This essay examines an interest in water which is displayed by a variety of contemporary Chinese artists whose work is not necessarily otherwise identifiably linked in terms of style. While a great many non-Chinese contemporary artists have also explored water, the watery turn in Chinese art is a relatively distinct phenomenon, making use of aspects of the inherited cultural stock, in particular the ink-painting heritage (which might not at first have been thought to offer much that would concern consciously contemporary artists). It comes into being, as will be shown, in response to particular state ideologies and modernization policies and may be read as offering a critical and even subversive engagement with them. Whereas Chinese state discourse thematizes control of water, treating it as a dangerous adversary, many Chinese contemporary artists can be said to take the side of water and do so in ways which symbolically contest the dominant official ideology.
The interest of Chinese artists in water is widespread enough that one can reasonably talk of a discourse concerning water rather than a series of isolated artistic statements, but at present that discourse is still relatively unmediated by any significant textual comment from the artists themselves. Although the literature on individual artists has sometimes noted their interest in water, until now this phenomenon as a whole has strangely evaded detailed examination by critics or curators. ' The lack of explicitness in the discourse concerning water, which may in part be a parallel to the oblique or indirect nature of the individual artworks themselves (a protective strategy for art that refuses dominant values in a society that does not welcome open dissent), means that this study is not quite the same as a standard iconographical analysis in the Panofskian tradition. Rather than the elaboration and refinement of established systems, visual meanings are in the process of being specified for the first time by these artworks, and any attempt at codifying meaning or making it explicit may belong only to the reading of it offered here.
A further way in which this analysis of watery tendencies in contemporary Chinese art differs from a standard iconographical case study is that the concern for water is not simply at the level of subject matter, but also at the level of medium. This prevalence of water as a material for art-making becomes possible because of the popularity in China of installation and performance (or xingwei) art. Both these genres of art-making allow water to be used as a material in a way in which oil painting and stone carving do not. Without losing a sense of the specificity to this moment of a concern for water in Chinese art, is should also be noted, however, that the dominant and most culturally valorized art medium over the last thousand years of Chinese history has been a water-based one, namely ink painting (commonly referred to in Chinese as shuimo, literally "water ink"). In the rich history of ink painting, still widely used as a medium even today in China, water has also featured prominently as a subject, in the form of the clouds, rivers, and lakes, which dominate landscape or shonshui ("mountain water") art.
Although this is by no means always the case, a number of Chinese contemporary artists do refer to the ink-painting heritage in their work. References to earlier Chinese modernism are rare, but something is found to be of use in this premodern art. Its watery quality seems to be being pointed to and "exacerbated" by artists of our own time, in ways that are perhaps neither straightforward homage nor deconstruction and which have little counterpart in contemporary Western art. Such intensification to the point of rupture is seen, for instance, in Wenda Gu's Synthesized Words, number 3 in the series Tronquility Comes from Meditation (1984), one of the earliest works of the Chinese contemporary art movement. In this piece ink marks and the calligraphic forms they construct are combined with dilute and semiaccidental wash effects which read visually as eroding and partially erasing the written characters.
The foregrounding of the wetness of ink, of its watery nature, is of course even more noticeable when artists forego ink painting as a medium and engage with ink in its wet state in installation or performance art. Gu himself has done this on many occasions, for example in a performance given in association with his exhibition united nations-man and space at the Utsunomiya Museum of Art, Japan, in 2000. Such a performance can be taken as exacerbating an already performative tendency of Chinese ink painting itself, since historically the emphasis has been not on reading the image as a representation of a specific subject but on reading the brushed marks as an expressive trace of their author's character (by empathizing with the process of making those marks and by distinguishing what is particular about the way the painting's often-familiar theme has been executed). The extensive premodern literature concerning Chinese ink painting even includes discussion of occasions when artists produced paintings in front of an audience, and some of the extremism of recent performances with wet ink is prefigured in accounts of "Wang Mo" ("Ink Wang," an alias) of the Tang dynasty, who was said to have used his hair as a brush.
