal with a wide range of topics including: technology, medicine, psychology, neuroscience, brain science, popular culture, Asian culture, religion, witchcraft and music among others. Lu Yinghua, born in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province, in 1977, is a critic and curator based in Beijing. She graduated from the Critical Studies programme of Malmö Art Academy at Sweden’s Lund University from 2004–2005, and served as a China Researcher for the Asia Art Archive from 2005 to 2007. She is currently a contributing editor at Frieze Magazine, a London-based art magazine, and sits on the editorial board for the Arnolfini Art Centre’s Far West Magazine. She also writes essays on contemporary art research for many international art magazines, catalogues and publications. She was a jury member for the 2011 Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion Award, and is one of the co-artistic directors for the 2012 Gwangju Biennial. Little Movements: Self-Practices in Contemporary Art, the project she and Liu Ding initiated and curated together, was exhibited at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) in Shenzhen in September 2011, and is currently going on an international tour. She co-curated the Seventh Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale at OCAT with Liu Ding and Su Wei, which opened in May 2012. Wen Hui, choreographer/dancer, graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy in 1989. Since that time, she has been working in contemporary dance theatre. In 1997, she was awarded a grant from the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) and traveled to New York to research and study dance. In 1994, Wen Hui founded the Living Dance Studio together with Wu Wenguang, and she has choreographed and directed all performances of the group. She also featured in them as a performer. Wu Wenguang was born in south-western China’s Yunnan province in 1956. After graduating from high school in 1974, Wu was send to the countryside, where he worked as a farmer for four year. Between 1978 and 1982, he studied Chinese Literature in Yunnan University. After graduating, Wu worked as a teacher at a junior high school for three years, and later, he worked in the television as a journalist for four years. Wu left the television, moved to Beijing in 1988 to be an independent documentary filmmaker, freelance writer and creator and producer of dance/theatre. In 1994, Wu co-founded the independent performance group Living Dance Studio with Wen Hui in Beijing. In 2005, Wu co-founded the independent art space Caochangdi Workstation with Wen Hui in Beijing. In 2005, Wu founded the Village Documentary Project, and, in 2010, the Folk Memory Project.

The Authors

Xiang Jing, born in Beijing in 1968, graduated from Chinese Academy of Fine Arts Sculpture Department in 1995. She had been lecturer of sculpture studio at Fine Art College of Shanghai Normal University from 1999 to 2007. Xiang Jing founded Xiang Jing + Qu Guangci (X+Q) Sculpture Studio with her husband and artist Qu Guangci in 2007. Xiang Jing now works and lives in Beijing. “Speaking through the body”, used to be one of Xiang Jing’s trademarks. Ever since her two solo exhibitions “Keep in Silence” (2003-2005) and “Naked Beyond Skin” (2006-2007), Xiang Jing has been thinking and creating works around the subject of the female body. Her artistic language has matured through “The Virgin Series”, “The Body Series”, and “Naked Beyond Skin Series”, as manifested in some of her most important works such as Your Body (2005), The Open (2006), and Are a Hundred Playing You? Or Only One? (2007). Boldly experimenting with her sculptural language, Xiang Jing is also mindful about engaging space and mirror images when creating and installing her works. Eventually, Xiang Jing’s artistic concerns go beyond the female identity and sex—for her, the body is used as a premise to explain and explore how a certain group is related to the greater world. Xiang Jing’s solo exhibition “Will Things Ever Get Better?” in 2011 uses the “Acrobats Series” and the “Animal Series” to explore the topic of ‘predicament’ and ‘human being’s fate’, opening many new possibilities in Xiang Jing’s art. Yang Fudong is one of the most internationally acclaimed contemporary Chinese film artists around. Born in 1971 in Beijing, he graduated from the China Academy of Arts where he studied oil painting. Beginning in the late 1990s, however, he began working in film, where his works became known as being both beautiful and melancholic. His stories combine characters with classical traits set against modern backdrops and blur any distinct notions of history or reality in an effort to broaden the scope of the narrative. These stories reflect the compromise and sense of helplessness facing a younger generation of intellectuals caught in lives increasing rich materially, yet spiritually bankrupt. At the same time, these works allude to the vulnerability of traditional Chinese culture in the face of an obsession with modernisation. In 2002, the artist entered the Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival with An Estranged Paradise, instantly elevating his reputation amidst the international art scene. Subsequently, after five years of black and white film making, Bamboo Forest (five parts) has gone on to become a contemporary film classic. In 2004, Yang Fudong was considered for a Hugo Boss Arts Award, only the third Chinese artist to receive this distinction after Cai Guo Qiang and Huang Yong Ping.



The Body at Stake

Yang Zi, whose real name is Yang Guang, was born in 1986 and graduated from the Department of Philosophy at Nanjing University. He was project manager for the Beijing LGBT Centre and was responsible for planning arts and cultural activities. In 2009, he was curator for, “Difference—Gender”, China’s first-ever gender diverse art exhibition. He currently works at LEAP magazine. Zheng Bo is an active artist and art researcher with a focus on the achievements of art in the public arena. He is currently working on his PhD at the Rochester Institute of Visual and Cultural Studies and also teaches at the China Academy of Art. Zhang Hong received a PhD in literature from East China Normal University’s Department of Chinese Literature. He is Professor and Director of The Institute of Cultural Criticism at Tongji University. His studies focus on modern Chinese literature, cultural philosophy and culture criticism. He is the author of The Poetics about the Voices, The Cultural Barricades, The Sounds within the Darkness: The Poetics and the Spiritual Password to Lu Xun’s “Wild Grasses”, and The Realm of the Senses: On the Narrative Art of China’s Avant-Garde Novels, and is well known for essays such as “Bei Dao”: A ‘Bildungsroman’ along with “One Generation”, “Chinese Knot: The National Totem in the New Century” and “Shanghai: The Metropolis of Memories and Fantasies”. Zhang Nian, PhD, born in 1970, is a famous feminisim critic, a scholar, and currently holds a position in the Institute of Cultural Criticism at Tongji University, Shanghai. She specializes in the Studies of Feminism and Cultural Politics. Since 2000, Zhang Nian has published nearly 100 studies and criticisms on feminism on several domestic journals of ideology and culture. She worked as a columnist for Southern Metropolitan Daily; Economic Observer; and Guangzhou Daily, Zhang Nian is also the author of Toothless Feminism, and Gender Dissidents on Sex. Zhao Chuan is a writer, art critic and theatre director who creates alternative, political theatre in Shanghai. He founded the Chinese theatre group Grass Stage in 2005. His work is devoted to the promotion of the new social theatre movement and the creation of non-profit public space. Zhao Chuan’s literary awards include, most notably, the Taiwan Unita Prize for New Novelists (2001). His writings on contemporary Shanghai art have been selected for publication in various media in China and abroad. He has also been invited to numerous international literary, art, and theatre festivals.