Performing Bodies: Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, and Performance Art in China
Zhijian, Qian, Art Journal
With this issue, Art Journal is pleased to inaugurate a three-part series of conversations on aspects of contemporary art by Chinese artists. Featuring leading artists and scholars, each conversation is devoted to a specific theme. In this, the first conversation, the art historian Qian Zhijian interviews Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan, two of the most prominent performance artists from mainland China. In the second conversation, to be published in the Fall 1999 issue, the artists Wenda Gu, Simon Leung, and Xu Bing and the scholar Jonathan Hay discuss writing, language, and calligraphy in contemporary Chinese art. In the third conversation, a group of artists living and working in Beijing discuss site-specific interventions by artists into the urban fabric of that city, which in the last decade has experienced transformations on the scale of Haussmann's Paris. As the work of contemporary Chinese artists acquires a more visible profile in the international arena, we seek to provide readers with a deeper understanding of its formal, social, cultural, political, and philosophical complexities.
In 1993, Zhang Huan (b. 1965, Anyang, Henan Province) and Ma Liuming (b. 1969, Huangshi, Hubei Province) presented their performances for the first time in Beijing. They are among the first few artists in China to take performance art as their medium after the June 4th Incident of 1989, but they have not had the opportunity to show their work in public spaces in that country up to this day. In i996, they began to draw international attention and to show their work abroad.
Born in the late 1960s, they have only vague memories of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). They attended college in the second half of the 1980s when China began to become more open to the rest of the world. Like most artists of their generation, Zhang and Ma were deeply influenced by translations of modern Western art history and the new art experiments by Chinese artists in the 1980s When the June 4th Incident occurred, Zhang was a college teacher of art in Henan, in middle China, and Ma was still an art student in Hubei, also in middle China.
Zhang first went to Beijing in 1991 to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Ma moved there in 1993, after two years of teaching at a college in Hubei. They met each other after Zhang had his first performance at a group painting show that was canceled after the opening because of the performance. Later that year, because of personal economic difficulties, they had to move, together with a small group of avant-garde artists, to a village in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. In October 1993, the British artists Gilbert & George, who were the subject of an exhibition in Beijing, visited this small group of artists in their studios. The visit highly encouraged the young artists, who were then not very clear in their artistic direction. Zhang and Ma collaborated in a few performances before they began to concentrate on their own work in 1996.
Qian: You are one of the first few artists who began to use performance as the medium of your art after 1989. When and where was your first performance?
Zhang: My first performance in a public space was in October 1993, when I participated in a group exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing. Before that, I had done several pieces in my studio but never had the opportunity for a public show. This performance was somewhat accidental, however, because I originally intended to present an installation in what was mainly a painting show. Most of the artists included were graduates from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Unfortunately, just two days before the opening, we were told that installation and performance wouldn't be allowed in the gallery, an official institution that does not permit these mediums to this day. But the whole exhibition had been well prepared, and I didn't want to give up. So I decided to replace my installation with a performance. …