Among other contemporary Chinese artists who have used ink in performance works is LaoZhu (Zhu Qingsheng), whose Xishonxiaoshu took place at Huairou near Beijing in 1997. In the presence of an invited group of friends and with the participation of a musician playing traditional instruments (thus making a conscious allusion to the art-centered recreational gatherings of the Chinese literati), LaoZhu wrote a series of calligraphic poems in ink on a long silk scroll. This is another instance of the use of wet ink and thus of a foregrounding of the wateriness of traditional Chinese painting and writing media (the shui of shuimo), but it is also an engagement with the watery subject matter of Chinese landscape (shanshui) painting, since the event took place in a hilly area with streams. Not only is this double wateriness of ink painting referenced, but LaoZhu allowed the two senses to interfere with one another (in a way they normally do not in classical ink painting), since he unrolled his silk scroll along the course of a stream, sometimes over adjacent rocks and sometimes dipping under the moving water itself.2 Where the scroll was submerged, LaoZhu kept on writing anyway, even though the stream would carry the ink away, and blurring of the calligraphic marks would occur.
Performances by certain other contemporary Chinese artists refer to classical ink painting and its watery concerns even when no ink is present. For instance, when Zhan Wang set one of his stainless-steel artificial rock sculptures adrift at sea (Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles, 2000), there were elements of both shan and shui present, as in so many ink paintings. Not involving any such reference to inherited modes was He Yunchang's performance Dialogue with Water (1999), in which the artist was suspended upside-down from a crane over a river (the Lianghe in Yunnan, near which he had been born). In the course of the performance, He used a knife to "cut" the flowing river into two, then made a small incision in his arm, allowing the blood to flow into the river just below him and mingle with its waters.
Similarly making use of a river as a focus for performance was Yin Xiuzhen's Washing the River. As paradoxical a task as attempting to cut a river, this involved making ice blocks from the polluted water of the Funan River which were then placed along the river bank. Spectators were invited to wash this ice with clean water, an activity which would only dissolve the ice and allow it to make its way back into the river (a process that was in any case occurring of its own accord due to the August heat). Even more than LaoZhu's piece, the works of He and Yin are thematically concerned with water in a direct way, rather than simply making use of it as a material, and this doubly watery quality is particularly intense in Yin's case, since even the thing being washed is itself water. This doubling of wateriness at the thematic level leads to a saturation of the work with references to wetness.
Like performance art, installation offers possibilities of using water itself as an element, and contemporary Chinese artists have produced many works which exploit this. Wang Jin's Ice: Central Plains (1996), for instance, was a thirty-meter-long wall, constructed from more than six hundred blocks of ice, placed in the environment of a shopping center in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Within the ice blocks, over a thousand consumer goods of various kinds had been embedded, the transparency of the medium allowing these objects of desire to be visible even though they remained ungraspable. Removed from their normal context of display and placed in suspension, the objects lost some of their seductive power, and consumer culture (which dominates the area in which the work was exhibited) was itself temporarily frozen and made available for a cool inspection. As the ice began to melt, spectators were able to engage more actively with the work, breaking into the wall and disengaging items to take away. Although their response-still displaying traces of the heat of the consumerist impulse, and largely oblivious of the installation's aesthetic intentions-may not have been quite what Wang had originally expected, it became part of the meaning of the work and was itself made available for consideration.
WangYoushen's installation Washing: The Mass Grave at Datong in 1941 ( 1995) consists of a pair of bathtubs on top of which are placed two blown-up photos documenting a Japanese atrocity during the Sino-Japanese war. Water circulating through shower equipment such as might be found in a domestic bathroom plays over the photos, washing them but also in practice eroding them (a paradox of destructive care similar to that already noted in Yin's Washing the River as well as in one of the iconic early works of the Chinese avant-garde, Huang Yongping's 1987 "A History of Chinese Painting" and "A Concise History of Modern Painting" Washed in a Washing Machine for TWo Minutes). The artist makes allusion to time's propensity for eroding or washing away historical memory, but washing can also imply purification or clarification; these latter conflicting meanings are also encouraged, since one of the photos is of a Chinese researcher washing a skull recovered from the site of the atrocity. Through this washing of an image of washing, Wang's piece gains something of the double wateriness noted in certain of the works already discussed.
