A Protest of Sexism Turns Ugly

By Tatlow, Didi Kirsten | International Herald Tribune, August 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Protest of Sexism Turns Ugly


Tatlow, Didi Kirsten, International Herald Tribune


Life imitated art too closely when the performance artist Yan Yinhong was attacked on stage while protesting sexual attacks against women.

Life imitated art, startlingly and crudely, in the city of Hai'an, north of Shanghai, when two men rushed the stage and groped the painter and performance artist Yan Yinhong as she danced "One Person's Battlefield" -- her furious comment on sexual violence against women.

The assault continued through her entire performance as she dodged the men who kissed and groped her, grappled her to the floor and thrust their hands up her skirt, the audience making only halfhearted efforts to help as they stood by and recorded the incident with phones and cameras.

Did she report it to the police? No: "How could you report that here?" she asked.

"To me, their interference showed the vileness of society, and our society is vile," Ms. Yan said in a telephone interview.

It was "real embarrassing," said Cheng Meixin, an independent art critic and curator and the organizer of the Hai'an China Contemporary Art and Ideology Forum, where the incident took place in mid-June. "It should never have happened," he said. One of the men -- both are Beijing-based artists known to Mr. Cheng -- had "psychological problems," he said.

Was the man getting help, I asked?

No, Mr. Cheng said. "In Chinese society you don't get help when you have those kinds of problems."

I wrote about Ms. Yan's work in this column after she performed her piece in Beijing in late May. I described how she depicted scenes of sexual violence and then, in a moment of surprise for the audience, did a handstand, her skirt dropping away to reveal the face of a uniformed policeman painted onto her flesh-colored leotard. Her message: There is a great deal of sexual violence around, quite a bit of it perpetrated by representatives of the state.

So I listened, feeling shock but also a weary familiarity, and mostly marveling at the brutish irony (sexually attacking a woman as she protests sexual attacks against women -- who would make that up?) as Li Xinmo, a fellow performer, recounted the events in Hai'an over dinner in the 798 Art District in Beijing, not long afterward.

Ms. Li saw something other than "a vile society" or untreated mental illness.

That same afternoon in Hai'an, another, third man had interfered in Ms. Li's piece, "Mouth of the Spring."

Something systematic was at work, she said: anti-woman sentiment.

Dressed in her trademark white, Ms. Li had sat quietly on the stage (a large square of white-painted ground with a white wall behind it), drinking black ink from white teacups. Next she splashed herself with ink from a bucket. Finally she dumped the contents of the bucket over her head. The ink symbolized the internal poison and external stain of thousands of years of official Chinese literary, philosophical and political thought, which Ms. …

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