Friday, November 17, 2006

Contemporary Chinese Performance Art

Contemporary performance artists in China today have a tendency to seemingly go to extremes with the content on their work. If one is to simply judge the work at face value without seeing the underlying critique, however, there will result a failure in truly seeing what is being performed.
The artist He Yunchang, in particular is known for several acts bordering on extremity. During a performance in 2006 entitled, “A Rock in Niagara Falls”, He decided he would find a rock in Niagara Falls and stand there for an hour. However, within twenty minutes of the performance, he was detained by the police on misdemeanor charges of “inappropriate behavior in public”, as well as “indecent bodily exposure” as a result of not wearing clothing during the experience.
In this work, He is really attempting to get at the issue of “the head-on collision between an individual’s mortal flesh and an overwhelmingly forceful external element”. He is never truly looking to die in a performance, although he does prepare a will beforehand. As He is focused on a dialogue between human flesh and our environment, which includes natural as well as man-made elements, he thus does not feel content to limit himself to “preventing death”, as it were. This lack of fear from death allows him ultimate freedom to pursue his artistic desires. Although he does set a time limit for himself, as is the case with “A Rock in Niagara Falls”, He seems content even when the audience intervenes to save him, cutting his performance short.
To more fully understand “A Rock in Niagara Falls”, however, one must look more deeply into He’s work in performance art. His earlier work in 1999 entitled, “Dialogue with Water”, was staged in the Liang River and in this work, he actually inflicted harm upon himself by hiring a local butcher to make two symmetrical incisions on his arm. Then, hanging upside down, he let the blood drip down his arms as he took a knife and cut the river. He was therefore not limiting the bodily harm to himself, but was taking on the river in a sense of parity by issues an equitable, and perhaps inordinate amount of damage upon the river itself. This was perhaps a social critique of the massive damage humans infect into nature. However, unlike He, humans are unwilling to offer up any part of themselves – they prefer a level of non-parity.
Another artist who has thrust himself into extreme performance is Zhang Huan. One of his most famous performances, performed on June 2, 1994 and entitled, “12 Square Meters”, involved him covering himself with honey in the middle of a twelve square meter toilet, and allowing flies and other bugs to cling to his body, and strain the limits of human endurance while sitting still for an hour. Zhang’s performance, however, contained more than a human testing his endurance. The real story behind the performance reflects the site chosen to stage his self-exhibit – the “East Village”, a squalid section in eastern Beijing, really reflecting the living conditions in the area, including the toilet which was truly only fit for flies – and not human use.
The experience then offers two themes. In the first, Zhang is offering up a social critique of the living conditions experienced by many Chinese. In the second, Zhang is creating a personal experience in which he lowers himself the position of human excrement and refuse. These two themes underlie the performance, and are what gives it such strength. Zhang is not only offering up a limited version of testing one’s own limits, but presenting a social critique by lowering himself to the most impoverished and destitute among us, thus giving them a face.
Both Zhang Huan and He Yunchang offer a glimpse into the large world of performance art in China. Both go to extremes in order to promote their artwork, and present a message. Many in the western world seem to be shocked by such performances, however. What good can be accomplished by self-mutilation? Such a simple question does not take into account the exteriority confronting many Chinese artists. In a country where free speech is still restricted, one cannot simply “speak out” about environmental and social issues. An artist is therefore limited to what many would deem “barbaric” actions to highlight these social issues. And surely, before offering a critique of barbarity, one should really ask oneself, “If the artists did not perform such outlandish activities, would I care to look at the message at all?”

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