The sheer quantity of works by contemporary Chinese artists in which water plays a major part precludes any attempt at comprehensive documentation, but in order to indicate the range and variety of such art, brief mention of some further examples is called for, though visual analysis of each will not be possible. If one simply took examples of water-related works from a single recent survey exhibition of contemporary Chinese art, The Pint Guangzhou Triennial -Reinterpretation:A Decade of Experimental Chinese At 1990-2000 (held at the Guangdong Museum of Art from November 2002 to January 2003), one would encounter (among others) Huang Rui's Four Waters (1992), an installation with cisterns and water; Wang Wei's 1/30th second under Water ( 1998), an installation with portrait photographs taken underwater displayed in lightboxes beneath the audience's feet; Zhang Jianjun's Fog Inside ( 1992), a container of water and black ink from which mist arises and dissipates; and ChenWenbo's Moisture Content (1996), a video in which water is shown being poured from one container to another and back again. In addition one would find Wu Shanzhuan's installation No Water This Afternoon (2000); Lu Chunsheng's photographic piece Water (2000); and Zhang Peili's video Water-Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai (Sea ofWords) (1991). Water, as the range of examples given so far demonstrates, is found in all of its three states, and there is often an emphasis on its transformation from state to state (e.g., evaporation in the case of Zhang's Fog Inside or melting in the case of Wang Jin's Ice: Central Plains). Water is often referred to in a work's title, indicating its importance, and there is often a doubleness or saturation of watery reference, even in cases where the medium might not seem to offer much possibility for this. Geng Jianyi's photographic series Watermarks, for example, exhibited at ShangART in Shanghai in 2001, consists of photograms produced by submerging light-sensitive paper under water.
While some fragmentary attempts have been made to suggest possible meanings in some works so far mentioned, the only common range of reference that has been identified, and then not in all cases, is to the ink-painting heritage and its specifically watery traits, now pointed to and exacerbated further man would ever have been felt necessary in earlier eras. The identification of such references helps characterize the phenomenon under examination and specify some of the connotations of water being mobilized, but do not quite help pin down what is going on. There still remains the question of why recent artistic practice finds such aspects of the heritage to be of use-explanation still needs to be offered as to what signification they are being given, what tasks they are being used to accomplish. To answer these questions requires a move beyond a purely artistic frame to a consideration of the Chinese political sphere, or at least to the ideological or discursive dimension of it (of which for much of the period following the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 art was largely a compliant and subsidiary part), whose importance in sustaining the power and perceived legitimacy of the ruling Communist party is arguably at least as important as its hold on military power and its control of the various apparatuses of state repression. To understand the contemporary Chinese artistic discourse on water, one most note the significant and preexisting state political discourse on water in China, and that the former is in large part a contestatory engagement with the latter.
The concern of the Chinese state with water, and specifically with its control, has a long history. Emperors took an interest in hydraulic engineering projects, since water management was considered a major imperial responsibility. This was as much a matter of symbolic as of practical concern, since floods or droughts were widely interpreted during the imperial era as omens of the displeasure of heaven with the ruling dynasty. With the advent to power of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, this longstanding concern did not disappear but developed new dimensions. Nature and man were often seen as engaged in a pitched battle in the political rhetoric of the People's Republic, to be won by the latter through a collective solidarity made possible by socialist doctrine and its application. Again there was both a practical and a symbolic dimension: floods and droughts were responsible for widespread death and hardship during this period but even a practical measure such as the construction of the fifteenhundred-kilometer Red Flag Canal in Henan Province during the 19605 (by driving a route through a mountain barrier with the sheer effort of mass manual labor) was as much a propaganda demonstration as a solution to a specific, real need. Similar arguments can be made with respect to the bridge over the Yangtze river at Wuhan (completed in 1957), which linked the north and south of the country for the first time in both an actual and a symbolic sense.
