CHINESE PERFORMANCE ARTISTS: Redrawing the Map of Chinese Culture

By Kirkwood, Carla | TheatreForum, Summer/Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

CHINESE PERFORMANCE ARTISTS: Redrawing the Map of Chinese Culture


Kirkwood, Carla, TheatreForum


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Life, Death (Generality)

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(The Contradictory Unity) Tenactity Struggling for Existing Illusion

Three months before the Tianamen Square uprising in 1989, a group of Chinese visual and performance artists organized the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing. Three hours after the doors opened, artists Xiao Lu and Tang Song took out pistols and shot at reflections of themselves in a mirror. The mirror was placed between two telephone booths containing two painted views of the backs of a male and female student, talking to each other on the phone. After the shots were fired, the Beijing authorities moved swiftly to shut down the exhibition. This event marked a defining moment in the development of a new form of Chinese art practice.

Dynamic changes in the social and economic fabric of Chinese society have dramatically influenced the development of contemporary Chinese culture. Since the late 1970s, Chinese artists have redrawn the traditional boundaries of Chinese culture, this experimentation reflects a synthesis of practices blending Chinese and Western modernist and postmodernist forms. In the mid-1980s, Chinese visual artists began experimenting with conceptual performance art; Chinese painters and sculptors moved out of the state controlled gallery system and began creating confrontational work in the public sphere. This work focused on the antagonistic relationship between the individual and the state mandated "collective." The development of performance art in China mirrors in many respects the same creative impulses that gave birth to the conceptual performance art movement in the West in the early 1960s. Painters, poets, sculptors, and musicians, no longer satisfied with the formalistic relationship defined by the page or the museum wall, began to "act out" their art. In both China and the West, the performance art movement grew out of an intensely political environment.

The Chinese term for performance art is xingwei yishu, which loosely translated means "behavior art." According to contemporary Chinese art critic and curator Guo Minglu,

This concept of "behavior" is not limited to the physical actions of the individual but also encompasses the moral sense of the individual expressing one's self in a community or within a social structure. In the Chinese Confucian tradition, there is no such thing as purely individual behavior, all individual behavior is social and all behavior reflects some type of social relationship.

In June of 1989, Western journalists recorded the image of a Chinese man standing alone on a road in Beijing. He was dressed in a white shirt and dark pants and wore a white glove on one hand. He was blocking the path of four military tanks. The tanks paused for a moment, befuddled by the presence of this man who stood alone against the Chinese Military. Several days later, a hastily constructed sculpture of the body of the Statue of Liberty was erected in Tiananmen Square; the torso was ripped and then torched. These two images reflect a form of "behavioral" performance played out on the stage of world politics. These "acts" used the body as a means to articulate resistance and served to influence the Chinese performance art movement of the 1990s.

The Tiananmen Square tragedy temporarily halted all unofficial art practice. Exhibitions of contemporary art were completely banned until late 1990, and the Chinese performance art movement lay dormant. Performance artist Sheng Qi, who had organized large scale performance pieces on the Great Wall in the 1980s, severed a finger from his left hand in protest of the Tiananmen massacre, planted it in a flowerpot, and left the country. But by 1991, contemporary Chinese artists began exhibiting again both underground and overseas. Visits to China by Western performance artists provided the impetus to a younger generation of emerging Chinese performance artists to create new work. …

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