As well as offering support for the Tightness of socialism or the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in general, such projects of water control and the works of art in which they were represented and promoted were also tied to the more specific project of legitimizing and shoring up the leadership position of Mao Zedong. Indeed, Mao can also be said to have developed his own personal, somatic rhetoric of water control in addition to that of the water engineering projects he initiated or associated himself with. An enthusiastic swimmer from an early age, Mao famously developed a way of using swimming to demonstrate his fitness to govern, turning a private recreational pursuit into a public spectacle of mastery, often undertaken at particularly crucial political junctures. Mao's most famous act of political swimming was his crossing of the powerfully flowing Yangtze River in 1956, an event he commemorated the same year in his poem "Swimming."3
Even the most cursory survey of Chinese newspapers of the last few years would confirm that water continues to be portrayed in official rhetoric as a dangerous force that needs to be controlled by the mobilization of state power. The prevention of drought or flooding remains a central concern despite all that has changed in China during the era of market reforms, and the water control schemes of today-such as the massive South-North Water Transfer Project designed to alleviate shortages in key urban areas by transporting 45 billion cubic metres of water a year-are even larger than those of the earlier, more overtly ideological, phases of the People's Republic. One such water-control scheme currently nearing completion is the most extensive hydraulic engineering undertaking the world has so far witnessed, the Three Gorges dam project. A link to the era of Mao, since the idea was originally his, the Three Gorges project has an extremely high-profile presence in the China of today. Situated at a site of great historical and cultural significance, and displacing a vast number of people from their homes because of rising water levels behind the dam (nearly a million by the end of 2004), this project naturally claims prominence in public attention. That prominence is further enhanced since (as with earlier water-control projects) this scheme has also been exploited in the governmentowned media as evidence of the state's achievement, as part of the Communist Party's rhetorical claim to legitimacy (a claim which in this postsocialist market economy era needs all the ideological support it can muster). With the possible exception of Shanghai's skyscraper-packed skyline, it is the leading signifier of China's progress and economic modernization, delivery of which serves to sustain consent for one-party rule, to prevent widespread emergence of demands for an alternative, more democratic conception of national development, and to launder China's international reputation of the inconvenient stains of blood left by the repression of 1989.
As stated above, much water-themed contemporary art in China can be best understood as a contestation of state rhetoric concerning the control of water. Direct protests against state water-control initiatives have occurred on a number of occasions, showing that such schemes are not universally popular. The Three Gorges project, for instance, has witnessed opposition from those who will be displaced by the rising waters, as well as from environmental activists and others. Such direct protest, which is more prevalent in China than some might think, tends, however, to be a risky undertaking liable to provoke a sharp response from a repressive state.4 As a result, more indirect strategies of resistance tend to find favor in China, and indeed such obliqueness is exactly what we find when we come to examine the artistic response to state water policy; this response is in any case more concerned with contesting the ideological use of such projects and with rejecting the mindset behind them than with opposing the specific projects themselves. The works are small acts of symbolic refusal, rather than direct and legible acts of protest.
Such tactical favoring of obliqueness, which in the case of the artist Song Dong, for instance, has led to a deliberate indistinctness of expression (in his words "a kind of clear indistinctness"), makes tracking this art's subversive connotations difficult.5 Some water-themed works by contemporary Chinese artists, however, do make reference to specific aspects of water-control policy or watery state rhetoric, and thus offer a way of linking art to this context. The Three Gorges project has become a subject for a series of oil paintings by Liu Xiaodong, for example, and in focusing on the mundane realities of the construction itself (as in Three Gorges: Displaced Population of 2003, exhibited at the China Art Gallery during the 2003 Beijing Biennale), the artist undermines any clichés of seamless economic progress. Liu's interest in representing the lived experience of individual migrant laborers or displaced residents leads to a work devoid of the heroic optimism of state rhetoric.
Instead of engaging with a contemporary water-control project as Liu has done, Wang Jin has chosen to reference one of the most ideologically significant collective projects of the Maoist era, the previously mentioned Red Flag Canal. Serving to undermine the iconic status of that project, perhaps second only to the construction of the Yangtze Bridge as a Maoist-era symbol of socialist success conceived as triumph over water, Wang participates in the process of playfully dismantling the rhetoric of state power, which so many artists of his era have engaged in. Entitled Fighting the Flood, Red Flog Canal, this performance of 1994 involved a trip from Beijing to the Red Flag Canal itself, beginning, significantly, on a day (August 14) when water supply was interrupted to part of the capital city. On the following day he dropped fifty kilograms of dry organic red pigment into the canal, turning the water red over an extensive area. He returned to Beijing the same day. Adding redness of a literal kind to a canal, which in name and reputation already symbolized "redness" of a metaphorical kind, can be interpreted as a parody of the type of enthusiastic embrace of Communism encouraged during the Maoist era. This excessive fervor for redness (in a new era of market economy when Chinese people in general are leaving allegiance to Communism behind them and replacing the kind of collective effort symbolized by the Red Flag Canal with the pursuit of personal economic advancement) helped mark a distance between past and present. Since that redness also served to pollute the canal's waters (the reverse of what Yin Xiuzhen's Washing the River attempted to achieve a year later), its positive associations were undermined.Too much red is now revealed as a bad thing, and it could also be read as a reference to the blood sacrificed by the many workers who died during the process of constructing the canal, or by extension to the loss of life as a result of state policies throughout the whole Communist era.6
Mao's use of swimming as a performance of leadership power seems to lie behind the popularity of images of swimming in contemporary Chinese art, but here again the rhetoric of water mastery is undermined. Direct retrospective reference to the Maoist iconography is relatively rare, although the Luo Brothers' irreverent Welcome to the World's Most Famous Brands (2002) includes an image of Mao up to his neck in water, while Uu Wei's Good Old Dad ( 1991 ) depicts his father (elsewhere shown in his People's Liberation Army uniform) as if bathing in the sea-possibly an allusion to Chinese leadership gatherings at the seaside resort of Beidaihe.
Although there is no reference to Mao in his works, Fang Lijun's many images of swimmers (created since 1991 ) are best read in relation to the Chairman's aquatic exploits or, more generally, to the cult of physical health that was promoted during his era. Rather than heroically triumphing over their watery environment, his swimmers seem dominated or overwhelmed by it, and a cool, neutral attitude is maintained, in contrast to the optimistic note required of Maoist propaganda imagery.7 The dominance of the water over the swimmers in Fang's works is conveyed hi part by the relatively small scale of the figures in relation to the surrounding areas of water, and by the fact that (with the exception of certain early works) they tend to be solitary. The figures are also often beneath the surface, rather than moving along the top of it, and this enhances the sense of envelopment. Fang's swimmers read as socially withdrawn (their eyes may be closed), and an absence of movement in certain works can make them seem fetal or even (in the case of 1994.2, an oil of 1994) corpselike. In acrylics such as 98.8.30 and 98.8.25 (both of 1998), only the very top of the floating figure's head is seen, and thus associations with drowning start to compete with those of swimming. Similar associations arise in relation to certain woodcuts, such as 1996. n and 1996.16, as well as in paintings where figures in water up to their heads are shown with open mouths (e.g., 98.8.15, an acrylic of 1998). In recent works, the already prominent wetness of the swimmer images is taken to an even deeper saturation by use of the overtly watery medium of ink painting with wash effects (e.g., Ink No. 1 and Ink No. 2, both ink on paper, 1998).
Less directly engaging with state water symbolism, but nevertheless employing a watery means to undermine a prominent symbol of Chinese national progress, is Liu Jianhua's Inverted Reflection in Water (2002-3).This ceramic relief installation represents the skyscraper-filled skyline of Pudong (a district of Shanghai developed during the 19905 as a financial and commercial center) as seen from the Bund, a much-photographed scene often employed in postcards and ads to demonstrate China's economic modernity and promote Shanghai's claim to be a city of world stature. In Liu's work, however, the cliché is undermined, since his ceramic relief depicts not the skyscrapers themselves but their reflections in the mobile waters of the Huangpu river next to which they stand. These reflections, which of course invert the images of the buildings, are themselves inverted in the work, but because of the lighting of the installation, shadows of the relief forms are cast below them, as if reminding us of their original positions or creating reflections of reflections. By replacing images of the skyscrapers with images of their reflections, Liu successfully undermines the vertical rhetoric of progress which the skyscrapers claim (I read these buildings as themselves symbols that make claims concerning economic development rather than simply utilitarian structures that have come into being as a consequence of actual growth). With the aid of water, the rigid, phallic forms of the tall buildings are as it were melted-the ceramic elements, although of course solid, bear distortions imposed upon the reflections by the rippling current of the river's surface.
In addition to engaging with water-control projects, with the associations of swimming, and with ideologically charged images of urban development, a variety of further oblique ways in which water-related contemporary Chinese art contests state rhetorics can be found. Yin Xiuzhen's Washing the River for example, with its treatment of the issue of pollution, can be said to be specifying one of the most obvious costs or negative effects of "progress" in China.8 Wang Jin's Ice: Central Plains, as previously discussed, is at odds with the burgeoning consumer culture of new China and the urban environments in which it takes place. Wu Shanzhuan's installation No Water This Afternoon pokes fun at the language of official notices familiar to mainland Chinese of his generation, borrowing its tide from one which reminds us that even a commodity as basic as water cannot be taken for granted in China, despite over fifty years of revolution and progress. Nationalist rhetoric, so important now that Communist ideology is no longer an effective unifying force, becomes the target of Zhan Wang's Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles. By setting adrift one of his stainless-steel rock sculptures outside the limit of maritime sovereignty mentioned in the tide, he seems to be poking fun at attempts to define boundaries of nationhood. Once the abstract idea of a nation is translated into literal or concrete terms, the edges of a nation are revealed as arbitrary and permeable divisions in water.
Yet a further instance of state power, the voice of authority represented by the newsreader of the state television network, is undermined with the help of water in Zhang Peili's Water-Standard Version from the Dictionary Ci Hai (Sea of Words). Zhang here employs Xing Zhibin, a well-known newsreader from Chinese Central Television, to act out his own script, which consists of entries containing the water radical from the main Chinese dictionary, Ci Hai. In addition to me character for water itself, this would include a range of other water-related terms. This saturation of the newsreader's speech with watery references serves to erode or liquidate the authority of her voice in an effective way. While it should be admitted that any other section of the dictionary would probably have served to make a similar point, there must have been a sense on Zhang's part that water's innate nature allows it to easily play the role of symbolic opponent to rigidity of all kinds. His choice of the watery section of the Ci Hai may also have been partly directed by the very name of the dictionary itself, which translates as "Sea of Words," thus enabling a double wateriness to enter his work. Zhang's interest in water is not limited to this work. Another video piece, Hygiene No. 3 (1991), shows the repeated washing of a chicken, this obsessive act of cleansing paralleling the futile attempts at purification in Yin's Washing the River. Watery references continue to appear in Zhang's more recent work, as his video piece Water Mark (2003) demonstrates. In this work three screens display images of the same spot of water. Both video and still images are offered, with the former showing the water drying out.
Of all the contemporary Chinese artists who have employed water both physically and thematically, perhaps the most persistent has been Song Dong.9 Prominent among his works in which water has been employed is Writing Diary with Water, which he has been working on since 1995 as an intermittent and partly private performance of writing with a calligraphy brush in water (rather than ink) on a stone slab. This work shows water's triumph over the written trace, in this case through its tendency toward evaporation. Inherited artistic practices are referenced, with water shown as more indispensable to Chinese brushwork than ink or revealed as the always present but characteristically unvalorized component of shuimo. In addition, however, there is a personal or biographical dimension, and not simply because of the private nature of the work's diaristic content (which after the evaporation of the water becomes even in principle publicly unknowable). The celebration of the impermanence of water's traces in Writing Diary with Water recalls Song's childhood experience of practicing calligraphy under his father's guidance without ink or paper, a not-uncommon experience in China for those unable to afford these two materials.
Song's artistic interest in water can be related to early personal experience in other ways as well (and again his relationship to his father-which has been the subject of several of his works-plays a part). In an interview he remembered his father telling him to cherish water, for instance, and recalled his mother giving him her share of their limited supply of water during a long summer journey to visit his father in Wuhan, where he had been sent as a punishment after being labeled as a rightist during one of the more repressive eras of recent Chinese history.10 While information of this kind might tempt one to a purely psychological reading of Song's interest in water as a medium and subject (in contradiction to the more politicized reading I have been offering here), I would like to emphasize that his personal memories are at least in part framed and influenced by political factors, as the latter of these two reminiscences reveals. Even a more clearly traumatic personal association with water-Song was pushed into water at school by a physical-education teacher and has never learned to swim, remaining somewhat wary of water-involves an authority figure attempting to enforce a certain attitude of mastery toward water in accordance with state educational policy and is thus not a matter merely for psychological interpretation. Such policy, and the artist's refusal of swimming, needs to be juxtaposed to Mao's own public swimming exploits (as previously described) and his exhortation of the Chinese people to follow his example. The positive associations swimming gained from Mao's interest in it led to its promotion more generally as a valorized form of exercise for citizens of the People's Republic-a sort of patriotic duty of healthiness-as for example in a propaganda poster of 1976 showing a group of young children happily swimming with the caption "Everybody comes to learn to swim" (Dajia duo lai xue yauyong).
A further performance work by Song in which water plays a part is his Breathing Part I and Part 2 (1996), although here it takes the form of ice. In the first part, documented in photos, the artist lay face down on the ground in Beijing's Tiananmen Square for forty minutes between approximately 7:00 and 8:00 PM on a winter night, allowing the water from his breath to create a patch of ice in front of him. A similar activity took place in the second part of the work, although here the location was the frozen surface of a lake (Beijing's Hou Hai), an already watery environment, and the performance was done during daytime (on the following day). Again the duration of the breathing was forty minutes, and although Song originally imagined that his breathing at this time and place would produce a melting of the ice (a reverse of the effect in Tiananmen Square), this did not in fact occur because of the low temperature.
Of the two sites employed by this work, the former is the most politically resonant-indeed, Tiananmen Square is the symbolic heart of the People's Republic, the site where the Communist state was proclaimed in 1949, where Mao's mausoleum is located, and where countless political rallies or propaganda events have been staged. The political meanings with which this site is saturated do not all serve to support state power, however, since it has also been the location for antigovernment demonstrations, and after June 4, 1989, in particular, it has carried a heavy freight of traumatic memories. Clearly, then, any symbolic intervention in this space deals with the weight of meanings that inhabits it, and Song's action, although it avoided overt political signification and took refuge in a protective ambiguity, was no exception. That he was approached by security officials when he began the performance, and was only able to continue after showing his work card and explaining that he was an art teacher engaged in an activity related to his teaching, clearly demonstrates the sensitivity of the site, which Song refers to as "a very dangerous and sensitive place."11 Even the paucity of documentation for this performance (which took place in front of an audience of only five people) is related to the regulations which at that time forbade video recording in Tiananmen Square. Only sound recordings and still photographs (taken by a postgraduate student) survive of the event.
One could interpret the act of breathing at the core of this performance as the most basic assertion of individual vitality (Song reminded me in our interview that placing a glass plate in front of the mouth is a simple medical procedure to confirm that a person is still alive) and thus see the creation of a small and evanescent personal mark (the temporary film of ice formed from the water of his own breath) in a site so heavily associated with impersonal public history as a gentle assertion of personal selfhood. As with Writing Diary with Water, childhood associations with water also played a part for the artist himself in his motivation in producing this work. Song remembers that he used to like to breathe on the inside of his window during very cold weather, to watch his breath condense.
A brief search for Western parallels to Song's work indicates the culturally specific nature of contemporary Chinese artists' interest in using water as a subject and material (and incidentally demonstrates how little value there is in attempting to explain that art through notions of "Western influence," despite many shared details of visual syntax with contemporary Western practice). The sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, for instance, although he uses ice as a material in works that share the transitory existence of Song's, offers no contestatory political associations. No reference to premodern artistic culture is found either, no equivalent to the allusions to ink-painting subject matter and medium demonstrated in so many of the Chinese cases. While water has proven of interest as a medium and subject for a number of contemporary Western artists, even leading to exhibitions which have made it a theme, it is only in the case of recent Chinese art that such individual usages of water coalesce into a distinct, developed discourse on water which competes actively with key meanings propagated by the state itself. While artists are working with water all over the world, encountering exactly the same substance with all its specific, presemiotic physical attributes, it is only in the Chinese context that it has accrued this rich array of significations and involved itself in the making and unmaking of core cultural symbolism.
I would like to express my thanks to Silvia Fok for research assistance during the period when this article was being prepared; to Jane Debevoise, Feng Huanian, Zhang Zhaohui, and Qi Zhonghua for discussing its theme with me or offering practical help with my research; and to the artists who have kindly provided me with images of their works. Support for this research was provided by the Committee for Research and Conference Grants of the University of Hong Kong and the Hsu Long-Sing Research Fund.
1. The literature on contemporary Chinese art is now quite extensive, and most of the works discussed here have been examined by previous scholars, who often mention the use of water, although usually without extensive discussion of how this might relate to questions of meaning. Several of the artworks mentioned here are analyzed and reproduced in Inside Out: New Chinese Art, ed. Gao Minglu (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York: Asia Society Galleries, and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art of the End of the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press and David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, 1999); and Wu Hung, with Wang Huangshen and Feng Boyi, The First Guangzhou Triennial-Reinterpretation: A Decode of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000) (Guangzhou: Guangdong Museum of Art, 2002). These are good starting points for further information on contemporary Chinese art or discussion of aspects of the artworks other than those pertinent to this essay's theme. Several of the works discussed in this essay may be referred to in other sources by slightly different names. This is due to variations in the English translation of the original Chinese names and also sometimes to changing preferences of the artists themselves as to how their works should be known in English. I have endeavored to follow the artists' own preferences.
2. A precedent for such interference between the two senses of water (subject matter and medium) is found in the case of the modern ink painter Fu Baoshi, and I discuss this and other watery aspects of Fu's groundbreaking work in David Clarke, "Raining, Drowning, and Swimming: Fu Baoshi and Water," Art History 29, no. 1 (February 2006): 108-44. For a discussion of several contemporary Chinese artists other than Gu and LaoZhu who have used wet ink, see Britta Erickson. "The Contemporary Artistic Deconstruction-and Reconstruction-of Brush and Ink Painting," Yishu 2, no. 2 (June 2003): 82-89.
3. For an English translation of Mao's "Swimming," see Hua-ling Nieh Engle and Paul Engle, Poems of Mao Tse-tung (New York: Dell. 1972), 97. For an account of Mao's Yangtze swim, see Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 279-81.
4. On antigovernment protests and the crisis of legitimacy in China today, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, "Beijing's New Legitimacy Crisis," Far Eastern Economic Review 168, no. I (December 2004): 25-30.
5. Song Dong, interview by the author, Beijing, October 10, 2003.
6. Wang Jin's own account of the Fighting the Flood, Red flag Canal performance is given in Paris-Pékin, ed. Susan Acret and Claire Hsu (Paris: Chinese Century, 2002), 190. In Susan Dewar, "In the Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Wang Jin and Feng Jiali," Art AsiaPacific 15 ( 1997): 70, Wang is quoted describing this work as a symbolic act of healing, "slicing the artery, letting the blood and effecting a cure." Although the Red Flag Canal might seem an out-of-date symbol for today's China, in fact state propaganda continues to promote it. Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, visited a display on the "Red Flag Canal spirit" in Beijing which "reproduced the courage and toughness of the builders through a number of pictures and objects" in the period around National Day 2004. Characterizing the Red Flag Canal Spirit as "featuring self-reliance, hard work, solidarity and cooperation, and unselfish devotion," he claimed it was "still of great importance today." See "Senior Party Official Visits 'Red Flag Canal Spirit' Display," People's Doily Online, English edition, October 2, 2004, available online at http:// English.people.com.cn/200410/02/eng20041002 _158930.html (accessed March 17, 2005).
7. For comments by Fang concerning his interest in water as a subject, see Pi Li, "A Dialogue with Fang LJjun," in Pong LJjun (Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2001 ). 42. For an analysis of Fang's focus on water, see Karen Smith, Nine uVes: The Birth of Avont-Garde Art in New China (Zurich: Scab, 2005), 120-69.
8. On river pollution and China's other environmental problems see "A Great Wall of Waste," The Economist, August 21, 2004, 63-65.
9. Prominent among water-themed works by Song Dong in addition to those discussed here is Printing on Water ( 1996). I analyze this work in "Raining, Drowning, and Swimming" (see n. 2), exploring a possible influence of Daoism and the positive metaphorical associations water has in the Daoist classic Dao Dejing. For images of other water-themed works by Song Dong not discussed here, see Chopsticks, ed. Christophe W. Mao, Song Dong, and Yin Xiuzhen (New York: Chambers Fine Art, 2002). Song and Yin are married, and an interest in using water is one of several parallels that can be drawn between their artworks.
10. Song Dong, interview by the author, Beijing. October 10, 2003.
David Clarke is an associate professor in the department of fine arts of the University of Hong Kong. His most recent books include Modem Chinese Aft (2000), Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization (2001), and Reclaimed Land: Hong Kong in Transition (2002). His recent photographic work will be featured in Hong Kong x 24 x 365: A Year in the Life of a City (Hong Kong University Press, 2006). email@example.com…